Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Have Your Transcendence and Eat it Too

Apologies to our readers: I was unable to login to the group-blog to add my contribution, so my post here is a bit out of chronological order. These abridged notes cover chapter 10, section 1.

Have Your Transcendence and Eat it Too:

The Aesthetic Ethic of the Buffered Self

“No-Man’s-Land”: The Modern Cosmic Imaginary

“…the salient feature of the modern cosmic imaginary is not that it has fostered materialism, or enabled people to recover a spiritual outlook beyond materialism, to return as it were to religion, though it has done both these things. But the most important fact about it which is relevant to our enquiry here is that it has opened a space in which people can wander between and around all these options without having to land clearly and definitively in any one.” (p. 351, emphasis mine)

What made this possible? Shift in Romantic period art from “imitation” to “creation.” (p. 352)

•Previously, artists drew upon and imitated the broader cosmic imaginary. With this shift to the modern cosmic imaginary, now artists had to create new meaning in a new cosmos.

A New Lexicon: From "the Great Chain of Being" to “Subtler Language”

“…where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning… the decline of the old order with its established background of meanings made necessary the development of new poetic languages in the Romantic period. […] The Romantic poets and their successors have to articulate an original vision of the cosmos.” (353)

Wasserman: “Until the end of the eighteenth century there was sufficient intellectual homogeneity for [people] to share certain assumptions… By the nineteenth century these world-pictures had passed from consciousness.” (353)

The Aesthetic “Unhooked” from the Ontic

“Art” – appreciation of cultural practices without participation // the aesthetic without the ontic

Two disembeddings:

(1) Prayers, mass, bardic songs, etc. taken out of context – playing Masses in concerts.

(2) “Absolute” music – Music abstracted from an ontic commitment

“The music moves us very strongly…it captures, expresses, incarnates being profoundly moved. But what at? What is the object? Is there an object?” (355)

“We have something like the essence of the response, without the story.” (355)

“This leaves a residual mystery: why are we so moved?” (356)

Aesthetics as Ethics

New struggle to articulate new moral meaning in nature.

“..the aesthetic was established as an ethical category, as a source of answers to the question, how should we live? what is our greatest goal or fulfillment? This gives a crucial place to art. Beauty is what will save us, complete us. …artistic creation comes to be the highest domain of human activity.” (359)

Previously, art imitated God’s creation. Now, art moves us “without having to identify [its] ontic commitments.” This offers a “place to go for modern unbelief.” The aesthetic is “unhooked from the ordered cosmos and/or the divine.” It can me immanentized, or simply left unspecified:

"...these languages function, have power, move us, but without having to identify their ontic commitments. "Absolute" music expresses being moved by what is powerful and deep, but does not need to identify where this is to be found, whether in heaven, or on earth, or in the depths of our own being--or even whether these alternatives are exclusive... Now to enter in this medium does not mean to deny God. On the contrary, many great modern artists--Eliot, Messiaen--have tried to make their medium a locus of epiphany. This is perfectly possible. But it is not necessary. The ontic commitments can be other, or they can remain largely unidentified." (p. 360)

Discussion Questions:

Is Taylor’s analysis of the Romantic period relevant today? What is the contemporary role of aesthetics? Is “Mother Earth” the new “Father God"? What are the “ontic commitments” of Mumford & Sons?

Taylorific Words: regicide, erstwhile, chthonic, assertoric

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Age of Authenticity (ch. 13)

Taylor closed chapter 12 by sketching two “ideal types” in his “outrageously simplified potty history” of the last 200 years: the Ancien Regime (AR) and the Age of Mobilization (AM). Chapter 13 should be read as extending that analysis, so the next type/phase is the “Age of Authenticity” (AA).

(a) The social imaginary of expressive individualism

What we get in this chapter is Taylor’s explication of “the social imaginary of expressive individualism” (486), that unique form of the modern, post-Romantic social imaginary that has exploded “in the last half century, perhaps even less, which has profoundly altered the conditions of belief in our societies” (473). What’s at issue here is not so much the causes or mechanims [Taylor will consistently point to the consumer revolution and post-war affluence, 474, 490), but rather “the understandings of human life, agency, and the good” which emerge with this expansion of expressive individualism. (474).

The SI of AA is crystallized in terms of authenticity, the understanding that “each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering conformity with a model imposed on us from outside” (475). So the primary—yea, only—value in such a world is choice: “bare choice as a prime value, irrespective of what is a choice between, or in what domain” (478). And tolerance is the last remaining virtue (484).

