Philosopher Charles Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University, and the winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize and the 2008 Kyoto Prize. He is the author of a dozen books, including A Secular Age, published in 2007. In November 2009 he sat down for an interview with Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.
Akeel Bilgrami: So Charles, welcome to Columbia’s Institute of Religion and Public Culture. Let me begin by asking you something about your intellectual development and ask about how, in the ’60s, I believe, or late ’50s, you had very serious leftist commitments, political commitments. You were one of the founders of what later came to be called the New Left Review. And throughout this, you had deep religious commitments as well. And so I’m particularly interested in that mix of commitments, especially since I imagine some of your colleagues in the New Left Review were quite militantly anti-religious. And so how did you sort of survive in that atmosphere, and what were your own ways of integrating these two seemingly diverse commitments?
Charles Taylor: Well, actually, there was no problem surviving, because it really was very open. The New Left Review was started after the Suez debacle in ’56, and at the same time, the communist movement was beginning to fracture after everything that happened in the Soviet Union. And so the idea was, let’s have a very open discussion in which all kinds of ways of being on the left can be put on the table. So if anybody had said, “Don’t present that point of view; that’s really off the table,” that would’ve been considered a grave fault, right? So we were allowed to be what we wanted to be from our own point of view, and there were a certain number of people who came to this from a Christian perspective—Alasdair MacIntyre, of course, we were colleagues then—at the same time. Because there are these very rich traditions—think of the labor movement in England. The labor movement in England became for a time very Marxist, but it was originally very powerfully Methodist as well, right? And the Methodists then fed into the trade union movement and so on. In my case, there is a whole school or developing schools of thinking, mainly coming out of French Catholicism, which of course had a tremendous impact in Quebec. See, I was brought up in a kind of outreach of French Catholic thinking on all levels. I mean, the reactionaries were there, but also people around the magazine Esprit, with Mounier, the milieu from which came worker-priests later on, and so on.
So there were these very strong intellectual traditions, and we were allowed—I mean, everyone was willing to listen to everything. So most people were Marxists, but I wasn’t really Marxist. In the end, I mean, a lot in common with Marx, but I wasn’t really Marxist, so I made these long disquisitions about what was wrong with Marxism, and I was answered. And that was thought to be what we were trying to do in this movement. It was a very, very good moment in which the level of dogmatic closedness had really been diminished.
Bilgrami: Right. So what were the aspects of Marxism that you found yourself excluding from your leftist commitments, and what did you want to add to Marxism that made it a more humane kind of left critique?
Taylor: Yeah, basically, one thing was its incredible, if you like, enlightenment optimism, that we just need to change these institutional structures and then all the terrible things that have made human beings attack each other in the past will disappear. And the obverse side of that—the very dangerous obverse side of that—is that, if you do believe that, you don’t have to go on but you can easily go on to believe that whatever ruthless steps are necessary to take in order to make these changes are worth it because, after all, when they’re made, at least the terrible legacy in history of human conflict and so on will disappear.
So I was, of course, tremendously critical there, mainly of the mainstream communist movement. And that was relatively well received because the New Left was started because a lot of people maybe in the Labour Party were fed up with the Labour Party’s various compromises, and a lot of people had been in the Communist Party but had really left the Communist Party. I mean, Edward Thompson and people like this. So people were willing to discuss these—
Bilgrami: But on the intellectual New Left, quite apart from its institutional and party links and responses to political parties and so on, there were people like Althusser presumably who were very different from the teachings of Marx.
Taylor: Yes. They were not yet powerful on the scene. That was interesting.
Bilgrami: Ah, that came later, yeah.
Taylor: The Marx that people were still willing to consider very seriously—and I was a little bit into that because if you wanted to consider any Marx, it had to be for this—was the more humanist one, inspired by Lukács. Not simply a reductive explanation of history in terms of the economy. Merleau-Ponty, who was a very important figure for me in the French scene, philosophically, had also had his Marxist phase in which he presented this view of Marxism. Althusser was the diametric opposite of that, was really “structural system,” leaving no room for human choice. Everybody has an ideology that’s against the Marxist idea that people who have ideologies haven’t yet seen their own. And it was very interesting that, shortly after the first team resigned—not in anger, but we all went and did all the things in 1961—the first team of editors, the second team came in, which is still in a sense there, Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn and so on. And they took up Althusser in a very big way.
