26 Apr 2007

Epistemological Explorations I. Taylor’s Anglo-American Concept of Modernity

In ‘What is Secularity?’, a recent article by Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher develops a conceptual scheme to understand the shift from a premodern, religious perspective to a modern, secular way of living. Crucial would here be the emergence of what he calls ‘closed world systems’ (CWS), as world systems which leave no place for the ‘vertical’ or ‘transcendent’. In order to understand better the phenomenon of Modernity, he therefore investigates different versions of CWS as ways in which people, who claim to be modern and secular, legitimate their position vis-à-vis religious people (who are then labelled as premodern from the perspective of CWS). His actual aim becomes clear at the end: to reconcile the spirit of Modernity with the possibility of religious belief, and so to deconstruct all at least rigid versions of CWS (he received the 2007 Templeton-prize). I will first shortly present Taylor’s account of CWS. In a second part, I will try to indicate how Taylor lures us into his conclusion by presenting a too flat image of modern secularity, and how he silently switches from a descriptive to a normative level. This last heavily weighs on the status of his conclusion, for his conclusion presented as normative might finally be nothing more than a philosophical generalization of a world system which fits his own psychological constitution.

Basically he identifies two main forms of CWS, the first as a strictly epistemological version, the second as a more existential one. They do not exclude each other; the second is mainly a more sophisticated, broader one. CWS 1: this comes down to the specific structure of modern epistemology, which operates “with a picture of knowing agents as individuals, who build up their understanding of the world through combining and relating, in more and more comprehensive theories, the information which they take in and which is couched in inner representations.” (Taylor, 59) Characteristic is then a series of priority relations, which do not only tell us what is learned before what, but what can be inferred on the basis of what. Applied: one starts with mental pictures, and from there on one affirms the existence of the outer world; then, on the basis of this trust in experience one starts making more complex scientific claims, for example about the laws of the universe. Thus, one always has to start with the natural, and claims about the transcendent are necessarily at the most fragile end of a series of inferences. Further, CWS 1 proclaims the primacy of the individual’s sense of self over society. The subject of science is a disengaged, independent subject, controlling his own thought-processes. He/She is not driven by particular interests or values, but claims to proceed on the basis of a pure epistemological, scientific method. We can be short here about Taylor’s critique, for it’s the same as for CWS 2: CWS 1 claims to be neutral, but it is not. It only functions because the adherents are driven by a specific set of values.
CWS 2 is labeled by Taylor as the ‘death of God’ paradigm. This tells us that “conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it is no longer possible – honestly, rationally, without confusion or fudging, or mental reservation – to believe in God.” (Taylor, 62) As a result, we are left with only human affairs, for belief in something transcendent is now seen as emanating from a childish lack of courage. Concerning the origins of the conditions which have arisen, Taylor identifies two sorts: “first, and most important, the deliverances of science; and then, secondarily, the shape of contemporary moral experience.” (Taylor, 63). The first is so strong, because Taylor believes the whole trust of modern science is to establish an all-around materialism. Modern science is not only interested in investigating very specific objects with their strict method of so-called neutral observance, but functions as a meta-narrative. In other words: it functions as a specific ideology. Adherents claim their package of truths is plausible, because science would have shown this and that, but what actually drives them is the broader project of a materialism, which is in itself not epistemically driven. This brings us to the second origin, as actually inseparable from Taylor’s deconstruction of the first: the ‘death of God’ paradigm is founded on a specific moral, humanist project: what matters are human affairs (welfare, human rights, human flourishing…) and this leaves no place for belief in God. In his words: “my contention is that the power of materialism today comes not from the scientific ‘facts’, but has rather to be explained in terms of the power of a certain package uniting materialism with a moral outlook, the package we could call ‘atheist humanism’ or exclusive humanism.” (Taylor, 67) His strategy is double: first, he states that epistemically the transition from science to full-blown materialism is unconvincing, that it is always full of holes (his examples here are evolution-theory, sociobiology and the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett). Second, he tries to show that people are in fact moved by certain values and that this undercuts their own image of objective research. Of course, Taylor stress on CWS as one, historically constructed understanding of human agency is not meant as a further purification of the scientific method. What he tries to argue for is that all types of understanding are always historically constructed, that there is no neutral gaze. This however does not imply a return to premodern understanding. He laments that the moral order of CWS 2 is formulated on the basis of a substraction-theory (at least by the adherents): it is formulated on a negative basis, as a doing-away with everything which might be an obstruction for human welfare (thus in the first a transcendent authority as God). What we should defend instead is a modern project as sustained by a positive visions of the good; and this might on its turn leave more room for transcendence, myths…

