As a story, A Secular Age rivals Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (which curiously it ignores) and does indeed belong to the largely neglected genre of speculative history. No doubt, it is a work of a lifetime’s worth of erudition – about this there can be no argument – but the easiest thing one can do is to praise it. The best and most profound of what it has to offer is precisely that the domains of thought and history it privileges be interrogated in order to stand as departure points for further thinking. This interrogation and evaluation cannot stay simply at the level of the story, but must extend to what authorizes the story, Charles Taylor’s (conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit) politics. I will limit myself here to an interrogation of Taylor’s understanding of immanence and humanism, drawing on the wisdom of certain of the previous blogs, especially the ones by Wendy Brown, Simon During, and Lars Tønder.
Both these notions in Taylor’s hands present an intertwined set of problems. Already as a naming, Taylor’s “exclusive humanism” is a polemical notion and hardly accurate in regard to humanism’s multiple and multivalent historical realities. When all is said and done, in Taylor’s book exclusive humanism turns out to be an all-inclusive notion; little else that passes for humanism is deemed non-exclusive. Taylor mentions “various forms of deep ecology” in the contemporary world as the only possibility, and he dismisses the import of any ancient ‘non-exclusive’ worldviews that as moderns we’d identify as humanist: Epicureanism, for example. Italian Renaissance humanism is exempted, I presume, because it is still based on a Christian viewpoint – though this itself, as an overall assessment, is to my mind as much a presumption – and no mention is made of Islamic Medieval humanism, which, as George Makdisi has famously shown, is as materialist (in terms of its historical performance) as anything. Moreover, a whole strain of thought that is traced to Nietzsche (although indeed might go back to Spinoza) and includes what we generally name post-structuralism is deemed plainly anti-humanist, and is thus de facto excluded from the purview of exclusive humanism. This latter assessment is hasty to say the least, and my hunch is that excluding this strain of thought by naming it “anti-humanism” merely serves to render the notion of exclusive humanism tighter and uncomplicated.
In any case, the point of exclusion here is the transcendental; in fact, the transcendental signified by/as the religious. Kantian thought, for example, is deemed to belong to the trajectory of exclusive humanism even though it is as transcendentalist as can be. The exclusionary and the immanent are entwined in Taylor’s mind as qualifications of each other; the “buffered self” is an exclusionary self, and the “immanent frame” is, in the last instance, a frame of closure, of self-enclosure, whose greatest failure is that it inhibits humanity’s openness to the transcendental. Exclusive humanism then is in essence dehumanizing, and Taylor’s call is for a rehumanization based on a transcendentalist imaginary that is entirely, in the end, authorized by Christianity.
Yet, Taylor refuses to theologize. One might say that he treats the religious element as analogous to the way Freud conceives the unconscious – as inherited psychic material – thereby circumventing the theological frame altogether. This enables him to reside in the domain of the secular even while his entire work is against it, yet shielding in this way the fact that the epistemological framework of his critique resides outside secular authorization. Though a simplification, it is accurate to say that Taylor’s thought merely extends the tradition of Christian humanism (hence the totalized discrediting of other forms of humanism), and his underlying impulse is to (re)direct the social-imaginary of the secular age against its worldly self-authorization.
There are at least two major problems here. The first pertains to the very schema of the three secularities. Though not necessarily an incorrect rendition of the historical process, this schema implicitly assumes that the process of secularization has an end – in both senses of purpose and end point. But whatever the purported visions of a social-imaginary orientation toward secular authorization since arguably the 12th century of Western Christian history, the most substantial significance of secularization is that it is by definition an unfinished project: By definition, because it denotes a social-imaginary striving for explicit self-authorization and no self-authorization can come to an end unless it means the end of this self. (It is possible, from an extremely pessimistic but now unfortunately altogether realizable standpoint, that this social-imaginary may indeed produce the annihilation of the entire planet, except that then none of our selves will be around to debate the actual causes and reasons of such self-destruction.) Unfinished, because – if we bar this suicidal scenario – self-authorization, if it is to be genuine, cannot but remain predicated on self-interrogation and self-alteration (more on this at the end).
The second problem pertains to Taylor’s limited configuration of what he calls social-imaginary. The fact that he has ignored the monumental work of Cornelius Castoriadis – The Imaginary Institution of Society (1965-1975) – which remains the most accomplished, thorough, and daring exploration and theorization of this notion certainly contributes to his limitation. The matter is vast for discussion here, but let me just say, very simply, that Taylor would never entertain, for example, that “God” is a social-imaginary signification – to speak not just of the Christian God, but equally of any other or others – whose history, as social-imaginary signification, is rather precisely accountable and demonstrable. As is, moreover, the fact that this very history elucidates the antecedent social-imaginary that institutes the specific signification of God (any god or gods): enables it to have meaning, enacts or realizes this meaning in the world, and is thereby socially instituted by it. This latter aspect, the fact that a social-imaginary institutes the society that institutes it – in an entirely open-ended dialectical reciprocality, not a sequence of any sort – is especially missing from Taylor’s understanding, as is also the figure of a social-imaginary being always a cracked horizon, if one could put it this way, neither background nor foreground of society’s primary significations, which is precisely what enables major epistemic shifts, like the advent of the notion of the One and Only God.
