December 7th, 2010

Spiritual Gains

Charles Taylor (Philosopher)

by: Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk

Religion, politics, and ignorance past: philosopher Charles Taylor in discussion with The Utopian.



Charles Taylor in conversation with The Utopian.

Is it possible to be religious in today’s world?

What did Aquinas say? From being to possibility? I think I am religious, so it might be possible. Now, that’s perhaps not the sense in which the question was meant. But in almost any sense, yes, it is possible. Now, some people may be in a situation — both in their own evolution and in what surrounds them — where they have a sense of the Immanent Frame as absolutely unbreakable. So you can also have local points where you might find it absolutely impossible. But then you also have other local points, like the Bible Belt and so on, where it is almost impossible to be the opposite.

But in general in our great society we have all kinds.

But you believe that the Immanent Frame somehow limits the mode in which we can be religious?

If you’re living in this Western modern construction of which the Immanent Frame is a part, your whole understanding of what it means to be religious is going to be different than if you’re living in 15th century Tuscany, say, or even some parts of 20th century rural Mexico, or 21st century Benares. The thing is: the more you study this, the more you see how fantastically different what we call religious can be, and how many different situations and different openings and different possibilities there are.

“There are very few transitions in history where I feel it’s obvious that it’s all downhill, or all uphill.”

It is one thing to say it is different. It is another thing to ask how, as a believer, you evaluate this. Is there a way in which it was once possible to envisage belief, but is no longer possible?

It’s not unambiguous and easy to say if it was better or worse. But you can say two things. Number one: we couldn’t be like that. We couldn’t be like the Aztecs, etc.

Number two: most of the time I want to say that there are gains and losses. There are very few transitions in history where I feel it’s obvious that it’s all downhill, or all uphill. It’s not all anything.

That’s the interesting thing about the human condition — that you have these different cultural constellations that open up parts of people’s minds but close others. So the interesting normative issue that arises from all this is how to maximally develop, and make as full as possible the things that are good in this country — while somehow seeing whether we can’t recuperate some of the losses.

You know, this is not an invention of mine. This is what underlies a great deal of the Romantic period — of Romantic poetry, and so on. I mean, some Enlightenment boosters think that this means totally looking backward. In reality most of the great Romantic poets were taking some very important features of the Enlightenment, but they were also saying something about loss. Now, we can argue a lot about what are the gains and what are the losses. We won’t agree on that. But this is the only sensible way of talking. The idea that it’s all uphill or downhill is so incredibly implausible in virtue of the nature of human beings and their cultures, that these positions should just be thrown out before we start talking. And yet they are actually very common positions.

So one way of formulating the political upshot of A Secular Age is to say that by learning to appreciate again the values we have lost, we may actually be able to incorporate some of them into the present world. Do you have an example of how that might be possible, and of how politics might help us do that?

The book may have political consequences, but it’s not something that you could necessarily produce by political action. For example: we develop this tremendous tendency to see the world in terms of instrumental reason, all the time. But when we look back to earlier kinds of culture, we see that for big swathes of life this was not at all the case. If you go back far enough, you find Aborigines in Australia, for whom particular elements of the landscape hold a different kind of meaning. If you go back less far, you find other ways in which the way we organized our social life was also not seen as instrumentally, rationally justified. So there are certain gains here. We have greater power, we can develop these big societies like nations where you can have some degree of control over things since you share a common cultural identity. So you can see the positive side. But you also see the incredible amount of loss of sensitivity to what nature is like around us, which is something that it’s worth rediscovering.

Now, this is not something for which I have a political program for recovery. But I do note that it has political consequences. People who are activated by this kind of desire are more likely to be militants in the ecological movement, or vote for the Greens, than people who are entirely into the instrumental stance.

“For someone who has a hammer all problems look like nails. The same is true of someone who has an instrumentally rational view of the world.”

Do you think of any particular mode of thought as a particular intellectual adversary to your way of thinking?

Yes. There is a combination between the instrumental, rational stance and attempts to understand human life totally in terms of the mechanistic category — without the categories of purpose, teleology, intentionality, and so on. The mechanistic view and pure instrumentalism go very well together because, from the very beginning, the kind of post-Baconian, Galilean science that is paradigmatic for such people has been a science of, if you like, efficient causation, linked ideologically with control over nature. The point is not to have a beautiful view of the order of the universe that will inflate our ego, but to improve the condition of humankind.

For someone who has a hammer all problems look like nails. The same is true of someone who has an instrumentally rational view of the world. All problems will look like nails to him. So you get an absurd overreliance on certain kinds of explanations and interventions. People think that all psychological problems can be cured by changing body chemistry, taking some Prozac, and so on. These attitudes and explanatory hypotheses all share a certain affinity. It’s not that it isn’t logically possible to break with one and stick with the other, but there is a certain affinity between them.

