A Secular Age:

Buffered and porous selves

posted by Charles Taylor

A Secular AgeAlmost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

This is not a mere “subtraction” story, for it thinks not only of loss but of remaking. With the subtraction story, there can be no epistemic loss involved in the transition; we have just shucked off some false beliefs, some fears of imagined objects. Looked at my way, the process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.

Disenchantment in my use (and partly in Weber’s) really translates Weber’s term “Entzauberung,” where the key kernel concept is “Zauber,” magic. In a sense, moderns constructed their own concept of magic from and through the process of disenchantment. Carried out first under Reforming Christian auspices, the condemned practices all involved using spiritual force against or at least independently of our relation to God. The worst examples were things like saying a black mass for the dead to kill off your enemy or using the host as a love charm. But in the more exigent modes of Reform, the distinction between white and black magic tended to disappear, and all independent recourse to forces independent of God was seen as culpable. The category “magic” was constituted through this rejection, and this distinction was then handed on to post-Enlightenment anthropology, as with Frazer’s distinction between “magic” and “religion.”

The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment (as against simply the shedding of irrational feelings). And there have been frequent attempts to “re-enchant” the world, or at least admonitions and invitations to do so. In a sense, the Romantic movement can be seen as engaged in such a project. Think of Novalis’s “magic realism;” think of the depiction of the Newtonian universe as a dead one, shorn of the life it used to have (as in Schiller’s “The Gods of Greece“).

But it is clear that the poetry of Wordsworth, or of Novalis, or that of Rilke, can’t come close to the original experience of porous selves. The experience it evokes is more fragile, often evanescent, subject to doubt. It is also one which draws on an ontology that is highly undetermined, and must remain so.

Indeed, “enchantment” is something that we have special trouble understanding. Latin Christendom has tended more and more to privilege belief, as against unthinking practice. And “secular” people have inherited this emphasis, and often propound an “ethics of belief,” where it can be seen as a sin against science or epistemic decency to believe in God. So we tend to think of our differences from our remote forbears in terms of different beliefs, whereas there is something much more puzzling involved here. It is clear that for our forbears, and many people in the world today who live in a similar religious world, the presence of spirits, and of different forms of possession, is no more a matter of (optional, voluntarily embraced) belief than is for me the presence of this computer and its keyboard at the tips of my fingers.

So it must have been for the Celestine, in Birgit Meyer’s Translating the Devil, who “walked home from Aventile with her mother, accompanied by a stranger dressed in a white northern gown.” When asked afterwards, her mother denied having seen the man. He turned out to be the Akan spirit Sowlui, and Celestine was pressed into his service. In Celestine’s world, perhaps the identification of the man with this spirit might be called a “belief,” in that it came after the experience in an attempt to explain what it was all about. But the man accompanying her was just something that happened to her, a fact of her world.

We have great trouble getting our minds around this, and we rapidly reach for intra-psychic explanations, in terms of delusions, projections, and the like. But one thing that seems clear is that the whole situation of the self in experience is subtly but importantly different in these worlds and in ours. We make a sharp distinction between inner and outer, what is in the “mind” and what is out there in the world. Whatever has to do with thought, purpose, human meanings, has to be in the mind, rather than in the world. Some chemical can cause hormonal change, and thus alter the psyche. There can be an aphrodisiac, but not a love potion, that is, a chemical that determines the human/moral meaning of the experience it enables. A phial of liquid can cure a specific disease, but there can’t be something like the phials brought back from pilgrimage at Canterbury, which contained a miniscule drop of the blood of Thomas à Beckett, and which could cure anything, and even make us better people; that is, the liquid was not the locus of certain specific chemical properties, but of a generalized beneficence.

Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are “in the mind.” They cannot reside outside, and thus the boundary is firm. But formerly it was not so. Let us take a well-known example of influence inhering in an inanimate substance, as this was understood in earlier times. Consider melancholy: black bile was not the cause of melancholy, it embodied, it was melancholy. The emotional life was porous here; it didn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. Our vulnerability to the evil, the inwardly destructive, extended to more than just spirits that are malevolent. It went beyond them to things that have no wills, but are nevertheless redolent with the evil meanings.

