David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence, the magisterial concluding volume of a long-gestating trilogy, proposes a radical revaluation of modernity. Whereas Walsh began twenty years ago with the view that modern philosophy was complicit in “ideological madness” and nihilism, his intensive studies of the moderns has convinced him that “the death of metaphysics in thought has meant the return of metaphysics in life.” (xiii) “There is no crisis,” after all. (10) The “search for meaning” is “inexhaustible,” fortunately. (11) Modern philosophy progressively articulates, not a denial of authoritative moral standards, but an awareness of “the unsurpassable exigency of goodness … that is all the more powerful for our inability to contain … [it] within discursive limits.” (xiii) Moreover, at the deepest level, this insight represents not a rupture with classical and Christian thought but “a convergence with rational and revelatory tradition.” (xiv) Thus, the modern turn from “entities and concepts to an existential meditation on the horizon within which [philosophy] finds itself,” and thus to an appreciation of “the profoundly mysterious mode” in which alone “the transcendent can surface” (xv) fulfills the deepest meaning of both Socrates and of Christ – once the meaning of the Western tradition is emancipated from “the fixity of the categories we have inherited from the ancient thinkers,” or from the claim that “nature [can] furnish guidance.” (12) The modern philosophical revolution can teach us that the fact that “reason remains unknown to itself” (16) is good news, indeed a saving existential truth.
Walsh’s project, however, seems to me to rest upon a notion of “practice” that proves to be fundamentally equivocal. There is a “practical” meaning of practice, which concerns the preservation or definite improvement of mundane human life, and which therefore is bound up with a more or less articulate understanding of the human condition and its limits. This view of practice, closer to the classical view, necessarily (if often only implicitly) associates practice with theory or “metaphysics,” even if it does not exactly subordinate one to the other. And then there is a more “spiritual” or theological or existential meaning of practice, which Walsh evokes as a living towards a mysterious meaning that utterly transcends ordinary experience, the practice of a “pure abnegation of self that draws the soul toward God.” (219) For Walsh, we have seen, this spiritual practice is essentially identical to the synthesis of freedom and universal humanist morality that Kant first evokes. Such an identity appears to be possible because, as Walsh claims (most clearly and emphatically in The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason), following Heidegger and Voegelin, the transcendent must be utterly “differentiated” from our worldly or secular existence: the withdrawal of the divine into utterly transcendent mystery relieves existential-theological practice of any ends “higher” than humanity.
Walsh’s chosen task of articulating the continuity between Christianity and modernity clearly favors the theological-existential meaning of “practice” over the practical meaning, since the latter would seem to subordinate practice to a (pagan) “account of entities and concepts.” Modern philosophy shares with Christianity an emancipation from entities and concepts and thus an understanding of spirituality as “an existential meditation on the horizon within which it finds itself.” “The practice of faith has ever and always been the only available source of faith.” (xiv)
In sum, Walsh’s enthusiasm for a purely open and therefore purely formal understanding of practical existence, articulated through brilliant, original, and remarkably comprehensive readings of the greatest authors of the continental tradition, seems to me to draw him very far away indeed from actual moral and political practice, and thus from the reality of our human condition. A truer and more truly “performative” attention to “the nature of practice itself” (Growth of the Liberal Soul 289) would be less inclined to praise pure freedom or openness and more solicitous of the actual horizons of common worlds, including implicit metaphysical and hierarchical elements. If, as Walsh himself writes, “the great challenge is to find a means of bridging the gap between … personal growth of the soul and the common ethos,” (313) then the Christian and modern evocation of the mystery of personal existence must not lose touch with the insuperable bond between the good of the soul and the good of the city. A concern for this bond would lead us back, in turn, to Kant’s “fretting” over the link between the moral law within and the starry heavens above. And such fretting might, further, lead us to consider how “practical” it was of the ancients to praise the supremacy of “theory.”
(This is a sample from a contribution to a symposium on Walsh’s trilogy to be published in Perspectives on Political Science.)