Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor
In “Disquieted History in A Secular Age,” Butler argues that Taylor is simply a bad historian: “This is not history for historians, meaning history meant to uncover the past for its own sake…. Rather, it is history for argument about modernity, the cause of the modern condition, and its possible cure. It is a history of lament and failure intended to propel readers toward a history of meaning and fulfillment.” Taylor is also so narrowly focused on the Western and wealthy world that his claims about secularization—hardly a pressing problem in Africa, Latin America or the Arab countries—can seem a bit absurd. Some might wonder, Butler writes, “if Taylor has been observing modern world politics since 1990.” But where Taylor goes most blindly astray is with his suggestion that 1500 marked some sort of turning point between enchantment and disenchantment. Taylor speaks of the Reformation as if it is one big homogeneous thing. There is little consideration of the differences among Lutheran, Calvinist and Anabaptist movements; and there is almost no consideration of how ordinary people—so important to Taylor, given his emphasis on the new attention paid to quotidian life—lived their religions.
Or did not. What Taylor cannot accept is how many ordinary people lived with very little religion at all, neither as believers nor as active skeptics. Some were unbelievers—apostates, heretics—while many were simple disbelievers, the religiously indifferent. In 1584 a third of Antwerp adults failed to claim any religion. This diversity is now an article of faith among social historians, but not among philosophers interested in the lettered elite. “Medieval Christians (and non-Christians and partial Christians),” Butler writes, “were almost devastatingly accustomed to huge doubts about faith. They lived through them and, perhaps more to the point, died through them. How many lives were consumed by the Albigensian crusade to rid Languedoc of the Cathar heresy in the early thirteenth century? Medieval Christians knew that faith was not axiomatic, if only because so many needed to be killed to make it so.” Butler charges Taylor with bad faith, of writing a tendentious prequel to the age he wants us to imagine.
In his more generous essay, “When Was Disenchantment? History and the Secular Age,” Sheehan takes Taylor even less seriously as a historian—one gets the sense he is patting the old man on the head. But Sheehan thinks the quality of Taylor’s history does not much matter. For Taylor is not, Sheehan believes, writing history of the kind history professors write and teach. Rather, Taylor is unabashedly writing himself a kind of usable past, not for historians but for philosophers who need a narrative to help them think. “Before, the self was ‘porous,’” Sheehan writes, summing up Taylor:
Now it is buffered. Before, religion was incarnated in bodily practices. Now it has been removed from the corporeal, the ritual, and the practical. And so on. This is, as Butler points out, a kind of subtle romanticism. It is also, as Simon During [another contributor to this volume] has noted, a version of conjectural history, a history built around a mobile, at times heuristic distinction between yesterday and today.
“Conjectural history” is a more polite way of saying “mythology.” Sheehan compares Taylor’s practice with Rousseau’s in Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, in which the author cautions that his inquiries “ought not to be taken for historical truths.” Sheehan writes that the Discourse “is filled with factual claims about early man. But these facts do philosophical rather than historical work.” Taylor’s story should be read the same way, Sheehan counsels, in which case “our opening question—when was reform?—does not matter.” It is as ridiculous to interrogate Taylor’s historical accuracy as it is to interrogate Rousseau’s, Hobbes’s or Machiavelli’s. The history serves the ideas, and the ideas are what count.
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I think Sheehan is right about one way to read Taylor’s book. A Secular Age could have a lot to say philosophically; come closing time, Taylor is not clocking hours as a historian. But I am wary of Sheehan’s attempt to exculpate Taylor because I think it patronizes him and makes unwarranted assumptions about his “Christian” motivations.
One reason Taylor is so popular among liberals is that he embodies what seem to them several key contradictions: he is an Anglo in Quebec who has made his peace with the French, and he is a Catholic who has made his peace with modernity. Butler and Sheehan, I think, want to glean from Taylor’s work a Christian partisanship. “This is just how apologetics work,” Sheehan writes late in his essay. “The historical and descriptive undergoes constant transmutation into the normative and prescriptive.” Taylor’s Christianity, Sheehan argues, gets to possess the past, “as the original author of the secular age,” and the future, “as the resource available for the overcoming of the secular age, a Christianity-to-come. As such, Christianity is both the history and the future of the West…. It dwells in the sphere of reason yet promises incarnated passion.”
This charge—that Taylor is basically selling us Christianity under the guise of philosophy under the guise of history—is not entirely new. The late philosopher Bernard Williams wrote something similar in 1990, in his review of Sources of the Self; he seemed to believe that Taylor’s history was more Catholic than he realized, that Taylor had a kind of false pluralist consciousness. But Taylor never pushes his Christianity, and if he sometimes does an imperfect job of cloaking his Catholicism in pluralism, that is less contemptible than it is human. Besides, many Christians would find his kind of vague spirituality incompatible with orthodox faith.
The “fullness,” to use his word, that Taylor wants for secular selves is obviously a concept determined by the Christian heritage. But looking forward, it may lead people to some spirituality-lite, as propagated by Oprah or the yoga instructor at the mall. That is surely not what Taylor wants, but given his reluctance to offer a more specific road map, there is no reason to think we won’t end up there. On this reading, calling Taylor a Christian apologist may be giving him too much credit; he is never so clear or specific. But Taylor has spent decades trying to figure out how people with different cultural assumptions can speak to one another. He has also tried to tell us how we got to be ourselves. I do not think he has solved these questions, and as far as he’s got, he could have done it in half as many pages. But I do not think he is a coy dissembler. A list of his virtues includes intelligence, industry and, I would say, honesty. Perhaps that is why he is so fine a philosopher-statesman, and so poor a politician.