See the contrast. A modern is feeling depressed, melancholy. He is told: it’s just your body chemistry, you’re hungry, or there is a hormone malfunction, or whatever. Straightway, he feels relieved. He can take a distance from this feeling, which is ipso facto declared not justified. Things don’t really have this meaning; it just feels this way, which is the result of a causal action utterly unrelated to the meanings of things. This step of disengagement depends on our modern mind/body distinction, and the relegation of the physical to being “just” a contingent cause of the psychic.

But a pre-modern may not be helped by learning that his mood comes from black bile, because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows that he’s in the grips of the real thing.

Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded, buffered self and the porous self of the earlier enchanted world. As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here and in A Secular Age. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

These two descriptions get at, respectively, the two important facets of this contrast. First, the porous self is vulnerable: to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear. For instance, the kind of thing vividly portrayed in some of the paintings of Bosch.

True, something analogous can take its place. These images can also be seen as coded manifestations of inner depths, repressed thoughts and feelings. But the point is that in this quite transformed understanding of self and world, we define these as inner, and naturally, we deal with them very differently. And indeed, an important part of the treatment is designed to make disengagement possible.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia, as though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.

The second facet is that the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but becomes an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

And so the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us. I have just been referring to the moral influence of substances, like black bile. But a similar point can be made about the relation to spirits. The porousness of the boundary emerges here in various kinds of “possession”—all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to various kinds of domination by or partial fusion with a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory” or “belief.”

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29 Responses to “Buffered and porous selves”

  1. avatar Drew Tatusko says:

    This also reminds me of Carlos Eire’s lectures on eternity and the impact of the Reformation on time. By segmenting space between a heavenly realm and and earthly one, time was also segmented or “buffered” into the temporality of human living and the eternal space-time, if you will, of God.

    Thus, it seems that the proposal that the human self is buffered in this way is inextricably regulated by the understanding of how the human self exists and is conditioned within space and time.

  2. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    I can see what you mean by the Reformation dualism of time and eternity. Whilst I nor you can know how the pre-Reformation world was experienced, we do know that it was the reverse of Reformation dualism insofar as the whole universe was sacred, and so was the setting for God’s kingdom, the basilea. The basilea began on earth and was completed after (viz through) death, whilst for the post-Reformation and Renaissance, human heaven was a wholly ‘other’ dimension, hence the loss of enchantment. The presence of the divine was displaced by the ‘absence’ of God, leading to diseased theories like Nietzche’s death of God. Augustinianism was conveniently adopted by Renaissance humanism by a puritan Protestantism.

  3. avatar Nikolai Blaskow says:

    The Reformation has a lot to answer for—some good some bad—good because, in an odd way, it rescued us from sheer superstition, and helped us prepare for the scientific mind set—and bad, because it created an insulated conception of time and space and a scientific fundamentalism which, thankfully, is gradually being turned on its head by quantum physics.

    Both the New and Old Testaments (as do many if not all the religions of the world) recognize the reality of the ‘numinous,’ and the ‘immanence’ and ‘closeness’ of the divine—like that old Palmolive ad to convince you that its washing liquid is good for your skin: ‘you’re soaking in it!’ the expert says to the bewildered interviewee who’s been conned into dipping her hands in what she thinks is a new kind of moisturizer. Similarly, but for different reasons (!), we look up with puzzlement when we realize that notions such as ‘over here’ and ‘over there,’ ‘up’ and ‘down,’ time and space, are relative, and that looking for ‘God’ is therefore a curious exercise, because ‘in ‘God’ we live and move and have our being (so the ancients postulated)—hence, the much needed notion of ‘the porous self.’

    With Quantum positing up to twelve dimensions that exist side by side like slices of bread (to use Green’s analogy), separated only by a thin membrane (into which particles may disappear and then reappear again), I think the time has come for fundamentalist science to give up its material gods, and recognize that the sacred interconnectedness of things is far more complex than such ‘opaque’ and ‘non porous’ materialism will allow.

    The arid and desiccated legacy that scientific materialism is bequeathing the next generation is to be decried. At least Richard Dawkins is honest enough to allow for ‘awe’ in his cosmology, and as he knows, this is not the monopoly of religion! It’s a porous universe after all, with truth defying the limits with which we would enclose it.

    Great article! Thank you Charles Taylor!

  4. avatar Damien Williams says:

    What about the idea that a porous boundary could be forced, via recognition of the nature of ideas, and the reflexive properties of thinking and willing?