Bilgrami: I see.
Taylor: And this caused—I mean, I wasn’t much on the scene, but Edward Thompson was extremely pained and angry, in a certain sense, first of all, because the stance of that kind of Marxist leftism was highly intellectualistic, highly unconnected with the particular labor movements. It was all—you had to read Gramsci in the Italian and Marx in the German and Althusser in the French, and you had to be in a kind of international discussion. Edward Thompson, as really the historian of the English working-class movement, had this immense admiration for it but also couldn’t stomach any kind of reductive Marxism, because he saw the creation of the labor movement as something in which human agency played an absolutely crucial role, and there were contributions from Methodism and everything. It wasn’t something that just could be rolled up from looking at the “base”—you know, that this had to happen. So he had these grounds, and he wrote this savage attack on poverty of theory and so on. So there was a rift, but at that point, the atmosphere of open exploration had already a little bit thinned out. This we’re talking now in the mid-’60s.
Bilgrami: In this recent book of yours, A Secular Age, in your criticisms of modernity—what you in a chapter call the “malaise of modernity” and so on—there’s a lot of focus on notions of disenchantment and alienation in the modern world. These are really very Marxist notions in a way, alienation especially, the aspects of Marx which people like Althusser tried to exclude but, I assume, if people like Tony and E.P. Thompson are to be believed, are very much part of the sort-of nonconformist origins of labor.
Taylor: Yeah, and Tony was a very committed Christian.
Bilgrami: Exactly. Yeah. So do you think—this is a question coming at your book from a very different angle than perhaps even you had in mind for it. But do you think its critique of modernity since the early modern period, and the constructions that you describe in such detail, could be part of progressive left critique, or do you think it really has now moved away from that to a quite different trajectory?
Taylor: No. I think on the contrary. I mean, it could very much be. Because my take on modernity, my take on secularization as an aspect of modernity, is that you can’t have a single judgment on it, that there are great gains and there are, at the same time, great losses. I mean, that’s part of the reason why I just can’t take this very optimistic enlightenment scenario: “things get better and better,” right? But I don’t take the reactionary scenario: “Things are getting worse and worse.”
So it is really trying to discriminate what we can’t avoid having in our present age—I mean, some kind of individualism, some kind of importance of identity—you can name a number of things. And what important things that we may have lost, we have to recreate, and things that we consider as gains. So there are things you can’t change, but some aspects of them are clear gains. And I think that has to be the background for a left critique of where this society is at.
So I mean, for instance, the issue of solidarity. What are the bases of solidarity? Are we sawing away—are we undermining the bases of solidarity in our society so that you can have this whittling away of the welfare state, whittling away of mutual responsibility, the kind of thing that in 2009 causes debate about the health scheme in America and so on, those kinds of issues. We need to recover the sources of mutual solidarity, and that’s an extremely important issue that the left has to raise.
Bilgrami: Right. So since it’s so current and topical, let’s take the attitudes that one finds surfacing over the health-care debate and ask—what’s being exploited is fears. I mean, there seems to be no doubt that a lot of people who are relatively well off will have to make sacrifices if people who have no health care and all that will being included in—and that it’s just maybe a higher tax. Tax is the—just more commitments. And now, what the right is doing is actually to strike fear in people, that they are going to actually be paying more.
Do you think that all of these attitudes of what I suppose could summarily be described as the selfishness of our time, which can be so easily tapped by the right, is really continuous with the kinds of losses of the secular age, of the modern age? And that the solidarities that are required to go back might involve some form of—not orthodox religion, but some kind of religious, very broadly understood, return to a religious basis for solidarity?
Taylor: Well, there has to be a common acceptance of the importance of solidarity, but in a present type of society, this has to be fed into by—this person or group thinks of it in religious terms; this person or group thinks of it in Marxist terms, etc. But certainly, among the resources for certain people coming to this are their religious traditions, and that’s important not to exclude, as it were. I think that’s unimportant to start with. But definitely the whole nature of the society we’re living in frays the bonds of solidarity, right? And no one wants to pay more taxes. But how powerful is the other motivation that we’re living beside these people? And we have to avert our eyes all the time because it’s terribly uncomfortable to see the conditions that they’re living in, so we’d rather live in a gated community and so on. See, that’s that other thing that’s pulling people in that other direction.