So that whole complex I’ve always seen as my primary enemy.

“Ecumenicism as a real desire to learn from the other — and this extends to atheists as well — to learn from the other why their position so deeply appeals to them…”

So let’s talk about these political consequences. If you jettison something like the mechanistic worldview, and perhaps substitute it with a more holistic religion that makes more claims of authority during our time on earth — wouldn’t one of the consequences be that it would be very difficult for many such religions to co-exist? Is the liberal part of your soul worried about the societal clashes that might result?

That sort of thing is possible, but it’s not inevitable. Religions can be lived in very many different ways. One of the big things that started happening in the 20th century is ecumenicism. I don’t just mean: let’s get together, let’s be nice to each other. (Laughs) I mean, I’m all for that.

But there’s something else which is much more subtle. This is ecumenicism as a real desire to learn from the other — and this extends to atheists as well — to learn from the other why their position so deeply appeals to them. There is a great deal of exchange operating at this level. It both presupposes but also builds initial respect and friendship. Again, you could say that this all corresponds to a new upheaval for people, who find it very difficult to flip back to the old way. So people argue that it, too, has downsides. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly has upsides. For instance, it frees in a plural-religious situation — where the other is a real possibility — certain kinds of ecumenicism that have traditionally existed in more despotically ordered societies. For instance, where the Greek Christians and the Armenian Christians and the Turkish Muslims all co-existed and nobody expected anyone to look at each other.

But in situations where one can move around, there is an easy tendency to defend yourself against any doubts about whether you should become an atheist, or whether an atheist should become a Christian, by supremely deprecatory views of the other. “I mean, I could change my mind, but their view is so ridiculous,” or horrifying or whatever. So the side of all this that clears away the deprecatory images is very important to one’s spiritual development — but it’s more than that. It’s a sense that (one is tempted to use one’s own language, naturally, so let me use the Christian language) you can see the Spirit moving in all these different lives, and that is something both very inspiring and furthering of one’s own spiritual development. I think a lot of that is coming to exist.

And you can see it in Vatican II. It’s not an accident that Vatican II adopted a very new stance to ecumenicism on the part of the Catholic clergy. There are still a number of holdouts. The current pope clearly doesn’t know what he thinks about ecumenicism. So one of the downsides is that we have tremendous fights about this within each confession, perhaps. Nevertheless, it opens up the possibility of the co-existence of people who are not lukewarm about their faith, yet don’t see a reason to rush out and start fighting with others.

Where do you see the limits of that respect of one community to another? The individual account has inbuilt limits. It says: we respect what somebody chooses unless that person infringes on the free choices of another. In a community you don’t have inbuilt limits about how it can treat its members.

Look, you can’t just turn on respect for anything, whatever its content. I was just talking about spiritual gains. It’s clear that I don’t have a lot of respect for positions that are based on or have been shored up by these deprecatory caricatures.

In a certain sense, part of the bad news of this sort of ecumenical exchange at a deep level is that we help each other to climb out of these defensive, deprecating positions. And that precisely might mean that you don’t respect someone’s position as much as you did before; there is something to respect in it, but it’s something that is obviously not as good.

But even when you talk about people who you don’t respect in your own work, you talk about them in terms of dialogue. Is there a point when you can’t engage them in dialogue anymore? A point when what they do to members of their own communities are so bad that we have to intervene?

Yes, that’s a political issue. When people do heinous things to other people then we should intervene. There’s a whole issue about humanitarian intervention here. Lots of dangers of trying to intervene are not adequately appreciated, so we shouldn’t rush into it. But other things being equal —and, certainly, in our own society — we should certainly intervene.

So do you think the question of humanitarian intervention is primarily a strategic rather than a moral question?

It’s both. There has to be a moral reason for humanitarian intervention, but just having a good moral reason in the sense that some terrible practice is going on may not be sufficient — because you may be making things worse.

So if we’re convinced that we would in fact make things better, what governs when we are or are not justified to intervene?

Egregious human rights violations. You can’t justify force internationally without some egregious human rights violations.

What would count as such a human rights violation?

Obviously, genocidal situations. But there are other kinds of human rights violations, like indiscriminate killing of various members of other ethnicities. These are the kinds of things which, if the situation is right, justify intervention. But the situation very often isn’t right and you might just make things worse.

“The capacity to love … is more important to me than the capacity to reason”

Where do you think the moral force of human rights comes from? Do you think this is a hand-down from a Catholic tradition of natural law, or do you think there is a justification of human rights that is universally valid irrespective of your religious beliefs?

