Review: Landscapes of the Soul (2001)

Porpora, Douglas V. Landscapes of the Soul: the Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Douglas Porpora, who teaches sociology at Drexel University, published Landscapes of the Soul: the Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life in 2001. Relying on public opinion polls and surveys and on in-depth personal interviews with individuals of varied backgrounds and persuasions, Landscapes of the Soul describes the state of the moral, religious, and otherwise self-understanding of American citizens. Not merely a descriptive account, however, he laments the loss of a transcendental vision, and, as he concludes, he urges people simultaneously to flee avidya[1] and to pursue Tikkun ha Olam, which is a Jewish concept referring to the restoration/repair/recreation of the world in justice, love, and righteousness.[2] The normative force of his argument is that we live innately desirous for a transcendental vision and ought to reclaim this vision.

Not being a sociologist or social scientist myself, I am unqualified to determine definitively whether Porpora violated certain rules of analysis. Nothing read as blatant misrepresentation, though. However, Porpora himself acknowledges that much of the content of this book is untouched by most sociologists. He writes,

This book willfully transgresses a number of sociological conventions. … As a secular discipline, defensive about its scientific status, sociology prefers to keep religion exclusively an object of study and not an intellectual partner. By violating this sociological convention here and elsewhere, I hope to overcome the sociological neglect of theology—not as object of study but as co-contributor of insight.[3]

One could argue with the legitimacy of that methodological decision. Nevertheless, the fact that secularism is the predominant working hypothesis of most of American culture generally and the academy specifically does not thereby disqualify his choice. Quite the contrary, I would contend that his choice to do so merely draws to the surface of the work his latent persuasions and presuppositions. Secularism isn’t the objective, disinterested perspective that Modernism had hoped would replace the mythological religious perspective of pre-Modern times,[4] and Porpora rightly notes that a religious perspective has more to offer to sociology than its status as an object.

Disavowing contemporary notions of virtue and vice as instrumentally-oriented, he argues that part of the reason for moral-nebulousness is our inability to conceive of, and work towards, an Ultimate Concern a la Tillich, or a moral vision. He thinks with Aristotle that the telos of our lives necessarily shapes the way we live. Negatively, if our view of our purpose is low, our view of ethics will be low. Positively, “The good moves us … as a final cause, drawing us to itself so that ultimately we become molded in its image. Suppose, for example, that the good that moves us is tolerance or justice. By being so moved, we become tolerant or just ourselves.”[5]

Most of the book argues that the moral imagination in American life has shrunk through a related lack of concern for ultimate purposes. He outlines this through a few different headings, from perceptions of identity to emotional detachment, heroes, and more. Reflecting on the results of public opinion polls and lengthy conversations with different people, Porpora weaves together a narrative that reveals a disturbingly low view of God, the world, and individuals’ own lives. Assuming that Porpora’s analysis of the data is solid, the results ought to shock the reader. They certainly shocked Porpora. American people, especially those that cannot articulate some overarching purpose for the cosmos, seem to float listlessly through the world. On the other hand, those who can construct a narrative to understand the world by, whether fundamentalist Christians or Marxist social activists, know why they and the world exist. It remains to be seen whether this oriented life is ideal. I would argue that it is—but not in this review. He concludes with a vision for moral purpose(-fulness) that would orient individuals, provide them a concrete and articulated end, and enrapture them with a vision for the consummation of all things.

Assuming that the results of this book would remain, in most matters, the same today, this book would benefit a number of distinct groups. Professors of philosophy, sociology, et al. could consider this as part of an introductory coursework concerning fundamental matters of ethics. Pastors and seminary students ought to consult the book to exegete the culture they try to reach. The general public can read this book to challenge their own moral visions, and perhaps to understand that of their neighbors.


[1]Avidya is such fascination with the superficialities of life that we fail to turn our attention to anything higher or deeper. Avidya is no longer just an ineliminable feature of the human condition” (309).

[2]In my limited research on the topic, the best treatment I’ve seen concerning Tikkun ha Olam is in David Patterson’s Emil L. Fackenheim: a Jewish Philosopher’s Response to the Holocaust (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008): 155 – 185.

[3]8.

[4]I take as self-evident the critical realist epistemological position that all knowledge is necessarily contextual, subject to verification, and possibly wrong. See, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Concerning religious knowledge, see the introductory material to N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, and Andrew Wright, Christianity and Critical Realism. Concerning science, etc., specifically see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

[5]9.

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