Norris Chumley: Could you ask him—this is very basic—to describe what is the malaise that the culture is experiencing? What is that malaise?
Bilgrami: Good, okay. I’ll do that. Let me just get to it in a way that’s continuous with what we’ve been saying. So one of the things that interests me a lot about your diagnosis of modern society, Chuck, is that there is a great feeling on your part that even if one were to think of the basis of solidarity in purely secular terms—if there’s a recovery of solidarity and it has a secular basis, it would be—given your analysis, ought to be—continuous with something in the religious, right? That it should be possible to say that the secular is continuous with something in the religious. And yet there are whole movements, like of the whole sort of 400-page books by people like Dawkins and Hitchens, who say that it’s precisely completely unnecessary to see it as continuous with the religious, right? That you can be full of sympathy and solidarity entirely independent of it. But given the historical analysis you provide, I assume, but maybe I’m wrong, that there’s some feeling on your part that these would be continuous with religious traditions.
Taylor: Well, for some people, they would be continuous. I don’t dispute Dawkins’, Hitchens’ idea that you can have people who are totally nonreligious/anti-religious and who have very strong ethical commitments and can be part of the, we hope, majority that would support this kind of solidarity. But what astonishes me is the idea that only this philosophical basis can get you there, whereas plainly there are many possible philosophical bases. Of course. And then there are people who have a very deep religious view who are working against that for a variety of, I think, misguided reasons, but there are people with very atheist views that are also working against that, who don’t wanna pay more taxes.
Taylor: And so to me, it’s an attempt to raise this issue as a central issue and divide, actually, have the effect of dividing people who are natural allies, and it’s based on a strange set of illusions. I mean, the main thing they keep saying is that religion is dangerous; it produces violence. Of course it does in certain cases, right? But it also—the opposite. I mean, you had people in India that have the partition who are calling on their coreligionaries to go and massacre the other side. But then you have Gandhi, who saves, anyway, Bengal from probably the fate that occurred in Punjab. So what do you do? And then you have on the atheistic side Stalin and Pol Pot who are organizing mass killings, and then you have other people who are—
Bilgrami: The liberation theologians.
Taylor: Yeah, the liberation theologians, but you have other people who are just as much atheists or just as much agnostics but have played a very honorable role in putting an end to some of these conflicts. So I mean, that’s the interesting thing, the interesting issue about human beings, is what turns them to violence. And the idea that it’s simply some belief or other, which is shared on both sides. I mean, a lot of Christians I know say, “I mean, of course, the atheists like Stalin and Hitler, I mean, naturally, they had no more limitations on themselves; therefore, they killed everybody.” And then you say, “Well, how about Torquemada?” and they’re kind-of stuck. And then you have Dawkins and Hitchens who are saying, “Torquemada.” You say, “How about Stalin?” Dawkins says, “Oh, he was an atheist, but that had nothing to do with it.” [Laughter] I could say, “Torquemada’s a Catholic, but that had nothing to—” [Laughter]
You see, it’s the kind of illusion here that if you get people to believe the right thing, the problem will be solved, whereas plainly what drives people to this I don’t pretend fully to understand. I mean, anybody who did this must be self-deluded, but there’s a deep, deep question there which we should all try to look at, and the first move in this is setting aside these total non-solutions.
Bilgrami: Right. Right. Let’s talk a bit about very basic notions, because I think you’ve generated a whole phraseology that people have been studying with some detail. So let me ask you to briefly just say a few words about the very alluring phrases you’ve used to summarize important concepts and whole ways of thinking. So I’ll begin by asking you what you mean by the “malaise of modernity,” and then go on to two or three other key concepts in the book, and then maybe we can get a sense of the larger picture.
Taylor: Well, actually, the problem was with that, I let my publisher get away with something. The original lectures had “malaise” in the plural, you see?
Bilgrami: I see.
Taylor: And it ended up—and actually, that short book, which is the lectures, the Massey Lectures for the CBC, does talk about. But the book ended up with—and I guess publishers have beliefs about what sells books: “Don’t make it look complex.” Anyway, there are a set of malaises around the whole issue of meaning, plainly being in a secular age, being in an age in which a lot of the things that people have found meaning in have been for some people debunked, for others not, can pose for any individual a real sense of, “what is there?” And that’s why we’re living in a world with such a large number of seekers, searchers, people looking for something. When you take these polls, Pew polls, “What do you believe?” a lot of people say “No religion.” But they don’t turn out to be simple atheists in most cases. They turn out to be people who are looking. So that’s one of the things that certainly arises.
