Walker Percy, philosopher (2)

Forthcoming: Walker Percy, Philosopher.

Philosopher of Precision and Soul

by Leslie Marsh

The theme of abstraction operates in a twofold way in Percy – abstraction in the sense of being alienated from ones true or more authentic way of being/self and abstraction in a methodological sense, the inherent abstraction of scientific method and the more vulgar invocations of methodological individualism – social atomism.

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The alienation that so animated Percy is deeply connected to the Cartesian tradition. Noted Harvard child psychiatrist and Percyean Robert Coles (1999, 127) quotes Percy: “The abstract mind feeds on itself, takes things apart, leaves in its wake all of us, trying to live a life, get from the here of now, today, to the there of tomorrow.” It entails an estrangement of the self both from the world and from itself. Walker Percy discerned what he took to be a distinctively 20th century (peculiarly western) form of disquieted consciousness – a miasmic malaise – consisting in a loss of the self brought about by three inextricably linked phenomena: (a) our inherited bifurcated Cartesian self – and derivatively (b) an uncritical assimilation and extension of scientific a priorism; and (c) atomistic social abstraction in the form of homo economicus. The upshot to these unremittingly abstract conceptions of being is that despite living in an age of considerable scientific achievement and attendant technological enhancement along with material abundance, we have been lulled us into a false sense of well-being. This shallow or inauthentic “well-being” is often manifest more as a distraction from boredom, a social palliative or stupor to ameliorate our heightened anomie and desiccated inner life – a rampant consumerism that defines us by what we want. But the “consumer” that Percy has in mind is not just of the commonplace “retail therapy” variety but also the consumer of ideas – junk science, conspiracy theorists, the New Age movement, cults, gurus of all sorts, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, zealotry of all kinds – all offering salvation that can be institutionalized as political, religious, or even academic charlatanism, the latter having a willing supply of vociferous illiberal student acolytes to do their bidding. It should be noted that though the root of our Western existential malaise is our Cartesian inheritance, I emphasize the adjectival so as not to cast Descartes as the whipping boy – that was not Percy’s intention.