Charles Taylor is one of the most influential writers in contemporary political philosophy and has a very interesting and engaging take on “modernity”. In this paper I interpret “modernity” as a certain culture inhabiting a space divided by the North Atlantic – combining North America and Europe – that endorses a particular arrangement of values, social and political practices and a particular ‘way of life’ that is just as different from its geographical predecessors as from the rest of the world. This modern civilization has brought many changes into what was before a world that grandfathers and grandsons, for thousands of years, understood as an immutable and eternally stable reality. In fact, modern civilization arose precisely at the price of changing the world: science, industrialization and technological revolution ensure that the only true constant in the world is ‘change’. All this “has grown in the West in close symbiosis with a certain culture … namely, a constellation of understandings of person, nature, society, and the good.” Understanding the originalities of modernity is, therefore, pivotal to understand who we are, the world we live in and the paths that lay ahead. It is precisely that task that Charles Taylor assumes for himself.
In Taylor’s Marianist Award lecture in 1996 we have an excellent account of his view on modernity and the main risks that it faces. There he states that “it is clear that modern humanism is full of potential for… disconcerting reversals: from dedication to others to self indulgent, feel good responses, from a lofty sense of human dignity to control powered by contempt and hatred, from absolute freedom to absolute despotism, from a flaming desire to help the oppressed to an incandescent hatred for all those who stand in the way. And the higher the flight, the farther the potential fall.” For Taylor all of modernity’s conquests are at risk due to the particularities of modern cultural understanding of life itself, in particular, modernity’s praise for a secularism that is responsible for an interpretation of life that closes off God, is inhospitable towards religion and refuses transcendence for ‘beyond’ the immanent world. He also argues that the solution for this problem “cannot be a matter of guarantee, only of faith” and that it is clear that Christian spirituality, points to a solution. It is this fear – and also this hope – that I shall address in this work: are Taylor’s fears justified? If so, does Taylor effectively show that modernity’s particular characteristics alone can account for the risks that he envisions? Finally, is the notion that the solution for this predicament lays merely in a matter of faith consistent with Taylor’s own understanding of the human self?
In A Catholic Modernity, Taylor defends the idea that secular modern values defending human rights are an important conquest and that they correspond to a Christian legacy; however, because modernity’s secularism implies a rejection of the religious, we can face a paradoxical situation: “in modern, secularist culture there are mingled together both authentic developments of the gospel, of an incarnational mode of life, and also a closing off to God that negates the gospel”. Considering this, we also must understand that Taylor endorses a catholic point of view meaning that, for him, the most fulfilling purpose of life might be defined as a quest for “wholeness”. Wholeness implies experiencing a satisfaction that arises beyond the ‘here and now’ and for it to be acquired we are somehow to strive for goals that are, literally, larger than life itself. It involves ultimate ideals as reconciliation with the world and the others through the example of Incarnation and the redemption and renunciation that Incarnation implies. Also, wholeness implies a correct assessment of reality and understanding that the world is diverse and not equal. In fact, there is an intrinsic value of diversity because, in the image of a Trinitarian God, our diversity is “part of the way in which we are made in the image of God”. So, for a catholic standpoint, due to this intrinsic value in diversity, wholeness requires complementarity and a decentered identity: one cannot be whole alone. Modernity, however, carries along a different interpretation of life and, according to Taylor, implies a process that strives for equality. Modernity implies a tendency for a common identity that suppresses the God given diversity: where Taylor would like to see “unity across difference” modernity pushes for “unity through identity”.
The issue of identity is pivotal for Taylor for it reveals modernity’s most important fragility: modernity in the one hand affirms Christian values positing unconditional and universal value in life however, on the other hand, refuses transcendence – in particular the Christian one – and, therefore, the justification needed for all the values that modern society envisions to uphold. More: modern refusing of the transcendent amounts to the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’, assuming the ‘here and now’ as the supreme good that is to be nurtured and shared. However, because the meaning of life is reduced to the immanent level where flourishing one’s own life is the only goal, modern identity resides merely on the self. Opposing this idea is the catholic point of view that demands for a decentered self: here the individual is not enough to achieve oneness and wholeness, on the contrary, as we already saw, wholeness requires a complementary community. This is why, for Taylor, one cannot have wholeness within the modern identity: the stable modern self closed off from the transcendent is unable to actually achieve wholeness and, therefore, cannot be fully satisfied. At the same time modern life demands for an array of humanist values that are not backed by a genuine interpretation of life that indisputably cherishes and implies those values: modern humanism closed off the transcendent has therefore a weak moral foundation and this fact alone endangers the defense of those humanist values.
