Modernity's Wager

Modernity's Wager: Authority, the Self, and Transcendence

Adam B. Seligman
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Modernity's Wager
    Book Description:

    Adam Seligman, one of our most important social thinkers, continues the incisive critique of modernity he began in his previously acclaimedThe Idea of Civil SocietyandThe Problem of Trust.In this provocative new work of social philosophy, Seligman evaluates modernity's wager, namely, the gambit to liberate the modern individual from external social and religious norms by supplanting them with the rational self as its own moral authority. Yet far from ensuring the freedom of the individual, Seligman argues, "the fundamentalist doctrine of enlightened reason has called into being its own nemesis" in the forms of ethnic, racial, and identity politics. Seligman counters that the modern human must recover a notion of authority that is essentially transcendent, but which extends tolerance to those of other--or no--faiths.

    Through its denial of an authority rooted in an experience of transcendence, modernity fails to account for individual and collective moral action. First, deprived of a sacred source of the self, depictions of moral action are reduced to motives of self interest. Second, dismissing the sacred leaves the resurgence of religious movements unexplained.

    In this rigorous and imaginative study, Seligman seeks to discover a durable source of moral authority in a liberalized world. His study of shame, pride, collective guilt, and collective responsibility demonstrates the mutual relationship between individual responsibility and communal authority. Furthermore, Seligman restores the indispensable role of religious traditions--as well as the features of those traditions that enhance, rather than denigrate, tolerance. Sociologists, political theorists, moral philosophers, and intellectual historians will find Seligman's thesis enlightening, as will anyone concerned with the ethical and religious foundations of a tolerant society.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2469-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. viii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-14)

    From ancient Babylon to contemporary Indonesia, from China to Canada, and from the Inuit to the Parisian, all peoples and societies have experienced power and its differential distribution. Defined by Max Weber as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance,” power has been a fact of social life from time out of mind.¹

    Like people everywhere and in all ages, most members of modern societies readily understand the workings of power. Power and power differentials are everywhere. We are schooled in its uses and abuses....

    (pp. 15-33)

    One of the more intractable problems in the social sciences is the problem of explaining human agency, or what is often termed the structure/action debate. The problem seems to crop up anew with each generation of practitioners, who have generated a small library on this problem alone. The very triumph of sociology, anthropology, and political science as disciplinary specialties has, however, been marked by a loss of certain categories of thought and by an ever increasing difficulty in expressing human existence in the world in terms of words and concepts that had, in a presociological era, stood at the core...

    (pp. 34-59)

    As I hope has been made clear in chapter one, attempts at solving the problem of social order all turn ultimately on one’s view of what constitutes (or does not) the individual social actor. Rational and social choice theories—like their economistic prototype—all hark back to a more or less Hobbesian view of the individual as a self-contained actor who is director of his or her own passions and interests, chief among which is, for Hobbes, the fear of death and the corresponding right to flee its approach.

    This view of the autonomous individual as a self-regulating agent makes...

    (pp. 60-86)

    In the last chapter we studied different forms of externality, of that which is other than self, and we considered the necessity of authority for an idea of the self as something beyond a mere bundle of desires. Moreover, we argued that it was only with the transcendent (what Rudolf Otto termed theganz Anderen, or wholly other) that the self as locus of moral decision making can exist.¹ Only with the emergence of this dimension of existence is it possible to keep the sacred from collapsing into mere idolatry and thereby to sustain those assumptions about a realm free...

    (pp. 87-123)

    The previous chapter ended with three themes linked in a somewhat unanticipated manner:recognition,authority, andextended self. It was very much the need for recognition, as noted by philosophers from Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith to G.W.F. Hegel, that formed the basis of what we are calling here the extended, or nonautonomous, self. Ferguson points to this need for approbation in noting that “what comes from a fellow-creature is received with peculiar emotion; and every language abounds with terms that express somewhat in the transactions of men different from success and disappointment.”¹ He continues: “The bosom kindles in company,...

    (pp. 124-142)

    The previous chapter ended with the problem of recognition, which lies at the core of the “politics of identity.” With authority internalized as individual right, mutual recognition becomes an elusive goal as, in de Tocqueville’s words, “each man is narrowly shut in himself and from that basis makes the pretense to judge the world.”¹ With recognition lost, the self comes increasingly to rest solely on the calculus and negotiation of power. Wills are, to return to the nomenclature of our opening chapter, coerced from without, rather than subjugated from within. The result is a situation fraught with paradox: the very...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 143-158)
    (pp. 159-172)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 173-177)