Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Morgan, Michael L. "Review of Charles Taylor's THE SECULAR AGE." NDPR (August 2008).

Taylor, Charles. The Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. This is a very important book and quite an extraordinary one. Some years ago, a colleague of mine began a review with a sentence that I have always wanted to use myself: "if I had written this book, I would die a happy man." The sentiment expressed by this sentence, that the book being reviewed has about it a kind of greatness and worth such that authoring it could easily count as the culmination of a fully worthwhile life, is one that I admit to feeling about Charles Taylor's monumental work A Secular Age. Taylor of course is well-known for his books on psychological explanation, Hegel, communitarian political philosophy, ethics and moral philosophy, and much else. Arguably he is one of the most influential English- language philosophers of the past half century. The scope of his thought is impressive -- history, political theory, ethics and moral philosophy, art, epistemology, and religion. But more to the point, it is the special way in which Taylor has bridged the gap between continental and analytic philosophy that is important and the way that in the course of bridging that gap he has shaped an historically rich and philosophically powerful conception of the modern identity and its social and cultural matrices. The current work is a much-expanded version of Taylor's Gifford Lectures and a natural successor to his earlier book Sources of the Self. In that book, Taylor identified the major features of our moral-political-religious identity in the Western world and showed how those features developed and crystallized out of various historical processes. He also framed the demands of such an identity broadly in terms of what he there called "moral sources" in order to display various modern options for what empowers and inspires our moral sensibilities. I am convinced, moreover, that in that work Taylor ultimately endorses the ways in which a religious moral source can and should be called upon to satisfy our needs as moral and political selves in the modern world. In the end, that is, Sources of the Self is both an exploration of who we are as modern selves and an apology for an ethics that refers to transcendence and is religious, and specifically Christian in spirit. But the focus of Sources of the Self is ethical and political, even if its conclusions, as I read it, are spiritual and religious, even if, that is, it argues that only a transcendent moral source is sufficient to inspire and empower the moral order that we in fact occupy. This is where A Secular Age constitutes a supplement to the earlier work. In the new book Taylor explores the religious -- and specifically the Christian -- character of our age and the various options available to believers and non-believers in our time. Moreover, not only does he provide a narrative of how these options arose and developed, from 1500 to the present, but he also examines the challenges they face and the dialectical ways in which these options are related to their cultural and political context, our needs and values, and one another. In the course of this account, furthermore, Taylor occasionally identifies his own proclivities and commitments, his own receptivity to transcendence and engagement with the historical, cultural, and political challenges we all face. Along the way, of course, we are introduced to a variety of ideal types of religious and non-religious ways of life, but this is no disinterested scholarly inquiry, no disengaged charting of territory or classification. It is rather an elaborate and committed mapping of territory for inhabitants by a co-inhabitant and a restrained eulogy to a particular domicile by one who occupies it. A Secular Age is a philosophical paean to one form of Christian moral and political life. . . . Read the rest here:

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