And the other is this sense of fraying of the social fabric, right? I mean, what Tocqueville was talking about, how the individual’s interest in his or her own life can undo some of the social fabric, with all the malaise that goes along with that, but also all the dangers for the society. And these are two very, very big set of issues.
Bilgrami: Yes. And there’s a key concept you use of a “buffered self,” and I assume that’s linked in some ways to the great changes in early modernity.
Bilgrami: So do you want to suggest a bit about that? Because I think people who will have gone to read the book will be keen to get some of these terms.
Taylor: Yeah. Well, that is about what I call “disenchantment.” What I’m calling “enchantment” in the book—this word is used in lots of ways and is invented by Weber in a certain sense, Max Weber, and he himself used it in lots of ways. The one that people think of with Weber is related to a general decline of religion. But actually, one of the ways Weber uses it most interestingly is to describe a turn in religion. And this is what you see, for instance, with the Protestant Reformation, where the Christian tradition turns around and attacks various cults and ways of dealing with spirits and so on which were part of the popular religion. I mean, interestingly, there used to be an idea of good magic and bad magic, white magic and black magic, and for the Reformers, all magic is black magic.
And I think that had a profound effect. I think we’ve become different kinds of people. If you read anthropology about a situation in modern Africa and so on, the presence of spirits and powers is very real for those people, right?
Taylor: Sometimes threatening, sometimes not threatening. The Christians—not so much the missionaries, because they’re Europeanized—but the ones who are native Christians are very often fighting against these because they see them as diabolical, right? It’s really impossible to get that kind of rise out of a modern Western advanced society. People now go to horror movies with ghosts and spooks and get a frisson. Can you imagine in the 1500′s having Rosemary’s Baby playing, and people wanna see it? [Laughter] This is real stuff!
Bilgrami: [Laughter] That’s really funny.
Taylor: So we become a different kind of human beings. An interesting thing in history. We have certain insensitivity, because I think there is something that these people were on to, that they had this acute sensibility to.
Bilgrami: Right. The self that is buffered is buffered from what otherwise, prior to what created the buffering, was responsive to meanings and values—which were part of, if you’d like to call it that, a magical understanding of their natural environment.
Taylor: That’s right. Yeah.
Bilgrami: And so if I understand you, the idea of a buffered self was an idea of a self that generated value and meaning all by itself, rather than—
Taylor: Not necessarily, because it could be a very pious person who thought that meaning and value was generated by God and our relation to God. But the world around them went silent.
Bilgrami: Right. The world around them went silent, so –
Taylor: And that is the big, big difference. And then the Romantics felt this terrible loss, so they try to recover something, but they never recover that kind of spontaneous, naïve, immediate sense. They keep talking about this is idea of a great movement through all things, the spirit that moves and so on. They’re trying to re-invoke that in poetry, but it’s not something that just everybody feels.
Bilgrami: Quite right. That’s why the book by M.H. Abrams is called Natural Supernaturalism.
Taylor: Oh, wonderful book.
Bilgrami: Fantastic book. It’s an amazing book, and it really gives you the whole – you know, it’s very interesting to me, Chuck, that Isaiah Berlin brought the German Romantic tradition to the attention of Anglophone philosophers. But he was made very anxious at the very same time by them for reasons that aren’t clear. He thought there was too much positive levity there and so on. And what’s very fascinating is that he had a sort of studied indifference to the English Romantics, the ones you’ve mentioned, Wordsworth, etc. Abrams points out that you can’t study the English Romantics without seeing how deeply the German Romantics are sort of implicated in their thought and in their poetry and so on.
So what’s fascinating is that he takes the anxiety out of the German Romantic tradition, and you get to think about Romanticism in a very different way, along the lines of this natural supernaturalism, but allowed for an unbuffered revival—
Taylor: Or some way of getting it. That’s why I say everything has gains and losses, and then you try to recover what’s lost and in your way. Well, that’s what they were trying to do. They were trying to recover what they thought was terribly lost and in a different way.
