The Canadian scholar, Charles Taylor, has been described as the greatest philosopher working in the English language today, and although he has yet to definitively claim the title of Canada’s greatest philosopher, it is perhaps only a matter of time before he earns this recognition. His work demonstrates an absurd degree of erudition, effortlessly moving between French, English and German philosophical schools, and draws together themes and ideas from disparate sources, often putting a fresh spin on the works of philosophers that are otherwise ignored (such as Hegel) or subject to suspicion (such as Heidegger).
Born in 1931, Taylor pursued a brilliant academic career in the 1950s and 1960s, which culminated in his doctorate at Oxford University, under the supervision of Isaiah Berlin and Elizabeth Anscombe (a student of Wittgenstein), both of whom are key figures in twentieth century philosophy. He has since held numerous professorships at major universities. Politically active, he has four times run for office in his home state of Quebec, most famously against future prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1965.
Despite the brilliance of his work, Taylor suffers from a lack of recognition – both among the academy, and in wider circles. There are probably two key factors behind his relative obscurity, the first of which is the rambling quality of his prose. While all Taylor’s work is expertly studious, brevity has never been his strong suit (the book we will look at in this serial is veritable tome, weighing in at 850 pages and 3 lbs). Taylor’s other problem is that the recurrent theme behind his philosophy is a critique of naturalism – that is, the idea that all human and social phenomena can be understood reductively on the model of natural behaviour, using canonical scientific explanations. Since naturalistic beliefs are endemic in the academic world and enjoy something of an “intellectual hegemony”, this somewhat marginalises Taylor's work. However, this does not make Taylor an enemy of the scientific endeavour, but rather a staunch critic of what might be considered the substitution of scientific assumptions for philosophy.
Taylor grew up in a family that represented a collision of cultures and beliefs. His mother’s family were Catholic, he father was an Anglican and his grandfather a “Voltarian anti-clerical” atheist with a passionate love of Paris, all of which pulled him in disparate directions. Although as an adult he was to become a practicing Catholic, he says that he “didn’t have a faith that came from the Bible”, and in fact only came to the Church as a result of his fascination with French-language theology in the early 1950s that was eventually to inspire Vatican II. As a theist, Taylor is practically a lone voice in modern philosophy, yet his politics are vastly outside of conventional Catholic rhetoric, marking him out as a genuinely unique thinker.
His mentor, the late Isaiah Berlin, said of Taylor: “Whatever one may think of his central beliefs, [they] cannot fail to broaden the outlook of anyone who reads his works or listens to his lectures or, indeed, talks to him”. Indeed, while I enjoyed reading Taylor’s short work The Ethics of Authenticity, reading A Secular Age has had a profoundly transformative effect on me, not least of which has been a vast reduction in my hostility towards militant atheism, in part because I have become accustomed to being a lone voice on this subject (neither embracing materialist polemic nor retreating into dogmatic certitude) and reading someone else whose concerns accord with my own has brought me to a thoroughly new and invigorated space.
The focus of A Secular Age is summarised in the opening paragraph of the first chapter:
One way to put the question that I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?
It is this phenomena which Taylor considers the central issue of secularity, and he identifies three distinct readings of the term. Firstly, the pragmatic shift in the cultural centrality of religion, manifested in the emptying of public spaces of reference to God or ultimate reality, which Taylor denotes as secularity 1. Secondly, the way the term is sometimes used by materialist intellectuals, namely the falling off of religious belief and practice, which Taylor denotes as secularity 2. Finally, the change expressed by the question above, namely the change in the conditions of belief, for instance, the move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and unproblematic to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. This is what Taylor terms secularity 3, and it is in this sense that he refers to our time as “a secular age”, as this quote attests:
So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense, which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith.
Over the next two months we will take a journey through the last five hundred years of the history of Europe and North America (“the West”, which Taylor also terms “the North Atlantic World”, and includes Australia within its remit), and the philosophical currents that have given birth to modernity. Against this background, we will be exploring Taylor’s carefully constructed argument against the conventional narrative of secularization – namely that the age of religion is ending. As Taylor writes at the end of his introduction:
I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call “subtraction stories”. Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizon, or illusion, or limitations of knowledge… Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.
The very essence of this exploration is the idea that “our past is sedimented in our present, and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves as long as we can’t do justice to where we come from.”
Next week: Social Imaginaries