September 26, 2012
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007)

Charles Taylor’s tour de force of intellectual history describes, over the course of over eight hundred meticulous pages, the tectonic transformations that gave rise to our “secular age.” How did we in the west, Taylor asks, disembed from a social imaginary in which it was utterly unthinkable not to believe in God, and come to embrace a new imaginary in which the belief in God represents just one among many options? Like other scholars, Taylor insists that secularism connotes not simply the retreat of religion nor the rise of reason in modernity. Instead, he argues that secularism refers to the closing of the sense of porousness between humankind and divinity—a porousness that medievals knew so well.

As God seemed more and more radically transcendent and unintelligible—and no longer was intimately known to humans, and not revealed in nature or things—humans developed a new anthropology. They began to see themselves as being “on their own” in their own world, and had to get on with their own devices (154). A new understanding of the human emerged, as a rational, bounded, disengaged, and disciplined agent or, in one of Taylor’s mememorable formulations, as a “buffered” self (136). Buffered humans may continue to believe in God—indeed, most people in modernity do—but that belief is no longer a cemented block in our social imaginary; it no longer inextricably yoked to the basic understanding of one’s own human existence or being-in-the-world as it was in the Middle Ages.

Taylor also argues that secularism derives from a highly complex set of social, political, psychological, religious, and scientific conditions set in motion in medieval and early modern Europe. The transformations were not linear, monocausal, willed, or intended. History “zigzagged” its way to the secular, often through adventitious circumstances (95).

One of the greatest adventitious engines revving the drive to secularization was the nominalist philosophical theology associated with William of Occam (1287-1347), dominant in the high and late Middle Ages. As opposed to realism, nominalism denies the existence of abstract and universal “essences” of things. What we call things or ideas are actually only names—that is, mere verbal designations—serving as imperfect labels. So whereas a realist thinks that our sense of “cat” speaks something about the root reality of cats, a nominalist thinks that cats only exist to us insofar as we call them cats. Nominalists like Occam held their views in part to safeguard God’s radical omnipotence and otherness, apart from the finitude of human affairs. If humans could know something in its root reality, he reasoned, then they could know something about the true nature of God. Since humans, being finite and creaturely, surely cannot know the infinite God, then the world we live in must be merely a nominal world. And the separation of the world of humans from the world of God—the closing of the porousness—commenced. Ironically, what began as a way to preserve divine omnipotence ended up divorcing divinity from the world such that humans were enabled, as never before, to imagine a new world “on their own.”

Taylor’s account provides much fodder for the scholar interested in issues of materiality. The demise of realism and ascendency of nominalism, Taylor argues, ushered in “a quite different framework understanding of what it is to be a thing, of what is important in thinghood” (96). When realism prevailed, people assumed that things had (divinely imputed) meanings within them. Their creator revealed normative patterns or “essences” in things, and hence things did not need our human imputations on them. In the modern era, however, people began to speak not of things but of objects. Since God no longer models patterns or essences in things, chunks of matter now become instruments to us. “The purposes things [as objects] serve are extrinsic to them,” in Taylor’s words (97). Objects are important only insofar as we, as subjects or “buffered” selves, act upon them.

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