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American Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor by Mark Redhead (Rowman & Littlefield) (PAPERBACK) Taylor's account of modernity is fundamentally an act of historical retrieval. Through an act of retrieving the visions of the good at work in the rise of modernity, Taylor hopes to criticize today's "debased individualism," or atomism, from the standpoint of its own motivating ideal. As moderns, constantly exposed to a variety of new and different cultural forms, we continually "forget why we are where we are. In particular, we forget what drove us into modernity. Our grip on who we are becomes less sure, and so we have a thinner shallower mode of being"5 Without an awareness of the values that lead to the development of Western modernity, we are less sure of the deeper values and meanings embedded in our collective languages and at the centers of our personal identities. Put another way Taylorian history "is not a matter of researching ahistorical permanent structures, but of giving an account of the present, of elements of the past which are still active .... Many people conceive their attachment to modern values, freedom and rights, starting from the memory of a wrenching emancipation from nasty earlier societies. Now the better we understand what is useful here as a contrast, the better we understand the meaning of the revolution from which it has sprung, and the better we understand ourselves."

How, though, should this act of retrieval transpire? Taylor finds that two genres for analyzing modernity have developed‑cultural and acultural. A cultural theory, which Taylor adopts, is a model that depicts the "transformations that have issued in the modern West mainly in terms of the rise of a new culture (or group of closely related cultures) among others, with its own specific understandingsfor example, of person, nature, the good, to be contrasted to all others, including its own predecessor civilization.

An acultural theory, on the other hand, describes these modernizing transformations in a distinctly culture‑neutral manner. In an acultural theory, "modernity is conceived as a set of transformations that any and every culture can go through‑and that all will probably be forced to undergo. The dominant theories of modernity over the past two centuries have been of an acultural sort. Whether its a positive assessment of modernity that glorifies the increasing use of rationality, an ambivalent one like Tocqueville's assessment of the creeping democracy of the age, or negative ones like those offered by the Frankfurt School, all acultural theories, on Taylor's reading, tend to depict the development of Western modernity in terms that presumably apply to the development of any particular culture, not just the West.

Despite their different conclusions about Western modernity, all acultural theories share the same defects. First they exclude from their respective accounts the possibility "that Western modernity might be powered by its own positive visions of the good, that is, by one constellation of such visions among other [possible goods], rather than by the only viable set left after the old myths and legends have been exploded.."9 They fail to account for the possibility that Western modernity could be built upon "its own spiritual vision, that is, not one generated simply and inescapably out of the transition" from premodernity to modernity.

Moreover, the implicit yet unthematized values embedded within the language of supposedly culture‑neutral acultural theories lock "us into an ethnocentric prison, condemned to project our own forms onto everyone else and blissfully unaware of what we are doing."

By contrast, Taylor's cultural approach self‑consciously limits itself to the specific constellation of "life goods" that define the specific ethical and spiritual constellation of visions at work within the particular modernity of the West. Taylor feels he is able to develop a perspective that is, as a result, superior in two respects. First, it can provide a more balanced assessment of modernity that can identify the spiritual forces at work in it. As Taylor puts it, “The idea of lining up behind some global judgment about modernity, for or against, begins to seem much less plausible from this cultural perspective. And this, I would argue, is one mark of its superiority. A more rounded view of our culture shows the deeper connections between rival spiritual outlooks, which the partisan views tend to ignore or tear apart. Above all, these partisan acultural views fail to measure how inescapable this modern identity is for us, how much of it is involved even in what is seen as the most radical opposition to it."

Second, such a cultural approach provides a means by which one can make a cogent comparativist analysis of other "modernities that are emerging in other cultures .... A better understanding of our Western modernity" which only a cultural perspective can provide "should enable us better to recognize the alternative modernities which are developing in other parts of the world, to free them from the distorting grid of a bogus universality and us from our ethnocentric prison.."" It is only by understanding the specific features of our own Western moral universe that we can begin to appreciate what is unique and different about our modern moral cultures, as well as what we all have in common.

We have outlined how Taylor as a philosopher confronts the con­trasting imperatives at work in coming to grips with fragmentation. Whereas to discerned Taylor's attempt at accounting for the unique and irre­ducible way in which modern subjects, as "self‑interpreting animals," construct their unique identities out of a common linguistic substance, we have out­lined Taylor's account specific moral features embedded in this substance. Yet we has also revealed a tension between a po­sition that exemplifies a commitment to openness and an attempt at discerning a basis for commonality. Whereas the conflict was be­tween Taylor's championing of radical reevaluation as a crucial moment in the development of self‑identity and the overdetermined role that language plays in this process, now we see an acute tension between Taylor's awareness of the contestability of his theistic account of modernity and the ontological implications he draws from it.

Hence, as was the case with the political theory behind deep diversity, its philosophical underpinnings have their fair share of problems. While the political theory behind deep diversity generates an exaggerated critique of liberalism and a very problematic theory of recognition, the philosophical and moral thought sur­rounding deep diversity hinges on a moral ontology of modernity that is both un­necessarily restrictive in its account of the moral sources of modernity and lacking any justification of why it is the moral ontology of modernity. Taylor is thus left with an unjustified limitation on what could be a shared value or a common pur­pose, and unable truly to engage in his process of recognition. Not only is the structure of Taylor's theory of recognition quite problematic, but it is quite doubt­ful that a Taylorian subject could even pursue it.

Are these positions fatal? Can one so modify Taylor's positions that one could make a bit more headway than Taylor does in his multifaceted confrontations with fragmentation, without compromising Taylor's core positions and beliefs?

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