Well, natural law would be universally valid irrespective of your religious beliefs. It’s hard for me to say. Obviously, there are very different justifications of it. Kantians have an idea of the dignity of the rational agent. My particular view is one that’s more informed by Christian culture than others. The capacity to love which is more important to me than the capacity to reason, though that too is important.

In fact, we operate in the modern world — the later Rawls is right about this at least — with an overlapping consensus regarding such different positions.

“There has been a long-term, slow, painful shift [in my beliefs. My earlier self] would have been baffled.”

What philosophical view or political commitment of yours has changed most over their course of your life? Has there been any important shift?

There has been a long-term, slow, painful shift. It’s hard to put this in simple words. I think that I’m just more aware of historical and cultural differences. My philosophical anthropology is more and more colorful. But that is a simple learning process. I don’t feel that this is a breakthrough — it’s a process that’s been happening naturally.

Would you describe yourself when you were starting off with your first book as less open to this?

In some ways not less open, because I was very interested in and wanted to learn about other people, other societies. But I didn’t have that integrated into my philosophical anthropology or my explanations. My first book was trying to critique behaviorism, so it wasn’t exactly entirely irrelevant then. So perhaps I’m not being quite fair on myself. But at that time I wouldn’t have been able to tackle issues like “alternative modernities.” I wouldn’t have known how to tackle them at all. I would have been baffled.

Perhaps if you played back to my then-self what I am saying now I might have been intrigued, but I would have been a bit baffled. Whereas now, everything else seems to me wildly off the point. So there has been an evolution of some kind, but there hasn’t been a radical shift.

If your former self would not have been able to appreciate a recording of what you are saying now, what is it that allowed you to broaden your mind in this way?

Well, I mean strangely enough people like Hegel helped. When I began to understand how our culture shapes our whole understanding of politics, what we argue and write about, the more obvious it became to me that different cultures have to be approached by grasping those different structures and modes of understanding. So something like “Modern Cultural Imaginaries” as a way of understanding this would have been hard for me to grasp in the late 1950s and 1960s.

“The reinvigoration of the civic republican tradition will be a very important part of a left-wing program.”

We now seem to be in a situation where the political right, and especially the political left, has lost its political program. Where should the left look for political orientation?

I think that there is the concern of the civic republican tradition, which is a concern with constantly recreating through collective action the preconditions for mutual trust and solidarity. Without these free societies can’t function.

Then there has been developed on top of that a very articulated human rights discourse, human rights law, and so on, concerned with individual rights, with equality and non-discrimination, with the promotion of democracy, so that a lot of people now look at politics in this framework. Is the polity violating this or that non-discrimination requirement, or this or that right? And that has come to eclipse the tradition of worrying about the collective creation of the common conditions of trust which alone, I think, make this kind of society possible.

So I think there’s been a slide here. There’s a lot of things going into that. First: a certain protracted individuation. Second: it must be said that the authenticity revolution has also been interwoven with consumer capitalism. There’s a whole lot of things that have moved us away from the civic republican tradition, from the tradition we need to revitalize.

Now I think the Obama campaign has been a good attempt to do this, because it managed to get a lot of people around a political program which was designed to increase solidarity, mutual trust, and so on. It hasn’t seemed to work out that way. But it managed temporarily to take headlines off an exclusive concern with the issue of rights. I mean the question of abortion is still exclusively fought out on the American scene as a question of rights. Issues of what this does to the whole society, and our relationship to each other, are completely precluded.

So the reinvigoration of the civic republican tradition will be a very important part of a left-wing program. The rest of the program depends on the situation wherever you are. From my point of view as a Canadian, there are things in the United States that are crying out for change, obviously. On health care, we sat there, bug eyed, looking across the border, thinking: “What the —.” Apart from the lies they told about our system — we’re not going to be insulted by that — the way in which, it seemed to us, certain elementary facts and considerations were just ignored. A lot of people seemed untroubled by the fact that there are 37 or 38 million uninsured Americans.

So that’s one piece of an agenda over there, whereas it wouldn’t be a piece of agenda in our country. It would be something else, which would be woven into this attempt to revitalize politics. But I think that is a really important dimension of politics that the left should take up.

So when we think about an issue like abortion, it might be very persuasive to say: Let’s think about how people with different beliefs can live together. But what would the relevant considerations be then? How, if not in terms of a supposed “right to privacy,” should we frame the question?

Well, you see it in a lot of European countries. It’s not going to be an easy thing to resolve, because we do have opposing principles. But on one hand, abandoning the idea of legally forbidding abortion; on the second hand, placing certain constraints on it in terms of limiting it to the first trimester and other conditions; on the third hand, from the perspective of people who feel troubled by abortion, which I have a certain sympathy with, there could be more vigorous efforts to convince people who might be on the borderline and to give them more possibilities.

