Balancing acts in a nervous age

Philosophical Arguments
February 2, 1996

As a title Philosophical Arguments is something of a misnomer. Charles Taylor is a highly distinctive thinker. But what marks him out from most Anglo-American philosophers is scarcely an addiction to argument.

True, the earliest (and most technical) piece in his present collection, "The Validity of Transcendental Arguments", deals with a type of argument, pioneered in its modern forms by Kant and still of keen philosophical interest. Yet even here Taylor's conception of what such arguments consist in and signify is appreciably more relaxed than the majority of his anglophone contemporaries. Many of the present pieces are not really arguments at all; and anyone who buys it under the misapprehension that they can anticipate a rich diet of argument is likely to be acutely disappointed.

What they can anticipate, however, is rarer and, at least potentially, far more valuable. Taylor is a figure of very broad intellectual (and indeed emotional and political) sympathies and interests. He is also someone with a vision and set of purposes very much his own, who has stubbornly resisted the dominant culture of anglophone philosophy and social science throughout his intellectual life, and seen the balance of intellectual judgement within each swing slowly but quite insistently back towards his.

This assessment is, of course, acutely controversial. It would be vigorously denied, for example, by most of those whose judgement has, if anything, shifted in precisely the opposite direction. But they, perhaps, are hardly the best judges.

Some of Taylor's main themes are shared by his American contemporary Richard Rorty. Both attack what they see as the perverse and profoundly distorting impact of epistemology on modern western philosophy. Both are keen admirers of the later Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger. But what they draw from these twin sources is strikingly different. Rorty combines a belligerent pragmatism with a flamboyantly mocking postmodern sensibility and in many ways a remarkably sanguine appreciation of the contemporary political and social achievements of the United States. He is as much at home with Jacques Derrida as he is with W. V. Quine. It is quite hard to imagine Wittgenstein at any age fancying Derrida's intellectual style, and even harder to envisage Heidegger appreciating Quine. Taylor, by contrast, is plainly pretty ill at ease with Derrida, and yearns to displace a philosophy dominated by epistemology with one in which ontology plays a far more prominent role.

In the past the main impact of his criticism on the social sciences has been essentially negative. It has fallen above all on what he sees as the superstitious epistemological premises on which so many social scientists proceed (what used, a decade or so ago, to be called their "positivism"). In the present volume, he is less concerned to modify the professional activities of social scientists and the presuppositions on which these are supposedly based than to give some weight and imaginative accessibility to an alternative viewpoint of his own.

Some of the elements in this have been sketched out a number of times already, in the two volumes of philosophical papers, Human Agency and Language and Philosophy and the Human Sciences, which he published in 1985 with Cambridge University Press, and in his remarkable survey Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press 1989). While an essay collection of this kind is a less satisfactory vehicle for systematic exposition than a monograph like Sources of the Self, Philosophical Arguments undoubtedly gives a better sense of what Taylor really believes in and what he thinks it means.

What he believes is that human beings can and do and should know things about themselves and each other and the world in which they live, in a way in which no other sort of entity (except perhaps God) could or does. He sees the victims of western higher education over much of the last century as increasingly intimidated out of recognising this in his view obvious fact by imaginative and would-be analytical inventions of their own. He also believes that their political and social lives have been sharply distorted by this process of cumulative attrition. (Perhaps even their economic lives: he is not at his most lucid in dealing with the economic dimension of modern life.) To recover their balance, they need not merely to recapture their nerve in the face of what he sees as a range of epistemological phantoms, but also to develop a sturdier sense of who and what and when they really are. (It is scarcely surprising that he should feel some reservations about the impact of Derrida and Michel Foucault.) Taylor himself is a very rooted person: bilingual Montreal all the way down. But he is, of course, also exceedingly cosmopolitan: very much at home in Berlin, Paris, Rome or Warsaw, as well as in Oxford or Princeton. The great vehicle of this recommended ease in the world is a keener and more respectful sense of the role of language as the site of distinctively human experience: what enables human beings to be who and what (and, somewhat more elusively, where) they really are.

It is a tradition in the understanding of language which he sees as going back to Herder and Humboldt and Hegel, and forward to the later Wittgenstein and the later Heidegger, which is the main imaginative stock in trade on which he hopes to ground his alternative viewpoint, as well as to show up the superficial (and in his view irretrievably confused) viewpoints of his still distinctly more numerous philosophical and social scientific adversaries.

Transposed into contemporary politics and political philosophy this conception makes Taylor neither the most astringent, nor the most analytically pellucid, nor the most politically concrete of the communitarians; but it does make him in some ways the most suggestive and intriguing.

When he comes to treat political categories (civil society, the public sphere) he never sharpens their analytical outline and improves their potential utility as instruments of understanding. But he often brings out a range of issues which need to be considered carefully in relation to one another for there to be any real hope of fathoming what is going on in contemporary politics, and one which is hard to see clearly in relation to one another and virtually never considered effectively together.

What is powerful in Taylor in the end is his recognition of and witness to what most needs to be understood. What is weakest is his intellectual pertinacity: his preparedness to force things through to a level of clarity where others will in some sense be made or at least enabled to capture quite what he has recognised. By most relevant standards he is a person of extraordinary energy and enormously impressive achievement, who works on a very large scale, on problems of immense importance, and with unflagging intellectual ambition. Yet most of his work seems oddly unfinished, and his rendering of some of his most important ideas almost perfunctory.

The most striking example of these characteristics in the present collection is the essay on Heidegger, "Language and ecology". In Taylor's rendering Heidegger, at least by some point in his philosophical evolution, appears as the archetypal Taylorian. What his thought shows is that humans conjure into life a realm of shared experience which is somehow the most real thing there is: not just the most real for them, but the most fully and intractably there. You might call this conception "thick projectivis". It is humans who put this realm there. (Before them, it was not.) But it is in no sense a fantasy of theirs, but a truth for and about them, on which all other truths are contingent. (I rephrase drastically throughout.) The other particular structures of understanding which they also generate - the natural sciences, for example - are just aspects of this domain of shared experience and must respect the setting in which they have become possible and the whole of which they are somewhat unruly parts. Having conjured into existence and apprehended this realm of shared experience, what human beings should above all do is make themselves at home in it.

Heidegger, Taylor suggests, was very good on this point, though politically unsound on the presence of evil within the realm in question. His vivid apprehension of this shared domain can somehow help show humans today how to be both more at home in, and more deeply respectful of, the non human world which they also intractably inhabit. Heidegger, correctly understood and deftly laundered, could and would (and should) therefore be highly edifying for our ecological awareness and sensitivity.

There may be something here. But Taylor has scarcely yet succeeded in conveying quite what. Certainly the omission of evil was a political oversight. It is important that there is more to even the "thickest projectivism" than shared gemutlichkeit. To combine an awareness of who and what we are with a somewhat less feckless and tasteless practical grip on where we are is a fair summary of the main current political task.

But to see how to pull off this formidable assignment will require considerably more attention to political and economic causality, whatever one's conception of the social sciences.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Philosophical Arguments

Author - Charles Taylor
ISBN - 0 674 66476 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 318

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