For Taylor, modernity implies a process of identity standardization – a strive for equality – within a framework that, although advocating important Christian values, confines modern individuals to a social reality that prevents them from achieving true happiness. For Taylor, this standardization within the immanent is dangerous because it configures an attack on higher levels of transcendence and opens the way for the supreme possible equality between humans facing the beyond, that is: a complete rejection of the transcendent. Secularism, therefore, rejects transcendence for the sake of equality and the affirmation of an ordinary life. Renunciation is then rejected as an example of pride, elitism, desire to dominate or simply fear or timidity. Secularism represents then equalization on the ‘here and now’ through a limitation to the ‘here and now’: the exclusively human society. Taylor goes further: this exclusive humanism was affirmed against the authority that prevented equality and strived for transcendence: the church. Secularism is therefore a “way of understanding” the world that characterizes modernity. It can be summed up in four points: 1) life, flourishing and beating death are the supreme values; 2) it was not always like this; 3) it was not like this because religion prevented it by claiming that there were other higher values; and 4) we achieved this ultimate affirmation of life by overcoming religion.
We can now see that, for Taylor, modernity configures a post revolutionary climate celebrating that is seen as an important civilizing victory and expressing the rejection of the adversary that embodied the “ancien régime”; hence, everything that is wrong is due to that enemy just as much as everything that is good is due to the defeat of that same enemy: religion. We live now, according to Taylor, in a world where speaking of transcendence is a worry to our humanitarianism because bringing transcendence back is equal to reversing the revolution and all its conquests.
The great danger Taylor sees modern society facing is precisely the absence of justification for all the great accomplishments of modernity. Religion struggles in modern times, not because science revealed it to be not credible, but because there is an inhospitable world towards transcendence. The problem is that for Taylor it is transcendence that can justify all the goals of civilization: it is ‘the beyond’ alone that can answer the “crying need of the human heart to open that window [of transcendence]” and offer meaning to the world.
In sum, Taylor’s problem is: how can modernity continue to uphold what for him is an obvious prolongation of the gospels (modern positing for universal and unconditional life) while denying at the same time that which inspired the gospels? For Taylor the roots of modern moral concern for the others came out of Christianity inspired by the gospels; he also recognizes that the breach with Christianity was necessary to spread the impulse for solidarity over the frontiers of Christianity however, if the human intrinsic necessity for transcendence is not satisfied, modern positing for universal and unconditional affirmation of life is at risk. So, for Taylor, it is now necessary to breach the frontiers within modernity in order to turn the transcendent available once again.
To better explain the risks modern civilization is facing, Taylor goes on to further explore what might be called as the dark side of modernity: “the Nietzschean understanding of enhanced life, which can fully affirm itself, also in a sense takes us beyond life… but it takes us beyond by incorporating a fascination with the negation of life, with death and suffering. It doesn’t acknowledge some supreme good beyond life and, in that sense, sees itself rightly as utterly antithetical to religion”. This view allures large numbers of individuals configuring a group within modern culture that Taylor refers as the “neo-Nietzscheans”. This group rejects the claim that our highest goal is to preserve life and prevent suffering; on the contrary, cruelty, domination and exclusion are part of the affirmation of life. Therefore, neo-Nietzscheans, although rejecting the egalitarianism underlying the affirmation of ordinary life, still embrace modern affirmation of life. However, they bring chaos and destruction as part of that life: death becomes part of the equation. This understanding of life collides with the secular humanists that affirm life through humanist rights, values and non-violence solutions; however, they both “concur in the revolutionary story; that is, they see us as having been liberated from the illusion of a good beyond life and thus enabled to affirm ourselves”. What we can see here is that the affirmation of life alone cannot secure the respect for human rights: affirmation of life can be justified through a violent negation of those same rights. More: considering that both views refuse the historical justification for human rights (Christian faith) the risk of losing those important modern conquests is even greater.
A key to better understand Taylor’s view is to recall his distinction between ontological and advocatory levels: for Taylor, ontological issues regard theories of the being; this refers to the profound level where one finds his explanations towards life and what means to be human. Conversely, the advocatory level represents the policies one endorses, the practical proposals towards life. For Taylor, the ontological precedes the advocatory: one advocates something also because one is ontologically a certain way. We can, therefore, say that the ontological justifies the advocatory: my understanding of the world influences greatly the values that I am going to uphold. Regarding A Catholic Modernity, one can easily understand that Taylor’s main claim might be stated like this: modernity still upholds a Christian advocacy but, because refuses and refutes the particular Christian ontology (the transcendent) that justified that advocacy on the first place, modernity has nothing justifying the humanistic values that upholds. Hence, rescuing the ontological justification for modern values amounts for going back to God and assuming the quest for “wholeness”; according to Taylor’s thesis, this is the best way to defend modernity’s important achievements.
