Charles Taylor’s Search for Transcendence: Mystery, Suffering, Violence

Part of the Sophia Studies in Cross-cultural Philosophy of Traditions and Cultures book series (SCPT, volume 5)


This chapter critically reconstructs Taylor’s image of modernity, and his accompanying human self-image of what he terms the modern buffered self against which he will posit a porous one. The porous self is his own critical anthropology, which points beyond the specifically religious reference point of A Secular Age to the transcendent. It is argued here that there are three main threads with which Taylor weaves his concern with transcendence—suffering, violence and mystery. Suffering, violence and mystery are imbued in his critique of the modern condition. By contrast, and in a critique of modern violence, mystery, so Taylor argues, has been re-articulated in the Romantic counter-current in a way that opens onto another possible relation to moments of transcendence.

11.1 Introduction

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor provides a masterful interpretation of modernity. It is the culmination of an intellectual project that spans his reflections on hermeneutics, studies on Hegel and the genealogy of the modern self, a defence of quebequois multiculturalism in the context of reflections on the dynamics of modernity, and the problem of a transcendental dimension of the human condition. A Secular Age is an immense, and immensely troubling book, a more or less comprehensive attempt to reconstruct modernity’s dynamics, which at the same time lays down a gauntlet to these dynamics. In presenting his own version of modernity, Taylor’s task ultimately is to argue against it by constructing a fully fledged critique of modernity as a secular age. In the context of his critique he also builds into his analysis new forms of devotion, ritual, and religiosity, the aim of which is to give depth to the idea and practice of modern selfhood (Rundell 2010c; Taylor 1975, 1985, 1989; Taylor and Gutman 1992).

Notwithstanding the permanence of the topic of religion in the disciplines of Sociology and Anthropology, Taylor’s own gauntlet is not one of religiosity as such, but one of what he terms transcendence, that is, another dimension of experience that, for him, has been circumscribed by the very condition of modernity (Habermas 2002; Hefner 1998; Luckmann 1983; Berger 1999; Turner 1991). It is argued here that there are three main threads with which Taylor weaves his concern with transcendence—suffering, violence and mystery. Each thread contributes to the way in which his notion of transcendence is constructed, as well as to his critique of modernity. Suffering, violence and mystery are imbued in his critical analysis of the modern condition, as well as in his response to it in terms of his notion of the porosity of the transcendent condition. The modern condition is one in which suffering and violence are rife, and yet, except for its Romantic counter-current, mystery has been excommunicated from its possible range of imaginings and experiences. Suffering, violence and mystery also enable him to make a distinction between an older, pre-modern religious paradigm that problematically combines all three, and a modern one. The modern one, which Taylor advocates, combines mystery and the recognition of this-worldy suffering, but does not rely on an image of violence to open experience up to another extra-mundane world. In this sense, Taylor’s hermeneutics of religion is one that also leans on the critique of violence deeply imbedded in the traditions of modern practical reasoning, even if in his argument, they are at a loss to address it.

Let’s look at Taylor’s analysis more closely: firstly his image of modernity, and secondly his accompanying human image of what he terms the modern, buffered self against which he will posit a porous one. The porous self is his own critical anthropology, which points beyond the specifically religious reference point of A Secular Age to the transcendent. In a third section I will, then, look at what Taylor wants in the context of his competing images of the buffered and porous self and his discussion of the Romantic counter-current, where mystery has been re-articulated in a secular age which has opened onto another possible relation to moments of transcendence.1

11.2 Taylor’s Social Imaginaries

No doubt Taylor has the works of both Max Weber and Emile Durkheim in his sights when he discusses the secular age, which is Taylor’s stand-in category for modernity. Taylor’s ‘list’, although not as exhaustive as some other theories of modernity—no list could be—includes the economy, democracy, sovereignty, and the public sphere, secularity, the rise of science and instrumental reason, and multiculturalism, that is, the co-existence and survival of ethnic and cultural identities (Weber 1971; Durkheim 1964).

Taylor reconstructs his modernity and its dimensions according to three narratives or social imaginaries, a term he deploys in quite a different way to that developed by Cornelius Castoriadis. Taylor’s version of a social imaginary makes it a background cultural hermeneutic. It is less a field of ontological imaginary creation (Castoriadis), and more an unspoken, inarticulate, un-theorised and ultimately un-theorizable background that gives an understanding to a whole situation within which the particular parts of it can make sense, and without which these parts can only ever be not so much incompletely, but more so incoherently explained (Taylor 2007: 173). Taylor also terms this un-theorised background understanding an ‘implicit map’ of social space or sociality that determines the style and forms of power inherent in social interactions.

The three ‘implicit maps’ or social imaginaries that Taylor posits as the core constituting ones that make up its moral social space and emotional life are the economy, the public sphere, and the practices and outlooks of democratic self-rule. According to Taylor, the latter two have devolved into the dynamics of sovereignty and governmentality. There is also a fourth one, that of Romanticism, which he presents as a counterpoint to modernity. Taylor’s aim is not to give one of the imaginaries the capacity to determine the other ones in the manner of paleo-marxism, but to configure each in its own terms. In other words, he accepts that modernity is internally differentiating. It produces different spaces, and these spaces are understood as social imaginaries.

