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Pacini, David S. Through Narcissus' Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience.

PACINI, David S. Through Narcissus' Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. xv + 200pp. Cloth, $55.00--Critiques of modernity are not hard to come by these days, but David Pacini's critique conveys a refreshing sensitivity to the plight of modern philosophers and a hope that the modern project may yet yield a positive outcome. The book consists of four free-standing essays connected by theme: the development of the modern conception of conscience in response to "the severing of the ontological link between the divine and human orders of being." Whereas earlier thinkers understood conscience as an internal call to overcome base desires in order to conform to the divine within humanity, modern conceptions of conscience attempt to understand it simply as the self-regulation of a basic unity proper to the individual.

In the first essay Pacini argues for a more expansive understanding of Kant's religion of conscience. That is, Kant's rejection of religious dogmatism and fanaticism is part of a larger project to protect the self from coercion and censorship. Whereas Pacini's first chapter draws attention to Kant's political difficulties, particularly the threat of censorship, the second focuses on the altered philosophical climate that confronted modern philosophers. Pacini begins by casting this climate as a climate of "disenchantment" in which scientific rationality and religious rationality confront each other but cannot make sense of one another. With the modern subject torn between these two rationalities, philosophers attempted to describe the relationship between God and self in a way that did not require an ontological connection. Pacini's sensitivity to the moderns is striking in his description of the sense of loss that accompanied the sudden homelessness of the self. He proceeds to recount the attempts made by Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant to address this homelessness. In the modern religion of conscience that developed, freedom effectively took the place of God.

Pacini continues to focus on Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant in chapter three, analyzing the way in which language about the self changed in their respective philosophies. Pacini claims that the only rules of thought available to the moderns were those that applied to the physical world. He worries that if one applies these rules reflexively the result is an impoverished conception of the self. Indeed, as modernity culminates in Kant's philosophy, the self becomes an empty concept. It is the "I think" that stands behind all our experience but is itself unknown. It is "an absence, an invisible possibility taking on one or another image." Pacini concludes that the result is "a narcissistic imaging."

In the final chapter, Pacini enlists the help of Wittgenstein, Freud, and Barth in dismantling the modern religion of conscience. Wittgenstein shows how Kant's religion--particularly his appeal to eternal life is nonsensical. With Freud, as the title suggests, Pacini illustrates how the modern religion of conscience absolutizes a failed ideal in the manner of narcissism. Barth, however, suggests a way forward from this failed ideal because, unlike Kant, Barth believes the unknown makes itself known. For Kant, "the human mind establishes the boundary between the known and the unknown," but "Barth inverts this claim, arguing instead for the primacy of the unknown." Rather than conceiving the self as creating the world and legislating morality for itself, Barth insists that the unknown can confront the known world and alter it. What is and what ought to be are not simply images of the self.

I am unconvinced of the efficacy of the solution he offers. One of the standard critiques of Barthian theology is that it offers no point of contact between the divine order and the earthly realm, leaving humans helplessly suspended until the divine intervenes. Pacini's argument is that the absence of this point of contact is characteristic of the modern period and that modern philosophers sought to address this absence by supplanting the divine order with the human order. Perhaps their solution failed, but of what practical help is it to say that we must instead wait for the divine (or "unknown") to confront us? What does this even mean, especially for those who reject any notion of the divine? How does a human being live if he or she has not come face to face with the demands of the unknown?

Pacini's book is rich: the breadth and depth of his research is impressive, making his work a valuable resource for any scholar interested in modernity and religion. Undoubtedly some of those who have devoted their careers to studying any of the philosophers Pacini discusses will dispute his interpretation of their preferred figures. The scope of his study makes this inevitable. The challenges Pacini raises, however, are powerful and the solution he suggests, though obscure, worth exploring further.--Heidi Chamberlin, Baylor University.
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Author:Chamberlin, Heidi
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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