Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor

Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor

Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a sadly endangered type: the philosopher-statesman.


The philosopher Charles Taylor is a sadly endangered type: the philosopher-statesman. Born in Montreal in 1931, Taylor studied at McGill and Oxford, where he was a pupil of Isaiah Berlin and G.E.M. Anscombe. In 1961 he returned to his hometown to teach at McGill, and during the next decade he lost four races for the House of Commons, most notably in 1965 to future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. By the end of the decade, Taylor was sufficiently well-known as a politico that even his writing two successive books on Hegel could not tarnish his public reputation. Taylor later taught at Oxford, then McGill again, and more recently at Northwestern. Over the years his interests have shifted from analytic philosophy to the concrete political realm; he has made major contributions to the fields of human rights, multiculturalism and communitarianism.

Taylor is particularly animated by the problem of Québécois nationalism, which concerns—and perhaps has determined—two of his chief sympathies: liberal democracy and multiculturalism, not just within societies but among them. Those sympathies conflict, of course. On the one hand, Taylor knows that liberal democracies are supposed to treat all people equally; on the other hand, he is sympathetic to his concitoyens’ desire for a French Quebec, an assertion of ethnic chauvinism that mandates legal privileges for one ethnic group and disabilities for another, such as the law prohibiting commercial signs in English.

As Taylor sees it, Quebec is not merely his worry but all of ours. For what he is asking—along with contemporaries like K. Anthony Appiah, Seyla Benhabib and Amy Gutmann—is how the Western liberal can reconcile a preference for liberal democracy with the illiberalism necessary for cultural preservation or self-preservation, which many accept as understandable goals. To those who feel that this tension is not easily resolved, the Jewish character of Israel, say, is not just a case of ethnic chauvinism—it is also the embodiment of a people’s aspirations to endure and thrive. At the same time, the believer in cultural preservation will be sympathetic to the Palestinian people—not just as individuals seeking justice but as a community with collective aspirations that could not be fulfilled by citizenship in some other Arab country.

The tension between liberal democracy and certain kinds of preference—whether the preference is construed as ethnic, religious, national or all three—at times feels unbearable for the Western liberal. Americans, as it happens, are particularly ill suited to dealing with the claims of religious and ethnic pride. We get to eat our cake in a country that is basically nice to us all, Scientologist and Sikh alike. The United States, for all its paroxysms of xenophobia, is unusual for being a country where ethnic chauvinism has basically no popular support or institutional sanction. (Representative Peter King’s recent hearings on American Muslim support for terrorism are a shameful exception.) Here, even outright bigots tend not to think anymore that their bigotry should be written into the law. With two possible exceptions—affirmative action and the case of self-governing Indian reservations—America pretty uniformly sides with liberal democracy, one adult/one vote, hedged by colorblind constitutional rights. Yet this is decidedly not the case for many other countries, even our closest cousins: Britain contends with Scottish nationalism and, of course, the once-violent conflict in Ireland; while Canada has, in addition to its native peoples, the far more politically charged issue of Québécois nationalism.

* * *

Taylor is a more relevant statesman as a philosopher, with his electioneering days behind him, than he was as a politician in the 1960s. He has also become a very famous philosopher since then. In 1989 he published Sources of the Self, a voluminous philosophical and historical treatise on the evolution of identity in the West. In that book, Taylor argues that the modern human derives identity from “first, modern inwardness, the sense of ourselves as beings with inner depths…second, the affirmation of ordinary life which develops from the early modern period; third, the expressivist notion of nature as an inner moral source.” In 2007 he published A Secular Age, in which he tries to explain our “move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others.” It is a book so big that a reviewer could mention its heft (“weighing in at 1.3 kilos,” said the Guardian’s critic), a book that you may not have read but sense you ought to reckon with, the Infinite Jest of historical philosophy. Robert Bellah, the great sociologist, called A Secular Age “one of the most important books written” in his lifetime, which is the kind of hyperbole that at least keeps you from selling it to the used bookstore. That year, Taylor won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, a lucrative honor previously bestowed on the august, like physicist Freeman Dyson, as well as the not, like Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright.

Sources of the Self and The Secular Age bracketed shorter books, including Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition” (1992), in which Taylor attempts, rather inconclusively, to make sense of the Quebec problem. In 2008 he co-wrote a 300-page government report affirming Quebec’s French identity but suggesting ways to make it more accommodating to minorities. Earlier this year he published Dilemmas and Connections, an essay collection, not as boring as its meaningless title suggests, that updates points made in A Secular Age. Not long before, a conference on Taylor had yielded Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, a collection of twelve responses to A Secular Age from leading scholars in different fields, like Bellah and the theologian John Milbank.

