The heft of a book would seem proportional to its exhaustiveness. It is no surprise that Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is criticized for failing to be exhaustive, for missing important components of the story it purports to tell. Taylor responds: the book should have been longer. But this criticism and response both depend on a certain ambition—a certain desire for completeness, a certain will to truth—that author and critics themselves find problematic.
There are “others” whose voices must be heard, so the criticism goes. Taylor constructs “Latin Christendom” and the “North Atlantic” as entities that are internally homogenous with unproblematic boundaries. But what about Jews? What about Muslims? What about colonial encounters? What about the complex religious terrain of America? Don’t these differences call into question the exhaustiveness of Taylor’s historical narrative, and of the terms out of which it is constructed? How would Taylor deal with the non-believers, neither secular nor church-goers, of, say, rural eighteenth century America (as Jon Butler queries)?
But this line of questioning is symptomatic of a certain ambivalence, a tension between purported intellectual commitments and the performance of scholarship. The line of questioning is animated by a desire for completeness, by the fantasy that, once all of the data is accounted for, we can rest assured that we will get the world right.Read the rest of What Taylor misses.