Charles Taylor, Philosopher King

We’re all clear on the fact that Jacob knows very little about politics in the United States (and on the fact that his is usually a case of very little information being dangerous in the wrong hands). Well, take your knowledge of my ignorance and multiply it several times over. What you’re now imagining is my ignorance of Canadian politics (hint: the quantity of ignorance is greater than my student loan debt and less than the amount of debt Matthew might acquire with his new credit card fetish). Boy, should I pay more attention. They’re making philosopher kings up there!

This guy below is Charles Taylor. He has achieved significant success in Canadian politics (read his Wiki page), running in three elections for a seat in Parliament. He lost all three, but came in the third, second, and second respectively. In 1965, the last election, he came in second against Pierre Trudeau, who would later become the Prime Minister (that’s right, Justin’s dad). My professor relayed the joke that, while Taylor would almost certainly have made as good a politician as Trudeau, Trudeau could never have made as good a philosopher as Taylor; Taylor’s loss was a win for the world. (<<< Is this a joke? It seemed funnier when he said it…) All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

Charles Taylor, Philosopher King

But I’m not here to rehearse his political activities, or anything else you can easily find out on the Wiki page, including the fact that his “work has earned him the prestigious Kyoto Prize, the Templeton Prize, the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy, and the John W. Kluge Prize, in addition to widespread esteem among philosophers.” I would never name-drop awards in philosophy in an attempt to sell something on the basis of a prestige about which I actually know nothing. Never.

I’m here to share my personal experience with his work. This semester, I have the privilege (genuinely, it is one) of reading his two major works: Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. He characterizes these as explorations in philosophical anthropology, in search of some answers to the question of what it means to be a human being (here’s a soundtrack).

Over spring break, which was in fact neither spring nor break, I was tasked with reading Part I of the latter work, A Secular Age, and writing a short, 1,000-word summary of those 220 pages. Because I’ve spoken to a few of you about Taylor and the importance of his work, I’d thought I’d share what I wrote in case it might pique your interest.

For those of you I haven’t spoken to, my short pitch is that these books give a kind of master narrative to the Great Books that we’ve all read. I found upon graduating from St. John’s that I had no frame in which to fit everything we studied there. It was as though each reading came from and returned to an ahistorical vacuum (I’m thinking of this one). Although Taylor’s account competes with many other accounts (predominantly the ones he calls “subtraction” stories), I think he is pretty fair to them, acknowledging their strengths alongside their weaknesses. His purpose in giving an account is to understand our modern notions of the self. Incidentally, he does this with reference to the works of great thinkers in Western intellectual history. It’s really a two-for-one deal (looking at you, Matthew).

My principle concern in reading Taylor, besides getting my feet under me with reference to history, is to explore the question of whether or not religious belief is a legitimate possibility in modernity. Our self-understanding in the modern era is utterly different than what it was in Plato’s Athens or Philo’s Alexandria or Augustine’s Milan or Aquinas’… wherever Aquinas lived. What it means to believe something has changed along with our self-understanding.

More on that in a later blog post, perhaps. For now, here’s are the 1,000 words that might pique your interest. I had taken out the first paragraph for the class presentation, but reinserted it here for you all.

Key concepts and definitions in Part I of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age

Borrowing words Hans Jonas once used to describe the early Christian heretic, Marcion, mine is “a lesser mind, and therefore more addicted to the neatness of formal consistency.” For a scholar such as myself, then, Charles Taylor’s writing can prove difficult work. We are informed from the beginning that A Secular Age will take the form of a story and later that it is a zig-zag story (95). The story’s central events are, of course, infused with precise philosophical significance. It has proved helpful, at least for me, to attempt to capture the relevant information of Part I by disentangling the two and choosing to describe one over the other: the philosophical concepts and definitions over the story in which Taylor has enfolded them. Even if this goes against Taylor’s convictions in writing A Secular Age the way he did, I am limited here by space and want to use mine as wisely as possible.

One way of framing the historical situation of Western civilization is to say that the age in which we now live represents the culmination of many turns that have ultimately led to what we call secularity. Taylor begins A Secular Age by setting down what he sees as the defining shift towards secularity, namely that by which we move away from a time wherein belief in God was “unchallenged” and “unproblematic” and come into one wherein belief in God is one option among others (3).