The upshot of this undialectical understanding of social-imaginary institution is not merely the consequently undialectical understanding of modernity or humanism, but the very conception (and conceptual privilege) of the notions “buffered self” and “immanent frame.” Indeed these two notions are metonymically related to both modernity and humanism, thereby discrediting their core significations. Ultimately, in his heart of hearts (to use a spiritual phrase), Taylor cannot fathom that fullness, total plenitude and fulfillment, can be found in the finite and the fragile, in the ephemeral and the mortal, in the uncertain and the passing. In his heart of hearts, he will doubt this possibility and ultimately dismiss it, dispute its truth, and discard it as source of transformative (in his language, transcendent) power. Therefore, his understanding of spiritual reality cannot go further than a religious understanding because, even when he recognizes the seeking of spiritual reality in ‘humanist imaginaries,’ he ends up questioning its true validity (as he does with the “therapeutic,” which at best provides us, he says, with the “dignity of sin”). Worse yet, he doesn’t stop reminding us that such modes of (‘humanist’) life repudiate or denigrate the spiritual, all the while remaining certain that the spirituality of the religious faith he espouses does not in fact ultimately denigrate those modes of life and their claim to fulfillment. Taylor’s portrait of unbelievers as yearning and ultimately unfulfilled is as impoverished as the portrait of believers as blissed out with certainty.
Meanwhile, the epistemological parameters of fulfillment are ultimately left unexamined – or, which is to say the same thing, resolved by virtue of certain a priori truth standards. What is “fuller love”? Or rather, in what terms is it to be achieved? This is not a neutral question, nor is it even philosophical (to be determined by its truth value). It is a political question and, whatever the response, it enacts a specific politics. Surely, it is a political decision to pit the term “fuller love” against the term “desire-obsessed mode of spirituality” – a political decision both in terms of giving these specific names to social modes, needs or attributes and in terms of naming which one is more authentic. There exists here an unannounced but hardly implicit privileging of love over desire (and the metonymic accoutrements of fullness vs. obsession), as if the two can ever really have an independent meaning. It is an old and conventional trick to designate in the overcoming of eros by agapē the shift from the pagan to the Christian imaginary and thereby deem whatever modern slippage into the former to be a brutal regression toward the tragic. I cannot go into detail here, theoretically, on what subsidizes Taylor’s fear of the tragic, but I do want at least to underline how much this unacknowledged fear is predicated on the unacknowledged devaluation of eros. According to the framework of the “buffered self,” eros is ultimately limited (and thus cannot lead to “human flourishing”) not only because the self holds all the reins of signification but because the alterity of another human can never fulfill the demands of the transcendent position. The other is another self, buffered just as much, and there is thus no possibility of eros producing the transcendent action because it does not engage (or produce, in effect) a proper alterity. From Taylor’s point of view, the fullness of transcendence is predicated on alterity being external to any self.
I would be the first to agree that “human flourishing” always involves an ec-static condition, a being outside the strictly defined parameters of self. The important question, however, is where is this “outside”? Where do we (and how do we) determine this outside to be? The joke about relating to immanence as in Peggy Lee’s song “Is that all there is?” is quite telling. As far as the song goes, nothing privileges the question over the answer: “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing, let’s bring out the booze and have a ball.” You can certainly choose to treat the answer with contempt, as so much irresponsible, shallow, etc. narcissism, but the key here is to ask: what position authorizes you to voice this contempt? At the same time, you can also see the answer as a gesture of fullness – tragic, of course – which is, simultaneously, to ask: from what position is one authorized to claim that the tragic does not bear fullness?
For Taylor – no doubt in sophisticated configuration – an outside must exist as such. His whole framework of valuation is heteronomous. As a result, he cannot fathom an alterity that is internal, an immanence that produces transcendence but is not authorized by transcendence. One of the dire consequences of Taylor’s disregard of Castoriadis, insofar as the social-imaginary is concerned, is that his understanding of autonomy is still reduced to Kantian models. The immanence of autonomy does not mean closure in a purely self-referential signification, because the political horizon of autonomy, as condition and task, is self-alteration. Autonomy is nonsensical as a permanent state. “To give oneself the law” means simultaneously “to interrogate the law” – to interrogate both its archē and its telos. In a word, to give oneself the law is to alter the law and to alter oneself in relation to this altering. Understanding autonomy as self-alteration dissolves the notion of the “buffered self” and locates the “outside” in the very process/practice of transformation, of the radical capacity to imagine and enact oneself and one’s world in a way heretofore unimaginable.