  5. avatar Brad Burge says:

    Thanks for this great article. I’m wary of epochal proclamations, but by highlighting the experiential nature of the shift/loss/transformation in modernity, it seems to me that you’ve made some excellent points.

    I wonder, however, whether the sharp demarcation between self and world that you describe, and the disenchantment that Weber described so long ago, represents an actual shift in the nature of human experience, or whether it has instead become an alibi for much more powerful forces. Is the modern self truly nonporous, territorialized, and closed? Is the cybernetic metaphor of control all that is left to us? Or are we just as enchanted, just as confident in the mystical power of our science and our tools, as we were millennia ago?

    When we “disengage” from the world by embracing a metaphysics of control and direct causality, I’m not sure that we are truly doing so. Our technologies, perhaps what Foucault would have called “technologies of self” in an earlier biomedical era, in fact open us up to all kinds of interventions and blur the boundaries between self and other, culture and nature. But could it in fact be argued that bodily technologies—drugs, prosthetics, medicine—require an intimate, even porous engagement with the world around us?

    There seems to be something different about the experience of difference and boundaries in modernity, but I’m not sure we are any more demarcated or set apart than we were long ago. Thanks again for such a thoughtful piece.

  6. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    It is the science and the technology reinforced by the therapeutic state that chain us to modern and postmodern psychoses and make a fetish of power and control, and it is these factors that embed and sustain the buffeted self. The transformation that is needed can only be found in a new natural and human ecology rooted in a shared spirituality. Given that there are different and diverse spiritualities and different and incompatible ways of life (not lifestyles, which is a neo-liberal commodity fetish), the ecosystem must play a definitive part in any future notion of self. I find Taylor’s ideas of porous self and buffered self very helpful, and from a Roman Catholic perspective I would develop these in the context of Thomas Merton’s “true self.” The transformation required today is as drastic and thoroughgoing as the calamity we face, though there will inevitably be some historical continuities.

  7. avatar Christian Solberg says:

    I originally posted this comment on the Somatosphere blog, but I’ll re-post it here:

    This is an interesting line of thought, but I’m not so sure that it’s altogether true. The work of Paul Rozin and colleagues shows clearly that modern westerners still harbour behaviourally important ideas about the moral significance of inanimate matter. In essence, a lot of “moderns” implicitly think along the lines of sympathetic magic, such that, for example, clothing worn by nominally evil or bad people are perceived to “magically” take on some of those moral qualities. Check out his website for references.

  8. avatar James Dirlam says:

    Most stimulating article. Reminds me of Julian Jaynes’ “Bicameral Mind” concept.

    We moderns question, and buffer ourselves. Perhaps our questioning and empiricism have given us enough explanations of natural phenomena for us to question even those phenomenon that are unexplained, such as God experiences that still haunt us.

    Terrence McKenna posits a whole realm of biological intelligences that communicate with us through chemicals. It may be that we have buffered ourselves from interactions with the biosphere well enough to ignore it except by choice through ingestion. Certainly, the world is now, and always has been, dominated by organisms of one cell and smaller. To assume they have no influence on consciousness denies our known experiences with phytochemical hallucinogens.

  9. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    What about the knowledge that faith brings, imagination, sensibility, insight,
    apprehension, feeling? There is an undeveloped cosmos in all of this meta-scientific knowledge, the mystery of God and humankind!

  10. avatar Ezequiel Mota Moreira da Silva says:

    Dear Professor Charles Taylor,

    I am tempted to say the following, with the greatest respect: I believe you are mythologising the past. We do live in an enchanted world. Today’s enchantment is different, to be sure. Does it make sense to make such a general claim?: “we live in a much less enchanted world.” Enchantment has simply changed, dear professor. It remains with us in all too recognisable a form.

    All the best.

  11. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    Ezequiel da Silva either knows something most of us contemporaries don’t, or he/she is mythologising the present, that is offering us the presentist re-rendering of “the end of history.” Since the neo-liberal presentist myth is now in the shards of its own ruins, where is the enchantment da Silva talks of? It is simply incomprehensible to talk of enchantment as though such a state can be constructed or invented or “changed” by us! The real in-itself viz. God cannot be constructed, but can be discovered. As to whether we can truthfully “represent” it as “the holy” or “sacred” is an interesting question. Religion has always held within itself a “surplus of meaning” overspilling the sacred container of representation which emerges in everyday life and worship. However we cannot simply “change” such enchantment, no matter how immanent nor transcendent!

