Charles Taylor: Assessment of his View on 'Modernity'.
The brilliant Canadian philosopher explores modernity and the view from many that it reflects nothing but loss or a decline of civilization.
Charles Taylor’s book The Malaise of Modernity, which is essentially the fruit of a series of presentations that he made at the Massey Lectures hosted by Massey College and CBC, was originally published in English under the title The Malaise of Modernity. However, the title of the French translation is Grandeur et misère de la modernité  and taken from a line in the last paragraph of the book in which Taylor paraphrases a quote from Pascal concerning the state of the human race.
Throughout its 10 chapters, Taylor explores three malaises of modernity (recognizing that there may be more) and the perception from some that this modernity reflects nothing but loss or a decline of civilization. His interpretation is that modernity can be both, good and bad. The author cleverly uses two words that clearly describe the contrast between the devotees of modernity and the partisans who reject it; he calls the first group ‘the boosters’ and the latter, ‘the knockers’.
Although Charles Taylor presents this dichotomy that seems to accommodate readers from each side and their discourse, he extensively offers the benefits that modernity brings to our contemporary societies and that “one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity.” On this essay, I will explore the key concepts of his argument but focusing on the highlights of his notion of the advantages of modernity.
Taylor describes the 'malaise' of our age, or what he calls 'modernity', by focusing on three major themes:
1. The Individualism (as it develops from 17th Century) and a permissive and me-society that include narcissism;
2. The Instrumental Reason or moral reason that is linked to rationality, calculation, and efficacy (relativism);
3. The Disenchantment of the World as a decline in religious belief, and the loss of meaning and fading of moral horizons on society and politics in general.
There is a connection between the different ways he describes each one of these three themes. Individuals have lost something important, they have lost the sense of purpose or something worth dying for. I also find that he provides ‘the good’, ‘the bad’, and ‘the ugly’ side for each one of them.
His argument on modernity seems to –sometimes- lean toward a more optimistic rather than a pessimistic side. Nevertheless, he claims that the nature of modern culture is complex and that either the boosters or the knockers of modernity are right. It all depends. He wants to look rather at what some have seen to be the consequences for human life and meaning. Taylor declares that the three themes he wants to deal with in this book (loss of meaning or fading of moral horizons, the eclipse of ends in the face of instrumental reason, and the loss of freedom) have been expressed many times. There are not uncontroversial and societies have faced them before; including modern area from the seventeenth century. Therefore, what he proposes to contribute with this book is a ‘short-cut’ to tread these themes as they deserve.
From the first steps of the book, Charles Taylor suggests three sources for which modernity can be linked to a sort of disorder, dissatisfaction, or discontent among societies. While he underlines the three causes of the malaise of modernity, he recognizes that there may be more. One of the worries, very familiar to all, is the ‘individualism’ in society. Living in a world where individuals can choose almost anything to satisfy their self-fulfillment, this is seen “as a great achievement of modern civilization”. Individuals want to be in control of what is best for their ‘here and now’ and future goals in a much easier way than our predecessors could ever imagine. This can be accomplished by modernity.
Taylor believes that the critics of modernity have missed something extremely important. They have failed to see that modern inspirations to self-fulfillment are ‘moral’ inspirations. While other thinkers see failure, Taylor sees that the failure is part of the process to a higher level. I found this position very close to Frederick Nietzsche’s view on what the Free Spirit is all about. Free Spirits are so called because they do not allow themselves to be tied down to any of the certainties or truths that are based on prejudice in societies. In chapter five, Taylor calls it the ethic of authenticity. The distance from others cannot be seen as a sign of disinterest or lack of empathy. To Taylor, self-fulfillment, although often expressed in self-centered ways, isn't necessarily a rejection of traditional values and social commitment; it also reflects something authentic and valuable in modern culture. Only by distinguishing what is good in this modern striving from what is socially and politically dangerous, Taylor says, can our age be made to deliver its promise.
Some of the types of ‘malaise’ Taylor describes could be seeing nowadays in the electronic world where the voice-to-voice communication has been replaced by the text-to-text communication. Social media have replaced most of the ‘personal or human touch’. E.g. Twitter or Facebook.