Rather than simply laying out before and after pictures and insisting on this shift, Taylor thinks it crucial to his aim that he tell its story. His aim is to set the record straight, proposing his more nuanced account over against the erroneous, yet still popular and even dominant, “subtraction” stories of the shift towards secularity. These are stories in which secularity is depicted in various fashions as an “uncovering” of true human nature: in other words, true human nature is, according to those accounts, (finally) allowed to rise to the surface once we have shed the “confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” of the past (22).[1]

Their diametrically opposed understandings of melancholy offer a poignant illustration of the difference between that distant past and the present. This frames the discussion in new terms: enchantment and disenchantment, porous selves and buffered selves. In an “enchanted” world, black bile is melancholy; black bile is imbued with qualities capable of affecting the human person. Alternatively, in our “disenchanted” world there may be physical causes of the mental/emotional condition, but melancholy itself is just that: mental, emotional, inner. To flip this example on its head, Taylor turns towards the selves involved in these respective worlds. The modern self is “buffered” from the external, insulated from and unaffected by it. The buffered self “can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it” (38);  it is the self that is continually “aware of the possibility of disengagement” (42). The former self is “porous,” or vulnerable to influence from objects in the world.[2]

But to think of secularity merely as a process of disenchantment is nothing other than to subscribe to the “subtraction” stories against which Taylor writes A Secular Age. We must think of secularity as the slow rise of alternatives to “enchantment” that are able to answer to the same basic questions, concerns, needs, and desires with regard to our human aspiration to fullness. Prior to the shift towards secularity, a person aspired to fullness through a “transcendence” or a “beyond” found in religion, which inspired goals beyond human flourishing. Secularity, on the other hand, is precisely an age “in which it becomes possible to conceive of the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing” (19).

How did this eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing become a legitimate possibility? What enables the slow rise of alternatives to “enchantment”?

Early on in the work, Taylor introduces the “social imaginary” (as against “social theory”), a concept by means of which he draws the whole question of the shift towards secularity into sharper focus. Examining what is meant by “social imaginary” helps us understand the exact conditions under which such a shift came about in Western civilization.

There is a taken-for-granted, unacknowledged framework within which many of our beliefs are held and upon which we lean to go about our experience. It is the very means by which experience makes sense to us. The social imaginary is a broader concept of which this “background understanding” is a subset, or part. What the background understanding is to our immediate circumstance, the social imaginary is to our wider circumstance with reference to society and to the rest of the world. The social imaginary, then, represents a set of assumptions or beliefs about the world mutually participated in by large swaths of, if not entire, societies. In short, it is “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their surroundings” and “that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (172).[3]

So the question about the shift towards secularity becomes a question about the penetration and transformation of the social imaginary. There was a time, available to us in our collective memory, in which belief in God was unproblematic. We do not now live in such a time. The question is, how? If societal assumptions about belief in God being problematic or not exist largely in the background, remaining tacit and inarticulate for almost everyone, how could the social imaginary shift from one to the other?

This conclusion to my summary necessarily turns to the historical/story side of things. Taylor answers (broadly speaking) with a two-stage process. First came the Axial Age, or the last millennium B.C.E., in which a number of new religions arose independent of one another and “initiate[d] a break in all three dimensions of embeddedness: social order, cosmos, [and] human good” (151). The beginning made by these religions foreshadowed and in a sense paved the way for modern theories of moral order originated by Grotius and Locke, which in turn accomplished the actual “Great Disembedding” of Western Culture over the last four centuries. To oversimplify the complex narrative, the accounts given by Grotius and Locke of society take as their basis the nature of the individual; the legitimacy of society itself derives from the nature of the individuals within it and the society exists for the mutual benefit of its members. These particular theories of moral order, still in circulation and growing in our own day, are the answer we were looking for; they are what penetrated and transformed the social imaginary from within through the economy, through the public sphere, and through the practices and outlooks of democratic self-rule (176).


[1] See also, p. 169
[2] For this paragraph, see I.I.3, pp. 29-41
[3] See also pp. 173-174. Here, the choice of vocabulary begins to show its fruit. “This implicit grasp of social space is unlike a theoretical description of this space, distinguishing different kinds of people, and the norms connected to them. The understanding implicit in practice stands to social theory the way that my ability to get around a familiar environment stands to a (literal) map of this area. I am very well able to orient myself without ever having adopted the standpoint of overview which the map offers me.”





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