  12. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    Perhaps I should just add that enchantment is wonder at being here at all viz. that there is something rather than nothing, and as such is the gift of what is called in theological circles ‘prevenient grace’. We can discover this as co-creators in the exposition and unveiling of beauty in the world. That ugliness is the product of vice and beauty of virtue is something that is staring us in the face in our artificial world. The view that enchantment ‘remains with us in all too recognisable a form’ is obscure to say the least! Is this pure immanentism, rationalism or what?

  13. avatar Peter Morgan says:

    Modernity distanced us from immediacy of our experience? Does not the post-modern critique distance us from immediacy of our certainty?

    There are gaps in the world again. Post-modernism is flawed in being non-constructive, except that it releases us. Yes, the release is exaggerated, but the post-modern critique has enough force that we cannot return to Positivist certainty.

    Very nice article, until the diagnosis of the present.

  14. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    Postmodernism evades the moral problem of the Common life and the Common Good, the dimension that situates the longings for immortality as exposed by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. Taylor tries to avoid the extremes of Modernism and Postmodernism, and his ontology of the self goes some way to addressing the trap of the Cartesian self-enclosed consciousness that continues to lock us out of Paradise or any shared hopes of it! I found Taylor’s A Secular Age indispensable in continuing the unlocking of rationalism, but there is much further to go!

  15. avatar The Belated Jester says:

    I realize that I am quite late; that said, this concise version of Taylor’s take is really interesting. The porous v. buffered self of the pre-modern and modern self is indeed quite a paradigm shift. It reminds me of the different kind of theaters that we have employed in the past. The Aristotelian theater espouses catharsis or transference of emotion, whereas the Brechtian theater—responding in some fashion to the cool established cathartic emotion—blended, or made fuzzy, the transference of emotion. Now, suddenly the stage and audience were made integral, and the stage play isn’t acting unilaterally in a one-way discourse.

    I will say that Taylor, like many philosophers, tends to use jargon and unusual syntax arrangements which stunts the reader’s movement. Further, he has a very scientific or generic way of using language, whereby the symbolism of language is held fast at bay. Philosophy and the “mundane-poetic” has been separated for too long; philosophers ought to talk more like people in the street rather than people in labs.

  16. avatar Ezequiel Mota Moreira da Silva says:

    Dear Robin Leslie,

    My comment did not address the questions you address in your comment and, as such, is completely redundant.

    What I argued is that the experience of enchantment is not confined to an historical experience or epoch. I do agree with Prof. Taylor’s interpretations of previous historical modes of enchantment but it seems nonsensical to argue that enchantment has vanished from human experience.

  17. avatar Madeleine S. Murray says:

    Taylor writes that the boundaries between the mind and world or between the self and other are porous in the enchanted world. This made me think on what porosity of mind, world, and body in this dis-eased and dis-enchanted world would look like and feel like. Knowing that invisible and consuming forces, like diseases or disorders, can take up residence in your body or mind, become part of you, control you, and kill you from the inside is terrifying. What is more terrifying however, is learning that you cannot build an effective buffer against these forces, that you will remain at risk , regardless of the thickness of your skin, the walls of your house.

    Even today, despite our many attempts to be impermeable to infection of any kind, certain contagious and deadly diseases render human minds and bodies helpless and porous. Invisible viruses, which can seep through pores, like cells through membranes, are more terrifying today than they might have been in earlier times, in part because we have come to rely so much on our ability to control, block out, and protect ourselves against those things which we do not wish to accept or be at the mercy of.

    Perhaps we compensate for and distract ourselves from this vulnerability or porosity by further removing and distancing ourselves from those things we feel we can guard against—dutifully buffering our minds and bodies is perhaps a ritual we’ve developed to help dissipate our own gnawing anxieties, which have the capacity to make the porous boundaries we cannot reinforce all the weaker.

  18. avatar Ruthie Thier says:

    The experience of self is undeniably different for the modern human than it was for the ancient human. Like Max Weber in his “Science as a Vocation,” Taylor refers to a dis-enchanted, intellectual modernity. Today, we do not live as “porous selves,” but as closed off, rational beings who use science to explain what we don’t understand. Taylor offers a slight alteration of Weber’s disenchantment theory, adding that we have not simply lost irrational feelings, but also “a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment.”