The New Times eloquently sums up this point in the following quotation:
We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. We expect more from technology and less from one another. Some call this era: “I share, therefore I am.”
Taylor calls for a support to a certain kind of liberalism; the liberalism of neutrality. He reminds us that a liberal society must be neutral on questions of what creates a good life. Each one of us should seek for our own path. However, the question of how individuals can have a sense of belonging in a society when they embrace individualism may arise. There are social and political implications of individuals seeking self-fulfillment. Taylor highlights the idea of “the moral subjectivism in our culture.” He wants us to see how much the modern influenced toward self-fulfillment and self-expression. Is the ‘self’ a moral imperative? Throughout the third chapter of the book he calls this moral imperative, ‘the ethic of authenticity’. The sources are fairly new and distinctive to modern culture and he argues that the moral relativism that other thinkers (e.g. Conservativism) detract is because they simply misunderstand the sources of this ethic. He wants to make a distinction between the kinds of things that can be considered straight forward consequences of certain kind of moral or even religious view (those that are logically required to that view) and the kinds of things that may arise out of that moral view that can have a certain form of deviation. In one of his lectures, Taylor uses monotheistic religious views as an example of what “a moral view and the sense of commitment to a particular view of a god can very easily deviate into a sectarian attitude that condemns outsiders.” The notion of what is right or wrong is anchored on our feelings and not a matter of dry calculation. The connection we make to any source is deep in us and this is part of a subjective turn of modern culture. As individuals now we take our thoughts and views so personally that become individual instead of collective.
Now, the question that comes up is how authenticity is related to individualism. More so, what are the sources. In modern culture, authenticity seems to imply ‘what is different’ and ‘what carries diversity’ among individuals. It appears to fit well into the modern understanding of individualism. Taylor calls this notion ‘self-determining freedom’ where “I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences.” To bring a historical perspective, Taylor highlights Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view of how individuals should find the moral standpoint in the most intimate contact with oneself and the inner voice that carries the “amour propre” or self-pride connected to self-determination. Taylor is evidently influenced by great theologians and, in this short work, he also interacts, with Aristotle, Nietzsche, Rousseau, and numerous others.
The idea of being authentic implies notions of how individuals break the ties of external impositions to decide for themselves and being authentic suggests being truthful to one’s own originality. This is why Taylor emphasizes that by understanding this idea as a foundational background we will be able to grasp the modern ideal of authenticity and its connection to the goals of self-fulfillment. Taylor thinks that the culture of authenticity is a good thing that needs to be preserved. However, it must be properly understood. He proposes, therefore, to defend the culture of authenticity -a development that occurs after Rousseau- by proposing and defending two theses. The first one is that Authenticity is a valuable ideal; the second one is that we can rationally discuss Ideals—including the ideal of Authenticity. Taylor wants to also add that there are other modes of expressions of oneself that defines identity and one of them is ‘language’ as expression.
Taylor emphasizes that we gain understanding of ourselves (defining identity) through the expression of more than just words; through art, gestures, love, and the like. He summarizes this by suggesting that humans have a fundamentally ‘dialogical’ character. This idea is linked to the post-structuralism and the idea that human culture may be understood by means of a structure—modeled on language. Taylor stresses that language is acquired by interacting with others. Here, again, post-structuralism takes place as it rejects the self-sufficiency of the language structures. He defines the dialogical character as “a way humans have to understand themselves as well as comprehend (also express) others with interaction.
I do agree with Taylor on the premise that humans need (in nature) relationships and interactions to fulfill their needs. However, the need does not imply that it should define their personalities and characters. Nevertheless, influence from others in early states in life -parent-relationship as Freud presented- shapes us: “we are what we are coming from.”
On the subject or art as an expression of oneself, Taylor uses this as an example of how the development of art in modern history influenced concepts such as creation (led to interpretations) and its creators transferred their personal beliefs to people by using art. Although, it is clear that Frederick Nietzsche would disagree with Taylor on this subject as he believed that it has been the opposite. The creators of art have been influenced by the believes within society (injected by Christianity) to shape those arts. So, is art really an expression of our deep self?