For Taylor, economic space is not defined simply according to economic or monetary exchange, the organization of labour, or the development of technologies or industries. Rather, it refers to the older version of civil society as ‘politisse’, ‘police’, or ‘civilisation’. Exchange is, thus, not simply a monetary form, it is a ‘style of life’ (Simmel) and a form of knowledge that individuates and, importantly for Taylor, one-dimensionalizes human experience around the idea of self-interest in which the older moral or virtue economy, which includes passion, greatness, as well as an ideal of the political good, is undermined, broken up, dismantled, or simply becomes vapid. The eighteenth century distinction between civilization and corruption dissolves and is replaced by this ‘economy’ of exchanges of self-interest. Economics becomes the science of society and given a privileged status by its practitioners, theoreticians and critics in the very act of its differentiation from other areas of social life. It produces sufferings not simply derived from the ever-likely possibility of economic impoverishment. Moreso, it engenders an impoverishment of the self caused by the combination of self-interest and the mendacity of others (Taylor 2007: 184–185).

The public sphere is a different social imaginary altogether from the economic one. In Taylor’s formulation it is the creation of a new, unprecedented plurality of spaces of strangers whose only concern is discussion—another form of exchange—in which media in the form of letters, the press, radio, television, internet blogs, become the form of interconnection of mutual benefit and sociability. Similar to exchange constituted in the economic imaginary, being familiar is no longer a requirement (Taylor 2007: 187).

However, the public sphere constituted by ‘the sociability of strangers’ (Taylor) does not produce a sense of belonging to an ‘imaginary community’ (B Anderson) of discussants. Only the ‘imaginary community’ of the nation can achieve this, and subjects stand in a more involved or immediate way to them, thus gaining direct access to emotions otherwise denied or put on hold (Taylor 2007: 210, 574–580). For Taylor, though, the imaginary community of discussants is too ‘in the moment’ for this type of involvement. The modern public sphere replaces older cosmological notions of circular time with a sense of time that is profane or this-worldly. Cosmological time or ‘the cosmological imaginary’ cohered around a sense of eternity, that is, a sense of time as an ascent away from the everyday, a gathering of time into a unity marked by particular rituals. As Taylor puts it, in modernity events exist only in one, profane dimension, and only in relations of causality with other events of the same kind. Otherwise they are disconnected from one another (Taylor 2007: 195, 324 ff).

This is ultimately what Taylor means by secularisation. Secularisation involves a radically purged, horizontally conceived time-consciousness in which we only relate to ‘known’ events on a lateral grid of experience, or ‘unknown’ ones in terms of what he terms a ‘dark abyss’. In terms of the latter, time opens up and the question of the infinite is not so much destroyed, but something that must be filled by theoria, such as theories of evolution, and new mathematized theories of the universe that can give an account of not only time, but also of creation itself (Taylor 2007: 322–351). Here, mystery disappears. It is de-magified, as Max Weber would put it. And we suffer because time and experience are thinned out, so to speak, as well as disaggregated.

Yet there is an additional dimension to Taylor’s notion of secularisation that stands at the heart of the formation of the modern public sphere, and is more troubling for him than the economic imaginary. Because modern time consciousness dispatches to oblivion a transcendent frame of reference located outside of itself, the public sphere becomes completely self-referential. The common action of the modern public sphere is the making of opinion, and the legitimacy of this opinion-making is given over to itself. There is no extra-social, legal or transcendent principle that anchors the nature and legitimacy of making opinion. During the eighteenth century onward a social imaginary of sociability was constructed by philosophers and intellectuals who devolved it into an emotionally detached, deontological yet mutually reasoning public. If Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ is taken as the paradigmatic text here, the public are expected to construct their own limits, to supervise themselves and be their own authority (Kant 1991).

Moreover, this self-referential illocutionary model of the public sphere has an explicit addressee government. The public sphere speaks and government is expected to listen. In this sense, the modern public sphere is political, yet it is essentially extra-political. This self-authorisation of the public, that is, public actors as authors of their own texts, inverts or differentiates an older political tradition according to Taylor’s reconstruction. The modern public sphere is redolent with the differentiation between opinion and power. There is nothing, for Taylor, to link public discussion inherently to the idea of political society, and thus into something that transcends itself (Taylor 2007: 190).

What then, according to Taylor, becomes of the social imaginary of political power given this differentiation between it and the public sphere? What is the modernity of political power? If self-defined and self-constituted reason is the social imaginary of the modern public sphere, then the ‘people’ form the social imaginary of the political sphere, even in the context of its competing models. In this sense, there is no longer a covenant between God and the kingly or queenly sovereign, but only a covenant between the people themselves. This republican moment, for Taylor, represents the revolutionary dimension of modernity and he finds its origins in the American Revolution which transformed an older idea of Natural Law grounded in the deified right of the sovereign into the natural law of the sovereignty of the people.

