BYU Studies strives to involve readers in the LDS academic experience. In that spirit, we offer this scholarly exchange between Ralph C. Hancock and Joseph M. Spencer based on Spencer's "Goodness and Truth: An Essay on Ralph Hancock's The Responsibility of Reason," found in BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 4 (2014): 61–73.
It is a blessing to have Joseph Spencer's serious reading of my book from a Latter-day Saint perspective. Responsibility of Reason is about what the title says, but since it addresses fundamental questions about the world and our place in it, and since a Mormon wrote it, I would certainly hope that at some level it would shed light on concerns fundamental to Mormonism and, indeed, suggest a Mormon contribution to the pivotal questions of the Western tradition. I am glad Spencer finds it to be a step in that direction.
Spencer and I seem to agree, largely, on the problem, which is a certain approach to modern materialism. The problem lies not so much in elevating the status of the material, natural, or physical, but rather in a theoretical framing of the natural as an open field of human mastery. The problem, as Spencer notices, is a privileging of the theoretical over the practical. There is a paradox here (which I explore in my book at some length) in that this extreme theoretical rationalism (which has shown its political face most clearly first in the Jacobinism of the French Revolution and then in Marxist-Leninism) is driven by aims in one sense very "practical," that is, to transform the world—"the mastery and possession of nature for the relief of the human condition" was the formula dear to early moderns such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes. This modern materialism is at the same time a secular-humanist idealism, but an idealism that has abandoned responsibility for its action because it has lost touch with the practical and concrete sense of the human good. Deeper than any metaphysical or theoretical doctrine lies the endless and thus rudderless modern project of mastery, the spirit of what Heidegger called "technology"—by which he meant not an assortment of powerful machines but the very ontology, the very orientation toward being, that underlies the deployment of those machines. Human power is everywhere, Heidegger observed, but humanity, or some distinctively human meaning, is nowhere to be found. Thus modernity, as Leo Strauss once wrote, is a blindly advancing colossus: all power and no purpose. Modern progressivism, I submit, is a milder, self-disguised version of this blind colossus, although in the American version it is fortunately tempered, as Tocqueville understood so well, by Christian and other premodern admixtures.