Taylor sees two temptations of evaluation re: AA (480): critics can too easily dismiss it as egoism; friends can too easily celebrate it as progress without cost. Taylor’s evaluation takes a different tack: on his reading, AA has changed our available options (480b)—it has changed not just the conditions of belief but the milieu of our everyday lived experience. To get at this, he homes in on fashion as a kind of case study. What we see there is that while fashion is a medium of expression for my individuality, it is also something that is inescapably relational, almost parasitic: “The space of fashion is one in which we sustain a language together of signs and meanings, which is constantly changing, but which at any moment is the background needed to give our gestures the sense they have” (481). This is no longer a space of common actual but rather a space of mutual display—another way of “being-with” (481b) in which “a host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication” (482). This breeds aa new kind of self-consciousness: “My loud remarks and gestures are overtly addressed only to my immediate companions, my family group is sedately walking, engaged in our own Sunday outing, but all the time we are aware of this common space that we are building, in which the messages that cross take their meaning” (482). In other words, we all behave now like 13-year-old girls.[1]

It is these spaces of mutual display, Taylor argues, that are most prone to being colonized by consumer culture, so that “consumer culture, expressivism and spaces of mutual display connect in our world to produce their own kind of synergy” (483):

The language of self-definition is defined in the spaces of mutual display, which have now gone meta-topical; they relate us to prestigious centres of style-creation, usually in rich and powerful nations and milieux. And this language is the object of constant attempted manipulation by large corporations” (483).

Indeed, this construction of a consumer identity—which has to feel like its chosen (483—the illusion of nonconformity, the suburban skater kid whose mom bought him the $150 board blazoned with “anarchy” symbols)—trumps other identities, especially collective identities like citizenship or religious affiliation (c. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian).

One could argue that for many young people today, certain styles, which they enjoy and display in their more immediate circle, but which are defined through the media, in relation to admired stars—or even products—occupy a bigger place in their sense of self, and that this has tended to displace in importance the sense of belonging to large scale collective agencies, like nations, not to speak of churches, political parties, agencies of advocacy, and the life (484).

This expansion of expressive individualism does not unsettled the modern moral order; to the contrary, if anything it strengthens the order of mutual benefit. Indeed, the MMO is the “ethical base” for the soft relativism of the expressivist imaginary: do your own thing, who am I to judge? The only sin is intolerance. Here is where Taylor locates the most significant shift in the post-60s West: while ideals of tolerance have always been present in the modern social imaginary, in earlier forms (Locke, the early American Republic, etc.) this value was contained and surrounded by other values which were a scaffolding of formation (e.g., the citizen ethic, 484). What erodes in the last half century is precisely these limits on individual fulfillment (485).

(b) The place of the sacred in our secular age

What is the “imagined place of the sacred” in a society governed by expressivist individualism (486)? Taylor has already hinted that such a society seems to forge its own “festive” rendition of the sacred—“moments of fusion in a common action/feeling, which both wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves. Which is why some have seen these moments as among the new forms of religion in our world” (482-483). But while there might still be room for a kind of sacred, something has also clearly changed. Taylor makes sense of this in terms of Durkheim’s categories:

  • · “Under the paleo-Durkheimian dispensation, my connection to the sacred entailed my belonging to the church” and the church (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican) is co-extensive with society such that there is “a link between adhering to God and belonging to the state” (486).
  • · In a “neo-Durkheimian mode,” there has been some disembedding. Here we see the emergence of the “denominational imaginary” (450) and an emphasis on voluntary association, but when you join “the church of your choice,” you’re still connecting to something bigger--“the church” and its heritage, which still feeds and fuels the project of the nation.
  • · But now in the post-Durkheimian context with its expressivist outlook we have a qualitative shift: “The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this” (486). The expressivist forges her own religion (“spirituality”), her own, personal Jesus. But what’s most significant is that the sacred is uncoupled from political allegiance (487). This begins to loosen up things more generally, in accord with expressivist individualism, such that it becomes less and less “rational” to accept any external contraints. So whereas Methodists and Pietists unleashed an emphasis on emotional encounters with God but kept this tethered to orthodoxy, it was only a matter of time “before the emphasis will shift more and more towards the strength and the genuineness of the feelings, rather than the nature of their object” (488). And so a new spiritual injunction arises: “let everyone follow his/her own path of spiritual inspiration. Don’t’ be led off yours by the allegation that it doesn’t fit with some orthodoxy” (489).

What draws people away from traditional, institutional religion is largely just the success of consumer culture—the “stronger form of magic” found in the ever-new glow of consumer products (490). As a result, the expressivist revolution (1) “undermined some of the large-scale religious forms of the Age of Mobilization” and (2) “undermined the link between Christian faith and civilizational order” (492). In fact, “where the link between disciplines and civilizational order is broken, but that between Christian faith and the disciplines remains unchallenged, expressivism and the conjoined sexual revolution has alienated many people from the churches” (493).

[1] This analysis has to be compared to DFW’s account of our self-conscious age in [articles in Journal of Contemporary Fiction]. DFW is also analyzing the culture of those writers who grew up after the 60s revolution of expressive individualism.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mainstream Secularization Theory

The Question

We know how the elites were affected by the nova effect. But what about everyone else? How is it that “the predicament of the then upper strata has become that of whole societies”? (423)
· It’s more than mere “diffusion.”
· It’s “incredibly complicated.”