Bilgrami: Right. So now, do you think that one could have a relatively sanitized—given our worldview now, which you describe in terms of the buffered self—conception of value and meaning as being properties in our world, including nature, that is free of the magical and the sacred? And what would it take for us to revive the idea, which was actually, after all, there in some of the Romantics? Even though Shelley, for instance, proclaimed atheism and so on. And so presumably when they saw what Abrams called natural supernaturalism, the notion of supernatural there is really a quite thin idea of the supernatural. I’m not putting it in terms that only a contemporary philosopher would use, I suppose. But it’s supernatural only in the sense that it is not what the natural sciences purvey.
Taylor: Yeah. Not their idea of natural.
Bilgrami: That’s all it means, and it would be entirely secular, so it would be “value and meaning,” etc. It’s not the business of natural science to study that. If that is so, is it possible, I mean, is it something that you call the subtraction view, that you’re just gonna subtract the sacral and the magical, and retain the evaluative and the meaningful?
Taylor: Yeah. No, the subtraction story is about a story of how it came about by just somehow throwing off the various transcendent beliefs. But I’m not sure it’s entirely secular. It depends what you mean by “entirely secular.” You see, what’s interesting about the whole Romantic thing from this point of view is you look through all the great writers—Wordsworth, Coleridge and then Shelley, and then you look at the Schlegels and Herder and so on. And what you find is that they don’t have a fundamental agreement on the deep ontology. Some of them remain orthodox. I mean, Wordsworth really became orthodox. Friedrich Schlegel became a Catholic and so on. Others, like Shelley, remain profoundly non-orthodox, even atheistic.
What they share is some sense of this some more powerful thing moving here, and in order to get what they all share, you have to use extremely vague terms, right? But there is something very powerful in this world that is not captured by natural science. Some of them think of that in traditional transcendent terms; some of them don’t.
So that’s why I say that what’s interesting about this whole movement is that new languages are developed in which you can talk about this which don’t have clear and final ontological commitments. I mean, interesting fact: Wordsworth’s poetry was taken up by George Eliot, George Eliot was atheist; it was taken up by perfectly orthodox people. I mean, Wordsworth was taken up by just every kind of position you could imagine in the 19th century. Now, that says something about the level of thinking and sensibility which somehow isn’t clearly placed in the secular/sacred opposition, right? I mean, individuals may place themselves, but that kind of thinking doesn’t clearly belong to this or to that. It leaves this space open, and that’s the fascinating thing about it.
Bilgrami: Right. And here’s a thought that I’ve had which I’ve been trying to pin down, and I’m very curious to know the extent to which it’s continuous with your ideas. Part of the malaise that you described, and the whole Weberian understanding of modernity, talks of alienation and disenchantment. And I’m wondering if the deepest thing about being un-alienated is—you know, apart from the sophisticated detail that Marx talks of, but the much deeper point which really is sort of taken for granted by Marx is that to be un-alienated is to be at home in the world, to not be an alien in the world. And to be at home in the world would mean presumably to have our subjectivity or agency be responsive to the normative demands the world makes on us, to be in sync with it. But for that to happen, the world has to be described in a way that it makes normative demands on us, so it has two values and meanings, etc., in it, as properties in it. So the most elementary and fundamental form of being un-alienated is to not see the world as something that our subjectivity must control. It’s a sort of Heideggerian and Gandhian way of thinking. It’s not something that is alien and therefore to be controlled, but actually makes demands with us which, in our responses, if we’re in sync with them, then we are un-alienated. So this would be the most elementary redress of the alienation that comes from disenchantment which refuses to see the world as it is. So is that something that you think would be the first—of course not the most sophisticated in detailed forms of an un-alienated life which have to do with labor and capital and of what it makes of the world around us—but a much more basic thing?
Taylor: Yes. But this other one that you’re talking about has to be brought into the equation too. You have to see how they fit together. You see, for someone like Marx, what you need to do is to revolutionize the social relations. I mean, you overcome alienation. And that’s not entirely untrue for Hegel, too, you see, the idea of the self-alienated spirit, is something that belongs to a certain epoch because the world was profoundly out of sync, right?
But what you’re saying is there must be a deeper level in which that we talk about humans in the natural world and not simply these and those human beings in the social world. Must be a deeper level at which – it can’t just all be projected by us. We have to be in some sense responding to it, right? And so the whole issue of alienation really depends on taking your general context question and looking at all these proposals to alter society and how they fit together. But you see, Marx completely fails to answer that broader thing. He sees it all as something –
Bilgrami: Exactly. Because of materialism.
