Charles Taylor, Secularity, and Miracles

In Charles Taylor’s essay What is Secularity? (in Transcending Boundaries in Philosophy and Theology, ed. Vanhoozer, K, and Warner, M, Ashgate, 2007) he develops the idea of closed world structures (CWS) which he uses to explain how the modern secular age came about.

He asks how belief in God has come to be seen as one option among many, when five hundred years ago unbelief was “close to inconceivable” for most people. He says that two things had to happen:

1. There had to come about a culture in which a clear division is made between the natural and the supernatural.

2. “It had to come to seem possible to live entirely within the natural.”

He says that number 2 came about inadvertently as a result of the striving for number 1.

Modernity, according to Taylor, has developed very powerful versions of phase 2. These are ‘closed’ or ‘horizontal’ worlds, which leave no place for the transcendent (or ‘vertical’) – they even render it inaccessible or unthinkable. I will give a brief picture of the contemporary western CWS.

The CWS he describes is the one most commonly held in the west today – a picture of individuals as knowing agents who build up their knowledge of the world by taking in information and forming mental pictures from which they build theories. An understanding of science often combines with this structure, and a series of priority relations tell us what is learned before what. Sense experience acts foundationally – “I must grasp the world as a fact before I can posit values.” In this CWS, any contact with the transcendent must come as an inference and “it is obvious that the inference to the transcendent is at the most extreme and most fragile end of a series of inferences; it is the most epistemically questionable.”

Taylor uses the work of post-modern thinkers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to deconstruct these ‘master-narratives’ of modernity and to show how they are constituted by a “massive self-blindness” – the supposed neutrality of secularity actually appears to be bogus.

Taylor explains the three aspects of a challenge to such an epistemological picture:

1. Our grasp of the world can’t be accounted for in the simple terms of mental representations of outer reality – such representations only get their meaning for us from a more fundamental process of ‘coping’ with the world as bodily, social and cultural beings.

2. This ‘coping’ activity is not primarily that of individuals, but is a social process which we are inducted into.

3. We do not deal with objects as part of the coping process, but what are called by Heidegger pragmata – the focal points of our coping, and which therefore already come to us with meaning and relevance.

The upshot of all these arguments is that they completely overturn the priority relations of foundationalist epistemology – as Taylor says, “there is no priority of the neutral grasp of things over their value”; things that are considered to be late and questionable inferences are seen to be part of our primary predicament, so that the sense that the divine comes as a remote inference is completely undercut by this challenge.

“From within itself, the epistemological picture seems unproblematic. It comes across as an obvious discovery we make when we reflect on our perception and acquisition of knowledge. All the great foundational figures – Descartes, Locke, Hume – claimed to be just saying what was obvious once one examined experience itself reflectively. Seen from the deconstruction, this is a most massive self-blindness. Rather what happened is that experience was carved into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the intra-mental as the locus of certainty. What was driving this theory? Certain ‘values’, virtues, excellences: those of the independent, disengaged subject, reflexively controlling his own thought processes, ‘self-responsibly’ in Husserl’s phrase. There is an ethic here, of independence, self-control, self-responsibility, of a disengagement which brings control; a stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses. The entire picture, shot through with ‘values’, which is meant to emerge out of the careful, objective, presuppositionless scrutiny, is now presented as having been there from the beginning, driving the whole process of ‘discovery’.”

Now, looking at this argument presented by Taylor, we can see several important points to bear in mind when examining Hume on miracles. In my next post I will present what I think are the most important.



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