Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Larmore on Taylor

Charles Larmore reviews A Secular Age in TNR. It's a severe review that highlights important philosophical differences between the two, a very critical review that leaves me more interested in reading the book, not less, though I'm sure I will think Larmore is right on most of the questions that divide the two Charleses. A thoughtful and thought-provoking essay in its own right (unsurprisingly); highly recommended.

We cannot live in a secular age without some view about what it means to have left behind an age of faith. The trouble is that these views generally take the form of "subtraction stories." They portray the modern world as having come into being by sloughing off the illusions of religion and letting the human condition finally appear for what it has been all along. Accounts of this sort, Taylor maintains, embody a fundamental mistake about modernity. They miss the fact that to see nature as operating by laws of its own, not by God's purposes, and to see society as bound together by human interests, not by sacred ritual, depends on a substantive set of values, cognitive and moral, that are by no means the universal property of mankind, but have come to be espoused in the West for historically contingent reasons. Our secular age did not arise by a process of subtraction, but through the creation of a whole new conception of man and world.

Secularization can mean three different things, all of them distinctive features of modern Western society. First, there is the separation between church and state, emerging in the seventeenth century after one hundred years of religious war in Europe and transferring the basis of political authority from divine will to notions of consent and individual rights. No longer sustained by public affirmation and enforcement, religion has turned into a private affair, and as a result it has lost its influence over more and more people. And so secularization also involves--this is its second sense, for Taylor--the all-too-familiar decline of religious belief in the West.

Yet these two developments could not have occurred, he claims, without a fundamental alteration in worldview. There had to emerge a conception of nature and society which Taylor dubs "the immanent frame." This is his third, and decisive, notion of secularism. The natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine, came to be so sharply marked off from one another that making sense of the world around us appeared possible in this-worldly terms alone. Only within such a framework could political community dispense with the aura of religious unity, and people find ways of giving meaning to their lives without looking beyond the human realm. Only on this basis could belief in God cease to be the immediate and uncontroversial certainty that it once was, the inescapable backdrop to every thought and endeavor, and become instead a possibility that on reflection people might either endorse or reject--"one option among others and frequently not the easiest to embrace."

How, according to Taylor, did this intellectual revolution take place? Obviously, the rise of modern science played a great role. But in order for scientific inquiry to take off in the form that we recognize today, nature had to be emptied of the spirits, portents, and cosmic purposes that once seemed a fact of everyday experience. It had to be conceived as fundamentally an impersonal order of matter and force, governed by causal laws. This conception of nature was itself the expression of a new attitude toward the world that Taylor calls "disengagement," the distancing outlook of "the buffered self." People learned to stand back from the forces of nature around them (as well as within them), and to regulate their actions so as no longer to feel at the mercy of hidden powers, and thus to turn the vast expanse of matter in motion before them into a domain for prediction and control. Nature ceased to be mind- like, full of the signs and wonders invoked in Shakespeare's plays, and became instead a neutral object of sober inquiry for the only minds there are, namely our own.

What inspired this shift was not, Taylor insists, a decision to dispel the mists of religion and look reality at last squarely in the face. It was instead a new ethic of self-possession and instrumental manipulation, which exalted "the independent, disengaged subject, reflexively controlling his own thought- processes, 'self-responsibly,' in Husserl's famous phrase." Contrary to one well-known but naive sort of subtraction story, modern science did not arise through the substitution of observation for fantasy. It involved the systematic combination of experiment and mathematics, designed (as Bacon and Kant said) to "put nature on the rack" and "constrain it to give answers to questions of reason's own devising." Epistemology, Taylor claims, is ultimately rooted in ethics. We form our beliefs in accordance with conceptions of method and evidence that tell us in effect how we should respect our dignity as thinking beings in dealing with a world where truth is elusive. And these ideals of intellectual virtue vary from one historical epoch to the next.


Taylor's other main line of apologetic argument is little better. It leans on his thesis that epistemology is ultimately rooted in ethics. People who claim that there is no warrant for religious belief, given what science now tells us about the world, fail to see that modern science has been driven by certain intellectual values--in particular, by the values of rational control and individual conscience--which arose historically, and within a Christian context. From the standpoint of faith, therefore, these values can still take on the spiritual hue that they once possessed. And being historically contingent, they have more the character of a "new construction" than a "simple discovery." Consequently, they are open to revision. Constructed, Taylor cautions, is not supposed to mean merely invented. "To say that these [values] are 'constructions' is not to say that the issues here are unarbitrable by reason." And yet "their arbitration is much more complicated, like that between Kuhnian paradigms, and also involves issues of hermeneutical adequacy."

Readers familiar with the lay of the land in contemporary philosophy will know that bringing in the fuzzy business of "paradigm shifts" and "hermeneutics" is a sure way to guarantee that the issues will not be settled. Some straightforward reflection shows that, at least in the case of the disenchantment of nature, the underlying values are more than simply "constructed." Imagine that, having drained the natural world of all magical powers and secret sympathies and reconceived it as an impersonal order of causal laws, physics had remained what it had largely been like in antiquity and the middle ages--a mere succession of different theories, each one a fresh speculation. That, of course, is precisely what did not happen. Modern science became a cumulative and publicly verifiable enterprise. New theories deepened the understanding of nature already achieved by their predecessors, which is as much as to say that science at last got on the track of the truth.

Now consider Taylor's thesis that this process has been driven by an ethic of rational manipulation and self-discipline, which was a modern innovation. This thesis is true, and he is right to insist on its importance. But the proper conclusion to draw is this: if this ethic is a "construction," it is a "discovery" as well. Developing it has been tantamount to learning what is the most fruitful attitude toward nature, at least if our aim is to know how it works. There is no room in this case for playing off "construction" against "discovery," as Taylor tendentiously tries to do. Discoveries are no less real for being historically contingent.[...]

There is the more worrisome matter of Taylor's general attitude toward life.

Taylor appears to think that living at cross-purposes with ourselves is intolerable, a human failure. In his view, we need to give our dilemmas a "spin, " and "leap" to conclusions about how they are to be handled. But why? Is not being drawn in contrary directions an abiding feature of the human condition? Would we not do better to get used to the fact that our lives are always fraught with essential contradictions and ambiguities? Why should we prefer Taylor's quick fixes to the great enterprise of learning to live with ourselves and our circumstances? Our secular age is certainly of two minds, divided as it is between an ethic of rational control and human well-being and a longing for some deeper structure of meaning beyond. Yet on Taylor's own account, the age of faith was unstable, too--a post-Axial compromise between Christ's teachings and pre-Christian survivals that spawned throughout the medieval period one reform effort after another. We have never been, and we will never be, at one with ourselves.

Fundamental conflicts may go unacknowledged, of course. And once we perceive them, we can no doubt find philosophers--spin doctors, really--who will teach us how to make them vanish by a misleading use of words (such as glib oppositions between "open" and "closed," "construction" and "discovery"). But problems, when they are genuine, cannot be talked away. They disappear only when they are actually solved, by our finding better ways, backed up by reasons, of making sense of the world. And even then, the result is bound to bring some new source of inner conflict in its wake. This is not secular. It is human.