Originally grounded on the older idea of natural law, the new imaginary of the sovereignty of the people is, for Taylor, a re-interpretation that pushes the idea of power into a new centre. No longer ordained by an external force, it is ordained by an internal one, that is, the constitution of the people. For him, this is the secret of the new American federal arrangements. He is less concerned with its circulation of power in centrifugal terms, a concern that pre-occupies de Tocqueville, for example. The empirical people of the United States (excluding slaves) had to be synonymous with an imaginary universal ‘people’ of a federated centre that supplanted the role of each individual state or political entity in the new post-colonial reality. As he states, ‘popular sovereignty could be embraced because it had a clear and uncontested institutional meaning’, which gave the federated elected assemblies a legitimate basis for power (Taylor 2007: 199). The alternative is a ‘collapse’ into separate and separated ‘denominations’ in which the specificity of political legitimacy lay with particular political ‘faiths’. Such segregation lays the ground for defensive closure and territorialisation in the form of permanent interpretative conflicts and culture wars (Taylor 2007: 450–455).

For Taylor, the contrast of the American with the French and Russian revolutions could not have been greater. In the French and Russian revolutions there was a constant search for a new imaginary centre after the ones of the old regimes had been dispatched. And for Taylor, it is not so much that there were neither constitutions nor institutions that could function as federated gradations of power notwithstanding their own difficulties. Rather, there was no agreement amongst the intellectuals and political actors about what these constitutions or institutions might be. Hence there was a double problem with the two later revolutions, both as realities and as paradigms. There were absences of the ideal of a legitimate centre and of mediating institutions through which power could circulate. And there were fierce and bloody disagreements about what these might be (Taylor 2007: 206; Lefort 1988; Furet 1981; Fehér 1987).

As Taylor points out, the case of the French revolution, especially during its climactic period of 1792–1794, brings together the unstable combination of harmony and virtue in an attempt to construct another new, modern political imaginary. This political imaginary would address the question of the centre and its mediations in a way different to both the American model, and the model of public opinion. Rousseau becomes the indirect spokesman here. Rousseau wishes to dissolve the two social imaginaries of economic civilisation, where self-interest is expressed at the expense of others, and the public one, where empathetic opinion about politics is expressed with others in impersonal and dispassionate discussion. He asserts that self-love or self-interest and empathy or sympathy can come together through the love of the common good. ‘Self love is not distinct from love of others’ (Taylor 2007: 202). Rousseau’s modern goal is to create a new basis of identity beyond egoism and thus to rescue freedom from economistic interpretations and place it under a broader umbrella of the ‘common self’ or the ‘general will’.

It is here that virtue and harmony come together in a politicised union during the French Revolution. Love of self is fused with love of country (Taylor 2007: 203). The ‘republique’ symbolises a fusion of self, politics and nation, which causes the spaces between each of them to disappear, even the space of the public sphere. The result, for Taylor, along with many other commentators, is a deeply problematic and inauthentic re-sacaralisation of a putatative principle of transcendence through the attempted reification of politics, which is also equated with a claim to transparency. The ‘general will’ is exactly that: both sacred and transparent, and as such it is this aspect that creates the legitimate centre. There are no hidden corners. From Rousseau’s perspective, representative democracy is partial and opaque, and cannot represent the general will in its totality. Only participatory representation can be transparent, where the political citizen is both performer and spectator, taking his or her place in the public theatres and festivals of the political. Everybody represents themselves and everybody else, where everyone is on display to be judged in an orgy of what Foucault would later term in a slightly different context, perpetual surveillant self-governmentality (Taylor 2007; Foucault 1977). The possibility of the condition of a modern form of porosity is born.

Moreover, in order for these public spectacles and festivals to be coherent and give coherent meaning to subjects’ experiences of the world, they must be clearly defined and clearly laid out. They must have a catechism of belief that also indicates those who are corrupt and not yet harmonised with the general will. The catechism, rather than constitution, is created by the most virtuous of all, the new politicised intellectuals who during the nineteenth century would be both its champions, for example in the form of Cherneshevsky and Tkachev (who would agree on nothing else), and its critics in the form of Marx and Dostoyevsky (who would also agree on nothing else) (Rundell 1990; Dostoyevsky 1971; Marx and Engels 1975).

It was a small step from this Rousseauean dream to the nightmare of the Leninist party, which replaces the general will as the imaginary centre. This heralds the invention of the social imaginary of totalitarianism on the back of the ideal of both the revolutionary vanguard and the protectors of the revolution itself. This is irrespective of whether this party is of the Left or the Right, the West or the East. Taylor’s analysis of the Rousseauian fusion of harmony and virtue points in the direction of another political imaginary altogether, the development of the nation state and its potential to impose or deploy its own particular invention, the totalitarian option. Like the other social imaginaries, it is an invention of modernity, but one which Taylor fuses with the modern imaginary of sovereignty, more generally.

Yet, and as will be further explored below, Taylor’s analysis points to the birth of a modern secular form of porosity. This modern, secular form of porosity de-differentiates the separation implied between the modern social imaginaries by placing the Party at the centre, and by so doing makes a myth of transparency equivalent to transcendence. As importantly, and as Taylor’s analysis implies, this de-differentiation requires a catechism of belief that opens up, rather than buffers us against suffering, violence and cruelty. These come together and radiate throughout society as a whole, and reach vertically, so to speak, into the soul and into the ‘heaven’ of the social: its collective representations, as Durkheim would put it.

