It takes a long time, and a certain amount of patience, but it is possible to finish Charles Taylor’s long, heavy book A Secular Age. And it’s really worth it. Taylor’s is in many ways the most insightful account of the genesis of modernity that I have ever read. For it is more than an examination of the “conditions of belief” in our age; it’s an examination of the way moderns see and imagine themselves and society and the universe, and how this way of seeing and imagining came about. A lot of goodreads reviews have complained about the sheer length, the meandering, and the repetitiveness of this work, but I found the length necessary to make his case, and the repetitions helpful to avoid getting lost. The meandering hesitating style seems to me to be used for rhetorical reasons. It a trifle irritating at times, but it allows Taylor to make his conclusions really plausible without having to prove them strictly.
What I find most unsatisfying about Taylor are some of his own philosophical and theological positions. He’s able to see the power in all the positions he analyzes so clearly that he ends up conceding too much to them. Take for example his analysis of the modern idea of “authenticity” his analysis is brilliant, but whereas my reaction to the analysis is, “OK, now we can see why this ideal has such a powerful hold on so many people and why it has to rejected root and branch and opposed with all our might”, Taylor’s conclusion is along the lines of “this has a powerful hold on us, so we can’t really reject it entirely, so let’s say it’s partly right and try to correct it through all these other crazy ideas that are also partly right.” Or to take another example, Taylor has some brilliant passages analyzing the difference between modern and pre-modern views of political order, and showing how apparent agreement deceives. I recently used his analysis to argue that the modern view is just really bad, but Taylor, despite seeing the modern view very clearly for what it is, has a very ambivalent attitude towards it.