Charles Taylor 

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  • Who is Charles Taylor?
    • Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and was for many years Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Montreal.
    • Taylor is best known for his social and political philosophy, for advocating a communitarian agenda, and for his Roman Catholic faith.
    • Taylor recognises religion as a valuable source for meaning and community action, but he does not agree with the wider rejection of modernity.
    • Taylor’s views are to an extent shaped by his Roman Catholic heritage. Taylor originates from the French region of Canada (Quebec), which is one of North America’s traditional Catholic heartlands.
      • The Political Context
        • Taylor writes against a background of political controversies in North America. He is particularly concerned by the danger of ‘fragmentation’ – society drifting into divisions and factions.
        • Recent election campaigns have revealed the growth of special interest campaign groups and serious disagreements in American politics. Think about the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the USA, which claims that America is ‘broken’.
        • In Taylor’s native Canada, political problems are dominated by old debates over regional identity. Society seems fragmented, considering demands for sovereignty in Quebec and complaints about the alienation of the western provinces.
      • Three Malaises of Modernity
        • Individualism
          • With the loss of universal meaning, the individual is king, but there is also a sense that things have “lost some of their magic … people no longer have a sense of purpose, of something worth dying for”. What Kierkegaard called “the present age” is flat and spiritless. Ours are the pointless lives of Nietzsche’s “last men”.
          • There is also selfishness and self-absorption in individualism, which leads to what Taylor calls a “culture of narcissism”.
          • Arguably, narcissism is prevalent in modern celebrity culture, advertising, and consumerism. But is this problem inevitable? Is it unique to modernity? And, is it actually getting worse?
        • Instrumental Reason
          • Instrumental reason, the tendency to see all things (even other humans) as a means to some efficient and economic ends, is to a great extent grounded in the modern technological economy.
          • This links with Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism, his claim that people are alienated by modern working methods, which deprive them of satisfaction and the fruits of their labour. It could be argued that the free market encourages greed.
          • Even worse, if everybody else acts instrumentally, solely for the sake of economic benefit, then we feel obliged to do the same. It is like we are trapped in a system of instrumental reasoning: a phenomenon described as the “iron cage” by the German sociologist Max Weber.
        • Soft Despotism
          • With political apathy and a focus on private satisfactions, modern people may allow an unrepresentative elite to take charge of the democratic institutions.
          • This process was foreseen by the 19th century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who identified this “immense tutelary power” as a form of “soft despotism”.
          • If you think about it, how many people really voted to elect the last government? How many just stayed at home? Are you really part of the democratic process? Doesn’t the modern world just encourage you to be politically lazy and enjoy your own private life?
      • Boosting and Knocking Modernity
        • •Taylor sees the modern philosophical debate as divided between an extreme polarity between those who are opposed to modernity (‘knockers’) and those who support it (‘boosters’).
        • •One of the most famous cultural and intellectual critiques of modern thought came from the American philosopher Allan Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind.
        • •Bloom claimed that western thought is in a state of crisis, because it has come to accept that society is and should be based on self-interest alone. Moreover, with the advent of modern relativism, students are incapable of assessing whether there are any higher values worth pursuing, beyond economic success.
      • ‘Retrieval’
        • It is easy to see the advantages of modernity and so take the ‘booster’ position: increased technology, standards of living, etc. Taylor also understands very well the arguments of ‘knockers’ like Bloom and traditional Catholics. However, he chooses to take a different path from these two extremes.
        • Taylor does not take sides in the modern debate over authenticity and modernity, but neither does he simply compromise and blend together the opinions of the boosters and knockers.
        • Taylor’s solution and alternative is a “work of retrieval”: an attempt to identify the pure concept of the modern ideal of authenticity, which is free from the weaknesses identified by Bloom and others.
      • Inescapable horizon
        • A major part of Taylor’s retrieval of authenticity is his claim that we need not be purely irrational or subjective in adopting a position of originality and self-fulfilment.  
        • We all have an ‘inescapable horizon’ of meaning and significance provided by the outside world and the people around us. It is unavoidable that we should live in consideration of the minds and interests of others and of the wider world.
        • He supports this claim by pointing out that human life is of a “fundamentally dialogical character”. That is, everything about us: our language, our goals, and our very identities, are formed in conversation with others.
      • In Support of Taylor
        • Taylor does not offer an unrealistic, utopian solution. Modern, global society is here to stay, whether we like it or not. We have to work with this reality, rather than against it (contrary to Marxism).
        • Taylor takes a balanced, critical view. He avoids a dogmatic acceptance or rejection of modern culture. Authenticity is a subtle ideal, needing a subtle solution.
        • Taylor puts ideas in their historical context – he helps us to understand how and why authenticity, individualism, subjectivism etc. have come to hold such influence over modern society. This strengthens his analysis of the philosophical problems, and his proposed solution.
      • Against Taylor
        • Although he seems to make a persuasive case, one might argue that Taylor’s conclusion is obvious / trivial. His response to the malaises is that we should engage in a critical discussion of our ideals and support vigorous democratic action. But isn’t that an obvious conclusion? Isn’t the difficult part putting that into practice?
        • Taylor’s attempt to ‘retrieve’ authenticity could allow for the possibility of restraining our preferences and freedom. Once we admit that external factors should establish the significance of our actions, then surely we can be judged against those factors.
        • Taylor’s communitarian solution won’t appeal to everyone; some people like to live in isolation.


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