A Secular Age:

Commentaries on our age

posted by Nancy Levene

It is an honor to review Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, the volume of essays on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, edited by Craig Calhoun, Michael Warner, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. Each contributor delivers a reading of Taylor’s work, helping to evaluate its significance, critical flaws, and lingering questions. They are companion pieces, then, and work best with a knowledge of the book. Their strength as a whole lies in the seriousness with which they address Taylor’s grand narrative and the sprightliness with which they point puzzled readers to related topics and avenues. Does Taylor’s book deserve such scrupulous attention? I am inclined to weight this question from the opposite side. Some of the essays in Varieties are so thought-provoking that I feel grateful to Taylor for having occasioned them, even if his own book is rather more exasperating than, as some of his readers would have it, major or magisterial. A Secular Age is a long-winded contribution to debates on the nature of that endlessly perplexing animal, the modern West, and most commentaries do best when they isolate its principles in relatively short order, as Taylor himself does in his introduction to the book. There are a few dazzling exceptions to this rule in Varieties, essays that, in taking on Taylor more profoundly and in detail and at length, stand out for their searching questions and intriguing angles on the substance of Taylor’s sprawl. But in general, the essays summarize the theses of A Secular Age with merciful discipline, and move on to articulate questions and problems of their own.

Taylor’s book and its commentaries situate themselves in a contemporary debate loosely staged under the term secularism and which includes a range of voices from diverse disciplines, geographic regions, and social and political perspectives. The term is by no means limited to work in the study of religion, although it has a special frisson there, as scholars of religion have come to see that the secular is just as much their conceptual quarry as its seemingly more identifiable partner. It is as if the increasing sophistication of thinking about religion has tended to displace religion itself, not only because, as some theorists would have it, religion has merely heuristic existence, but also because discourses of religion so clearly have to be separated out from a teeming background of other conceptual generics (e.g., politics, economics, power, gender, rite, law), and it is valuable to try to identify some of these along the way. The term secular might be deployed as a name for this background, enabling scholars to retain the right of refusal—there is no religion separate from the discursive marks it chews into a cacophonous, plural space—while also investigating the contexts and effects of religion’s enunciation. But, as the essays in Varieties make clear, this use of secularity as a blanket descriptor is inadequate both to the specific formation the secular engenders and to its role in rendering all specificity invisible. Books as diverse as Marcel Gauchet’s Désenchantment du monde (1985), Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1987), Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular (2003), and Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption (2007) have probed the literary, philosophical, and political texture of the secular while raising questions about its identity and its boundaries. These works show that if religion is resistant to the effort to conceive its non-religious conditions, the secular is resistant to the effort to conceive its religious or religio-cultural specificity, a state of affairs ripe for investigative hermeneutics.

Taylor’s book thus enters debates well underway, and in which he has long been a participant. The fruit of a life’s work on modernity and the modern self, A Secular Age nevertheless reads as a little impervious to the state of current thinking. This is evident in the decision to set the story in Latin Christendom, a move that might have seemed a strategic admission of the inevitability of location and the division of labor, but which has given rise to predictable criticisms of myopia and cultural irrelevance. The moniker Latin Christendom has the flavor of an attempt to be responsibly specific—thus engendering specific quibbles—while also denoting a landscape very large and vague. Something even vaguer, like “the West,” might have served as a better location, precisely because it is hard to say what the West is, and this seems as it should be as we (Latin Christians, seculars, and others) ponder not only how we got here but what and where and why is here. This roomier choice might have empowered Taylor to head off two of the critiques in Varieties: that he carves out his historical Christianity blind to its porous, often violent actualities (Saba Mahmood, Nilüfer Göle), and, by the same logic, that his Christianity is only mock-historic (Jon Butler, Jonathan Sheehan). (It would be gorgeous to connect these two critiques, but, alas, readers will not find this connection in Varieties.) But, like his use of the word secular, he seems at once to solicit these critiques and to sidestep them, late to a conversation he is not quite having. Taylor’s story—from Latin to license—is first and foremost about God and belief, and this puts it at some degrees of remove from the debates into which it is somewhat awkwardly interjected. He shares with Asad a critique of, in Taylor’s words, “subtraction stories,” which make the secular a neutral baseline rather than a specific formation of its own. But the ensuing debates have tended to foreground, as Taylor does not, the flaming ideological stakes involved in histories of God in the West, and the impossibility of considering their hold, or lack thereof, without the mediation of a cultural critique borne precisely in normative contestation with the Christendom Taylor takes as descriptive. Many of the contributors to Varieties—and certainly the editors—treat Taylor as a player with a horse in this race, but the ones who settle into the most attentive readings of him sideline the secular for the sake of the book’s real obsessions: God, history, the age.

