A Secular Age:

The buffered self and the battle of ideas

posted by Charles Taylor

secular_age.jpgAs I read Wendy Brown’s recent post on A Secular Age, I see that I made a bad job of communicating my intent. I organized the book in sections, and the main thrust of my account comes in the first half. Crucial to my view is a Foucault-influenced notion of Reform as both feeding on and further potentiating certain disciplines, which become woven into our family, work, schooling and professional lives and hence continue to define us. What I call the “buffered self” is one facet of what results. All this is taken as given in the later parts where I discuss certain developments of the last two centuries. I took too easily for granted that the reader would take this on board, because I do refer back to it from time to time, but the focus later turns to how this works out in the battle of ideas; what changes need to be made in sociological secularization theory; how both sides hide the weaknesses of their positions, and other matters. But all that only makes sense against the developments of the buffered, disciplined self which evolves precisely through the modern state, nascent capitalist economy, disciplinary institutions, and so on.

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2 Responses to “The buffered self and the battle of ideas”

  1. avatar Michael Perry says:

    Taylor’s new book is a rich intellectual history (one I’m utterly incompetent to evaluate). And it is all the more interesting to me for being written from the perspective of—indeed, for being animated by the existential obsessions of—a Catholic Christian. But I confess to being puzzled by the way Taylor introduces the book. At p. 3 he writes: “the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” Taylor talks about this change (unless I misread him) as a puzzle that needs to be unraveled, explained. But is it really? There are different kinds of “belief in God”–different theologies, so to speak. Some theologies that were serious options for most people in the past are not serious options for many of us in the West today, after Darwin, after the Holocaust, etc. Just as some scientific paradigms are not serious options today, after Einstein. (You get the idea.) The upshot is that many people are no longer, can no longer be, religious believers. Other theologies (i.e. other theologies that were also serious options in the past) are (continue to be) serious options today—let me call them apophatic theologies—but they seem to be difficult theologies, unsatisfying theologies, for most people, certainly for most who identify themselves as religious believers. So theologies of the latter sort play a much smaller role in the life of our societies than the role played by theologies of the former sort when theologies of the former sort were serious options for most people. So it seems to me that it is not really a puzzle that human beings, in the West (or should I say “the West”?), no longer live in “a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God” but in one “in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”

  2. avatar Patrick Miller says:

    I have long admired Charles Taylor’s work; even though I have not yet read “A Secular Age,” I would nonetheless like to add a comment to this blog, with the proviso that my exposure to the book has been solely through the excerpts that appeared in Commonweal. These whet my appetite for what appears to be a magnopere opus than “Sources of the Self.” Since reading them over the weekend, I have been preoccupied with Taylor’s thoughts on death.

    In this short excerpt, he rejects both the facile Epicurean solution to the problem of death, and the popular Freudian criticism of religious solutions to this problem. Both address only one aspect of the problem (la mort de moi), whereas its most poignant aspect nowadays is another (la mort de toi). I think this is a very important point, but rather than refuting the Freudian criticism, I think it calls for a revision of that criticism.

    I would thus like to reformulate the Freudian criticism as one about the poignant aspect (the death of others, beloveds), and ask readers of the book whether Taylor has anything to say about it.

    Epicurus claimed that the problem of death is a problem only for the dead, who don’t exist, and therefore have no problems. Freud claimed that religions (and he was thinking in fact only of Christianity) satisfied infantile wishes for survival, safety, and order with an ‘illusion’ (in his special, and highly rhetorical, sense of that word: where an illusion is whatever satisfies an infantile wish, whether truly or falsely). This illusion required both God and immortality. Thus Christianity.

    Properly understood, however, the Freudian criticism is not a valid argument for atheism – and in his lucid moments Freud recognized this – but instead a call for agnostic suspicion. Since the Freudian seeks to expose infantile wishes as such, and to demand that their illusions justify themselves with arguments acceptable to adult reason, the conclusion of the argument is doubt, not refutation. This is the conclusion of the argument for the Freudian, at least; for the believer, and the non-Freudian, it may simply force a wonderful recognition that God made even our infantile wishes cry out for Him.

    And yet the Freudian argument is serious for everyone nowadays, in my view, because it can easily be adapted to make the death of others as offensive to our infantile wishes as is the death of ourselves. Subsequent Freudians (the object-relations theorists and the self-psychologists) have made our attachment to others as integral as our own safety is to our sense of ourselves.

    Moreover, in a post-Enlightenment intellectual climate, where reason has taught us over and over again to distrust our pre-theoretic world-views (astronomy and evolutionary biology, most notably, but more recently and just as dramatically, the neurosciences), suspicion of our ‘illusions’ (again in Freud’s special sense) seems the intellectual burden of all serious thinkers; if so, agnosticism, becomes the default position until some positive evidence emerges.

    Any Freudian, or any critic of religion from any other school for that matter, who calls the religious person ‘childish’ is not just callous, but either naïve or “affectively stupid” (to use Unamuno’s pugnacious phrase). The longing religion seeks to answer – the problem of death, especially the death of a beloved – goes to the bottom of one’s self. Anyone who would ridicule this longing, therefore, has done so at the expense, quite literally, of himself, of his deepest passions.

    Unamuno enjoined the tragic sense of life, the simultaneous awareness of the absurdity of faith (particularly faith in personal immortality) and yet the deepest need to believe; put the other way round, he thought it was impossible to deny immortality without doing violence to one’s own deepest longings, and thus to oneself. Unamuno was but a 20th century Kierkegaard, preoccupied with death, for Kierkegaard taught the same conflict between objectivity and subjectivity: God’s existence was objectively uncertain, but this uncertainty fostered a subjective truth all the more certain. In other words, the paradoxes of God’s existence inflame our passionate longing for Him; objectivity uncertainty produces subjective certainty.

    Now the short excerpt from “A Secular Age” that appears in Commonweal does not argue for or against God’s existence and immortality. Knowing Taylor’s other work, I would not be surprised if there is no such argument in the book. Unlike Unamuno and Kierkegaard, he seems to be presenting the alternatives, recounting their sophisticated genealogies. Nietzsche famously told his own genealogy, and in many respects it anticipates the genealogy recounted by Freud. Those sought to de-legitimate religion, and I suspect Taylor’s seeks to re-legitimate it. Perhaps someone who has read it can discuss this.

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