Some Preliminary Concerns

If we understand secularization as “some kind of decline in religion” (427), then we need to set some things straight.
· What is religion? Who are the religious? (427)
· Recognize the “issues of interpretation” and the “unthoughts” of secularization theory.
o “Everyone can see that there have been declines in practice and declared belief in many countries… But how to understand and interpret these changes may not be evident” (426).
o “… one’s own framework beliefs and values can constrict one’s theoretical imagination” (428).

The “Unthoughts” of Secularization Theory

Religion must decline because (428-9):
a) it is false (and we know this from science)
b) it is irrelevant (for we have other methods to serve the same function)
c) it is authoritarian (that is, it inhibits individual autonomy)

Mainstream Secularization Theory

Basically that “‘modernity’ (in some sense) tends to repress or reduce ‘religion’ (in some sense)” (429). Or, “modernity has led to a decline in the transformation perspective” (431).

The Three-Storey Dwelling Metaphor:

(Imagine a house with three floors: the ground floor holds the fact that religious belief and practice have diminished; the basement gives the historical explanations to why this is; the upper level consists of questions for religion today)

“Powerful Enframing Assumptions” (433)

How can we claim that religion is not needed in modernity? Two assumptions are being made:

1) The disappearance thesis – religion disappears with modernity
2) The epiphenomenal thesis – religion is secondary to a higher function

Given these two assumptions, it is easy to think that, “when humans come to control their world and society, the religious impulse must atrophy” (434).

The Future of Religion?

If atheism and agnosticism don’t become default positions, some think that “the whole issue will fade” and “later generations will wonder what the fuss was all about” (434).

Taylor thinks this atrophy isn’t plausible. He thinks we are already too deeply committed to the transformation perspective. Instead, religion has adapted, as we see in the creation of new denominations and institutional organization (435-6).

“But the interesting story is not simply one of decline, but also of a new placement of the sacred or spiritual in relation to individual and social life” (437).


Taylor admits that his project is to explain secularization in the Western world (understandably). But is there anything we can draw from the stories of secularization – or lack of secularization – outside of Western society? Have non-Western societies demonstrated a commitment to the “transformation perspective” that might help us make a claim about human nature? Can they help us understand why we may not be approaching atrophy of the religious?

Monday, March 14, 2011

What's Wrong with Secularization Theory? (ch. 12, sect. 1)

With chapter 12 we move into Part IV of A Secular Age. In this section, Taylor takes up themes and issues generally treated under the rubric of “secularization,” giving an account of the decline of religious practice in the West. As he notes at the end of chapter 11, what he’s particularly interested in is how religion has been de-coupled from society and its institutions. However, he is going to take up these issues in a way that contests the usual “secularization thesis,” and to do so he revisits his earlier distinction between secularity1, 2, and 3.

Just as secularity cannot be adequately explained by a subtraction story, neither can it be accounted for with a diffusion story—as if secularization was just the trickle down effect of elite pluralism makes its way to the masses (424). Nor can it be adequately explained by just hitching it to some wagon of modern development such as differentiation, privatization, urbanization, industrialization, or disenchantment because of the simple fact that these phenomena did not empirically entail a decline in religious practice; indeed, they often occasioned their own kind of religious response and revival (425-426).

So to get at this issue, Taylor goes meta: that is, he steps back and starts asking more fundamental questions: For example, if secularization is taken to refer to some kind of “decline of religion,” then we need to figure out what we mean by “religion.”

If one identifies this with the great historic faiths, or even with explicit belief in supernatural beings, then it seems to have declined. But if you include a wide range of spiritual and semi-spiritual beliefs; or if you cast your net even wider and think of someone’s religion as the shape of their ultimate concern, then indeed, one can make a case that religion is as present as ever (427).[1]

Furthermore, what’s the point of comparison? If secularization theory claims a decline in religious participation, “what is the past we are comparing ourselves with? Even in ages of faith, everybody wasn’t really devout” (427).

However, Taylor doesn’t really follow up on these questions. Instead he goes hermeneutical meta: that is, he begins to interrogate the background assumptions operative behind secularization theory—what he calls (following Foucault) the “unthought” which “underpins much secularization theory” (427). In this respect, Taylor challenges the myth of neutrality in the social sciences (428), but not with the “post-modern” conclusion that “we are each imprisoned in our own outlook, and can do nothing to rationally convince each other” (428). So this critique of neutrality and disclosure of presuppositions is not a license for retreating into our silos and choirs. Rather, Taylor remains confident that there can be dialogue and even persuasion across “unthoughts.” As he later puts it: though Taylor will come at secularity from a different unthought, “that doesn’t mean that we have simply a stand-off here, where we make declarations to each other from out of our respective ultimate premises. Presumably, one or other view about religious aspiration can allow us to make better sense of what has actually happened. Being in one or other perspective makes it easier for some or other insights to come to you; but there is still the question of how these insights pan out in the actual account of history” (436). For Taylor, the problem with secularization theory is that it doesn’t adequately account for the phenomena.