The first of three such readings is by the theologian John Milbank. It says something about Taylor’s place in contemporary debates about the secular that his most intimate interlocutor here is Milbank—a brilliant, often embattled critic of secularity, and co-founder of the theological revival known as Radical Orthodoxy. One senses (or perhaps one hopes) that at this stage Radical Orthodoxy is only slightly more pleasing a descriptor to Milbank than deconstruction was to mid-career Derrida, being by now more a short-hand for hostile, or at least ignorant, outsiders to caricature what is in practice a complex multi-headed project. Still, Milbank throws his hat cheerfully into the ring, embracing the delicious ambiguity of his presence at this table with his usual combination of intellectual brio and studied cluelessness. On the one hand, who else could better comment on Taylor’s contention that it is a spirit of reform buried deep in the shadows of the Christian ethos that gives rise to the overturning of a pan-Christian norm? Who else could better relate to the relish with which Taylor depicts an enchanted Christianity and its haunting semblance in the wake of its reformation? Gauchet, whom Taylor might seem to resemble, felt he was doing a fair job of depicting the metaphysics and historicity of the Christian worldview in arguing that it contains its secular at its origins. But for Milbank and Taylor alike, this “whiggish” notion is to be firmly set aside, as we conceive a Christianity that might have been, and might still be, otherwise (though Milbank, rewriting Gauchet, wants to record, too, “the history of the failure to live up to the radicalism of ‘incarnation’ from the very outset”). Milbank and Taylor disagree on the details of this otherwise. But of all the contributors in Varieties, Milbank is by far the most able and willing to enter into the project of historical and theological reconstruction that Taylor attempts, and his solidarity with Taylor’s work provides a tighter angle on the Christian question (whither, wherefore) that they share.

On the other hand—and here Milbank’s imagined cluelessness is transferred elsewhere—on what principle of bland inclusivity did the editors imagine a conversation in which Milbank has something meaningful to say to, e.g., Wendy Brown or Jonathan Sheehan or Jon Butler or Saba Mahmood or José Casanova? This is not to scapegoat Milbank. Indeed, his essay is among the liveliest in the volume. Nor is it to suggest that the others mentioned here are in unproblematic conversation with each other, or with William Connolly, Nilüfer Göle, Akeel Bilgrami, Robert Bellah, Simon During, or Colin Jager. It is simply that, if the editors imagined some meaty encounter between those deeply invested in the Christian story in and of modernity and those invested in quite other projects, many in significant opposition to the Christian one, they should have staged this debate, or said something telling or pointing or otherwise helpful about it. Instead, we get in the introduction a long excursus on the importance of Taylor’s book, which, as one gets into the substance of Varieties, comes to seem increasingly absurd. If Taylor is not quite at the forefront of debates on the secular, neither is he front and center, as Milbank is, on debates concerning the Christian. Perhaps this is the curse of liberal theology. It wants its redemption from too many sources in too many ways; it genuinely desires and/or is reconciled to modernity and the secular, and can then only gesture weakly towards real desire for real Gods, while stronger voices make the point more robustly. A Secular Age does reveal Taylor as the theological contestant he has perhaps always been, but his unedited habits of speech and his wide-angle lens undermine the force and persuasiveness—not to mention the clarity and cogency—of his vision. A cruel reading would have Gauchet and Milbank debate entirely over Taylor’s head, the one arguing that Christianity is secular, the other arguing that they are in contingent, temporary struggle. This, at least, is the debate on God and history that Taylor enters, and it is not at all clear that the editors have accurately assessed his centrality to it. Which could make Varieties a kind of obscene joke, I suppose, or, as it seemed to me at moments, an act of celebrity self-congratulation and (what is the same) self-delusion.