11.3 Liberal Civilisation and the Buffered Self

Notwithstanding different dimensions and disagreements, each social imaginary, including the Rousseauian version of sovereignty, is informed by the same modern meta-norm, according to Taylor’s reconstruction. This meta-norm is first articulated paradigmatically by Grotius’ image of political society in which human beings are conceived ‘as rational, sociable agents who are meant to collaborate in peace to their mutual benefit’ (Taylor 2007: 159). This meta-norm becomes imbedded in debates throughout the seventeenth, and especially the eighteenth, century onwards concerning the nature and organisation of civil society, which as we have seen involves its own internal differentiation. The meta-norm’s greatest champion, for Taylor, is Hegel, and its greatest critic is Marx.

In Taylor’s view this meta-norm or idealisation of peaceful, rational and mutually beneficial sociability has four dimensions that form a coherent field of interpretation in which, as we have seen, different versions are created through each of the social imaginaries. These four dimensions begin first with the idea that the single individual is the basic social unit, and that society is created to benefit this single entity. This entails that, second, mutual benefit also begins from this individualistic premise, and spreads laterally throughout society through means of monetary exchange, security and prosperity (Taylor 2007: 170). Thirdly, security, exchange and prosperity are filtered through a language of individual right, the corollary of which is the individualistically conceived value of freedom, here viewed as a self-determining agency. Fourthly, rights of self-determining agency and mutual benefit are to be secured by all participants equally. Here interpretations of freedom and a formal notion of equality are dovetailed through the notion of right. The meta-norm becomes a point of orientation through which people are ‘disembedded’ from older and more traditional forms of sociability and mobilised (Taylor’s term) in ways that make it individualistic, atomised and alienated. This meta-norm of peaceful, rational and mutually beneficial sociability becomes the self-legitimating reference point for what Taylor terms the ‘closed world order’ of liberal civilisation, with its codes of governmentality, the other side of so-called civility (Taylor 2007: 479, 556–580).

It is in this context of the articulation of these meta-narratives within the modern imaginaries that Taylor posits two contrasting images of selfhood to underpin his version of modernity and his critique of it. These images are of a non-modern and a modern self. The non-modern self is porous, and by this he means that it is ‘vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces’ (Taylor 2007: 38). Taylor’s view of the pre- or non-modern self is one that is contextualized and constituted by a porosity between two worlds, the mundane and the enchanted. Crucially, for him, there is an emotional engagement in the enchanted through fear. This emotional involvement through fear means that the enchanted realm cannot be kept at bay. Moreover, these two worlds are not interpreted simply supernaturally. They are interpreted on the basis of a principle of transcendence which is based on the supremacy and sovereignty of the enchanted world with its cosmology, vertical and eternal sense of time, theogeny and miracles. This enchanted imaginary is an exceptional world. The human world finds the enchanted ultimately indeterminate, mysterious and unknowable, even though it has a porous relation to us, and we to it (Taylor 2007: 73).

In contrast to the porous self, the result of the modern social imaginaries and meta-norm of rational and mutual sociability at the level of self-formation is the ‘buffered self’: the term Taylor now deploys for the objectivistic version of the self-defining subject. This is the central point of his long and complex reconstruction. The buffered self is, for him, contextualized and constituted by a knowledge and maintenance of boundary positions. This is its quaint meaning. It does not refer to the sense of being safeguarded or cushioned. Rather, the boundary functions as a facilitating defence or bulwark that keeps other social imaginaries or worlds at bay. It is facilitating in the sense that the buffer can, in his view, ‘form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction, or as he has characterised it in his book on Hegel, ‘objectivistically construed self-definition’ (Taylor 2007: 39, 1975). Hence, for Taylor, in this context of his critique of modern self-formation, secularisation or the secular age is really a stand-in category, a substitute for images that portray emotional singularisation, disengagement and detachment, compartmentalization and instrumental objectification.

As importantly, and in a final telescoping of his interpretation of modernity that goes against the grain of his image of its complexity, this buffered self, in which modalities of self-control and disciplinization are invented, refined and move centre-stage constitute what Taylor terms an ‘immanent frame’ (Taylor 2007: 542). By this he means all resources for the modern cacophony of meaning, value and morality, which give the buffered self its life and definition within any of the social imaginaries, are constituted immanently. In other words, these resources are viewed internal to the human condition and its social constituents irrespective of whether they are derived from exchange, reason, or political legitimacy. The modern, buffered self with its frame of immanence indicates, for Taylor, the over-emphasised ideal of objectivistically construed self-definition coupled with an anthropology of self-sufficiency that constitutes all of the imaginaries including the Rousseauian version of sovereignty, that is, the general will. We have need for neither gods, demons nor even nature. As he states, ‘the life of the buffered individual, instrumentally effective in secular time, created the practical content within which the self-sufficiency of this immanent realm could become a matter of experience’ (Taylor 2007: 543, 589). The modern buffered self and its world closes in upon itself, confident of its self-authoring self-sufficiency.

The modern human being begins to control interpretation. For example, the rise of post-Gallilean natural science constructed a ‘physical’ world ‘naturalised’ and ‘governed by exceptionless laws, which may [or may not] reflect the wisdom or benevolence of a creator, but don’t require in order to be understood … any reference to a good aimed at, whether in the form of a Platonic Idea or of Ideas in the mind of God’ (Taylor 2007: 542). This occurred not just in science but in all of the social imaginaries and for Taylor this is the second basic problem and predicament with the modern human condition and its social imaginaries. At both levels of the social imaginaries and modern self-formation, the desire for control, as well as the endless inchoate din that this desire produces, displace and remain deaf to a sense of the mysterious and an indetermination beyond human control. The result is flat and empty, instrumentalised soullessness. According to Taylor, this is where moderns suffer most. Soullessness is not so much an empty internal space that had been hollowed out. Because of the way it had been constructed immanently the modern self was always hollow to begin with.