So Taylor is pointing out that any account of secularization is inevitably informed by some “unthought,” some pretheoretical perspective that comes with a certain sensibility and orientation—what he’ll call “tempers” or “outlooks.” Taylor crystallizes this with a kind of case study: one can see these different tempers manifest in what you think about Francis of Assissi, “with his renunciation of his potential life as a merchant, his austerities, his stigmata”: “One can be deeply moved by this call to go beyond flourishing;” or “one can see him as a paradigm exemplar of what Hume calls ‘the monkish virtues,’ a practitioner of senseless self-denial and a threat to civil mutuality” (431). Tell me what you think of St. Francis, Taylor suggests, and I’ll tell you what your “unthought” is.

(a) Secularization theory’s unthought

So what is the secularization theorist’s “unthought,” their background assumptions that shape their account of secularity? It is, Taylor suggests, “an outlook which holds that religion must decline either (a) because it is false, and science shows this to be so; or (b) because it is increasingly irrelevant now that we can cure ringworm by trenches [the “artificial-fertilizers-make-atheists” argument]; or (c) because religion is based on authority, and modern societies given an increasingly important place to individual autonomy; or some combination of the above” (428-429). Some constellation of these assumptions is shared by academics even in countries like the United States where wider religious participation is very high—and it can’t help but influence the story such academics tell about secularization. The result is an inevitably reductionistic account of religion which fails to really imagine that religion could be a true motivator for human action[2] (433, 452-453). It also tends to reduce religion to merely epiphenomenal beliefs about supernatural entities and such beliefs disappear in the conditions of modernity (430, 433-434).

And if this is your unthought, you’ll tend to look at St. Francis with rather pitiful eyes: that poor, benighted, misguided, but sincere soul (er, brain).

(b) Taylor’s unthought

Taylor has already conceded that he has his own “unthought” (429). “I stand in another perspective,” he confesses: “I am moved by the life of Francis of Assisi, for instance; and that has something to do with why this [secularization thesis] picture of the disappearance of independent religious inspiration seems to me so implausible” (436). Indeed, “my own view of ‘secularization,’” he freely admits, “has been shaped by my own perspective as a believer” (437).

So what difference does Taylor’s (Catholic?) unthought make? How does his temper or outlook provide a different perspective? Well, it entails two features: first, Taylor is willing to see religion as a genuine, independent, irreducible motivator for human action and social life (again, compare Christian Smith’s argument in Moral, Believing Animals)—not something that can just be explained away as the epiphenomena of economic or political or evolutionary factors (453). Second, Taylor does not reduce religion to mere belief in supernatural entities. Instead, he will emphasize that a “transformation perspective” is essential to religion—“the perspective of a transformation of human beings which takes them beyond or outside of whatever is normally understood as human flourishing” (430). And it is just this “transformation perspective” that impinges on the moral order.

What difference does this make in the account of secularization? We should note that Taylor does affirm that there has indeed been a process of secularization; and he also recognizes that in much of the West, there has also been a decline in religious participation and identification. So contesting “the secularization thesis” does not require rejecting those ‘facts’ on the ground. Instead, it just means that Taylor offers a different story: “the heart of ‘secularization’” is precisely “a decline in the transformation perspective” (431). So while there has certainly been a decline of religion, that’s not the most interesting story: “the interesting story is not simply one of decline, but also of a new placement of the sacred or spiritual in relation to individual and social life” (437). It is this new placement of religion which is constitutive of our “secular age.”

Taylor locates his debate with the “mainstream secularization thesis” by likening it to a three-story building (431-433):

Upper flr: implications/evaluation

Ground floor: ‘facts’ on the ground

Basement: causes of secularization

Taylor often agrees with mainstream secularization theory ‘on the ground floor,’ so to speak (432). It’s in the diagnosis of causes and evaluations that he disagrees. And this is because “[i]t turns out that basement and higher floor are intimately linked; that is, the explanation one gives for the declines registered by ‘secularization’ relate closely to one’s picture of the place of religion today” (433). Indeed, it is precisely on the upper floor that the “unthought” exerts its force, and insofar as the upper floor drives us to posit corresponding causes, the unthought also exerts influence on our attribution of causality.

[1] I propose pretty much exactly the latter in my forthcoming chapter on post-secular sociology of religion (in a collection forthcoming from NYU Press). But it should be noted that Taylor later seems to affirm a rather traditional and narrow definition of “religion” (429).

[2] On this point, cp. Christian Smith’s argument in What Is a Person?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Expanding Unbelief (ch. 10)

1 / From Mimesis to Creation: Artistic Creation of the Immanent Frame

Taylor ended ch. 9 by noting that the modern cosmic imaginary “opened a space in which people can wander between and around all these options without having to land clearly and definitively in any one” (351). This is a cross-pressured space, the space of the nova-effect, plural and complicated—unlike the supposedly secure and dogmatic zones one would expect if one believed the so-called “war” between belief and unbelief. Most of us, Taylor argues, do not live in the confident camps of such a war; rather, most of us live in this cross-pressured “no-man’s-land” between them.