Charles Taylor is critical of the positions held by Bloom, Bell and Lasch’s that see the goal of self-fulfillment as somehow tainted with selfishness. On one hand, he suggests that their position can lead to a ‘blanket condemnation’ of the culture of authenticity. On the other hand, he there are those who think that everything is fine the way it is. This blanket condemnation implies that either side criticizes practices from their standpoint and influenced by their own motivations. Taylor’s alternative involves dialogue as engaging in persuasion will not work. Cultural views imply multiplicity of ideas and that result in struggles among people with incompatible views. The battle between the ‘boosters’ and the ‘knockers’ concerning cultural authenticity will not end. His alternative leans toward on a more positive side of this spectrum of proposals. He suggests to walk away from boosters, knockers, and the growing cultural pessimism and “the tension comes from the sense of an ideal that is not being fully met in reality” … “society isn’t moving in one direction” and the tension between either side proves it. The struggles are always there; he proposes to avoid cultural pessimism because is counter-productive. There has to be a re-assessment on what has polarized the boosters and knockers of authenticity, culture and modernity. This is the positive side of the view of modernity I see from Taylor, where the reassessment of this polarization takes place to really understand this dilemma.
In the last two chapters, Charles Taylor takes back his initial list of the three malaises of modernity. He relates his long analysis of individualism and authenticity to the other concern, instrumental reason. Once more he argues that there are boosters and knockers’ positions related to instrumental reason. On one side, people who find the coming of technological civilization as a kind of pure and absolute decline and on the other side, we find supporters who think that technology is a fix for all our human problems.
The following quotation effectively sums up his point:
What we are looking for here is an alternative enframing of technology. Instead of seeing it purely in the context of an enterprise of ever-increasing control, of an ever-receding frontier of resistant nature, perhaps animated by a sense of power and freedom, we have to come to understand it as well in the moral frame of the ethic of practical benevolence, which is also one of the sources in our culture from which instrumental reason has acquired its salient importance for us.
Taylor realizes that the polarization between the boosters and the knockers of modernity is nothing new and has its roots in moral sources that count. That is why he argues that modern individualism is based upon (or rooted in) the principle of self-fulfillment and the moral ideal of authenticity. The culture of authenticity, which is a fruit of modern thought, is influenced by the predominant notion of freedom and morality.
To summarize his case, Taylor’s overall argument highlights that the culture of authenticity must avoid the notion of self-determining freedom that is constantly pursuing freedom from the influence of others. Indeed, argues Taylor, we become full human agents through dialogue with others to define our identities and, therefore, to be authentic to ourselves essentially based in some community and social dialogue. Without this, argues Taylor, there can be no self, nor can there be any authenticity.
Taylor presents an alternative approach to evaluate the polarization between the boosters and the knockers of modernity. Instead of trying to find the reasons each side defends, which both are wrong, he suggests to deeply reassess the causes of this gap to understand this dilemma.
Charles Taylor presents the benefits that modernity brings to our contemporary societies and “one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity” where it can also be presented as a source of self-fulfillment and freedom.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Sherry Turkle, “The Flight from Conversation”, New York Times. Last modified April 21, 2012. http://nyti.ms/1wTAafi
Taylor, Charles. Grandeur et misère de la modernité. Montréal: Éditions Bellarmin, 1992.
Taylor, Charles. The Malaise of Modernity. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Ltd, 1991
 Charles Taylor. Grandeur et misère de la modernité, trad. Charlotte Melançon (Montréal: Éditions Bellarmin, 1992).
 Charles Taylor. The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto: House of Anansi Press Ltd), 121.
 Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, 120.
 Taylor, p, 11
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 12.
 Taylor, 2
 Charles Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity”, Sociologie de l'intégration, May 21, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuGQ5KJjELA
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, translated with commentary by Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Vintage Books), 28.
 Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, 45.
 Sherry Turkle, “The Flight from Conversation”, Sunday Review, April 21, 2012, http://nyti.ms/1wTAafi
 Taylor, 18.
 Taylor, Sociologie de l'intégration, part 4.
 Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, 27.
 Taylor, 28.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 34.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, translated with commentary by Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Vintage Books), 101.
 Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, 77.
 Taylor, 106.
 Taylor, 120.