For Taylor, this shallowness is the dark abyss of modern times, the modern condition in all of its social imaginaries. According to him, we are shallow, linear beings who suffer accordingly, and yet must push this suffering away into denial or neglect. This self-incurred suffering makes us inauthentic selves, not only buffered ones (Taylor 1991).

11.4 Poetics of Transcendence in Search of the Mysterious

We can, according to Taylor, only be saved by shifting our gaze elsewhere, to an enchanted imaginary that posits a condition of transcendence. For him there are two stakes. One of these belongs to the problem of modernity, the buffered self, and its shallowness of meaning and its inability to address issues of life, suffering and death with any substantial depth. The other issue is not to invoke or return to an older violent and punitive doctrine of religious belief within the Christian (for him, Catholic) tradition. The aim is only to invoke a new hermeneutics of the mysterious, in which new conversion practices and German Romantic poetry and its successor forms combine to become, for Taylor, the counter-paradigm to objectivistic liberal civilisation with its buffered self, leaving violence behind.

To be sure, there is a modern secular porosity that has combined suffering and violence and confused transparency with transcendence. As indicated above, it finds some expression in the Rousseaueian ideal of the ‘general will’ that is the forerunner to the totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century, and it is this that Taylor, to be sure, finds as disturbing as the modern buffering that is immanent to liberal cultures of governmentality.

However, Taylor has more than Rousseau and totalitarianism in mind when he invokes the spectre of modern porosity. It refers to violence, suffering, evil, fanaticism and terrorism: all of which, according to Taylor, call upon and creatively reinterpret an older religious paradigm of sacrifice. As Taylor points out, religious imaginaries (and here he has in mind most religions including non-Axial ones) often swing between two poles: one defined by the condition of absolute love, and another defined by absolute or demonic evil (to be sure as the outer limit) (Taylor 2007: 651–675, 715). As such they make impossible and unfulfillable demands upon the soul under the language of sacrifice, especially ultimate sacrifice, with its invocations of salvation and redemption (Taylor 2007: 651–656). Older redemptive porosity can include an invocation to identify and merge with evil, violence and suffering, that is, with the demonic. Modern porosity draws on another feature of Axial porosity. According to Taylor, and in following the work of René Girard, the latter includes not only a hierarchical relation with the transcendent. It also establishes an internal link between violence and the sacred in terms of identifying those who are scapegoated and thus excluded, punished, excommunicated or put to death (Taylor 2007: 686, 611; Girard 1977; Kearney 2001). For Taylor, this principle of exclusion based on scapegoating establishes the continuities between pre-modern Axial and modern redemptive or sacrificial porosity.

However, there are also major differences and innovations between the two. Modern redemptive porosity, so Taylor argues, can initially draw on other sources—the roar and violence of the crowd, the thrill and thrall of violence itself. In addition a secular higher purpose replaces the Divine and Demonic and provides no limits, just a rationalizable series of techniques. In an argument that is similar to Zygmunt Bauman’s in his Modernity and the Holocaust, Taylor argues that ‘where much earlier warfare was ritualised, and hence limited, post-Axial sacred killing will become more and more rationalised and limitless’ (Taylor 2007: 687; Bauman 1989). Yet unlike Bauman, it is not for Taylor the integrationist dilemma that is the background to the exterministic imagination of the concentration camps or the Gulag. Rather, as indicated above, for Taylor, its modern genealogy originates from the Jacobin phase of the French revolution, which becomes the modern paradigm where the justice of the guillotine reigns: ‘The killing is seen to be more rational (directed against targets that really deserve it), clean, clinical and technological (the guillotine), and to bring about the real reign of good.’ In addition, the buffered world of the secular age entails a differentiation between the higher purpose and the technical rationalisation of killing that obfuscates the connection between them. Taylor continues, ‘this will be the reign of peace: Robespierre in his vote on the new constitution, sided with those who wanted to ban the death penalty. The disconnect between the final goals and the sacred killing which was meant to encompass it could not be more striking. And when we move into the twentieth century, we can see a revolutionary violence, boosted by rational technology, which dwarfs the horrors of all earlier ages’ (Taylor 2007: 687, 709). In contrast to Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann, for example, there is a deep unbridgeable rift of understanding between the grandeur of modern sacred plans and the banal barbarism of their implementation (Arendt 1994). For Taylor, this disconnect is constitutive of modern porosity. And it is self-defined.

Modern porosity unites violence, cruelty and suffering by placing a state sponsored catechism at its centre. Yet, paradoxically, for Taylor, this centre is buffered: not from the other modern imaginaries, but from another condition of modernity, a self-reflexivity concerning its own actions. Only the plan is self-reflexive, critique is not allowed into its vocabulary. Self-reflexivity as critique is denied and outlawed, to exist only in the interstices inhabited by dissident intellectuals, writers, artists and musicians.