What is unique in Taylor’s story is the significance he accords to both the Renaissance and Romanticism. Philosophical accounts of modernity—and hence our present (or “postmodernity”)—tend have an epistemological fixation which seizes upon the Enlightenment as the center of the story (for an exception, consider Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns). But Taylor’s account is much more nuanced, recognizing early and important shifts in the Renaissance. Even more importantly, Taylor accords a central role to Romanticism as a turning point—a kind of counter-modernity within modernity. This is why “[w]e can see the Victorians as our contemporaries in a way which we cannot easily extend to the men of the Enlightenment” (369).

This is why, in chapter 10, Taylor—in contrast to the “subtraction story” on science—considers the central role of art in creating this “open space” which characterizes our secular age. One of the features of post-Romantic art, he suggests, is a fundamental shift from art as mimesis to art as poeisis—from art as imitating nature to art making its world. This was necessary precisely because the flattening of the world meant the loss of reference. We find ourselves in Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols” but without tether or hook, without any given to which the symbols/signs refer. Enclosed in the immanent frame which is now the home of the buffered self, the best we can do is “triangulate” meaning from our signs, through historical nostalgia, to our present (352-353). So in poetry, for instance, “where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility” (353). The “poet must articulate his own world of references” (353); in other words, the poet has to create a/the world. Taylor seems similar shifts in painting (353-354) and music (354).

Taylor describes this as yet another “disembedding” by which art now begins to emerge as an autonomous entity and institution. In earlier societies, the aesthetic was embroiled with the religious and the political—what we look back on as ancient “art objects” were, in fact and function, liturgical instruments, etc. What we see in modernity, however, is a shift whereby the aesthetic aspect is distilled and disclosed for its own sake and as the object of interest. And from this emerges “art” as a cultural phenomenon and an autonomous reality (355). So now we go to hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor in a concert hall to appreciate it as a work of art disembedded from its liturgical home. This is a “desemanticisation and resemanticisation” whereby the art is decontextualized from its religious origions and then recontextualized as “art” (355).

Thus Taylor sees the emergence of “absolute music” as the culmination of this disembedding (ab-solute in the sense of music that is ab-solved of connection). Whereas the music that accompanied the Mass or even the play was tethered to action and a story, engendering responses within a community of practice that knew the references, “with the new music, we have the response in some way captured, made real, there unfolding before us; but the object isn’t there. The music moves us very strongly, because it is moved, as it were; it captures, expresses, incarnates being profoundly moved. (Think of Beethoven quartets.) But what at? What is the object? Is there an object?” (355). Nevertheless, we can’t quite shake our feeling that “there must be an object.” And so, Taylor suggests, even this disembedded art “trades on resonances of the cosmic in us” (356).

But how does this create the “open space” of the nova effect? In what way do these artistic shifts make room for cross-pressured options and alternatives? Well, these “subtler languages operating in the ‘absolute’ mode can offer a place to go for modern unbelief;” more specifically, they provide an outlet and breathing room for those who feel cross-pressured precisely by the Romantic critique of the Deism and anthropocentric shifts that have flattened the world, leaving no room for mystery. For those who can’t tolerate that (and Taylor thinks our better nature will never tolerate that), this emergence of the arts provides another venue for a kind of immanent mystery, an anthropologized mystery within.[1] The arts and the aesthetic become a way of working out “the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important” (358; see Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man). The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence: in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settled for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism or moralism. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage, etc. (360). [And again, Taylor’s reading is ambiguous here: on the one hand, this impulse could simply come from an older longing that we’ve outgrown—a historical pressure (361); on the other hand, it sometimes seems to suggest that this pressure comes from the now-ignored transcendent itself, “the solicitations of the spiritual” (360).]

2 / Why We Don’t Believe (or Don’t Believe Your Own Testimony)

[Discussion: The Reformation entails materialism?! See p. 362, top.]

This section is a fascinating little psychoanalysis of a convert—but of one (or a culture) that has converted from belief to unbelief. The upshot is a hermeneutics of suspicion: if someone tells you that they’ve converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them. Because what’s usually captured them is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science: “Even where the conclusions of science seem to be doing the work of conversion, it is very often not the detailed findings so much as the form” (362). Indeed, “the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findngs as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality” (365). But you can also understand how, on the retelling, the convert to unbelief will want to give the impression that it was the scientific evidence that was doing the work (365b). Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories.

And the belief that they’ve converted from has usually been an immature, Sunday-Schoolish faith that could be easily toppled. So while such converts to unbelief tell themselves stories about “growing up” and “facing reality”—and thus paint belief as essentially immature and childish—what it betrays is the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned. “[I]f our faith has remained at the stage of the immature images, then the story that materialism equals maturity can seem plausible” (365). But in fact their conversion to unbelief was also a conversion to a new faith: “faith in science’s ability” (366).