Till so far Taylor’s presentation. My objections concern his presentation of CWS 1 & 2 as typical for Modernity and the logical consistency of his critique and own positive proposal. I might agree with Taylor that we should not forget that Modernity has its own positive spiritual vision. But first: that it should not be conceived as a particular story is inseparably linked with its spiritual vision; and second, the positive spiritual vision is precisely the discovery of transcendence. Of course, modern transcendence has nothing to do with the existence of God. But this does not mean we’re lacking transcendence as such. The religious claim depends on an ontology no longer accepted by modern standards. Moreover, from a modern point of view, what was called transcendence becomes debunked as a foundational principle within Being; God as a highest Being, which is as such not something transcendent but a function of human understanding in search of a highest principle. The discovery of Modernity then concerns a transcending of Being within the sphere of human subjectivity. The human subject is understood as not locked up within the phenomenal sphere, but as opened (from the inside) towards what eludes its grip (this from Kant’s notion of the noumenal, to Levinas’ autrement qu’être, Derrida’s Khora and Lacan’s Real). Moreover, Taylor’s conviction that Modern epistemology is driven by an attempt to establish a full-blown materialism does not seem hold. In his description of CWS 1 he refers to the classic sources of modern epistemology, but some of the most crucial figures here do not envisage something as materialism. Let’s just take Kant: his epistemology is mainly in line with Taylor’s description of CWS 1. But it’s hard to see the connection with what Taylor describes in CWS 2. Kant’s philosophy is thoroughly dualistic, and his moral project has not much to do with materialism or naturalism (the same holds for Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Derrida…). Taylor’s account of CWS 2 is therefore mainly a Anglo-American version of Modernity, as a version which is a rather simplistic rendering of the original one (just look at his examples: Dawkins, Dennet…).

Let’s deal now with Taylor’s own method. His whole argument seems based on a problematic shift from a psychological-descriptive level to a normative one. In his critique on both CWS 1 and 2 he mainly states that most adherents do not stick to it on epistemological or scientific grounds: he perceives that they are driven to it on the basis of a particular package of values which is compelling for them. We are here on a descriptive level, and it is indeed very likely that it mostly works like this: people are in need of a certain worldview which fits their own (psychological) needs, although they will not legitimate their worldview by referring to attractivity of the values implied by their worldview. In this case, one of the options is to display a new honesty: to admit that our worldview is just a particular, historically constructed story, which we have chosen, not because it is so epistemically compelling, but because its moral package fits us best. This is the road Charles Taylor wants us to take. But why wouldn’t there be another option? Why should we admit that CWS 1 compels for different reasons than epistemological ones? That a lot of the adherents have an extrinsic motivation tells us nothing about the validity of the epistemology itself, nor about its power to convince. In Taylor’s words: “the whole package (of CWS 1 and 2) is meant to plausible precisely because science has shown… and so on. That’s certainly the way the package […] presents itself officially; that’s the official story. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and to convince lies in it as a definition of our moral predictment.” (Taylor 64). Again: this might be true for a lot of the adherents, but it tells us nothing about the possibility of being epistemically driven. A reaction to Taylor’s descriptive analysis, from the perspective of CWS 1 could therefore be as follow: ‘thank you very much Mr. Taylor for your sharp observation. There were indeed a lot of people claiming to be part of CWS 1, but there membership was false. Their motivation was extrinsic, and from now on all these people will be expelled. They do not longer represent CWS 1.’ And it might be possible that are not many left in this case of purification. But the quantity of adherents has nothing to do with the validity of the official story, namely that science itself has the power to compel. Taylor thus switches silently from a pure descriptive to a normative perspective. He switches from the mere observation to the idea that it always should be like this.
Of course, Taylor knows that the mere observation of extrinsic motives does not really discredit the validity of the epistemology itself. He therefore also comes up with an epistemic response. This is correct in the light of a modern epistemological approach (and even necessary for a dialogue with CWS 1/2), but it becomes highly problematic in the light of his own philosophy. We have already mentioned his actual response above: to him all the arguments from modern science to materialism are unconvincing, and the theories are full of holes. But why would we believe this? His whole philosophy is an attempt to show that what drives us is a particular ethical worldview, and not the so-called neutral insights of epistemology and science; there are no neutral observations, for all observations already reflect the larger ethical package for which one has chosen. He defends this theory in general and applies it here to CWS 1 and 2; but this also holds for his own philosophy. Therefore: his argument that modern epistemology is unconvincing is not to be taken as neutrally valid, but it is already the reflection of his own particular worldview. Further: his whole attack on epistemology in general is thus not based on his the actual insight into the weaknesses of epistemological reflection, but already the logical outcome of his own moral package. To understand then why he reacts so harsh against (modern) epistemology, we only have to take a look at this package of him: Taylor wants to be religious and modern at the same time. In his package he wants to embrace modern ethical values, while remaining a religious person who believes in the existence of God. He knows that this combination is hard to achieve while holding on to a strict epistemological reflection, and thus turns epistemology itself into an enemy. To be coherent, I believe Taylor should have refrained from an epistemic response (remember the option of honesty: do not pretend your argument is neutral) and embrace a harsh relativism; but then this would undermine his modern ethical project.

(I will later argue why Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank present more convincing versions of a similar argument; MacIntyre by giving up on a modern ethical project and Milbank by truly embracing the radical relativism still eschewed by both Taylor and MacIntyre)

Reference: C. Taylor, What is Secularity?, in K. Vanhoozer & M. Warner (eds.), Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology. Reason, Meaning and Experience, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007, 57-76.


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