However we must ask ourselves if this reasoning represents a full-proof argument; in other words: is it true that, in order to defend a certain advocacy we require the ontology that first provided that advocacy? Or is it possible to have a different ontology justifying that same advocacy? Using other words: can we find another interpretation of life, other than the Christian one, which is able to support and justify the humanistic values that modern advocacy implies? Reading A Catholic Modernity one might say that Taylor’s pledge for rescuing the transcendent and faith implies a negative answer to this question. However, if we take into consideration Taylor’s position regarding the liberal-communitarian debate we can easily see that Taylor’s position is exactly the opposite. In fact, Taylor addresses the liberal – communitarian debate from the assumption that there is a misunderstanding between the parts and argues that there exists a clear distinction between ontological and advocacy issues that, not being fully understood, fuels the liberal-communitarian polemic. In Taylor’s understanding, Michael Sandel’s communitarian critique to liberalism is an ontological argument while the liberal response to it is an advocacy argument. Here, says Taylor, we can find the misunderstanding that is undermining the debate. Taylor assumes the task of making such interpretation clearer by offering us an unambiguous definition of what are the differences and cross-relations between ontological and advocacy issues. Concerning the definition purpose, as we already saw, ontological issues represent the factors that one privileges in order to understand reality. As Taylor puts it, “they concern the terms you accept as ultimate in the order of explanation”. On the other hand, advocacy issues concern the way one thinks that the different values one has should be structured. These values are understood as normative arguments. As Taylor puts it, “advocacy issues concern the moral stand or policy one adopts”. He goes on to explain that the communitarian side of the debate ontologically endorses holism (individuals are defined by the community they belong to) and advocate for a certain collective approach based on what the community interprets as being the good; on the other side of the debate, liberals ontologically endorse atomism (individuals can interpret and revise the community – and themselves – individually) and advocate individual rights based on the priority of the right over the good.
Concerning the cross-fields possibility – if one can adopt the ontology from one side and the advocacy from the other – Taylor is at a first sight ambiguous stating that ontological and advocacy issues “are distinct, in the sense that taking a position on one doesn’t force your hand on the other. Yet they are not completely independent, in that the stand you take on the ontological level can be part of the essential background of the view you advocate”. It seems that Taylor endorses the claim that although the ontological level narrows down the scope of the advocacy level, it is not true that a particular ontological view implies a certain advocacy position. However, even though at first Taylor seems ambiguous then he endorses the claim that these two levels of discussion are indeed independent. We can see that very clearly when he assumes that looking at “the gamut of actual philosophical positions shows (…) [that] either stand on the atomism-holism debate [ontological level] can be combined with either stand on the individualist-collectivist [advocacy level] question.” We can conclude from this that, even acknowledging some relationship between ontological and advocacy issues, there is independence between them. They must be independent otherwise it would not be possible to combine the different positions on each field with the opposite positions on the other. This possibility of cross-combination is highly pertinent because Taylor envisions a solution for the liberal-communitarian debate precisely by cross-combining the two levels of discussion: he is attempting to achieve a compromise between the two opposite sides by recognizing the validity of the communitarian ontological holist claim (Sandel’s situated self) and combining it with the liberal individualistic advocacy position (individual rights). This is a laudable effort for, on the one hand, it acknowledges the validity of the situated self argument and, on the other, the importance of defending individual rights and the benefits of acknowledging the right to be prior to the good. Taylor tries, therefore, to combine the two strongest claims of the two sides in debate.