Such tales of maturity and “growing up” to “face reality” are stories of courage—the courage to face the fact that the universe is without meaning, without purpose, without significance. So the convert to unbelief has grown up because she can handle the truth that our disenchanted world is a cold, hard place. But at the same time, there can be something exhilarating in this loss of purpose and teleology, because if nothing matters, and we have the courage to face this, then we have a kind of Epicurean invulnerability. While such a universe might have nothing to offer us by way of comfort, it’s also true that “[i]n such a universe, nothing is demanded of us” (367). Now the loss of purpose is also a liberation: “we decide what goals to pursue.”

[One gets the sense, however, that Taylor thinks there are diminishing returns on this: that something in the universe is going to keep pushing back, and that something in ourselves is not going to allow us to be satisfied with what looks like “freedom.” One might suggest that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom gets at the same malaise.]

3 / Immanent Counter-Enlightenment: Revolt Against the “Secular Religion of Life”

In the point above re: the liberating nature of the loss of purpose, one can already see burgeoning hints of what’s coming: Nietzsche, and other “post-Schaupenhauerian” visions (369). What we get here, according to Taylor, is an internal critique of modernity, the “immanent counter-Enlightenment” which turns against the values of the Enlightenment precisely insofar as those values were secular analogues of a Christian inheritance (think: Geneaology of Morals, which targets Kant and Jesus, Hegel and Paul). What we get here is a critique of that strand of exclusive humanism which secularized agape, giving us the universalized “agape-analogue” (369-370; cp. 27). What we get from this Enlightenment formalization or secularization of Christian sensibilities is “a secular religion of life” (371)—and it is that to which the post-Schaupenhauerian strains of counter-Enlightenment are reacting.[2] On their account, Kant is still immature; still blind to the harsh realities of our cold, cruel universe; and thus still captive to slave morality, unable to be a hero (373).

[1] Cp. Rorty on the new role of art in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, pp. 4-5.

[2] [I wonder whether one could read Michael Chabon’s and Amy Chua’s critiques of modern parenting as a kind of cultural expression of a similar reaction to the politics of politeness that we get from a secular religion of life.]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Imaginary-shift (ch. 9)

Taylor’s story leaps ahead a bit in this chapter: we are now plunked in the 19th century, famous for an explosion of unbelief (cp. Hempton, Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt). But Taylor suggests that the unbelief of the 19th century is not just more of the same, the growth and steady accumulation of the nova effect. No, he argues, “the turn to unbelief in the middle or later nieteenth century is in a way something new” (322). Why? Because it now reflects a shift in our modern COSMIC imaginary—the “shift from cosmos to universe” has now started to take root in our social imaginary (“social” in the sense of being shared by many; recall the dual nature of “social” in social imaginary). In other words, there has now been a fundamental shift in how people imagine nature, their environment, and our cosmic context.

I want to emphasize that I am talking about our sense of things. I’m not talking about what people believe. Many still hold that the universe is created by God, that in some sense it is governed by his Providence. What I am talking about is the way the universe is spontaneously imagined, and therefore experienced (325).

This is not about “how one theory displaced another,” Taylor emphasizes (325). When the story is confined to that theoretical level

But Taylor emphasizes that we’re not primarily talking about a change in theory because most people don’t theorize! However, we all do “spontaneously imagine” ourselves in a cosmic context, and it’s that which Taylor is after: “I’m interested,” he says, in “how our sense of things, our cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed” (325).

Taylor encapsulates this imaginary-shift as the move from a “cosmos” to a “universe”—the move of spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchal, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space. While this shift might have been prompted and amplified by increasing empirical evidences (geological evidences pointing to an older earth; astronomical evidences pointing to an expanding universe, etc.), Taylor emphasizes the existential nature of this shift: First, there is a fundamental extension of the cosmic environment—in space and time—that is uncanny, Unheimlich, dis-placing, such that we no longer feel that we “fit” into a cosmos that is a cosmic home. Instead we see ourselves adrift and cast into an anonymous, cold “universe”: “Reality in all directions plunges its roots into the unknown and as yet unmappable. It is this sense which defines the grasp of the world as ‘universe’ and not ‘cosmos’; and this is what I mean when I say that the universe outlook was ‘deep’ in a way the cosmos picture was not” (326). And so we find ourselves now in the “dark abyss of time”: “Humans are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time,” for example (327).

Second, there is the increasingly sense that things evolve (327)—a sense that precedes Darwin. In such a pictures we lose the cosmos’ forms and essences—the order created by design. This might also explain the new design-fixation as a response in this era: “What makes for the heat at this nevralgic point is that there is a strong sense of deficit in a world where people used to feel a presence here, and were accustomed to this support; often couldn’t help feeling the lack of this support as undermining their whole faith; and very much needed to be reassured that it oughtn’t to” [329]. Such design fixation is also already a sign of waning devotional practice: “once people come to live more and more in purely secular time, when God’s eternity and the attendant span of creation becomes merely a belief, however well backed up with reasons, the imagination can easily be nudged towards other ways of accounting for the awkward facts” [328].