Taylor: Yeah. Exactly.
Bilgrami: Right. Though I should remind you that there are three very fascinating pages on Marx and alienation in Abrams’s book, Natural Supernaturalism, where in very obscure ways I think he almost sees the point that he would have to build on this more basic thing. I mean, it doesn’t say that he doesn’t—but I think he sort of got it somehow because—
Taylor: Yeah. Well, you see, the big issue there—and that’s where Althusser came in—you can see very clearly in early Marx, he’s deeply moved by this Romantic sensibility, and in some of the unpublished manuscripts there are plain references to the human way of being in the world and joining the world. You can see this whole issue of a range of meanings. And then what comes out in Das Kapital is really quite hardnosed. It’s responding to a climate of late Victorian science, Darwin and so on. So the question is, did Marx totally leave that behind? And Althusser said he did, but what he didn’t take account of is, in the 1860s, I mean the 1850s, you have the contrassa, where you still have this language. So Marx himself must’ve been uncertain about this. He moved to a presentation of his position that didn’t rely on that at all. And Engels never—Engels was tone-deaf about this.
Bilgrami: That’s right. [Laughter]
Taylor: [Laughter] From the very beginning. But early Marx was a German Romantic in many important respects.
Bilgrami: Right. Let me switch subjects just a little bit, not entirely.
You know, as you say, I think you announce right at the beginning of your book that you’re going to study religion and secularism only within the context of Latin Christendom, and really, even only in the North Atlantic region.
Taylor: Yeah, and even that isn’t fully covered. [Laughter]
Bilgrami: Right. And I’m curious a little bit about, in these descriptions of the emergence of a secular age at this large site, how comprehensive was the reach of this in other parts of the world? When Gandhi, who was an essentially religious person, was writing in 1908—he really had the sense that India was at just the cusp that England, the colonial master, and Europe generally, was in the late 17th century, what you describe in the providential deist stuff and so on. So he had this idea that parts of the world, India, for instance, which was at that cusp, and he was filled with anxiety about people around him who, even if they were religious, wanted this modernity, foreign then, and thought it was inevitable. And he was filled with anxiety, and it’s fascinating to see that exactly these anxieties were there amongst a lot of dissenters, who were seeing the direction in which it was happening in England and in Europe. And Jonathan Israel and others have described these dissenters as the Radical Enlightenment, etc. So it’s very interesting that Gandhi had all the instincts that these dissenters had. And he really thought they were in the same situation. But all that leads me to ask you, if we can talk of re-enchantment today, or if we can talk of putting constraints on the spirit of disenchantment, at any rate? If you can talk of tiny reversions here and there rather than—nobody can turn it all back, of course. But to the extent that we can talk of reversions of this kind, how comprehensive do you think the reach of these changes that you describe as emerging in early modernity are in the world? And how should we begin to think of resistances to its spread in those parts where it hasn’t reached? It’s very hard to think about all this, because of course, it’s different in different parts of the world and so on. But do you have any optimism about this? Do you have a sense of its scope?
Taylor: Well, you have to be very optimistic, because the alternative is just terribly dire. But it’s not simple. For instance, I can’t really buy the Insuraj program which is going to stop the train, I mean, literally. [Laughter] But let people go on living in these local communities with a certain sense of what their neighbors are and roughly the same technologies. I mean, in theory it works wonderfully; in practice, people desire some of the things that you get from communications and are gonna want them. So the question is, how can you have this, as it were, advance in technology, communication technology, travel technology, and so on, and yet retain a certain sense that the world we live in makes claims on us? Now, I think that is not as difficult now as it was 50 years ago, because we see a disaster for us, right? I mean, it’s not just that people are moved by a sense of “We’re all gonna have no air to breathe”—that’s very strong utilitarianism—but that the whole prestige of this mode of life has been undercut by the fact that it has no answer for this. And you get people flying off with Gaia hypotheses and so on and so on. So from that point of view, I’m not totally pessimistic.
Bilgrami: As resources for us.
