Charles Taylor Saturday #5: Purposes and buffers.

Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and social theorist. His most recent book, A Secular Age, is an examination of modern secularism and the cultural conditions that gave rise to it.

First, an administrative note: I haven’t actually looked at the numbers, but I think Thursdays are the busiest posting days here at the League. The last thing they need is another installment of the League’s least popular ongoing feature. So, “Charles Taylor Thursday” is now “Charles Taylor Saturday.”

One thing I really like about Charles Taylor is his ability to sympathetically describe others’ ways of being in the world. With another debate about atheism and Christianity all around us, I’d like to post an example of such a passage, which will set me up for yet another key definition. (Last week I tried to describe what Taylor means by “social imaginary.”)

Now an utter absence of purpose can be experienced as a terrible loss, as the most dire threat levelled at us by the disenchanted world. But it can also be seen in the other positive perspective, that of invulnerability. In such a universe, nothing is demanded of us; we have no destiny which we are called on to achieve, on pain of damnation, or divine retribution, or some terminal discord with ourselves. Already the Epicureans had made this point in one form. To know that all comes from atoms and their swervings, that the Gods are utterly unconcerned with us, is to liberate us from fear of the beyond, and thus allow us to achieve ataraxia. Modern materialism takes up this legacy, but gives it the characteristically modern activist twist: in this purposeless universe, we decide what goals to pursue. Or else we find them in the depths, our depths, that is, something we can recognize as coming from deep within us. In either case, it is we who determine the order of human things–and who can thus discover in ourselves the motivation, and the capacity, to build the order of freedom and mutual benefit, in the teeth of an indifferent and even hostile universe.

We are alone in the universe, and this is frightening; but it can also be exhilerating. There is a certain joy in solitude, particularly for the buffered identity.

-Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 367

Taylor goes on to quote Douglas Hofstadter on how reductionism (Hofstadter’s word) inspires cosmic awe.

I spent my middle school years reading the sort of books of Christian apologetics typified by Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. I haven’t looked at it in years, so I have no idea how the arguments would hold up, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t explain the pull of unbelief except in terms of sinful pride or rebellion. Of course, if Christianity is true, then pride and rebellion would be the deep explanation for unbelief in many cases — but, from what I can tell, this is not at all how unbelief is experienced by most nonbelievers. It’s not how I experienced my own phases of doubt. The ethical appeal, for me, is much more like what Taylor describes above.

But let’s get back to that last sentence: what is a “buffered identity”? Taylor holds that one of the big stories of modernity is that people learned to see themselves as impervious to the influence of outside (spiritual) forces. The buffered self “can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.” One example Taylor gives is the widespread belief in the belief in the influence of relics in the middle ages: if you got within their “aura,” the relics could exert influence on your very soul. In modernity, by contrast, we have a buffer. We can surely be moved by great art, but we conceive of the moving as happening within ourselves, and we can generally shut ourselves off to things if we don’t want to be affected by them. We can conceive of something like depression as a force that affects us, but one that can be manipulated and controlled.

I realize I’m jumping subjects here, but I heard a rather impressive example of a buffered self when I was driving a few weeks ago. A woman named Emily White was being interviewed on the radio. (Why was I listening to AARP radio? Umm… I think it’s because I was listening to a program on the classical station, and this show came on after? I promise you I’m not a senior citizen.) Ms. White has written a book called “Lonely: A Memoir,” and she was talking about the years during which she experienced chronic loneliness. Now, I’ve always conceived of loneliness as an internal emotion: like happiness or anger, it’s just a response to events and situations, and the way to deal with it is to look at the choices that led to whatever situation that’s making me feel lonely, and make different choices. What struck me as bizarre about the radio program was that White talked about loneliness in such clinical terms, as if it were more like a physical ailment than happiness: a condition that had to be alleviated. Basically, she treated chronic loneliness in the same way I might treat chronic depression. This was new to me, but I suspect that viewing chronic depression as an ailment to be treated was itself a new approach not too long ago.

But here’s the thing: it sounds like this self-conception worked: White overcame her loneliness, which I presume is the real test. The real self was conceived as something underneath this particular emotion, and it sounded like that perspective helped White get over her problem, which is nothing but great. So, if Taylor is right, the good thing about the buffered identity is that we modern people will see ourselves as having a great deal of agency and control over our lives. At the same time, we will have abstracted ourselves from a fuller experience of the world: one of the persistent malaises of modernity is the suspicion that we’ve gotten too far away from some more primal source of meaning.

Well, it’s been a rambling entry this week, and I’ve no idea how to wrap it up. But I hope I’ve given decent examples of Charles Taylor’s sympathetic descriptions of exclusive humanism, and of what he means by “buffered identity.”

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One thought on “Charles Taylor Saturday #5: Purposes and buffers.

  1. INTERESTING post as usual! Listen, I wanted to share with you an event coming up in the spring that I think you may enjoy based on the things I’ve read in your blogs. March 12, 2011 a simulcast called The Case for Christianity is taking place that will address similar questions to the one you have raised here.. Led by Lee Strobel (former Legal Editor of the Chicago Tribune) & Mark Mittelberg, all of the most avoided questions Christians don’t like to answer or even discuss. Both are authors of extremely intriguing books, I encourage you to check them out as well as the simulcast in March. Definitely worth the time & almost positive something you would enjoy – thought I’d pass along! Thanks again!

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