The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence

By David Walsh

Cambridge, 518 pages, $29.99

CHARLES TAYLOR ONCE lamented that, on the topic of modernity, scholars seem divided into two camps: knockers and boosters. In The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence , David Walsh, longtime professor of political science at the Catholic University of America, defies facile categories by offering a spirited defense of modernity that reaches conclusions typically embraced by modernity’s critics. Through a careful examination of the texts of thinkers from Kant to Derrida, Walsh argues that modern thought evinces a “remarkably consistent” development, whose terminus is the “return of metaphysics in life.”

The withering critique of propositional, systematic metaphysics has made possible the re-emergence of the priority of life to thought and of the practical to the theoretical. Transcendence reappears as the irreducibly mysterious horizon within which human thought occurs. The consequence, as Walsh provocatively puts it in this, his final book in a trilogy devoted to modern thought, is that the modern philosophical revolution has succeeded in bringing to light the source of the premodern tradition it opposed.

As tantalizing as Walsh’s thesis may be, it seems to undercut the title. The standard interpretation of modernity describes it as a revolutionary overthrowing of premodern thought. Walsh turns that revolution into a recovery”which leaves us uncertain against whom modern thought was revolting. One problem here is that Walsh has almost nothing to say about modernity prior to Kant. Another is that Walsh’s interrogation of modern authors sometimes leaves us wondering where interpretation ends and critique or creative reconstruction begins. That difficulty is most pronounced in the case of Hegel, whom Walsh engages at length.

In the attempt to transform philosophy from a pursuit of wisdom into a possession of wisdom, Hegel identifies the knowing subject with Spirit. Spirit is an ethical whole; it contains, rather than being contained. About this, Walsh raises a number of questions. Does the process of self-reflection render further manifestations superfluous? Is there a depth that cannot be made present beyond or behind the manifestations? Might there be a role for religion and art beyond the capacity of philosophy to reduce them to thought?

Walsh suggests that finite thinking discovers its own possibility within the infinite in which it stands. Such beings as we are cannot grasp the whole except through an existence constituted within that whole. But surely this is not so much a development of Hegel as the undoing of Hegel. Indeed, Hegel looks to be the principal opponent of what Walsh commends as the revolutionary thrust of modern thought. If this is so, then how can modern thought, even the limited strain that Walsh examines, be considered a “consistent” development?

The recovery of the primacy of the question of how we ought to live, revived by Nietzsche in large measure against Hegel, informs much of twentieth-century philosophy. Walsh is particularly perceptive in his reading of Levinas, who insists on the priority of ethics to ontology. Recurring to Pascal’s “reasons of the heart,” Levinas argues that receptivity, in the ordination of self to other, is prior to the discursive and self-regarding activities of reason. The “grounding of reason in ethics,” hinted at in Kant’s shift from theoretical to practical reason, is, for Walsh, fundamental to the modern philosophical revolution, the goal of which is “the restoration of reason to its rightful subordination to the good.”

Although Walsh, in a passage that indicates just how eccentric is his reading of modern philosophy, speaks of Derrida as a “culmination,” Levinas comes the closest to articulating Walsh’s own position. As is clear from both Levinas and Derrida, the combination of the priority of ethics, grounded in the “call” of the other, with the notion of an existential “surplus” that always exceeds conceptualization, inevitably moves beyond the limits of philosophy and into religious discourse. Levinas speaks of encountering in the “face of the other” a “surplus of meaning that one could designate as glory.” In this context, the search for truth, whose value so troubled Nietzsche, “coincides with the Idea of the Good.”

One of the problems, according to Walsh, with the tradition of philosophy from Hegel through Derrida is that it begins from within ­theory. In contrast, thinkers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Levinas begin from the question of how we should live. In some measure indebted to the Greeks, these philosophers recover a conception of philosophy as a way of life that seeks but never achieves wisdom. The modern philosophical revolution thus reverses the priority of the subject to the real. Luminosity of existence precedes and envelops the subject. Metaphysics, having been defeated in the realm of theory, re-emerges in life.

For Walsh’s distinctive interpretation of modernity, Kierkegaard is the central figure, so much so that he presents him only at the end, out of chronological order. The Modern Philosophical Revolution nicely rescues Kierkegaard from defenders and critics alike who see him as an advocate of irrational decisionism. Instead, Kierkegaard should be seen as accentuating the incommensurability between theory”especially as articulated by Hegel”and human life. In his sustained encounter with Socrates and in his attempt to clearly delineate the distinctive features of the Christian view of human existence, Kierkegaard encapsulates much of what Walsh deems essential to the modern philosophical revolution.

Informed by Kierkegaard’s in­sights and equipped with his strategies, Walsh is able to engage Christianity’s most vehement modern critics, such as Nietzsche. Walsh wonders about a number of Nietzsche’s key assertions concerning Christianity, particularly his claim that elements within Christianity itself are the source of its own overcoming. Walsh wonders whether such self-overcoming might not be construed as a deepening rather than a defeat. He also wonders whether a critique that proceeds from terms internal to Christianity can transcend Christianity.

Not an especially political thinker, Kierkegaard nonetheless supplies one of Walsh’s guiding assumptions for thinking about modern politics”the idea that “persons are the irreducibles of history.” Which reminds us that political philosophy was the focus of the two preceding books in Walsh’s trilogy: After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom and The Growth of the Liberal Soul .

After Ideology sought to recapture the “truth of order beyond devastation” by focusing on the durability of democracy in the face of totalitarianism. All the great twentieth-century experiments in social engineering, grounded in grandiose theories about politics and human life, failed when they ran afoul of irreducible persons. Then Walsh gave us The Growth of the Liberal Soul , which tried to account for the “inexplicable success of liberal practice,” given the ongoing lack of consensus about its theoretical foundations; indeed, the theoretical foundations have been thought to be not just incomplete but incoherent, even self-destructive.

Now, in The Modern Philosophical Revolution , Walsh returns from liberal theory to liberal practice, which historically has demonstrated its resilience and resourcefulness in calling forth the virtues needed to sustain a liberal political order. Against the critics of liberal democracy who fail to see the ways in which modern liberal assumptions are implicated in their own lives and thought, Walsh contends that it is difficult to see how any critique of liberal democracy can free itself completely from liberal assumptions, particularly those regarding mutual recognition and respect.

In all these books, Walsh’s extended dialectical engagement with seminal thinkers is a corrective to the ­tendency of both knockers and boosters to make sweeping claims about modernity. And yet, despite his meticulous attention to texts, Walsh falls prey to a version of the same tendency, since he presents a series of quite different thinkers as part of a consistent development.

The danger here is that irreducibly divergent philosophical positions (and the challenges they pose to one another and to us as readers) become merely moments in a historical narrative. Walsh’s approach is fresh and his reading always instructive. But the more detailed the readings, the more problematic are the narratives of progress or decline, rejection or recovery. Given such philosophical diversity, one wonders whether it even makes sense to speak of modernity in the singular, much less of a unified revolution or recovery.

Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. His books include Virtue’s Splendor and, most recently, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.