Taylor: If you go back to Tocqueville’s visit to America in the 1830s, there’s a very funny thing that wasn’t in the book, but that one gets in his biography. So Chateaubriand was his great inspirer who talks about the great woods of America. So he finally went to the frontier, and he wanted these woodsmen to take him into the woods, and they said, “What do you want?” They thought he was a speculator; he wants to carve out—you know, “So what’s your game?” [Laughter] They couldn’t understand. These two points of view just clashed. But now, I mean, Chateaubriand is more understandable today even for people who are into the lumber business—
Taylor: Yeah. And even some Gandhian themes are reemerging. People talk about the slow-food movement, and then the other aspects of that—that you should eat nothing drawn beyond five kilometers from where you are. I mean, there’s an idea of depending on the immediately surrounding resources again. And a lot of people are trying to adopt this, you see, and now try to in a way to stop the train. So you see some of those Gandhian insights amid possible destruction—they’re working on the way people organize their lives, and not simply going for, we hope, ecological policies on greenhouse gas.
Bilgrami: There’s a question that I’d be curious to know your view about. This takes us to the relationship between religion and politics, to some extent. You know, these things require movements, because governments and policymakers and certainly corporations don’t listen to anything but a certain amount of pressure. I mean, corporations and governments are basically dispositions in a way. They’re disposed to get profit or promote the interests of their nation or whatever it is. And they’re not rational beings, so you have to put pressure on them, because, I mean, they’re nothing but forces, so there has to be sort of counterforces, and those always have come from movements.
Bilgrami: I mean, all the major changes in this country have come from movements—you know, labor legislation movements in the ’30s, civil rights and so on in the ’60s. So a lot of this requires movement, but the thing is that the kinds of malaise you’ve been talking about, which is an atomization and fragmentation of our lives, makes it very much harder to start a movement than it was even in the ’60s. And certainly—because we have things to do. So I go to a meeting once in a month, and then I go to a meeting the next month, but it’s very hard to keep it up, to organize, to get people together, because our lives are fragmented. You’ve just got things to do which are so fragmented, and it’s part of the kinds of loss that you were describing that comes with modernity.
Taylor: And they formed part of the people, and they actually altered the pattern of voting from what it otherwise would have been.
Taylor: Now, I’m just terrified that they’re gonna feel that they’re not—because they didn’t perhaps realize how hard it was gonna be to change some of these things, and how entrenched.
Bilgrami: Right. But it was a movement, you say.
Taylor: It was a movement. It was definitely a movement. It changed politics. It was a real movement in politics that we hadn’t seen.
Bilgrami: Yeah, and in fact, I was reading that the way Lula got elected in Brazil was amazing. It was a real movement. So there are sort of pockets of possibility that you think—good. Well, that’s an optimistic note to—
Taylor: End on. [Laughter]
Chumley: Could you touch on your election to seep in the topic of the canned interaction to explain to –
Taylor: Yeah. I mean, that’s a bad title. I’ll tell you what it’s about. This would help.
Chumley: Yeah, what’s it about?
Bilgrami: I’m responsible for that
Taylor: No, no, it isn’t you. I think I sent it in… What I want to do is talk about reductionism, which is the issue of human explanation, right? And I want to talk about two kinds of reductionism, which could go in different directions but which can also be in some kind of synergy. One is the attempt to take, if you like, the goals of a human being that aren’t obviously economic and to do with life and the reproduction of life, goals to do with morality and aesthetics and so on, and in some way take them down a peg. Take them down a peg in terms of cause of explanation. A kind of vulgar Marxism: history’s being moved by economic demands and not by moral demands. But also take them down a peg—and this is a connection to Akeel’s work—by declaring them to be simple projections. I mean, they’re not reactions to real properties, but things we project.
The other kind of reduction is the attempt at an explanation of human action which we normally talk of in terms of purposes, goals, working out how to get it, etc.—in purely mechanistic terms. In other words, in terms that fit with natural science in the post-Galilean period, where efficient causation is the only thing. So you get various movements, like the present attempt to understand the human mind in terms of computer models and so on, and how these two could be different. There’s certain kinds of Marxists who want to do the first kind but who look disparagingly on mechanistic materialism – materialism is a keyword here for both of them—as against dialectical materialism, and so they split the two. But there is a way in which they’re in synergy, so I want to take people like Dennett and Steve Pinker and so on as my example, and I want to explain the synergy. I want to explain how, if you buy into the second type of reduction, pure explanation in terms of efficient causation, you cannot but declare all those meanings and morals and aesthetics to be purely projection. I mean, Pinker talks about music as “auditory cheesecake”— [Laughter]
Taylor: But I wanna try to explain the deep reasons why you can have no other view but the projectionist view. If you are doing reduction 2, reduction 1 becomes not a free move, a forced move. I mean, it has to belong to the system. So the whole thing brings me to a point where we could have a discussion, because then you are making a very strong argument that we can’t really run our lives from the first-person standpoint as though that were the case. I mean, we can’t. So there’s a real difficulty that you can’t—
Bilgrami: You can’t really have agency without the world demanding it of us, as it were. Charles’s first book was on the explanation of human behavior. And I think it may have been the very early—
Taylor: Middle of ’64, it came out. It was my Ph.D. thesis.
