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Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought.

By Peter Augustine Lawler. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. l93p. $60.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.

This deeply serious and richly thought-provoking book opposes a "postmodernism rightly understood" to "postmodernism as it is usually understood." The latter, as "antifoundationalism, the assertion of the groundlessness of human existence, is really hypermodernism, or the exaggeration to the point of caricature of the modern impulse to self-creation." The former is the return to "Thomistic" or even "Socratic" rationalism, according to which "human reason exists primarily not to transform reality but to understand and to come to terms with it" (pp. 1-2).

More precisely, "realistic" postmodern thought recapitulates a Pascalian analysis of the human condition as defined by "the greatness and the misery of self-conscious mortality" (p. 5). Humanity's confrontation with the inescapable abyss of death necessarily engenders a pervasive sense of alienation that spurs the soul either to desperate escapism in manifold forms or to a quest for nonutilitarian freedom, love (eros), virtue, and wisdom that can find complete fulfillment only in the biblical God. At the core, of the modern project, in contrast, is the pragmatic and therapeutic hope that rational manipulation of the environment and of the psyche can end all profound human suffering and thereby reveal humans as nothing more than very clever, historically malleable, and ultimately satisfiable animals whom death in itself does not deeply move. Therefore, they can be liberated from delusory transcendent longings that were artificially constructed in and by history.

The first chapter ascends from what Lawler regards as Fukuyama's equivocating presentation of Kojeve's thesis on the "end of history" to the genuine article, in its ruthless consistency. Fukuyama proclaims the emerging global and permanent victory of prosperous, healthy, humane liberalism as the dawn of Kojeve's "universal and homogenous" society--while incoherently attempting to assert that within this order there will persist scope for human dignity and achievement. Kojeve sees that the realization of this ideal, since it entails the eradication of suffering and principled conflict, leaves no challenge for transformative work or moral action, or even, ultimately, for passionate inquiry.

Even though Lawler remarks that, among other things, this "shows that the Christian conception of the eternal, or infinite, Creator is incoherent" (p. 34), he does not, to my disappointment, respond with any attempt at a refutation. Instead, he descends in the second chapter to a somewhat diffuse refutation of Rorty, the most telling point in which I discern to be the following. Rorty proclaims the impending victory of his view that "a merely material and secular goal suffices: mortal life as it might be lived in the sunlit uplands of global democracy and abundance" (cited on p. 48). But in stark contrast to the Hegelian Kojeve, Rorty denies that this view can claim to be true, or even that his favored emerging society is "more natural or more rational than the cruel societies" of the past (p. 57), for the truth is the contingency and lack of objectivity of all such ultimately groundless "choices."

But what is the ground of this Truth? Most acutely, what experiences or facts speak against the greater rationality or truth of at least the "sufficiency" of universal solidarity and prosperity? The clearest answer is Rorty's recognition of another Truth, an insuperable dilemma of human nature that Rorty criticizes Marxists for ignoring: "the price we pay" (Rorty writes) is "the culture that put Socrates to death," dominated by the "bland, calculating, petty, and unheroic"; a culture where "we, the people who value self consciousness, may be irrelevant to the fate of humanity" (pp. 54-5). But then Rorty himself testifies to the unsatisfied or unsatisfiable spiritual longings that block full acceptance of pragmatism's goal as truly sufficient for self-conscious human nature: Rorty's "posthistorical wisdom contradicts his own existence as a philosopher" (p. 59). Rorty tries to obscure but in fact spotlights the fundamental difficulty by retreating into "irony," and Kojeve may similarly betray or call into ques tion his thought by his comparable "irony" (pp. 60-1).

The curious twist is that the chapter on Rorty has as its most serious goal an attempted refutation of the more profound Allan Bloom, as the exemplar of the supposed inherent weakness of intransigently classical (unPascalian) Socratic rationalism. Bloom is portrayed as an unaware witness for Rorty, inasmuch as Bloom's Socratism compels him to describe contemporary students as satisfied in soullessness, which implies that all humanity except the "idiosyncratic" philosopher is naturally incapable, absent historical artifice, of responding to mortality with erotic passion: Bloom's Socratic message is that the "fiat soul is the true soul" (p. 69). Not only does this amputate Bloom's moving accounts of the numerous students whose eros he has seen electrified by the redemptive great books, but also Lawler proceeds to contradict himself. In an awkward "Afterword" he is compelled to concede that actually Bloom spotlighted the "boundless" anguish of children of divorce as the "theme of reflection and study." Bloom ca lled them "the symbols of our time" because he saw "their disarray in the cosmos as only the "extreme form" of what he called our all-encompassing "spiritual vortex set in motion by loss of contact with other human beings and with the natural world" (p. 72).

The unsuccessful attempt to dispose of Bloom is meant to remove the competition from what Lawler so compellingly elaborates and explores in the subsequent, constructive chapters: the Christian writings of Walker Percy, bolstered by the Augustinian sociological class analysis of Christopher Lasch. Here, Lawler contends, we find the authentic, because Thomistic, rationalism, which shows that reason finds its fulfillment, without truncation, in Christian faith and which proves that only reason so conceived can adequately comprehend humanity as constituted by self-conscious erotic mortality. But in fact Lawler has to show that Percy abandons Thomas's core Aristotelian teleology in the name of a farrago comprising the "tradition of Anglo-Saxon empiricism" (p. 84), a tendentious shot-gun marriage of creationism and Darwinism (pp. 88-9), and a Heideggerian "experience" of the human as "alien" in "a cosmos that is otherwise dyadic" or "stimulus-response" (p. 80).

What Percy calls his "Thomistic science is, Lawler admits, in truth "a combination of Pierce's semiotic empiricism and Heidegger's [atheistici existentialism" (p. 97). It is then not surprising that although lip service is paid to "natural law," no attempt is made (in the manner of authentic Thomists such as Vitoria, Suarez, or Pieper) to give the much needed argumentative defense of that core Thomistic doctrine. Above all, Thomas's moral grounding in Aristotle's Politics and Ethics, culminating in the peak of aristocratic greatness of soul as the foreshadowing of the contemplative life understood as the only intelligibly divine life, as the life whose acknowledged supremacy ought to be the beacon of inspiration for every rational human soul, shrinks almost out of sight. With all this subtracted, what is left of Thomas's argument for Christianity as the completion of Aristotelian (the only integral) rationalism?

Lawler's illuminating introduction to Percy as a truly weighty thinker for our time would grow in strength through a franker acknowledgment of the problematic gulf between Percy and genuine Thomism, then through a fairer and less evasive dialogue with the challenging alternative conception of divinity and of humanity found in classical, socratic Aristotelian rationalism.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Pangle, Thomas L.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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