What’s the result of such a shift? Well, even the believers end up defending a theistic universe rather than the biblical cosmos. Eliminating mystery as a consequence of Protestant critiques of allegorization (330; cp. Harrison), even believers end up reading the Bible as if it were a treatise on such a universe; in short, you get the emergence of young earth creationism (330). Indeed, we only get the so-called war between science and religion once the modern cosmic imaginary has seeped into both believers and unbelievers: at that point, “these defenders of the faith share a temper with its most implacable enemies” (331). In other words, no one is more modern than a fundamentalist. This is why the “face-off between ‘religion’ and ‘science’” has a “strangely intra-mural quality” (331). But this supposed “pure face-off between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ is a chimaera, or rather, an ideological construct. In reality, there is a struggle between thinkers with complex, many-levelled agendas” (332).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Malaises of Immanence Redux (JKAS notes on ch. 8)

We now transition to Part III of the book. Part I (“The Work of Reform”) considered the late medieval and early modern reform movements which began to shift the plausibility conditions of the West that made exclusive humanism a possibility (especially via disenchantment and the newly buffered self). But this was only a condition of possibility, not inevitability. Part II (“The Turning Point”) considered the positive shift that really made exclusive humanism a “live option”: a theological shift that gave us the impersonal god of Deism coupled with the intellectual & cultural Pelagianism which found the resources for an “agape-analogue” within immanence.

1 / Nova Effect from Cross-Pressures

Part III (“The Nova Effect”) considers the outcome of this turn in what Taylor calls “the nova effect” (300). By this he means a pluralization (300), fragilization (304), and fragmentation (299) of visions of the good life and human flourishing. This is a “nova” effect because it issues, not just in a binary choice between two options, but in an array of options that almost metastasize because of the multiple “cross-pressures” of this pluralized situation (302).

Taylor’s analysis of this point is deeply existential. As he puts it, while the world is disenchanted for “us moderns,” we nonetheless also experience a sense of loss and malaise in the wake of such disenchantment (302; cp. the fiction of DFW!). And so all sorts of people feel themselves caught in these “cross-pressures”—pushed by the immanence of disenchantment on one side, but also pushed by a sense of significance and transcendence from another side, even if it might be a lost transcendence. One should note how much Taylor’s account here relies on an appeal to a “sense” that “we” have, an “feel” for this. “My point,” he emphasizes, “is not that everybody feels this, but rather, first, that many people do, and far beyond the ranks of card-carrying theists” (302). All sorts of people feel themselves caught: “in the face of the opposition between orthodoxy and unbelief, many, and among them the best and most sensitive minds, were cross-pressured, looking for a third way” (302). And it is the intensity of these cross-pressures that causes the explosion, the nova effect, which is effectively an explosion of all sorts of “third ways.”

But what attends this explosion is also a malaise which is itself one of the consequences of a buffered identity. The same “buffering” of the self that protects us also encloses us and isolates us. “This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for us” (303). Sealed off from enchantment, the modern buffered self is also sealed off from significance, left to ruminate in its own stew of ennui. It is just this sealing-off that generates the pressure: the self’s “relative invulnerability to anything beyond the human world” also leads to “a sense that something may be occluded in the very closure which guarantees safety” (303).

2 / Reactions: The Malaises of Immanence

The nova effect is, in important ways, generated by the cross-pressures on the buffered self. However, there are other causal factors that contribution to this super-nova explosion of immanent spiritualities in our secular age. The pluralization is also caused by negative reactions to this “package” of modernity (“buffered identity, with its disengaged subjectivity, with its supporting disciplines, all sustaining an order of freedom and mutual benefit” [304-305]) or different parts of the package. Some of these negative reactions include Romanticism and Pietism.

a ) Theodicy and indictments of orthodoxy

But then there are also negative reactions to orthodox Christianity as well—“indictments against orthodox religion” (305). A central part of this indictment is fueled by theodicy, or lack thereof (305; cp. 232). In other words, we now have the rise of the evidential argument from evil. But this could only take hold within the modern moral order (MMO) and its epistemic confidence:

Once we claim to understand the universe, and how it works; once we even try to explain how it works by invoking its being created for our benefit, then this explanation is open to clear challenge: we know how things go, and we know why they were set up, and we can judge whether the first meets the purpose defined in the second. In Lisbon 1755, ti seems clearly not to have. So the immanent order ups the ante (306).

But we have to appreciate what has changed here: precisely the emergence of the disengaged, “World Picture” confidence in our powers of exhaustive surveillance (cp. 232). Prior to this stance, the conditions would have yielded lament, not theodicy: “If one is in a profoundly believing/practicing way of life, then this hanging in to trust in God may seem the obvious way, and is made easier by the fact that everyone is with you in this” (306).

b) Reactions to the buffered self

Taylor then returns to consider the negative reactions to disenchantment and the buffered self—recalling that these reactions increase the pressure in the “cross-pressures.” While he’s going to provide a taxonomy of these different sorts of reactions, he suggest that all of them hinge on a common “axis”: the “generalized sense in our culture that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost” (307: the optative mood is intentional). It is this lack, loss and emptiness that—in and by its absence—presses on the immanence of exclusive humanism yielding what Taylor calls “the malaises of immanence” (309).

