Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2011. 424pp., $39.95 hb
Reviewed by Sheldon Richmond
Sheldon Richmond is an Independent Scholar and author of Aesthetic Criteria: Gombrich and the Philosophies of Science of Popper and Polanyi. Recently retired from working for 31 years in systems and information technology with the Canadian Federal Government, he writes book reviews in various fields and does performance philosophy at academic conferences.
Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian philosopher, needs no introduction. However, this selection of essays lacks an introduction and one is needed. The reader might wonder, in its absence why these essays in particular were chosen for re-publication in book form and what main themes or issues, if any, connect them. I plan in this review to provide a simulation of an introductory essay for the book. Before summarizing each of the essays, here is an overview of the book and of Taylor's approach to philosophy, according to my understanding. In general, throughout his career, Taylor deploys the theme of how to resolve the problem of unity and diversity in various recurring situations in some very large and major books, in some small books, and in essays. Many of the recurring situations concern the following: How can unity or commonality in understanding occur across the plurality of cultures when there are different conceptual systems? How can diverse nations occupy a single state with a unique identity belonging to the main group in power and achieve some form of social harmony that respects the diversity of groups and nations? How can diverse religions and secular groups find a place together in a common social sphere where differences are applauded? In short, Taylor's approach can be seen as an attempt to bridge the apparent contradiction between unity and diversity. Taylor does not seek a new form of unity, but aims to keep the discreteness of diverse elements. The unity is achieved through a contrapuntal harmony that creates a common social and conceptual space. Taylor's approach results in a complexity that involves a multi-thematic and a many-voiced dialogical discussion. He uses commentary and critique that includes discussion of historical, philosophical, and ideological backgrounds for the issues he examines. This is hard to summarize without overly simplifying. So, my short summaries of each of Taylor's essays devolves into hummable single theme version for a single voice.
I am not going to follow the actual order of the book's chapters in this virtual introduction. I am basing my order on the logical importance of the essays for the development and application of the Taylor’s philosophical approach . I think the most important chapter is his monograph-long essay, Chapter 11, “The Future of the Religious Past” (214-86). It is a condensed version of Taylor's most recent major book, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2007). To repeat, I over-simplify in these miniature summaries, and for the most part I avoid the specialized vocabulary Charles Taylor introduces. He asks: how has religion functioned throughout history? Religion provided a common system of morality and cosmology for entire cohesive civilizations until the modern era, when the public sphere became almost devoid of a religion that forms a common framework for community life and a common outlook on morality. In this new world, individuals developed private versions of religion, private moralities and private cosmologies. Various problems are created by the extreme “disenchantment” of the public sphere: we have thinned out morality and politics, and at best allowed space for a pluralism of nationalities, cultures, and conceptual systems within nation states. At worst, we have allowed space for dangerous forms of nationalism and ideological systems. As I have said, I simplify and leave out discussing how Charles Taylor deploys categories such as “neo-Durkheimian”, “the age of mobilization”, “porous self”, “buffered self”, “horizontal values”, “vertical values”, and other concepts as part of a conceptual and linguistic “horizon” that Charles Taylor has developed for historical and philosophical studies.
After pondering the core essay of the book, one might want to skip to the very last essay, Chapter 16, “What Was the Axial Revolution?” (367-79). The axial revolution was the creation of the kind of religion that we have lost in the secular age with its “post-axial” religions. In short, we have lost a sense of universal community in touch with a common world view. This essay is fundamental to the book’s main thesis: Modernity, with its lack of community, allows room for a secular space devoid of a common religious framework for understanding. Secular societies have private religions but have no dominant public religion forming a common basis for social and political activity.
What sort of religion do we have in our secular age? This question is addressed in Chapter 8 (146-64), “Religious Mobilizations”. The “mobilization” process involves getting disaffected and isolated individuals into new forms of religious practice in modernity and the secular age. Religions are transformed into political pressure groups that endorse various values that are challenged by modernity.
In Chapter 9, “A Catholic Modernity” (167-87), the current shape of Catholicism is an outcome of religious mobilization and takes its current shape as a response to the challenges of modernity. Catholicism can no longer be “catholic” about how diverse groups within Catholicism practice the religion: there must be a plurality within Catholicism.