For Taylor, the challenge of and for modernity or for the secular age is to provide protection from the machinations of modern porosity, or modern evil, which a modern bounded or buffered self, nor any of its constituent imaginaries, cannot provide. As Taylor says:

…this is, as it were, a condition which arises even in a disenchanted world: we are unprotected; now not from demons and spirits, but from suffering and evil as we sense it in a raging world … It’s almost like a nightmare. One wants to be protected, separated from this. But it can creep under your guard and assail you, even in a disenchanted world. (Taylor 2007: 681)

Taylor’s response to this lack of protection of modernity by modernity, is to argue that the modern world does not have the resources internal to itself to respond to its own dilemmas, difficulties, and violences. Modernity cannot meet its own challenges from within its own meta-norm because it lacks the depth to do so. For Taylor, modernity’s fate is to produce a wonderfully monstrous paradox: once the world was discovered to be round and its motion circular around the sun, it became flat, linear, buffered. The result of this is that, for him, meaning becomes fragile at best. At worst, it becomes empty, or we become indifferent to it. Taylor identifies and draws on the unquiet critics of modernity from Romanticism to existentialism who point to this spectre of meaninglessness in the face of, especially, human suffering. ‘[We] are left with a view of human life which is empty, cannot aspire commitment, offers nothing really worthwhile, cannot answer the craving for goals we can dedicate ourselves to’ (Taylor 2007: 717–18).

However and more importantly, for Taylor this modern condition of meaninglessness and lack of depth entails an inability to comprehend and address the perennial issues that are internal to the human condition itself. For Taylor, these perennial issues are suffering, love and death. And because they are the condition of our finitude and mortality, they are the most pressing and prescient. Love and death throw the contingency of life into relief. When a love finishes or dies, so, it seems, does life. When someone dies, so does life, literally. This sense of finitude, of the mortality of love and life and the certainty of death, throws into relief the search for continuity, which, for Taylor, is synonymous with meaning, and presses us ‘against the boundaries of the human domain’. Only meaning can provide continuity, which for him, always reached into the transcendent, until the advent of the secular age. According to Taylor, we are staring in the face of modernity’s greatest paradox: a need for the affirmation of a transcendence beyond life, and a simultaneous denial of this need because it has no reference point. All we stare at is a void, a nothing. In the face of death, life should show its full and deep need for meaning, yet in modernity it cannot (Taylor 2007: 726).

However, as we indicated above, Taylor does not recommend returning to an older religious tradition that re-invokes the redemptive distinctions between Heaven and Hell in order to address these vital and perennial issues. For him:

…there can be no question … of a simple return to the status quo ante Deismo. If I speak from out of this religious understanding, in which I place myself, then this modern turn has brought some positive benefits; in, say, detaching our view of the first mystery (original sin) from an obsessive sense of human depravity; and giving us a distance from the juridical-penal view of atonement … Our hyper-Augustinian ancestors were part of a religious culture in which it was normal to find divine meaning to suffering and destruction … The break of modernity means that this kind of reading no longer can be taken for granted. (Taylor 2007: 653)

Taylor, thus, asks for a different hermeneutics of and for the transcendent, but one that, as mentioned above does not fall into the trap of old religious languages and traditions, or new ones that marry the hermeneutics of faith with the politics of exclusion. As he provisionally asks, ‘how can we become agents on whom misanthropy has no hold, in whom it awakens no connivance?’ (Taylor 2007: 701).

It is precisely here that Taylor evokes and modernises the Christian Agapaic tradition in order to counter the traps of violence in modern porosity, with its background in the Axial religious traditions, and the incipient and never fully recognised misanthropy that lurks in the shadow of liberal civilisation. This liberal misanthropy takes the form of a new paternalistic attitude towards those who are less fortunate and in ‘less-developed’ parts of the world. The alleviation of suffering becomes the hallmark, no longer of missionaries, but of the new charities and non-governmental organisations whose task is not only to manage suffering, but manage it in ways that are geared only to the social imaginary of the economy and mass market.

For Taylor, there are two sources for a positive modernisation of the agapaic tradition and its connection with the transcendent—one stemming from the modern pre-occupation with everyday life, and another from the modern preoccupation with the mysterious through ‘acts of conversion’, which have affinities with Romanticism.

There are many critiques of everyday life within the traditions of critical theorising that attack it for its consumerism, for its mundane culture, and for its narrowness: its own forms of solipsism. Taylor does not share these prejudices. Rather, for him, and in counter to the Augustinian emphasis on sinfulness, disgust and the rejection of the body and sexuality, the recognition of the everyday is a recognition of the ordinary, foibled nature of human beings as they go about their imperfect, embodied and desiring lives. It is here that the condition and the recognition of human suffering can re-enter. Taylor recognises that this ordinary, foibled everyday life, in which we are sensual, embodied beings who, while aiming at the mark of good conduct, certainly sometimes miss it, cannot or should not be transcended. Whatever its sources—the Protestant Reformation re-evaluation of agape as ordinary, matrimonial friendship, the modern reading of the Eros tradition, or even Nietzsche’s ambivalent recognition of our ‘human-all-too-human’ condition—one should, Taylor suggests, ‘recognise the positive force and value of these homecomings of the ordinary’ (Taylor 2007: 628). What is recovered in these moments of re-evaluation and re-interpretation ‘is a sense of the value of the unspectacular, flawed everyday love, between lovers, or friends, or parents and children, with its routines and labours, partings and reunions, estrangements and returns’ (Taylor 2007: 628).