Now, as he rightly notes, “it doesn’t follow that the only cure for them is a return to transcendence” (309); indeed, it is precisely looking for a cure in immanence that generates the nova effect, looking for love/meaning/significance/transcendence within the immanent order.[1] One of the best expressions of this is the new book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. “They too seek solutions, or ways of filling the lack, but within immanence; and thus the gamut of new positions multiplies” (310)—hence supernova (cue Oasis, "Champagne Supernova").

[1] One could, of course, run an entire Augustinian analysis of this as the doomed project of loving some part of creation instead of the Creator (a la Bk IV of the Confessions and passim.). But Taylor doesn’t not invoke “idolatory” as a conceptual frame here, for obvious strategic reasons.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Dark Abyss of Time: Modern Cosmic Imaginary

Nineteenth Century Unbelief:

• The story of the nineteenth century unbelief is distinct from eighteenth century unbelief

due to a “surge of piety” which took place between the two.

• This second turn to unbelief was wider and deeper than the first due to the shift in their

Cosmic Imaginary and the way “nature” figured in their moral and aesthetic


“The unbelieving outlooks were more deeply anchored in the lifeworld and background

sense of nineteenth century people than the analogous views of their eighteenth century

predecessors.” 323

The Change-Over: The transformation of the Cosmic Imaginary

In our modern cosmic imaginary there is a sense that things “fail to touch bottom

anywhere” (p. 325). The defining sense of vastness and the unfathomable makes us unable to

relate to the previous cosmic imaginary defined which was defined by its limits.

“It is no longer usual to sense the universe immediately and unproblematically as

purposefully ordered, although reflection, meditation, spiritual development may lead

one to see it this way.” 325

Two Categories of change-over on the level of theory:

1. Increased dimensions of the old cosmos which was previously limited in space by

outer spheres and in time by Biblical story.

a. Wide and Deep: our idea of the universe expands to the degree that we view our

galaxy as merely one of countless others and our inner frontier becomes equally

as unknown as our universe through the discovery of micro-constitutions.

b. Time: the extension in view of time from a view of the cosmos being roughly 6,000

years old separates us from the “process of our genesis” which makes the past

dark and unfathomable.

2. Increased consciousness of the universe as dominated by the sense that things

evolve. Understand that the world has developed from an earlier state and that life

forms, particularly humans change and evolve.

How this change-over was possible:

(Not a story of one theory merely replacing another. “The science doesnʼt simply

determine what imaginary develops in the place of the earlier one.” 326)

Two necessary components:

1. The availability of alternative frameworks: these were already there through certain

views of Lucretius, Descartes and the beginnings of modern mechanistic physics.

2. The waning of the hold of the older cosmos idea on the imagination: through

disenchantment and breaking away from idea of higher times, faith was necessarily

weakened. There was now a “felt need” and people couldnʼt help but think this was

undermining their entire faith.


• The 17th Century apologetics felt that they needed to prove Godʼs existence through

the design of things since enchantment was undermined by mechanism.

• Many held more rigidly to the Biblical details

• Mystery was no longer tolerable in the creation, that is, no intra-cosmic mystery,

although it was still tolerable in the designs of God. The mystery remained in Godʼs

will. This was a shared feeling on both sides of exclusive humanism and orthodoxy.

Key Figures in the Transformation:

“Not just our theories changed, but the spontaneous, unreflecting understanding which

provides the context for these beliefs has also altered.” 347

Burnet and Vico: Not simply on one side of the face-off

1. Burnet: Broke away from the fixed, unchanging world toward evolutionary history, but

came from an orthodox perspective.

a. A new sense of deep time that claims things are evolving. (Seen through ruins)

b. Nature as “sublime.”

i. The old cosmos imaginary viewed the wilderness as uncultivated and

demonic, while maintaining an idea that God could be met there, out of


ii. Disenchantment and the buffered self was able to transform the horror and

fear felt towards the wilderness into a pleasing horror.

Moral Meaning: Finds a higher purpose because buffered selves are in

danger of narrow self-absorption. Need something beyond ourselves.

Hence, wilderness can empower us to live better where we are. Within

context of the felt inadequacies of modern anthropocentrism.

2. Vico: pioneer in developing a theory of a pre-human, bestial stage, but also wrote

with orthodox intentions.

a. A new sense of deep time that claims leads us back into darkness, a “dark

genesis,” before the light of our current condition.

Within the context of the felt inadequacies of the shallowness of anthropocentrism, they

couldnʼt simply go back to a sense of depth in an eternity that was no longer felt. (343)


Taylor makes a distinction between sense and belief by claiming that all people sense that the world is defined by its vastness and being unfathomable, but people can still believe that the universe was created by God which is not according to this sense. Is this sense really as deep as he claims it is? People live according to their beliefs, but it seems odd that these beliefs would be in opposition to how they sense the world to be. It seems almost as if the vast and unfathomable world is a scientific belief, and not a sense.