If the import of the secular age is not yet clear, the following essays in this book provide help: Chapter 13, “What Does Secularism Mean?” (303-25), and Chapter 14, “Die Blosse Vernunft (‘Reason Alone’)” (326-46). These words from Chapter 14 pointedly say what the import of secularism is for us: “humans found themselves alone in an indifferent universe, condemned to make up the rules as they go along ... [suffering] the delicious illusions of a self sufficient reason” (346).
What are the perils of our attempts at creating “a self sufficient reason” without relying on broader cosmological outlooks supplied by traditional religions? A peril of “disenchantment” as discussed in Chapter 12, “Disenchantment-Reenchantment” (287-302) occurs with the attempt to create an impossible “re-enchantment” in the lacuna that is left by the scientific outlook where “mystery intrudes”. The perils of attempting to replace unifying moralities and ethics with moral principles and philosophies based on reason alone, with their single-dimensional rules are discussed in Chapter 15, “Perils of Moralism” (347-63) and Chapter 1, “Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy (3-23). Charles Taylor suggests that a cure for our failed attempts to build rational single dimensional rule-based moralities can be found in “transcendent” moral outlooks that look beyond the humanistic “horizon”.
Taylor's concept of the “horizon”—the boundaries of conceptual systems—is explained in Chapter 2, “Understanding the Other: A Gadamerian View on Conceptual Schemes”; and the view of how to go beyond the “horizon” of a specific “conceptual scheme” is elaborated somewhat in the following essays: Chapter 3, “Language Not Mysterious?” (39-55) and Chapter 4, “Celan and the Recovery of Language” (56-77). To be honest, I could not grasp why Charles Taylor included the latter essay, or even why he had an interest in Paul Celan, a Jewish-Romanian poet and Holocaust survivor who committed suicide in 1970, until I read and reread the poems Charles Taylor selected to translate in this essay, especially this line from one of the poems “there are still songs to be sung on the other side of mankind”(76).
According to Taylor, one of the great apparent perils and even evils resulting from the failures of our secular age with its loss of unifying cosmologies and ethics supplied by traditional religions is the propensity for violence exceeding the violence of the Crusades and Inquisition: “It is perhaps not an accident that the history of the twentieth century can be read either in a perspective of progress or in one of mounting horror. Perhaps it is not contingent that it is the century both of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and of Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres” (187). Is this violence in the modern era an inherent feature of the secular age? The following essays attempt to explain violence as well as developing a social and political theory for guiding us in how to lessen if not eliminate it in our secular age: Chapter 10 “Notes on the Sources of Violence: Perennial and Modern” (188-213), Chapter 5, “Nationalism and Modernity” (81-104), and Chapter 7 “Democratic Exclusion (and its Remedies?)” (124-45). The short and simplified version of Taylor's arguments is that democracies in the modern world of nation-states are linked with the majority nationality where minorities are in effect disenfranchised. The remedy for disenfranchisement within democracies is to include the excluded in a common national framework (“identity space”). However, the most difficult social problem is at the international level, as discussed in Chapter 6, “Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights” (105-23). Each nation-state has its own culture and ideology (“social imaginary”) and its own “identity space”, leading to a “dynamic of mutual miscomprehension and condemnation” (120). But how can the mutual hatred among the many nations and aspiring nations be overcome? We need to move along “the path to convergence ... [through] ... creative reimmersions of different groups, each in their own spiritual heritage, traveling different routes to the same goal” (123). Taylor seems to be saying that mutual enmity due to ideological differences is the main source of conflict. But one can ask Taylor, why when we look at social violence as a form of protest, do we see not only a “dynamic of mutual miscomprehension”, but also a dynamic of economic disaffection and the assertion of territorial demands? One might want to challenge Taylor's apparently narrow focus on ideologies by zooming out to a wider vision that includes economic and territorial disparities and losses.
In sum: In this virtual introductory essay, I have suggested that these essays are products of a common approach developed by Charles Taylor which continues the approach developed in A Secular Age. He attempts to provide an over-arching historical scheme for the many difficult and important problems he discusses—from how communication is possible among a plurality of conceptual schemes; of political and national systems; and of religious and non-religious outlooks. Since there is no epilogue, let me invent a two sentence epilogue for the book. The purpose of this book is to address a chronic problem of the modern world: the problem that “The modern world, religious and secular, suffers from a deep rift in its self-understanding, an ideological blindness of massive proportions” (213). The question for the reader is: has Charles Taylor in any way made the “deep rift” somewhat shallower?
31 December 2013