Milbank is not oblivious to all of this, but he has the good sense to ignore it, though he does spend rather more time on Gauchet, whom the editors dismiss in a single line. For Milbank, Taylor’s is “nothing less than a new diagnosis of both Western triumphs and a Western malaise,” and this encomium seems genuine in his case because, again, he shares with Taylor, over against Gauchet, a commitment to the claim that “secularization is not whiggishly on the agenda of history, but is fundamentally the result of a self-distortion of Christianity.” This is a fight Milbank has had, is having, and will continue to have, and there is consequently a kind of believable freshness to his respect for Taylor as an ally and kindred spirit. After all, to argue, as Milbank does, that “a festive Christianity […] could still in the future stake its claim to be the true enlightenment and the true romance” is either crazy or simply crazily impassioned, calling all allies to the ready. Milbank is no fundamentalist. His is an encounter with both the beauties (mystical, embodied, sexual, moral, convivial) and the ugliness (puritanical, lawful, morbid) of his tradition. In Milbank’s Christianity, for example, the shame is not in the erotic or ecstatic nature of existence, but in a cramped overemphasis on sin as sexual rather than spiritual or relational. Compared to Taylor, who concludes his paean to enchantment with a donnish reminder that “we have to understand religious/spiritual life today in all its different thrusts, resistances, and reactions,” and compared to a religious thinker like William Connolly, who strangely urges that “deep pluralism cannot gain a secure foothold in predominantly Christian states until confession of Jesus by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and immanent naturalists are allowed to compete legitimately with Christian confessions of him as a divine savior,” Milbank’s forward-looking Christian messianism is energizing in its clarity and courage. Connolly worries at one point that his (meandering) reflections on Jesus, SUVs, capitalism, Fox News, Bergson, globalism, and DNA is “risky.” But, in light of the varieties of secularism in the intellectual worlds of the thinkers in this volume, I can think of nothing more risky than continuing to find new ways to claim that Christianity is simply and categorically—if wildly and astonishingly—right. The only person in this volume still talking to Milbank at that moment is Taylor, and even he took over 800 pages to say much less than that.

Taylor’s location between Milbank and some of the other contributors might seem one of the great virtues of his work—a bilingual manifesto for the seculars and the critics alike. Taylor certainly seems to desire it this way. He will not, pace Milbank, simply be pulled into the position of Christian supremacy. He will not simply be satisfied with secular pluralism. What most of the contributors reveal, however, is that this desire is unfulfilled. The most provocative in this regard are the essays of Sheehan and Jager, each of whom encounters a vivid core of A Secular Age at the same time as they anatomize its failure. But failure is indeed the flavor of the day in Varieties, even if its writers are diplomatic to a fault. Here is Wendy Brown providing a tutorial on Feuerbach and Marx as relief from Taylorian treacle on a straw materialism, followed by Simon During wondering whether it is all not rather much ado, giving us Alan Hollinghurst and his darkly exquisite mundane instead of the clunky philosophical history of the secular. There is Jon Butler counseling Taylor that his preference for philosophical paradigms and his neglect of ordinary people does not fit “the historical problem,” either of countervailing cases of belief and unbelief or, even more, of the indifference that is, for Butler, a significant feature of the modern American landscape. Here are Nilüfer Göle and José Casanova cautioning a historicization of the sources of the secular, the first urging the introduction of Islam into the picture of European secularity, the second making globalization the frame for decentering this secularity altogether. There is Saba Mahmood wondering whether Taylor has not misidentified his “very object,” and concluding that, “by delineating an account of Christian secularism that remains blind to the normative assumptions and power of Western Christianity, Taylor’s invitation to interreligious dialogue sidesteps the greatest challenge of our time.”

