Maybe it should be Metaphysical Club instead of Old Life Theological Society, so impressed as I am by Louis Menand’s book about pragmatism and more. I have not read a history book that has been so hard to put down, so vivid in its depictions of characters, so plot driven as it were, and so accessible in presenting difficultly complex ideas. In fact, I was prepared to dislike the book partly because of a distrust of Pragmatism and partly because of the hype the book received. But now I not only think Menand deserved a Nobel Prize to go with his Pulitzer, but he also has me thinking about the value of what pragmatists did (not to mention presenting William James as one of the most intriguing intellectuals to walk the greatest nation on God’s green earth).
One reason for finding pragmatism appealing is the way that folks like James and Dewey recognized that w-w won’t work either as the motivation for w-w holders or for explaining how people live and specifically live with thoughts. Menand explains:
People reach decisions, most of the time, by thinking. This is a pretty banal statement, but the process it names is inscrutable. An acquaintance gives you a piece of information in strict confidence; later on, a close friend, lacking that information, is about to make a bad mistake. Do you betray the confidence? “Do the right thing” — but what is the right thing? Keeping your word, or helping someone you care about avoid injury or embarrassment? Even in this two-sentence hypothetical case, the choice between principles is complicated — as it always is in life — by circumstances. If it had been the close friend who gave you the information and the acquaintance who was about to make the mistake, you would almost certainly think about your choice differently — as you would if you though that the acquaintance was a nasty person, or that the friend was a lucky person, or that the statute of limitations on the secret had probably run out, or that you had acquired a terrible habit of betraying confidences and really ought to break it. In the end, you will do what you believe is “right,” but “rightness will be, in effect, the compliment you give to the outcome of your deliberations. Though it is always in view while you are thinking, “what is right” is something that appears in its complete form at the end, not at the beginning, of your deliberation.
When we think, in other words, we do not simply consult principles, or reasons, or sentiments, or tastes; for prior to thinking, all those things are indeterminate. Thinking is what makes them real. (The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, 352)
Is w-w, then, simply a justification for a process that is otherwise indeterminate, inscrutable, and hidden?
Raising this question may make 2k the pomo side of contemporary Reformed Protestantism. That is, 2k may be pomo in the sense that the certainties of one kingdom cannot be extended as certainties to the other kingdom (which is most of life). Peter Lawler made a point about postmodern conservatism that made me think much of the grief that 2kers receive comes from people who expect orthodoxy outside the church. In other words, 2kers are unwilling to provide the kind of certainty or absolute standard that so many who take their cues from the culture war want. Lawler puts it this way:
The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it. Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual’s pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits—and not possessions. So even as the modern world continues to develop, we can be free of its characteristic delusion, its utopianism. We can speak of its strengths and its limitations from a perspective “outside” modernity, and that perspective is the foundation of conservatism today. Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.
Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to “deconstruct” as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern—in fact, everything human—is nothing but a construction.
Postmodernists in the usual sense often do well in exposing liberal hypocrisy, but they can only do so in the name of completing the modern project of liberating the individual’s subjective or willful and whimsical perspective from all external constraints. Conservative postmodernism, by acknowledging and affirming as good what we can really know about our natural possibilities and limitations, is radically opposed to liberated postmodernism—and to the modern premises it radicalizes.
2kers see the hollowness of the modern project by virtue of knowing that this world is not all there is and that the believer’s ultimate comfort comes in the world to come. Critics of 2k regard this skepticism as a betrayal of Christianity or the church’s mission when in fact many critics of 2k are simply dressing up modernity and its narrative of liberty and progress in Christian clothing.
I understand that 2k is not inspiring or optimistic about what we do in this world. But you would think that people who take human depravity seriously would understand the delusions of inspiration and optimism.