    The “impoverishment” of today’s world might be here to stay, it would take something extraordinary to pave over this irrevocable “sensibility” that Taylor mentions. He suggests that the Romantic Movement was an effort to “re-enchant” the world and bring back the “experience of porous selves.” Aside from the Romantic Movement, however, there have been, and continue to be “attempts to re-enchant” the world. These “attempts” may be just that, an attempt, because the entire world paradigm has become so disenchanted that there may perhaps be no way to be “re-enchant.”

    There may be, however, new kinds of “enchantment,” that technological advancements offer. As Taylor points out, an attempt to “re-enchant” that is too “fragile” won’t suffice. In order to feel the enchantment that our ancestors experienced, it will take a powerful, all-encompassing “attempt,” and a new age of technological innovation may be “engaged in such a project.” The experience of self is changed so drastically by technological innovation that the word “enchantment” may mean something entirely different now. Communication (video, the cellphone, social networking), introverted experience (videogames, virtual worlds), and the workplace are flipped upside as a result of technological equipment and innovation. The human mind is capable of extraordinary things, and what is inside of the mind is now out in the world, changing every aspect of society. Perhaps this “clear boundary between mind and world” is not as prominent as it appears at first. Is technological innovation a way for the imagination to exist out in the world? Perhaps technology is a way for the emotional, moral life to be “porous” yet again.

    Technological innovation, however, could also be a way to further contain the moral, emotional meanings and prevent them to manifest into something “enchanting.” Perhaps it is yet another way for humans to replace religious experience. Is a human further distanced from his feelings by technological innovation? He is given more options, more varieties in which to feel distanced from his own feelings. Technological innovations are a ways to widen and strengthen the “buffer” of the modern man. It is a way to further seal the pores of the ancient, enchanted man and strengthen the “thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos.”

  19. avatar Laura Chrisinger says:

    Recognizing that we’re nostalgic for this form of “porous” selves begins to shed let on our own discontentment with aspects of our “buffered selves”. I’ve shared Max Weber’s sentiments of longing for the organic cycle of man and acutely feel the disenchantment that defines our society. However, until reading your essays “Modern Social Imaginaries” and “The Malaises of Modernity” I couldn’t name what particular aspects of my life I felt “buffered” in. After reading about instrumental reasoning I recognized that I fall prey to the comforts of perfection and self-care in regards to my right and duty to vote. I’m buffered to the point that I’m not engaging even past the boundary of self to participate and contribute to my community so that I can have my own “autonomous order” in my life.

    However, can we truly call this buffered, or is it merely apathetic? How much is our nostalgia for the porous self really a desire for an explanation for why we feel a disconnect in our lives? I believe this could go either way, it could truly be a buffered self-for within a porous self one wouldn’t be able to create such a strong desire and application of self-control to their lives, whereas within such a buffered self we’re able to create this bubble. Or perhaps it could be an explanation for our lack of agency in our lives, which I believe you address nicely in “Three Malaises”. In modernity one has to recognize what aspects of being a buffered self can hold us back from fully living. In “Three Malaises” you discuss how individualism, disenchantment, and political life in regards to instrumental reasoning make up the main malaises within modernity, which contribute to the state of being buffered. Your advice in navigating this buffered world is as follows, “There is in fact both much that is admirable and much that is debased and frightening in all the developments I have been describing, but to understand the relation between the two is to see that the issue is not how much of a price in bad consequences you have to pay for the positive fruits, but rather how to steer these developments towards their greatest promise and avoid the slide into the debased forms,”(Long, 5). Therefore I think every individual must examine for themselves what forms of the buffered selves give them the agency to act in modernity, and those that hold them back from acting on that agency.

  20. avatar Jennifer Edgar says:

    This boundary or buffer that you invoke is a fascinating metaphor to illuminate the change that has taken place over the last five hundred years, or specifically, the change in how we experience the world now. Rationality, as opposed to the dogmatism of divine sanction, is preferable, right? The Enlightenment ands residual affects continue to inform us, the West, that rationality is superior, but also, the ability to think or rationalize for oneself. The sheer idea of autonomy is a staggering insight. Now, five hundred years later, human are inextricable from autonomy. While this may inform our agency in a “better” way, is a buffered self the cost of that shift into modernity? Better yet, is modernity, or disenchantment, worth that cost? Even with rationality, what is not being explained by the mythology of modernity? With our buffered selves, we can distance ourselves from accountability for the injustices of the world. In the past, we may have had a fixed place in the cosmos, with divinely sanctioned hierarchies. Now, we have meritocracy to justify power over others, to legitimate power over an “other”. Yes, the grandeur of our ambition has left us disenchanted. But can there be a rekindling of enchantment under conditions of modernity? Is it modernity that is at odds with porous enchantment, or is it the West’s infatuation with freedom, autonomy, and the conceit that we can “continue to construct our own concept of magic?”