According to Taylor, these moments are redolent with depth, because it is in them that we have glimpses of something transcendent. They open onto a new way of positing the porous self in the wake of modernity and its immanent frame. For Taylor, a sense of the transient is the basis for the beginning of human fullness. Fullness, for him is a condition and an outcome of the recognition of, and gesture towards, transcendence (Taylor 2007: 768). Life-changing fullness, whilst it may recognise ordinariness, goes beyond it and beyond the self. It is also a fullness that embraces sacredness. Having faced our fragility, and in the wake of something grander than ourselves, here is where a religious person will easily confess a sense of mystery’ (Taylor 2007: 367, italics added).

In other words, sacredness, for Taylor, does not refer to establishing a communion with God, or a new community of believers in the context of the established Christian Churches. All of the Churches, including the new dissenting ones, according to Taylor are implicated in the buffered world of liberal civilisation, the result of which is the bureaucratisation and instrumentalization of the traditions of agape and caritas (Taylor 2007: 737–744). Rather, for Taylor, sacredness is opening oneself to mystery, depth, and verticality that transcendent porosity offers.

In order to achieve this opening to mystery, a break-out from the immanent frame is required. Notwithstanding his references to ordinary, everyday life, this break-out, has historically occurred from two directions that have altered and transformed our understanding beyond the usual scope of the ordinary, either within or outside its embeddedness in liberal civilisation. As mentioned above, these two directions beyond the ordinary are Romanticism, and what he terms modern ‘acts of conversion’, or a new religious hermeneutics and practice.

In Hegel, Taylor termed the Romantic type of engaged and involved self a subjectivistically inclined self-defining one (Taylor 1975: 3–50). In A Secular Age, this subjectivist version of self-definition is replaced with the notion of transcendence and its accompanying image of porosity, but in a way that also enables a dialogue with modernity’s counter-heritage of Romanticism to be established. According to Taylor, Romanticism’s strength and gift to modernity is not only its sensibility to the dangers of the buffered self. Also and more importantly, it is a continued opening to, and theorisation of, our supposedly porous, transcendent relation with other worlds, especially those of enchanted Nature and the Divine (Taylor 2007: 299–351). From another perspective Romanticism’s heritage has also opened onto the issue of the depth of the subject, that is, feelings, emotions and imaginings that cannot be encapsulated in objectivisitic or normative languages, or motivated only by awe and fear (Taylor 2007: 313–321; Frank 1999).

More specifically, the early German Romantic reflection on what poetry offered humankind in the wake of ‘a secular age’, becomes central for the modern, non-redemptive, paradigm of transcendent porosity. Taylor privileges the Romantic generation from the Schlegel brothers to Novalis and Hölderlin, for which poetry becomes the means and the ‘text’ of Spirit, not in the sense of Hegel’s Geist, but in the sense that it strives to render something that transcends humanity. Poetry works at the edge of language and, for Taylor, this richness of poetry’s symbolic universe is what attracts him to it. For Taylor, this emerges most forcefully through Augustus Schlegel’s doctrine of the symbol in which:

…the highest things, things to do with the infinite, with God, with our deepest feelings, can only be made objects of thought and consideration for us through expression in symbols … on this view, there is something performative about poetry; through creating symbols it establishes new meanings. Poetry is potentially world-making …’ (Taylor 2007: 756)

As such, poetry also opens onto and works with the indeterminate, or, for Taylor, the grandeur and unknownness of God. It enters a space, often through an under-stated symbolic gesture, that we ourselves cannot enter. As such, Taylor’s emphasis is beyond the usual subjectivistic interpretation of Romantic poetry. Poetry reaches into the ‘invisible’, which for Taylor is the transcendent, the mysterious, that which we cannot fully know yet can be opened once again to.

The other current that, for Taylor, informs his modern, non-redemptive paradigm of transcendent porosity is the idea of ‘creative renewal’, which is experienced as a conversion that opens onto the mystery and experience of the Divine. Drawing on the work of the French poet and worker’s activist of the early twentieth century, Charles Péguy, Taylor’s reconstruction and hermeneutics of ‘creative renewal’ or conversion involves the following four aspects. First, there is a notion of authentic action, which links ordinary, foibled, everyday life, present and past together, rather than disaggregates them, and brings them into alignment, for both Taylor and Péguy, with transcendent or cosmological time. It is also equivalent to a notion of transcendent freedom, which links to the second aspect a plurality of mystical experiences in which all of Judaism and Christianity contribute their own particular versions of mystery, and their access to it. Taylor implies that all of the Axial religions have their own forms of mystery, although Péguy’s reference points were Jewish, Christian and what he terms in French ‘mystique’. Mystery, in this sense, is polytheistic, rather than ‘multicultural’ in a consumerist or liberal sense. It is also outside the managed and commercialised churches and ‘new’ religious experiments.

Thirdly, there is an emphasis on the image of harmonious cohesion and integration along the lines put forward not only by Péguy, but also by Durkheim and Mauss in their defence of modern corporatism, which Taylor, for one has defended in his discussion of the specificity of Quebequois culture. Fourthly, the polytheism of sacred practices and paths is matched by a universalistic attitude towards salvation. It is available to everyone, and there is no ‘space’ of Hell, no space of banishing the negative to the outside (Taylor 2007: 744–754).