The question that remains is therefore one: if cross-combining advocacy and ontological issues is, for Taylor, a solution for such an intricate philosophical debate as the liberal – communitarian dispute, why cannot it just as well be a solution for modernity’s predicaments? If one can combine a certain advocacy with an ontology different from the one that previously justified the advocatory level why is the mere rejection of Christian faith a risk, in itself, for the humanistic values that modernity upholds? It seems that, according to Taylor, we can uphold those values independently from the ontology that previously implied them. Therefore we can say that Taylor’s argument for the lack of justification regarding modern humanistic values is a weak one: if we take Taylor’s own understanding of the self, in what regards the ontological and the advocatory levels, we must acknowledge that the absence of faith cannot account, merely on itself, for a fragile advocacy for humanistic values and rights. Taylor seems to agree with this when he says that “just having appropriate believes is no solution to these dilemmas [saving humanistic values]”. He even says more: “the transformation of high ideals into brutal practice was demonstrated lavishly in Christendom, well before modern humanism came on the scene”which means that even the ontology that, according to Taylor, implied the modern humanistic advocacy, when enforced – the already referred “ancien régime”–, caused brutal practices and the infringement of the very advocacy for humanistic rights that Taylor is trying to defend. So, we can conclude two things: first, that Taylor himself must agree that the advocacy for humanistic rights and values can be enforced by a different ontology than the Christian one; second, that when Christian ontology was embraced as a common ontology of the community, those humanistic values were violently disrespected. Hence, Taylor’s theoretical background lies on slippery ground.
We can still say more: Taylor claims that modernity’s secularism closes off God, the “beyond” and transcendence. However, one thing is to say that there was a shift towards a non-religious understanding of life, another thing is to say that this new understanding of life prevents God, the “beyond” and transcendence completely from being part of our lives. In fact, all those elements apparently, according to Taylor, continue to exist in modernity: in his essay The Future of The Religious Past, Taylor states that “people still seek those moments of fusion, which wrench us out of the everyday and put us in contact with something beyond ourselves. We see this in pilgrimages, in mass assemblies like World Youth Days, in one-off gatherings of people moved by some highly resonating event, like the funeral of Princess Diana, as well as in rock concerts, raves, and the like”. Here we can see, very clearly, that the elements that Taylor says that we modern people are closed off, somehow, are still present. So there is one last conclusion to make: it is not because we live in a secular age that we lost the elements beyond the merely immanent. It might be that they are not derived from on unique possibility and that they configure a personal choice or an option but the fact is that they are still an available possibility: what changed is that religion, being a choice, is independent from our ontology; it is no longer an intrinsic and non-revisable part of our identity.
We can conclude that there are other ontologies that might justify modern advocacy just as well as the Christian one did in past. We can also claim that Christian ontology, in itself, was not enough to prevent violence in the past. Finally, we can also state that the elements that Taylor claims to be lacking in modern ontology are still present, only in a different way. Also: we could derive these conclusions using only Charles Taylor’s own words.
I do not mean to say that Christian spirituality cannot point towards a better future; however, I do wish to make an important point: if, as Taylor states, it is true that high ideals can always turn into “brutal practice”, it is not less true that, more than ontology or advocacy matters, secular or religion practices and transcendent or immanent affairs, what is truly permanent is the paradoxical human capacity for the most noble and altruistic achievements just as much as an equal capacity for the most dark and ignoble misdeeds. In fact, even with all the change we can see in our modern world, what Taylor is actually telling us is that modernity might not be that different after all: we are a still a community of human beings. With all our virtues and imperfections, our greatest achievements are – just as everything in life – always at risk and understanding this simple fact might just be our best hope for the future.
Charles Taylor, ‘Two Theories of Modernity’, The International Scope Review, Vol. 3, Issue 5, 2001, Taylor
Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity, Oxford University Press, 1999
Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments, Harvard University Press, 1995
Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, Harvard University Press, 2011
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2007
Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge University Press, 1982
 Charles Taylor, ‘Two Theories of Modernity’, The International Scope Review, Vol. 3, Issue 5, 2001, Taylor, p. 8
 Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity, Oxford University Press, 1999
 Ibidem, p. 34
 Ibidem, p. 35
 Ibidem, p. 35
 Ibidem, p. 16
 Ibidem, p. 15
 Ibidem, p. 14
 Ibidem, p. 14
 Ibidem, pp. 22-3
 Ibidem, p. 23
 Ibidem, pp. 23-4
 Ibidem, p. 24
 Ibidem, p. 27
 Ibidem, p. 27
 Ibidem, p. 29
 Ibidem, p. 29
 Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments, Harvard University Press, 1995; pp: 181-2
 Ibidem, 1995; pp: 181-203
 Ibidem, pp. 181-2
 Ibidem, pp. 181
 Ibidem, pp. 182
 Ibidem, pp. 182
 Ibidem, pp. 185
 Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge University Press, 1982
 Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 35
 Ibidem, p. 35
 Ibidem, p. 24
 Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, Harvard University Press, 2011
 Ibidem, p. 259
 Ibidem, p. 241
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 3
 Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 35
 Ibidem, p. 35