  21. avatar Andrew Sowle says:

    Postmodern theories in academia seem to push back against these firm boundaries between the self and other somewhat. They seek to examine and expose the ways in which we are not completely buffered. “One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other”. This is certainly true in the way we live our lives in the world today. It is interesting, though, that more recent academic trends have sought to expose the ways in which we are still porous. In most aspects of life we do try to focus on the ways that forces affect the mind without the mind being a part of these forces by examining chemicals and brain functions. It is interesting, though, that some are using a similarly modern methodology to examine the way experiences and historical context and location affect all aspects of an individual’s identity and mindset. This seems to be an attempt to break down the buffers we impose on ourselves. It attempts to deconstruct essentialist notions of identity that are based solely on biological and chemical understandings. Although this is certainly not a way to re-enchant the world, and does not usually affect the way we live our buffered lives, it is an interesting attempt to examine the ways in which we are still porous and connected to larger society and historical forces.

  22. avatar Alexander Zarecki says:

    Looking at this “process of disenchantment,” if we have lost certain beliefs, I’m curious as to what beliefs we’ve picked up. Are these “different things” that we are open to by traditional definition still beliefs?

    While the answer is most likely a complex one, I think it’s worth considering the ways in which we’ve adjusted to a world that lacks belief, particularly “belief” in the sense that we somehow still anticipate it to exist. If this story of remaking can be articulated in academic circles, should it not be even now felt and varyingly (mis-)articulated throughout the wider public? I don’t mean this accusingly; I mean this earnestly! What does this – call it alternative, call it mourning, call it modernity-inspired “belief” – look like?

    Further, I think examining the climactic King’s Cross scene at end of Rowling’s Harry Potter series is worth further discussion regarding modernity, religion, and the individual’s experience as these things exist in pop and youth cultures. [Details respectfully withheld to avoid spoilers.]

  23. avatar Taylor Anderson says:

    I think it is hard to look at the world today and say that we as a society are much less enchanted when it comes to religion. While the role of religion in our lives may be different than it has been in the past, I do not think that we have become disenchanted. I think in many ways that we are seeing religion playing an even larger role in people’s lives than it has in certain parts of the past. I think that many people, not only in the United States, but also elsewhere in world still remain largely “porous” in terms of connecting the religious and spiritual realm to the every day and even political realm. Although there are definitely some places where one can see the “buffered” self being used, how does this explain religious extremism or fervor? Certainly these phenomena exist, possibly even now more than ever. Although people like Weber argue that people have become less disposed to religion than they have to economics, I think that religion is still the driving and guiding forces in many people’s lives.

    You argue that with post enlightenment modernity, “We make a sharp distinction between inner and outer, what is in the ‘mind’ and what is out there in the world. Whatever has to do with thought, purpose, human meanings, has to be in the mind, rather than in the world.” I think that William James, author of the essay compiled in The Varieties of Religious Experience would disagree with this. He sees the religious person viewing the outer and the inner as similar events, especially in terms of melancholy and religious fervor. If his views are to be seen, how can it be argued that people have become “less enchanted”? Maybe our views on certain aspects of religious have changed, but it seems that we are just as enchanted as we have ever been.

  24. avatar Shayne Kinsella says:

    Firstly, I would like to say that I appreciate the delicate wording of this post where you maintain that something has been lost in the transition from our “porous selves” to “buffered selves” without accidentally or intentionally insinuating that one is a better, or more wholesome, experience. The examples you use to illustrate the decay of magic and the porous way of life, such as black bile as melancholia, are instructive and clear, something I have found to be true of your other pieces as well.

