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Intimations of the Finite: Thinking Pragmatically at the End of Modernity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

David C. Lamberth
Florida State University


In the years since the uprisings of the late 1960s swept the cultures of Europe and America, the emergence of a radical critique of modernity and the heralding of a corresponding transition into postmodernity have increasingly occupied the minds of many cultural critics, theologians, philosophers, and historians alike. These three decades have witnessed the development of a wide array of differing cultural, social, and conceptual possibilities: the academy, for example, has seen the growth of gender studies and inquiries dedicated to previously marginalized communities, as well as the advancement of postmodern theories of culture, action, and knowledge among practitioners of philosophy, sociology, and theology, among others. The story is by now familiar, and while cataloging these changes itself would be an interesting endeavor, suffice it here to underscore that the interests, orientations, foci, and theoretical approaches of the academy have all changed significantly at the end of the twentieth century.

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1997

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1 The valence of the term “postmodern” is itself a significant problem for these discourses. While “poststructuralist” might at times be more applicable (as in the case of Foucault), in this essay I use “postmodern” generally to indicate at a minimum those discourses in which: (a) the viability of modernity is a question, and (b) the inapplicability of the premodern is a foregone conclusion.

2 See, for example, Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972)Google Scholar ; idem , The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1970)Google Scholar ; and idem , Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon, 1977)Google Scholar.

3 Asad, Talal, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

4 Ibid., 75; and Marcel Mauss, “The Notion of Body Techniques,” in idem , Sociology and Psychology (1935; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) 97105.Google Scholar

5 , Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 16 (emphasis in original).Google Scholar

6 See ibid., 140. The reference is to Foucault, Michel, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) 35Google Scholar.

7 See , Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, parts 1 and 2, esp. 7-8, 2728.Google Scholar

8 Schleiermacher, Friedrich, Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsatzen der evangelischen Kirche (Berlin: Reimer, 1821-1822).Google Scholar

9 See Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (Berlin: Nicolaische Buchhandlung, 1821)Google Scholar ; and Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, The German Ideology (1845-1846; 3d ed.; Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976)Google Scholar.

10 , Marx and , Engels, German IdeologyGoogle Scholar . See also , Marx's “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848)Google Scholar ; “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right” (1844)Google Scholar ; and the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” (first published in Moscow in 1927), all readily accessible in Tucker, Robert C., The Marx-Engels Reader (2d ed.; New York: Norton, 1978)Google Scholar.

11 By this I refer to the relationships Marx theorizes among the development of the productive forces, the relations of production, and the quasi-epiphenomenal superstructure that includes ideology and consciousness.

12 For an interesting discussion of Marx on justice, see Wood, Allen, “Marx on Right and Justice,” in Cohen, Marshall, ed., Marx, Justice, and History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) 106–34Google Scholar.

13 E.g., Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. McNeil, John T., trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 203–7 (1.16.5-7).Google Scholar

14 See Rorty, Richard, “Deconstruction: A Pragmatist View,” Hypatia 8:2 (Spring 1993) 100CrossRefGoogle Scholar . Cf. idem , Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) 357–60Google Scholar.

15 Marx, Karl, “Theses on Feuerbach,”Google Scholar in , Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, 145Google Scholar.

16 See e.g., James, William, Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975) andGoogle ScholarDewey, John, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1958)Google Scholar.

17 See esp. Williams, Rowan D., “Between Politics and Metaphysics: Reflections in the Wake of Gillian Rose,” in Jones, L. Gregory and Fowl, Stephen E., eds., Rethinking Metaphysics, Directions in Modern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995) 322Google Scholar , and Chopp, Rebecca S., “Feminist Queries and Metaphysical Musings,”Google Scholar in , Jones and , Fowl, Rethinking Metaphysics, 4763Google Scholar.

18 E.g., Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatologie (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).Google Scholar

19 See Peirce, Charles Sanders, “The Principles of Phenomenology” in Buchler, Justus, ed., Philosophical Writings of Peirce (New York: Dover, 1955) 7497Google Scholar ; idem , “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” in Buchler, Justus, ed., Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 98119Google Scholar.

20 , Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 79.Google Scholar

21 Completing, that is, in a sense that could be adequate to humans as subjects. One reason that the discourse of the agent does not need the discourse of the subject is that the agent discursive field of the agent is by itself already overdetermined with respect to causality. As such, then, the subject-oriented discourse is not necessary for any explanation.

22 James, William, “The Knowing of Things Together,”Google Scholar in idem , Essays in Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) 7189Google Scholar.

23 CorneI West's criticisms of James in The American Evasion of Philosophy ([Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989] esp. 6465Google Scholar ) are then generally correct in my view, insofar as one takes them as criticisms of James the individual. Whether James's ideas are amenable to accommodating a more critical stance, however, is another question.

24 James, William, Manuscript Lectures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) 367Google Scholar

25 See, for example , James, William, “A World of Pure Experience,”Google Scholar in idem , Essays in Radical Empiricism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976) 22Google Scholar.

26 For the environment idea, see James, William, A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977) 127-28, 143–44.Google Scholar

27 See , James, “Does Consciousness Exist?” (319Google Scholar , esp. 4ff.) and “A World of Pure Experience” (21-44, esp. 32ff.) in idem . Essays in Radical Empiricism; see also Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975) esp. 95113Google Scholar (“Pragmatism's Conception of Truth”).

28 Mic 6:8.

29 , James, Pragmatism, 142.Google Scholar

30 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) 408.Google Scholar

31 Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975) 620Google Scholar (4.10.4). Locke goes on to question the sufficiency of rationality in rendering God finite; however, he himself finds that we only have sufficient reason to know God as finite. See ibid., 630 (4.10.19).

32 , James, A Pluralistic Universe, 141.Google Scholar

33 James's text has “philosophy” where I have placed “theology.” See , James, A Pluralistic Universe, 149Google Scholar.

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