Read one at a time, Taylor’s books can be illuminating and actually quite gripping. The Ethics of Authenticity, also from 1992, is a spirited defense of the West’s much-derided emphasis on fulfillment, or self-actualization, or what Taylor calls “authenticity” (this short book can function as Cliffs Notes for Sources of the Self). Yet his books can also be scattered, repetitive and windy, like the disparate essays in Dilemmas and Connections. Sometimes, Taylor is the kind of writer so fearful of simplifying a complex truth, or flattening out nuances, that he runs out of space (or courage or stamina) just when he seems about to say what he is trying to say.

For example, in the essay “Democratic Exclusion (and Its Remedies?),” in the new collection, Taylor writes that “a full understanding of the dilemma of democratic exclusion shows that there is no alternative” to what he calls “sharing identity space.” Sounds promising. But a few sentences later, as it occurs to you to ask what “sharing identity space” means, he writes:

What this means in practice is beyond the ambit of this essay. Solutions have to be tailored to particular situations. But some of the political mechanisms of this sharing are already well-known, for example, various brands of federalism, as well as the design of forms of special status for minority societies, such as we see today in Scotland and Catalonia, for instance. But many other modalities remain to be devised for the still more diverse democratic societies of the twenty-first century.

Here, as in numerous other passages in his work, Taylor is a master of the philosopher’s tease. After all the foreplay—the meaty problem (democratic exclusion), the examples both famous and less so (Scotland and Catalonia), the careful array of possible solutions—the climax is postponed. It is “beyond the ambit of this essay,” except we know that achieving it will involve “other modalities.” Cold shower, please.

* * *

Still, when you take the recent books by and about Taylor together—as only a professional philosopher or a book reviewer would do—you see they offer an intelligible vision of how to think about the modern world. Because Taylor writes so much, any synopsis of his views is necessarily a travesty. I am about to attempt one, and it will leave out a lot; from this new collection alone, I am scanting his essays on Iris Murdoch and Paul Celan, which means I seriously underplay Taylor’s interest in art and literature. And I surely misrepresent him, for nowhere does he state the propositions I am about to ascribe to him; this is my gloss, and I don’t expect he would use language like mine.

Nevertheless, let’s consider five propositions I believe characterize Taylor’s recent work. The first is “Once enchanted, we are now disenchanted.” Up until about the year 1500, Taylor believes, people in Christendom were enchanted, had “porous selves” open to metaphysical notions, theophanies, divine guidance, etc. Since that time, we have become disenchanted: whereas once most people had no choice but to believe, belief is now an option. Today, even if we choose to believe in something unseen, belief is necessarily of a different character than it was in an enchanted age, when belief simply was.

The second proposition is “Our response should not be nostalgia for the old, more unified, more religious Christendom.” Taylor is a Roman Catholic, and as with his response to disenchantment, he stakes out a position on nostalgia at odds with some prominent Catholic philosophers, like his contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre and his old teacher G.E.M. Anscombe. For them, modernity—disenchanted, secular, materialistic—is in its essence regrettable. For Taylor, modernity does not have to be a bad thing.

Like many religious philosophers, Taylor sees the foregrounding of earthly life, as opposed to eternal life, as one aspect of modernity. This worries him, because seeing one’s bodily survival and flourishing as the ultimate goal of existence tends toward selfishness. In “A Catholic Modernity?,” my favorite essay in Dilemmas and Connections, Taylor discusses possible alternatives to the culture of earthly life. One alternative comes from Nietzsche, who “rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life, to prevent suffering…. Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and, indeed, does so in its moments of most exuberant affirmation.” Another alternative comes from Christianity, which, especially in Catholicism, can give license to asceticism, monasticism and other denials of aspects of life.

But Taylor is no Nietzschean, and he does not want to romanticize what we might call Extreme Catholicism. Not only is that premodern Catholicism unrecoverable, Taylor says; it had to expire in order for us to become a more charitable, humane species. Taylor argues that with the Protestant Reformation came an “affirmation of ordinary life” (the term is discussed at length in Sources of the Self) that refocused religious devotion on the daily acts and works of ordinary people while elevating the sufferings of those ordinary people to a matter of divine concern.