    However, there is one point at the very end of this post that drew my attention. I am afraid I do not fully understand when you write: “this”—and I assume you are referring to the boundary you mentioned in the prior sentence—”has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of ‘theory’ or ‘belief.’” This last sentence left me apprehensive about the function of this piece. Surely you are postulating that the world is felt and lived differently now than it was during our ancestors’ lifetimes, but in putting forward these conceptions of the self and the other, the porous and the buffered, you are placing them within a particular narrative. This theory acknowledges a pattern or development that is owed to different modes of thinking and acting, even if we cannot grasp or acknowledge all of those changes. However, when you call upon us to recognize the distinction as a fact of experience, it challenges the very nature of this analysis, instead relegating it to a mere observation. It also calls into question a dichotomy between experience as real and lived as opposed to theory as removed, secondary, and often inaccurate. I wonder if this was the point of the last few lines, or whether my own preoccupation has left me stumbling around.

    Your thoughts on the porous self as feeling and embodying certain things in the world seem to suggest congruence with the plea for experience, but at the same time should not be divorced from the wider lens of those who would have experienced the nature of that existence. Your final insistence on experience rather than theory seems like a call to the porous state of existence that either no longer exists in me or is so far from regular practice as to be foreign and incomprehensible. As such, I cannot truly experience that life or understand the dichotomy you present, for theory and belief are always on the back burner, calling any such headlong adventure into question. It leaves me with several questions, one of which is whether people like me will ever fully understand the implications of this piece and your theory-despite how much I may already feel myself changed from reading it—and also how those people with access to the experiential existence will understand it differently. Ultimately, I think it is unfortunate that something is lost in the mere translation of this idea, and I question what that means for further analysis and discussion regarding the buffered self.

  25. avatar Nora Britton says:

    I wonder if it would make more sense to think about the phenomenon Taylor identifies as less a matter of “dis-enchantment”, but rather, in keeping with a Weberian narrative, a development of a sphere of enchantment. Take, for example, Taylor’s example of going to the movies to experience enchantment. I notice I am not the first one to note films like Harry Potter, which induces young and old alike to dress like their favorite characters while attending the cinema. Though these individuals likely recognize this as a mode of “play” rather than a Taylorian enchantment, this may still lead to a moment of giving over to an enchanted reality. And, with the rise of “Pottermore”, an online rendering of the world of Harry Potter, there exists a magical cyber reality. This reality may not encompass reality totally, and yet it invades and dominates reality at times. Earlier in the essay Taylor laments the fleeting quality of enchantment given off by modern attempts to induce enchantment, but isn’t this the hallmark of modernity? Jobs, houses, partners, etc. have become acceptably fleeting, and yet this doesn’t necessarily make them any less notable. Though modern moments of enchantment may be qualified as not entirely “real,” this should not entirely delegitimize their authenticity and significance; we may leave the sphere of enchantment, but it most certainly exists for us.

  26. avatar Ashling O'Donnell says:

    Charles Taylor’s essay provides a pointed comparison of the self of “our ancestors” versus “our” conception of self, displaying its metamorphosis. While in the past delimitations between the self and world did not exist, in the current age the self is perceived as separate; disenchantment played a central role in this transition, shifting how individual’s orient themselves to the world. Because of the apparent distinction between self and the world in modernity, Taylor’s criticizes the relegation of this difference between then and now to belief. For Taylor an explanation of the self’s transformation based on belief fails to fully capture the re-orientation of the individual to the world. An accurate comparison between selves instead demands a focus on the individual’s experience. That is to say an individual experienced the world fundamentally different 500 years ago than an individual does today. The centrality of the self in the current age signifies that experiences order how individual’s relate and understand their environs. In response to Taylor, I question whether this transition between selves can be limited to disenchantment or did other influences such as cultural and political processes likewise impact the development of self? Furthermore, while Taylor presents the boundary between mind and world to be solid, “meanings are in the mind, [they] cannot reside outside,” are there not cases where this boundary can be permeable obstructed? As example in collectivist cultures the self does not exist as separate from the community. In these cases how can the self be buffered from the world?

    Taylor’s rich presentation of the transition from a “porous” to “buffered” self is perhaps diminished through his lack of distinction between cultures. In his opening paragraph he speaks of “us and our ancestors” failing to clarify that his analysis derives from the western tradition. He hereby assumes that a homogeneous genealogy supports his universal claims. While later on he does reference “modern westerners” a preface indicating that his analysis is particularly relevant to western cultures would have been useful and appropriate.