With the possible exceptions of Mahmood and Butler, the authors in Varieties would not judge their commentaries expositions of the failure of Charles Taylor. Bilgrami and Bellah, fundamentally sympathetic, make minor adjustments to Taylor’s program; Connolly embraces the challenge to propound one of his own. I stress the angle of failure because to read through the essays in Varieties is to perceive in them—or perhaps simply to experience—a kind of fatigue with the terms Taylor lays out, and an appetite to get beyond them. One cannot deliver a review of Varieties without marking the oddity of this fact, the strain of the enterprise, the mismatch of the voices, even without the outlier Milbank holding up the fortress of Christian conviviality. This mood of fatigue is why Milbank can seem both so impressive and so clueless in this bunch. He is so manifestly not fatigued, so ready to engage, so prepared, so present. The same cannot be said for many of the contributors to Varieties insofar as they are commenting on Taylor, and, indeed, the same cannot be said for Taylor himself, who uses his afterword to restate his argument, touching only barely on questions that put any pressure on the project. If the contributors to Varieties are too polite to say so, and its editors too concerned to defend Taylor from the jabs of some his earliest reviewers, it should nevertheless be said in this Immanent Frame that Varieties has the feel of aristocratic poverty, gamely putting on a good show of something that is withering at its center.

But enough such observations. Let me turn finally to the essays by Jager and Sheehan. With Milbank and a few others, both do Taylor the honor of seriously entertaining his position, providing through close readings alternative accounts of Taylor’s issues and constituting thus a kind of shadow secular age. Jager and Sheehan are both committed to working out the problem of history in Taylor. Unlike Sheehan, however, who uses the concept of history to liberate Taylor from its more prosaic strictures, Jager follows Taylor into his historical labyrinth to explore what can be seen if we don’t struggle so hard to get out. He begins by granting Taylor’s investment in historical detail, giving us, without judgment, the Taylor who writes: “It is a crucial fact of our present spiritual predicament that it is historical; that is, our understanding of ourselves and where we stand is partly defined by our sense of having come to where we are, of having overcome a previous condition. [...] In other words, our sense of where we are is crucially defined in part by a story of how we got there.” This avowal of the historical forms the crux of a significant swath of criticism of Taylor, but Jager breezes by this temptation to focus on what he hears with especial force in this statement—predicament, understanding of ourselves, and above all, story. For Jager, Taylor’s commitment to story—“thick and messy rather than thin and sterile”—suggests his roots in a Romantic quest to understand experience (one’s own or another’s) from the inside. Along with Bilgrami, Jager thus fastens on Taylor’s interest in the double aspect of reflexivity in modernity: not only that I can “adopt a third-person perspective” on my commitments, but that “my own experience [can] become my object.” If the first signals modernity as irony, along with a concomitant sense of threat to any deeply encompassing worldview, the second marks a quite different standpoint: the will to penetrate experience as such, to undergo experience, as it were, while being self-conscious of doing so. Taylor calls this “radical reflexivity” as opposed to the reflexivity of the third person. But it is not clear that it is aptly named. For the issue, as Jager shows, is the heightened sense of presence that stories empower in us. While radical reflexivity suggests a distancing afflicted by acute self-consciousness, what Taylor is identifying is a mode of closing the gap between self and self or between self and world. Simply put, he is identifying a feature of, or access to, the modern self that is just as all-encompassing, just as absorbing and world-enchanting as religion.

It is this feature of Taylor’s project that Jager foregrounds, rooting it in a diversely romantic sensibility and genealogy that makes literary expression not only a substitute for religion in the modern age but also a key dimension of the way Taylor’s writing is framed, structured, and narrated. In this way, Jager allows the clumsier historical scheme of A Secular Age to drop out, giving us a Taylor in metaphysical kinship to Wordsworth, Herder, and the Hegel who has been a touchstone of his career. “When Taylor says he has a story to tell,” Jager writes, “he means that his account must be undergone, not simply paraphrased or glossed,” a fitting commentary on a thinker intimate to the core with The Phenomenology of Spirit.

