Strange things are happening. The world population is surging, but the
world economy is surging even faster, overall. Educational institutions
are expanding to meet the challenge, but what students increasingly acquire
from them is merely isolated skills, which are less and less useful in
a computerized, and so simplified, workplace. The formerly Communist world
tries to recover from complete disaster, while much of the rest seems
to be trying to "recover" from politics altogether, for Western democracy
has somehow led to extreme disillusionment. Established religions are
losing members, while spirituality of various other, less traditional
sorts flourishes. Enlightenment reason finds itself under postmodern attack.
And so on.
The question is whether all these trends, and many others,
are separate from each other or whether they are all symptoms of some
still larger historical change. Few thinkers are equipped to face this
question--those with the knowledge often lack the courage. Pomona College
philosopher Stephen Erickson has both, and in this book argues that all
these changes, and many more, are signs of an epochal historical shift
on a scale with the birth of modernity itself some three hundred years
The most important harbingers of this shift, however,
are not sociopolitical trends like the ones I have mentioned (though Erickson
discusses them and many others), but people. His belief is that an increasing,
but still relatively small, number of people find themselves profoundly
out of step with their cultural surroundings, and that from these people
will come the new age of his book: the age of thresholding.
To see how subtle this argument is, note how hard it
is even to formulate the thought that an important historical shift could
take place through individuals. Doing so would require us to abandon both
communitarian models, on which individuals are the objects of historical
change rather than its instigators, and individualisic ones on which individuals
are independent of all circumstances and thus of history itself.
Even to formulate the idea of such an historical change
requires us, in short, to view individuals as the necessary vehicles of
meanings that are other and greater than they. And this is nothing less
than the recovery of a sacral dimension--one which has been occluded by
three hundred years of viewing human beings as essentially economic and
attempting to secure for them their proper spheres of control and agency.
If intelligent response to the basic parameters of life
is philosophy, then Erickson's threshholder is thus someone who lives
in the service of a sacrally responsive philosophy. Philosophy is therefore
becoming central to our species in a way not seen since, perhaps, ancient
Athens. Beyond that, Erickson believes, not much can be said about the
age of threshholding; we are too early in the shift for its place of arrival
to be described.
Erickson's book, then, is less a description of a historical
transition, or even an argument that one is beginning, than an attempt
to draw the reader into it,. to teach her to think in a "threshholding"
way. As such, its prose is compelling but enigmatic, at least at first.
A difficult book, but an important one for any reflective human being.
--John McCumber '67 is professor of German and chair of the German
Department at Northwestern University.