  27. avatar Gigi Gonzales says:

    After reviewing the comments posted thus far, I think the question regarding the state of the porous self seems to be quite popular. A lot of users have questioned the true nature of the porous self and whether its transformation into a buffered self is really a transformation at all. The demarcation of these opposing states appear to rub some commenters the wrong way due to their reasoning that our world today is just as enchanted only in a different context. In trying to prove the existence of porous selves in modern society, those individuals are actively proving their stance as buffered individuals by distancing themselves even further through examination and analysis. Charles Taylor poses a simple yet potent idea between the the difference between being vulnerable and having self control. Reminiscent of Freud, Taylor’s explanation of the buffered self parallels the eventual separation of the internal from the external as humans endure various experiences in time.

    In addressing the question of whether modern society is truly non porous, I would have to agree with Taylor. Recently, there has been the debate regarding the question of whether corporations should have the same religious freedom as individuals. In the midst of the heated Obamacare predicament, the Supreme Court is forced to look at contraception cases that deal with the first amendment issue. On the surface, the individuals who run these companies may seem to lead porous lives due to the Christian values they instill within their corporations in the attempt of blurring the internal and external. Taking a step back, we see the political and legal framework that is built around justifying their beliefs. You are buffering yourself by making a stand that the government can not make company leaders choose between faith and following the law. A porous individual would not even think of questioning authority the way people do today. While this makes sense (to me at least), I am not thoroughly convinced that giving attention to such complexities is beneficial in answering a bigger question. Is the nostalgia over our former porous selves worth lamenting? Using Freudian terms, how is sublimation more valuable than mastery in our society today?

  28. avatar Taylor Serpico says:

    I can’t help but agree with Charles Taylor in saying we live in a far less enchanted world, or at least our world is becoming less and less enchanted; however, I must admit I have hope and optimism that we can become re-enchanted by and with our world. Much like religions are able to adapt with modernity, I do not see why we cannot change what it means to be enchanted. I agree, I see around me a world much more aware and concerned with reason and rationality, I see this even with myself as I am at the age where I will soon be entering the workforce. I also notice in my own experience the presence of what Taylor calls a buffered self as well as a porous self. With that said, while I agree our world seems less enchanted, I do not think our world can ever become what Taylor seems to suggest in this writing, as well as other papers, full of reason-centric robots of a sort. Part of the beauty of religion and religious practice and experience is that it helps understand questions about the world that we do not understand, which even supposed reason cannot make sense to. While rationality and reason increases with modernity, giving rise to the paradox of freedom, I cannot help but think that humans are almost innately irrational, and no amount of science can change emotional experience or responses. In that sense, I think our world will always be enchanted because emotions, for example, continue to be an ultimate reason for peoples actions in both buffered and porous selves. We can even see this in economics. While investors and traders rely on equations or derivatives to give rationality or reason of when and how much and for what to trade, rising fields like behavioral finance demonstrate that even with these rational equations, the true reason behind making decisions is emotion, something we cannot calculate, that is why we have an economy and markets that fluctuate in seemingly “irrational” ways.

  29. avatar Molly Longstreth says:

    The specific historical tradition cited here, which involves a particular set of 500-year old ancestors, Latin Christianity, and moderns’ understanding of “magic,” influences the universal claims made about how modern Western “buffered” selves are constructed and perceived. Making this universal claim that we do not live in an enchanted world as our ancestors once did (or at least, that we live in one much less enchanted), requires drawing on a universal understanding of Western religious and secular definitions and history. In making these assertions, this piece seems to project that these definitions and histories are value neutral as they make broad claims about lived experience, religion, secularism, and morality.

    Some of the “enchantment,” in ways, may indeed be gone, yet enchantment does not seem to be entirely absent from the modern Western world. Scientific advancements have altered understanding of how disease spreads – officially, diseases are attributed to germs and viruses rather than vengeful spirits. Yes, we have a greater understanding of biological causes of illness, but hospitals continue to include chapels and provide religious and spiritual services which include prayer for the sick. Faith in non-human (/non-viral, -bacterial, -scientifically explained) forces prevails, and it seems (at least up to now) that scientific advancement will never completely do away with the existential questions of humanity and the longing to not be alone. “Enchantment” may not have remained stagnant in the last 500 years, but I don’t know that humans have shifted completely to an un-enchanted world where faith is put entirely in what can be scientifically explained or attributed to individual experience. Making such universal claims about how modern Westerners as a uniform entity have experienced these changes does not seem to sufficiently capture the reality of “modernity.”

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