This appraisal of Taylor in a romantic register is not all Jager is doing. In fact, he uses romantic imagery, sources, and genealogies to explore what he thinks of as the key ambivalences of the book. “Simply by virtue of living in the secular age,” Taylor holds, “we find ourselves feeling our way deeply into peoples and places that are not our own.” A Secular Age, then, itself reflects this nova, becoming a “working-through at the methodological level of the secular reflexivity whose historical genesis the book narrates.” At the same time, this secular reflexivity, in its first-person call to undergo experience, is not so obviously secular. Indeed, Taylor seems to “tilt” the “playing field in favor of Christianity,” making the only phenomenology he is truly interested in the one of the Christian, “who must live with the knowledge that his or her faith is an option.” Jager roots the primacy of the Christian to the first-person in Taylor’s allegiance to romantic sources, which would seem to justify his right to tell the story as his story. Even more, it has always been clear that Taylor’s reading of the romantic is an unabashedly religious one. The paradox is that, if the effort to get inside experience is the sign of modernity, Christianity is “the best response to the secular age,” an “unresolved tension,” says Jager, in a book more interested in expressing this tension than resolving it.

Jager ferrets out further intriguing paradoxes in the project, but they are all rooted in his argument that “the romantic method of A Secular Age both narrates the arrival of a modern ‘formation of the secular’ and, read properly, provides the tools for its genealogical critique.” Enlarging and refining the conception of story throughout, Jager allows Taylor the right to a history written with the desire not only to tell it but also to change it, while reminding him of principles which Taylor himself seems not quite to believe. In Jager’s conception of Taylor’s principles, ”telling the proper story, here, doesn’t mean telling a more accurate story; it means finding the essential thing that got lost or sidetracked the first time and highlighting that, and thereby telling a different story, with a different ending.” In this project, Taylor desperately needs readers like Jager, readers and critics who will save him from his sentimentalism, from his cruder historicism, and from his own faltering in the face of conviction. “Secretly,” writes Jager, “Taylor is looking for readers willing to undergo modernity with him, looking for readers who will experience the book as a form of poetic thinking, a story that needs to be retold properly.” Then we might “catch a glimpse of a different world […] in which things had somehow turned out otherwise.” He is looking, in short, for readers like Jager and Milbank, who have the fleet-footedness to see him at least that far.

Sheehan’s essay forms a brilliant counterpoint to Jager’s. If Jager enlarges the power of Taylor’s histories, Sheehan disciplines them, confronting not simply failures of stamina, execution, sources, or editing, but—like Jager and Milbank—the measure of the entire colossus on its own terms. On the one hand, Sheehan depicts himself as a kind of mild-mannered historical everyman, too plain thinking for the rich philosophical stew Taylor sometimes serves up, and punctilious in upholding the principles and guidelines of his “guild.” On the other hand, Sheehan launches the one truly devastating question to Taylor in the entire volume: “When was disenchantment?” To be sure, there are other hard-hitting moments in Varieties. Mahmood, who has become of late something of the go-to scholar for post-secular, post-colonial critique, digs into Taylor’s blindness and omissions with gusto. During compares Taylor to Edmund Burke with his revaluing of tradition, and goes on to wonder why Taylor fails to notice that most of the claims of Christianity are, under “modern truth regimes,” “false, unverifiable, or unproven.” Butler drives by the over-refinement of Taylor’s categories—seculars 1, 2, and 3—to ask why Taylor insists on ignoring the number of bums in the pews. And Casanova serenely witnesses to Taylor’s obsolescence.