Bilgrami: Right. So people like Winchen, Milden, and all those people wrote after you.
Taylor: Yes, but they were slightly different. I mean, we were not that far apart, but they were slightly—
Bilgrami: Right. Slight differences, yeah.
Taylor: Very Wittgensteinian. I was Merleau-Ponty, a little bit disguised—
Bilgrami: And they were all increments—
Taylor: —put into increments, yeah. But there’s various sources that you can get some insights out of.
Bilgrami: Yeah. But it’s related to some of the themes of the buffer itself and all that we’ve been talking about. It’s the reductions of the mind which force this buffer in, and it’s just the other side of loss of value and meaning in the book.
Chumley: Just one other quick thing, just not necessarily for the radio part, but I’m just really noticing, and have for, gosh, almost a decade, how obsessed this culture is with death. Images of death on the subway right up here. There are at least a dozen dudes with lit skulls and crucifixes and blood, and one guy was wearing a hat with a skull and crossbones on it and the word “toxic” written on the hat. We look at television. We look at the cinema. A lot of our literature is very death-obsessed. But what do you think is behind that?
Taylor: There’s several possible things, but there certainly is a very, very old human reaction, which started off, anyway, in warrior castes, and that is to reverse the feel of fear of death. I mean, in other words, because it is such a fearful thing, to stand absolutely unmoved. It gives you a tremendous sense of the power if you can do that right. And we are lords of death. We deal death, and we’re willing to go anytime or to have this stance. We’ve got things like the famous Prussian regiment of the 18th century, the Death Head regiment, and then this survivor of the Hitler regime, too, with the skull. The skull was a way of dealing with the feel of fear of death, which is a kind of resolute facing of it. You reverse the feel of it. I mean, precisely what makes it fearful also makes it exhilarating if you take resolutely this stance. Now, I think that people are playing with that.
Taylor: You see, they’re not really like these warriors, who really were out there, their lives on the line. But people are—they get that kind of kick. They can get that kind of lift from that.
Bilgrami: But I wonder, Chuck, how much—since we’ve de-sacralized, do you see—we’ve been talking in the last hour or so about the de-sacularization of the world and nature, but the fact is we’ve de-sacularized life as well. And take it for granted that you can go five miles up in the air and just bomb whole populations, without seeing the spectacular thing done there, but something is just completely—it’s just populations, not people, right?
Taylor: Collateral damage.
Bilgrami: Collateral damage, etc. Right, so it’s totally detached from your life as well. Not just the world, but of human life. And so I’m wondering how much one is finding in these bizarre forms of re-sacralizations of death, because life is now—and so one is just thinking that that’s where the enchantment is, some crazy thing—
Taylor: Well, maybe that’s part of it too. But I mean, it’s not totally de bonne foi in a certain sense, because they’re bringing death back in but in a way that is just playing with it. But that’s why it’s maybe thought of as being an antidote to this sanitized and anesthetized way of dealing—
Bilgrami: With life.
Taylor: Dealing death.
Bilgrami: Yes, right.
Chumley: Maybe to have a sense of aliveness, they need to embrace their—
Taylor: I think so, because there’s a certain sense of utter deadness, anesthesia that you get with this totally sanitized mode of life.
Chumley: It’s bizarre. I see these ads for fashion. Armani. They’ve got a whole series of advertisements, and the models look like they’re dead.
Taylor: They’re skeletons, yeah.
Chumley: They’ve got black eyes, so they look like zombies, like the living dead. Just amazing to me… Anyway, thank you both so very, very much. Gosh, what an interesting conversation.
Bilgrami: Yeah, it was fun.
Chumley: This was delicious. Thank you.