When faced with a difficulty or a problem we often attempt to take stock of our situation in order to come to a solution. But taking stock can itself be a complicated process. It is a skill to be exercised, and there are many disagreements about how this should be done—just what are the relevant factors? Even Aristotle admitted that “all questions are hard to decide with precision” (Nicomachean Ethics IX.2). This rather simple way of characterizing philosophical puzzlement is an appropriate shorthand description of what Charles Taylor has been doing for the duration of his philosophical career. He has repeatedly attempted to make the stakes in any given debate clearer so that a more robust philosophical argument can be made about them—an Aristotelian method to which he gives a Hegelian twist. This way of grappling with contemporary problems is on offer once again in his aptly named collection of essays, Dilemmas and Connections.
Taylor has been concerned for a very long time about the different ways in which we have attempted to realize our personal and collective goals. His first book,The Explanation of Behaviour, is a work of technical analytic philosophy dedicated to a critique of behaviourist models of explanation, such as that of B. F. Skinner. Taylor argues that such accounts fail to make logical sense because they do not incorporate the goal towards which actions are aimed. In a sense all of Taylor’s subsequent work has been an elaboration upon this theme—what best explains what we do and why we say that we do it? His repeated conclusion has been that some reference to our goals and purposes, personal and collective, must be a part of the explanation. In his major works, Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, he has also insisted that these goals and purposes have been fundamentally shaped by the social, cultural, intellectual, and political history from which they emerged.
Dilemmas and Connections offers smaller, thumbnail sketches that meditate on particular aspects of Taylor’s larger project. They reveal some of his intellectual sympathies, for instance, which have amplified and enhanced his philosophical convictions, including Iris Mudoch, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Paul Celan. An important theme that runs through Taylor’s work, and to which he returns to in these essays, is a narrative about our contemporary moral and political options. He narrows these down to three: 1) traditional religions or philosophies that speak of human flourishing whose perspective includes “life beyond life”; 2) exclusive humanism which restricts human flourishing to an immanent natural world; 3) immanent counter-Enlightenment or immanent non-humanism that rejects the moral sources of exclusive humanism as normative but does not place human flourishing outside the domain of nature. Under the first category we find Greeks and Romans, Christians and Buddhists; under the second we find many of the figures of the radical Enlightenment such as Denis Diderot; and under the third Friederich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault. In addressing our ethical puzzles today Taylor argues that these are the most forceful perspectives.
One of the many virtues of Taylor’s work is his clarity. It is accessible to those across the academic disciplines, and it has proven to be of interest to the wider public. Yet this virtue can often be accompanied by typical drawbacks, such as repetition, brevity, and oversimplification. While it may seem petty to accuse a book of over 800 pages (A Secular Age) of being too simplistic, it may be appropriate if such a work tries to address something like the whole of human history. It is of course immensely difficult to capture the complexity of so-called Western history (however defined) as an important component of the background against which we operate today. Criticisms directed at this simplification must be taken very seriously—as a student of seventeenth-century Europe I find Taylor’s pencil sketch of Hugo Grotius and John Locke rather flat. Yet brevity can be useful in more than just a banal way. Steven Shapin, a prominent historian of science, has defended his excellent summary of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth-century against the perils of endless qualification by pointing out that coherence is essential to the advancement of understanding.1 Given his grand narrative, then, Taylor is able to enter meaningfully into a whole range of debates, from the sociology of secularization to the politics of multiculturalism to the connection between religion and violence. A telescopic view can prove illuminating in ways that a microscopic view cannot (and vice versa), not least by drawing an immense range of scholars into dialogue with one another on some of theme of great importance.
Even if one isn’t completely satisfied with the simplifications of Taylor’s work, there are nonetheless insights that can be fruitfully explored and contested. One such insight has to do with what we might call the existential import of what Taylor identifies as our contemporary ethical options. In his work he has repeatedly suggested that there is no going back to a time when these competing options were not present—whether one wishes for the return of Christendom or the Enlightenment. To use the language of a similarly-minded philosopher, Paul Ricœur, the way forward is through historical and philosophical criticism, to what he calls a “second naivete.”2 The course of history has altered our historical consciousness by reshaping the background against which our contemporary ethical understanding is realized—according to Taylor, we live with dilemmas and connections between traditional religion, Enlightenment and Romanticism, as well as all their permutations and combinations.
The complementary side of this assertion—that we can’t go back—is that there is a validity to notions of “life beyond life,” such as the “eternal life” of the Gospel of John. As Taylor argues, given that rival embedded understandings of human flourishing all operate with a set of goals, realized in various kinds of demands, and always against a background understanding in which they make sense, nothing rules out the traditional religious insight that human beings yearn for something beyond “mere life.” But the cost of this openness may be too high for some: not only does it mean that there is no going back, but we have to acknowledge that there is a vast array of possible options in our world, none of which are, strictly speaking, inherently better or worse than any other. The believer and unbeliever are alike presented with the promise and risk of openness. Taylor’s work does indeed help us see our contemporary situation clearly. And it is from the common stance of openness to our conflicted world that we can hope to elucidate our shared goals, which we can pursue in light of and in spite of some of our important differences.
From the vantage point of Christian faith, Taylor’s work can be depicted as a philosophical equivalent to negative or apophatic theology, akin in some respects to what Richard Kearney has called “anatheism”: by clarifying the stakes of our moral dilemmas and their connections to our shared history, he has mapped the complicated contours of our world, and he has made it apparent that returning to an earlier point in our history is both impossible and undesirable. This need not cause despair. To be conscious of the fact that we are walking through this world with our eyes wide open, as it were, with the richest possible understanding of our place within it, can be empowering and liberating. Undertaken by many Christians before, the task of pilgrimage remains.
Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays by Charles Taylor. Harvard, 2011, 424pp.
1 Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, Chicago University Press, 1996, p. 11.
2 Paul Ricœur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage, Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 28, 496; Paul Ricœur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 351.