Yet none of these criticisms do what Sheehan’s question does: illuminate a query of central importance to Taylor while raising the specter of the incoherence of his reply. If Jager gives Taylor an assist over some of the awkward moments in his argument, Sheehan lunges toward the abyss. It begins benignly enough: what kind of a thing is A Secular Age, this secular age? Is it a history? A philosophy? A theology? An anthropology? Sheehan has no stomach for Jager’s suspension of the historical question. But he is prepared, as Butler, for example, is not, to grant that Taylor has written some other kind of thing, some other—dare we entertain it—kind of history. So let us ask, says Sheehan, what kind?

To some degree, all of the essays in Varieties are asking a version of this question—the question of genre, of beast, of fish or fowl. Of the candidates proffered (existential history, phenomenological history, literature), both During and Sheehan come up with the old category of “conjectural history.” In During’s account, this term is interchangeable with philosophical history more generally, and is rooted in works like Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), John Millar’s The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771), Comte’s Course of Positive Philosophy (1830), and, of course, the ur-text of philosophical history, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). As During writes, with humorous understatement, “philosophic history is rarely written these days, in part because it can’t well account for [and is not interested in] historical causality.” Sheehan puts it more bluntly, quoting Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) as a way of comprehending the negative ambition of conjectural history: “Let us therefore begin by setting aside all facts.” It is Sheehan, however, not During, who pursues the notion of conjectural history as a real response to the problem of genre, beginning with a re-reading of this Rousseauian sound bite. It is not, Sheehan instructs, that Rousseau “really did set aside all facts […] But these facts do philosophical rather than historical work.”

What is it, then, to write a conjectural history of fact in a philosophical vein? Sheehan strives mightily to work out the conditions of this possibility. If the article begins in kinship with Butler, pointing out what kinds of argument and evidence real historians work with, and what kinds they must, of necessity, put aside, it goes on to the further task of delineating what Taylor is doing instead. Sheehan likes the notion of conjectural history because, like Jager, he wants to take Taylor at his word that he is actually writing a history of how we got here, and, also like Jager, he seems intrigued by the challenge to locate Taylor’s work somewhere other than the obsolescence to which many of his other readers seem implicitly to relegate it (“philosophic history is rarely written these days…”). Unlike Jager, Sheehan wants to hold Taylor’s feet to the historical fire while also excusing him from what Sheehan characterizes as the less glamorous work of building historical cases. What follows is a colorful excursus into Herodotus, Genesis, Kant, Catholics, and Vico, with short stops on milking cows, eating lunch, the pervasiveness of theology, and the simple life in which yearnings for “fullness” are gustatory, not spiritual. Sheehan comes up with the idea of “apologetics” as that project at once to understand the past and to show its inevitable claim over the present. Taylor cannot have done with history, Sheehan argues, because he wants what the past has to offer. But he also cannot do history proper, because he wants to reserve the right to tell things differently, to imagine the story and the present otherwise. This is similar to Jager’s notion of changing the outcome as I relate the events. But in Sheehan, the work of apologetics is significantly more equivocal than Jager portrays story-telling. Sheehan’s ostensible solution to the emplacement of Taylor’s work comes in his section on Vico, whom he lauds precisely for avoiding apologetics, for attempting the first modern, secular history of the ages unimpeded by visions of redemption and the methodological uniformity that undergirds them.

So, when was disenchantment? Sheehan seems to want us to think that he thinks Taylor can answer this question. As long as we realize that Taylor is dealing with hinges and not chronologies, with before and after, then and now, not when and which, we can go some distance into Taylor’s genealogy of the secular age. But Sheehan cannot ultimately pull this off. At the most trivial level, Sheehan cannot hide his own basic conviction that the facts cannot ever really be set aside. If conjectural history is indeed, as During depicts it, that history which, unconcerned with fact, proceeds to tell stories irrespective of causality, then a historian like Sheehan—a historian as Sheehan depicts himself—cannot admit its legitimacy as anything other than fiction. The move to apologetics and the valorization of Vico are not the only things that give Sheehan away. It is also more simply that Sheehan does not give any good reasons why facts would ever be displaceable, other than those pressed by a history he himself does not, and would never, practice.

