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Philosophers Today – Charles Taylor: Agency and Hermeneutics

May 25, 2019

Charles Taylor is a figure I like in some ways, but who I also find infuriating. His in depth appreciation of the historical development of Western thought and Modernity is almost unparalleled in his works The Sources of the SelfHegel, and to a lesser extent A Secular Age. There is a considerable cross over with Macintyre in his critique of the growing barrenness of a particular enlightenment mode of thinking. These two thinkers along with Bernard Williams all try to provide an alternative framework to allow us to move beyond this failed enlightenment approach.

In the case of Charles Taylor he talks of three main factors of what he calls naturalism:

  1. Disengaged Reason
  2. The Punctual Self
  3. Representational Approach to Knowledge

To this point I can largely agree with Taylor, as I have a similar critique of this perspective that I have developed. Where he diverges is in where he chooses to go with it. For he moves quite dramatically towards a post modernist approach. This was particularly evident in his article Overcoming Epistemology, where there is an interesting and considerable analysis of the historical development of the notion of disengaged reason and of some figures who have tried to oppose it in the continental tradition with notions of agency, such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. There is also a reasonable critique of some of the indulgent excesses of Derrida and Lyotard and others of this ilk, and of the dangers of a Foucault style power analysis in line with Nietzsche. And on the other side a good critique of the over naturalistic reliance on what science has to tell us of figures such as Quine. Nevertheless, through it all he is sure that epistemology has been overcome and that there is, as he concludes, now only a fight to be had over its corpse.

I think this is a wrong headed mentality, and it maybe comes from his adoption of the hermeneutic approach. I don’t think we should be so quick to denigrate the importance of our conceptions of knowledge. For sure, there are these dangers of following the objective approach too far, and then of hypostatising a view of reality too far removed from our lived reality as human beings/agents. But to fight back against this, we have to fight to take their ground from underneath them, not jettison both them and us into a groundless outer space!

Another aspect of Taylors view has been his defence of a communitarian understanding in politics. I give him a lot of credit for this, as it cuts between the two grand errors of rugged selfish individualism, and the ideological collectivisms. Both of these hypostatise an extreme view of reality on which they are unwilling to negotiate or compromise, and we end up with these often meaningless political debates between extreme left and right. Instead of this the communitarian postulates a real sense of community and of belonging that we all as agents rely upon, that is local, not universal, and has a particular history and context that needs to be enunciated and disclosed. In this area his hermeneutic approach can do some much better work.

In summary, Taylor is a great source for historical understanding of where we come from, where and how are modern identities and senses of self and agency were formed. And this, in itself, regardless of his views about epistemology and objective reality can be a useful counterpoint to the dangers of post modern relativisms. For this disclosing of being can be a revealing and important process. But I do not think he quite realises deeply enough the threats to reason and the repercussions of displacing man from any connection with reality. As he effectively does by denying epistemology and not even considering metaphysics. This connection with independent truth is absolutely central to how we can remain sincere and free of the many dangerous and corrupting social influences that surround us. Perception of the real remains at the heart of human Being. And without it, not all the self analyses and disclosures of your own contextual horizons of meanings would be enough to make you an authentic human agent. To be empowered we need for sure an embodiment, as Taylor rightly emphasises, but we also need an orientation towards truth. It is this orientation towards truth that is lacking I think in much of Taylors work, and it certainly comes out more in his later work such as in A Secular Age.





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