So you find this in many European countries — some kind of compromise has been worked out, which nobody finds totally acceptable, but which is better than this knock-down, all or nothing, zero-sum game, which holds the political process to ransom.

“I have a theory about the U.S. which, like all such theories, is probably off the wall.”

Do you think that it is plausible to find this kind of compromise in the United States? Or was Europe able to find this compromise in the first place because it has more of a tradition of mutual accommodation and compromise?

Well, it’s hard to say why the United States hasn’t done that. I have a theory about the U.S. which, like all such theories, is probably off the wall. But I think that the reason for there being so much more hate around this issue — and around another issue, gay marriage — is that in the American case, which I call neo-Durkheimean, a substantial number of Americans see American identity as bound up with a certain kind of religious stance. And then other Americans feel very offended and angry at that, and think: no, the American identity is bound up with a certain kind of secularist stance. So these two ways of seeing the situation keep jacking up the ante. Each side considers the other side as betraying what America stands for. That’s what makes it so tremendously full of anger, and intractable. “If you are a proposing treason, I’m not going to compromise with you…”

You seem to be describing a civil war within the civil religion.

A kind of civil war within a civil religion, yes. That’s a very good way of putting it. And I listen to the rhetoric of the American right about “taking back America.” What do you mean “taking back?” It’s very telling. So it’s because of the intensity of American nationalism, and it’s because of the non-intensity of the nationalism in these other Western countries, that you can’t get this kind of thing going. You can’t bring these questions together in the same force-field, so that the tremendous power of one question gets linked up to the radiating power of another question, and then it really becomes a kind of civil war. In the U.S., you find this happening, unfortunately, with a lot of questions, including guns.


It’s incredible… Another thing I found extraordinary is the way these things are related. I thought the U.S. Supreme Court was crazy in the Bush vs. Gore decision. And then I thought they were super-crazy with that judgment allowing very rich corporations to tell lies about the Canadian health system. But then, this past June, I thought that they were … I mean, what the hell. I can see why some hunting macho guy in Omaha, chasing deer would want guns, but these are sophisticated … what is going on? I mean, all of us are completely baffled.

But what about European pathologies? When you talked about the U.S. you said that one problem is this intense sense of nationalism that European countries don’t have. But what Europe has, and America doesn’t, is a strong sense of historical, collective, religious, ethnic identity. What sort of problems does that create?

Yes, it’s terrible. They let all these people in — or in fact invited them in, in the case of the German Gastarbeiter — but they don’t want to reorder their identity in order to give them a place.

Now, until the very recent past, until the last 50 years or, the Europeans hadn’t had this kind of influx. Or, as in the case of interwar France, they did, but in conditions where the people concerned — Italians, Portuguese, some Poles — were eager to be totally assimilated. They were willing to be integrated, and so they were. You get people like Yves Montand, who is Italian.

Later they got people who couldn’t easily make this jump. That’s something totally new, and it’s very disorienting. I can understand that. But the creative and only possible response is to take account of that to redefine national identity.

So there are reactions you can easily understand. But then these partly produce and partly feed on an absence of integration which you don’t have in the U.S. because most of the people they let in — or who sneak in — find some kind of a job and can get on, whereas that is not the case in, let’s say, France. So you get these kids in the banlieues in Paris who are very angry, and then that feeds back into the thoughts of the whole society. So you get this kind of self-defeating circle.

It’s a terrible pathology, a very, very dangerous one. I was looking at the television at the time of the riots. I was just horrified. Sarkozy was the Minister of the Interior and he took this very hard rhetorical line. These racaille, that scum — that was the beginning of his climb in the polls, which eventually made him President. And since then, he’s tried to attract the vote of the Front National, and the result was this ridiculous — I would say atrocity if it weren’t so ridiculous — law banning the burqa. Only one deputy stood up and said the right things. He said: you start discriminating against minorities like that and it’s more like a totalitarian country than a democracy. But only one deputy stood up.

So I’m hoping the French begin to see that this is not a way forward, this is a way to just entrench the problems. People get more angry, and then they burn more cars, and the mainstream grows more hostile to them. This is a really dangerous thing.

Now, there are other European societies like Germany that have responded very well. Even Austria has responded quite well. You see, they had no real serious policies to integrate immigrants — so a lot of German laender and Vienna are now trying to integrate them into kindergartens and trying to make sure that they really speak good German before they get into their schools. There are all sorts of measures like that. They’re really taking measures to integrate them, to give them a sense of integration, and so on. Now, in Austria there also are these right-wing parties that are spewing awful stuff. But there is some hope.

Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher from Montreal. He is the author, most recently, of A Secular Age (Harvard University Press).

Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk are editors of The Utopian.

This interview was conducted on July 17, 2010 in Cortona, Italy.

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