Taylor’s Secular Age

A Secular AgeA Secular Age by Charles Taylor

Cross-posted from Goodreads. Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.



2 thoughts on “Taylor’s Secular Age

  1. Would it be possible for you to elaborate briefly on the modern notion of “authenticity” and why the idea has such a powerful hold?

    I must confess, that when I read even people I respect highly–and they start talking about “authentic this” or “authentic that”, that not only do I not know why they like using the term, I don’t even really know what they mean.


    • Here’s how Taylor describes the notion of authenticty: “the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.” or again: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life. But this notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.” Part of the power of this idea comes from the fact that it is part of a reaction within modernity against the “the buffered, disciplined self, concerned above all with instrumental rational control”: i.e. against the main strand of the Enlightenment. Taylor as a very well written little book (you can read it in a few hours) on this: http://www.scribd.com/doc/51045598/Charles-Taylor-The-Ethics-of-Authenticity


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