In the Catholic world, it was too easy to feel that none of us mattered—all that did matter was present in the church, or the Mass, or heaven. But once it became clear that God was present when you read the Bible, it also became clear that the affairs of those Bible readers mattered to God. Taylor seems to say that Protestantism rescued Catholicism. Modernity gives us horrors, but also graces such as we never knew: “The age of Hiroshima and Auschwitz has also produced Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières.” Taylor says that Christianity “needed this breach with the culture of Christendom…for the impulse of solidarity to transcend the frontier of Christendom itself.” Pan-human solidarity, so much a part of our humanity now, is too valuable to lose. So the work at hand is to live with modernity: it’s worth it.

Here’s the third proposition: “If we’re going to live with modernity, we should start by trying to understand its many forms—chief among them, in the contemporary West, the cult of authenticity.” Rather than being good Christians (or, for that matter, good utilitarians or good Kantians), we now seek to be authentic, true to ourselves. I just want to be me. Like the worship of life, the worship of one’s authentic self, or true nature—a worship heightened in the Romantic movement—can result in narcissism, not to mention absurdity. We now say things that would have made no sense in the year 1500, things like, “I would marry her, but I’m not sure settling down is who I am.” Obviously, there is a problem here, one Taylor recognizes. But he insists that this need not be a bad striving. It could even be fruitful, if only modern man and woman figure out how to make it so.

Proposition four: “That is the task at hand: how to live a life that is personally authentic—a goal the medieval church would not have understood, much less approved of—while giving that life meaning, spirituality, fullness.” In other words, how can we keep our modern humanity without losing what is best from the more enchanted past?

It is on this question that the personal Taylor and the political Taylor converge, in ways that can be quite satisfying. It might seem that the Taylor who writes about the modern personality (Sources of the Self, The Ethics of Authenticity) and the Taylor who writes about the modern state (parts of A Secular Age and Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”) are working on two different projects. I don’t think that is so. Although I could not find a place where Taylor connects the two urges, it seems to me that “authenticity,” a word he uses only for the personal project, is actually the word he wants for the political project too.

Philosophers like Rousseau tend to see political community as the natural enemy of personal authenticity; the state is what represses our true selves. (I have to thank my friend Matthew Simpson, the philosopher and Rousseau scholar, for clarifying this point.) But as I read Taylor, he seems to say that just as any given woman in Quebec wants to be true to herself, the Québécois want to be true to their culture. It is the same problem on two different levels. It is the Romantic urge personally and politically, and in both cases it seems to appear, historically speaking, just on either side of the year 1800. The political urge makes no sense without the personal one. Taylor recognizes this equivalence implicitly, and his work argues for it, but he never quite formulates the extent to which, for him, the personal is political.

Here’s proposition five: “To the extent that we can succeed in being authentic, as people and as cultures—succeed in creating political forms or governments that allow people and groups to flourish that way—we will have a greater fullness than what people had in the old age of enchantment.” In fact, Taylor believes, we may be able to have a fullness unimaginable in days of old. In a sense, we will have solved the problem implied in proposition one, the problem of disenchantment. We will have shown disenchantment to be a blessing.

* * *

These propositions raise a big question: What will that “greater fullness” look like? What does a world adapted to modernity—charitable and altruistic, in which people may seek out their authentic selves but in a way that leaves them spiritually full and oriented toward a horizon other than the preservation of physical life—actually look like?

It’s a fair question, and as far as I can tell Taylor sends us to a cold shower once again. His reluctance to offer specific suggestions for how states should organize themselves may be a failure of nerve. It could also be that his particular take on communitarianism naturally implies that every community will organize itself a bit differently, making up its own rules, suited to the needs of its constituent groups. Perhaps there is no single set of rules that will work for both Canada and Israel (Taylor is strangely silent on Israel, which would seem to be—after his beloved Quebec—the most important cautionary tale in the limits of balancing democracy and ethnic identity). And so, as Taylor the erstwhile Wittgenstein scholar might say, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

That reticence can make Taylor seem an even grander statesman: after all, as President Obama showed during the Egyptian crisis, for politicians especially, discretion is the better part of valor. Philosophers are paid to have opinions, whereas politicians often succeed to the extent that they never commit themselves exclusively to any one opinion.

But after reading Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, the new essay collection about Taylor (with a title so bad he could have chosen it), I think Taylor’s discretion is something other than statesmanlike. Two essays in particular argue for a kind of sentimentality in Taylor, as if he believes—even when writing about the most consequential matters of world governance—that the play of ideas is more important than the logical conclusions. These two essays are by historians, not philosophers. The first is by Jon Butler, a scholar of American and transatlantic religion (and once my teacher); the second is by Jonathan Sheehan, who studies early modern Europe and the Reformation.

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.

* * *

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.

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