But even if one believes that Sheehan believes that his question is not fatal to Taylor, his question is fatal to Taylor, for reasons Sheehan gestures at but does not plumb. Although Sheehan probes the meanings of conjectural history in more detail than does During, he does not isolate its most important dimension. At one point, Sheehan’s attempt to save Taylor leads him to withdraw his question. If there is “no reliable way to apprehend the reality of the prior state [enchantment, the traditional past...] the facticity of ‘enchantment’ takes on philosophical rather than historical import. In that case, though, our opening question—when was reform?—does not matter.” In other words, Taylor is telling the kind of history in which it does not matter when, or even whether, there was disenchantment. Like Rousseau’s “spirit of Society” that “changes and corrupts all our natural inclinations,” Taylor’s categories “float free of historical empiricities and instead become a generalized logic embedded in the very structure of modern human existence.” Where is Milbank to bail Taylor out of this whiggery? Where is Taylor to protest that, in giving him permission to float free of the empirical, Sheehan’s putative defense leaves him considerably worse off than the most hostile criticism? Where is Gauchet to observe with irony that the historian’s historian Jonathan Sheehan ends up sounding a lot like metaphysical him? Shouldn’t Sheehan be the first voice to reason that no one gets to float free from the empirical?

If he did so reason, he would find himself in the company of Immanuel Kant, whose “Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History” Sheehan might profitably have reviewed for his piece. In Kant’s account, conjectural history is not deployed to solve problems history could also solve. It is not another name for “philosophical history,” conceived as a parallel kind of history with its own ends. In Kant’s paradigm, there is no such thing as philosophical history. There is history, and there is its concept (conjecture). The project of history involves us in philosophy only in that history is a concept. Simply put, we are limited to the thing (history) but we require its conditions (concept).

It is not hard to imagine how this all gets out of control—how the very language of conjecture could be used to authorize interpretive license. But as Sheehan’s reading of Rousseau intimates, the liberation from fact is constrained and conditional. For Kant, while a historical account might have gaps in the record, which conjecture could temporarily fill, “to base a historical account solely on conjectures would seem little better than drawing up a plan for a novel.” Jager’s argument is thus implicitly imagined by Kant, although while Jager finds real value in this endeavor, Kant worries that it will lead to confusion. There is only one case, says Kant, in which what “may be presumptuous to introduce in the course of a history of human action may well be permissible.” The case is what he calls the first beginning of history, or a history of “the first development of freedom.” Sheehan alludes to such a case at the beginning of his essay in evoking the notion of a golden age—that age, in other words, which comes before our own but has no actual historical validity. One could call it transcendental, perhaps, or structural—fictive in the way the state of nature was fictive for Rousseau and Hobbes, but telling nevertheless with respect to the conditions of knowledge and existence in the present. Conjectural. But whereas Kant rigidly maintains the extreme narrowness of this exception, Sheehan goes on to try the term on Taylor, who is not dealing with the first development of freedom at all, but rather with what Kant calls “the history of its subsequent course,” a history which Kant, if not Sheehan, insists “must be based exclusively on historical records.” Taylor may be dealing with beginnings of a kind—the beginning of modernity, the beginning of the secular, the beginning of disenchantment. But Sheehan’s initial question got it right: without an account of when, without a true fidelity to historical record, not only in Butler’s sense of considering the actual doings of ordinary people, but also in Kant’s sense of ensuring that all our ideas are properly historical—even the idea of history itself, which must needs ground in conjecture the very thing it also expresses in record—we are not doing anything but fiction. It is not clear that even Jager can save Taylor from the weight of this responsibility. At the least, Taylor would need a Kantian reader to find his real exit, his real redemption. It is not clear such a reader could succeed. Still, Sheehan and Taylor, along with the others, leave me hoping that such things could be taken on—that we philosophers and we historians could again (since Kant) meet to talk real business together over a book or two.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.