Ultimately, Taylor’s position comes to rest around these four aspects of creative renewal. We are outside the paradigm of the self-defining subject and have come to reside, not in Grand Hotel Abyss, but for Taylor, beyond ourselves, almost entirely. Taylor’s position is not a religious subjectivism, it is not a calling. Rather, it is a hermeneutics that combines the poetics of Romanticism and religious experiences of conversion. It calls for the interpretative work of the counter-paradigm or counter-imaginary of transcendence with its own contours and innovations to continue to inform the work of critique, as well as the work of renewal, of renaissance, fullness and human flourishing in the context of the very problematic condition of modernity. Here there is mystery that addresses the permanent questions of suffering, love and death without the need to invoke either violence or redemption.

11.5 The Indeterminate, Wonder, and the Very Human Condition

The strength of Taylor’s reinvigoration of the transcendent is that he wants to leave redemption and violence behind, and is particularly sensitive to the way in which they have been moored in modernity. Yet, Taylor’s view of modernity is one that he shares with Adorno and Foucault, even if they would not share his disposition towards transcendence. It is constituted by a meta-principle of instrumental rationality that defines the internal life of each of the social imaginaries. But there is a twist here. The twist, for Taylor, is that because this rationality is conceived as being anthropologically self-defined or self-constructed, it is a self-definition that is ultimately solipsistic and denies the possibility of mystery and the indeterminate, and especially an indeterminate beyond itself, which he only supposes and posits in terms of transcendence. All of Taylor’s imaginaries of modernity are stabilized around a ‘great’ divide between transcendence (rather than simply religious belief), which is viewed as being synonymous with meaning per se, and non-transcendent secular forms of thought and action that are in some viewed as profane or less than meaningful. It is here, too, that secularisation is also a stand-in category for modernity more generally, thus, forging a synonymous relation between them. This image of the ‘great divide’ includes Taylor’s reconstruction where his idea of ‘moral space’, so thoroughly drawn in Sources of the Self, is shifted and orientated towards, if not religion, then the realm of transcendence.

Taylor’s A Secular Age remains an argument against the long modern history of the formation of what might be termed, ‘this-sided’ philosophical anthropologies of human self-formation. Taylor argues that such philosophical anthropologies cannot adequately address the problem of indeterminate wonder and transcendence, even if they approaches this issue as a critique of modernity through its Romantic heritage alone.

Indetermination, mystery and wonder need not be equated with transcendence, poetry, or even a Heideggerean inspired negative theology (Kearney 2001). Taylor stands in its wake and shares the prejudice (in Gadamer’s sense of the term) of the immediate identification of rationality with control, violence, instrumentality and modernity, contrasted by ‘the invisible’, nature, the sublime, and the poetic, which has fascinated critics since Romanticism.

However, a different possibility presents itself. This possibility of the indeterminate, of wonder, can also be approached from the vantage point of the integration of, and ‘porous’ relation between, emotion, dignity, the beautiful and the mysterious, with the recognition of our foibles and everyday suffering at its core (Heller 1999, 2010). In her A Theory of History Agnes Heller recounts a story told by the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis in which his Greek peasant great-grandfather plants olive trees for his great-grandchildren. This was no self-denial or search for control, but a pleasure (Heller 1982: 35, 2010). Heller’s commentary can be used metaphorically to suggest the creation of new spaces and the persistence of older ones in which contemplation, stillness, and even transcendence beyond everyday suffering may occur, although not necessarily in the way that Taylor means. They are, nonetheless, this-sided spaces for the possibility of mystery and wonder. These new spaces may be constituted, for example, not only in the contemplation of the garden or nature (including non-human animals) with which one does not need to interfere, but also in the listening and creation of music, the absorption in and creation of artwork or a piece of writing for which poetry need not be the paradigm, the listening to and the creation of love (Rundell 2010a, b).

However, these different spaces are not really spaces, as such. They are different relationships, anchored as much in the work of the singularity of the radical imaginary (Castoriadis), as in the quite distinct social and inter-subjective imaginaries that co-constitute them of love, friendship, dignity and beauty, where ‘a purposiveness without purpose’ that integrates all of our senses and sensibilities may reign. It is a relationship, an inter-subjectivity of non-interference, of the specificity of the subject on both sides, as well as the specificity of the ‘gap’ between them which cannot or should not be filled immediately. We can simply wonder at it.

This type of relationality also has its own temporal horizon, its own sense of time. It is slow time, not the fast, technically instituted time of progress and control. This slow time is also a time for the openness of the gifts of love, friendship, of involvements as well as self-suspensions that are given beyond ourselves the time for different kinds of imaginings, mysteries, that cannot or need not be solved, deliberated, or even reflected on. They may simply open and deepen relationships with both human and non-human subjects. The secular need not mean a world without wonder and wonderment for its own sake and without interference.


  1. 1.

    This chapter is a re-written and expanded version of my review essay on A Secular Age published in a 2010 issue of Critical Horizons (11(1):119–132). A draft of this re-written version was also presented at University of Antwerp, Corvinus University and University College Dublin under the auspices of The International Research Network on Religion and Democracy. I would to thank Peter Losonzci and Maeve Cooke for hosting me, as well as the participants of the seminars for their responses.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia

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