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College Quarterly
Fall 1995 - Volume 3 Number 1
The Malaise of Modernity
Charles Taylor
Toronto: Anansi, 1991

Philosophical Arguments
Charles Taylor
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Charles Taylor begins his compilation in Philosophical Arguments with an essay called “Overcoming Epistemology.” I don't much like it, if for no other reason than I have a different view of epistemology than Taylor does. He associates epistemology with Cartesian, atomistic, instrumental, utilitarian, rationalistic subjectivism; I see it as something closer to what used to be called the social construction of knowledge. He is interested in what things truly are; I am more interested in what they appear to be. He wants to talk about a continuity among Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and the later Wittgenstein. He insists that we talk about what absolutely is; I, contrarily, embrace indeterminacy. Mostly, Charles Taylor speaks as though the entire enterprise of modern epistemology were restricted to the Cartesian tradition up to logical positivism and including behaviouralism and the anti-historical hyperbole of Sir Karl Popper. This is at best misleading.

Ontology and epistemology - the philosophy of being and the theory of knowledge - attract different sorts of people, I suppose. To me, ontological statements have always stunk of order. Husserl reeked of assurance and the stench of Heidegger's romanticisation of the stupefied peasant melding with categorical Being in the form of Nazi purity made me retch.

Heidegger, the Black Forest philosopher, is “yet another Romantic exponent of the ‘organic society,’” says leftist literacy critic Terry Eagleton. “The exaltation of the peasant, the downgrading of reason for spontaneous ‘preunderstanding’, the celebration of wise passivity - all of these, combined with Heidegger's belief in an ‘authentic’ existence-towards-death superior to the life of the faceless masses, led him in 1933 into explicit support of Hitler.”1 Taylor wishes to pick and choose from Heidegger's thought, acknowledging that there is a darker side. Such an acknowledgement is not enough. Nor is the identification of epistemology with a line of argument running from Descartes' mathematics through Locke's empiricism tradition. It may be an epistemological tradition, but it is surely not epistemology.

Epistemology - mainly empirical, mostly relativistic, occasionally soft and, at its best, forgiving - has always been my preference. It invites us to worry about how we can know anything. It tells us, somewhat like the stories in Richard Ford's recent collection of short fiction, Independence Day, “that people are not always as bad as what they do.”2 Epistemology is inherently and inescapably subjective. Its inquiries can assume what seems to Taylor to be a revelation, namely that we are embodied subjects and that our worlds are intentionally created by us. This has been known for some time, even by those who do not always use the phenomenologists' jargon of “intentionality”.

It is, moreover, wholly within the boundaries of the epistemological discourse community to identify the (quite literal) insanity of Cartesian dualism, to employ cybernetics to disprove logical atomism, and cheerfully to toss into the ideological dumpster the several simplistic reductionisms - behaviourial, chemical, mechanical, and physical - as well as the ethical commitment to crude utilitarianism.

Giving a rather good whacking to such assuredly dying horses is what Taylor's earnest language is all about; he need not have strayed so far for allies. Others knew the emptiness of reductionisms, and many of them were empiricists and epistemologists to boot! We have long known about hammers - those that Nietzsche would use to philosophize and others that Heidegger would put famously “to hand”.

Taylor's insistence on an appeal to ontology, a deliberate grounding in foundations more ethically charged than those he attributes to the scepticism he associates with empiricist epistemology, does not merely demean the precision of modern scientific inquiry but threatens to undermine its legitimacy as a way of knowing. Heidegger should have known better. Taylor does.

Still, it is hard to get away from the allegedly deeper thinkers. Even at the dim pre-Socratic edge of Western thought we find Heidegger lurking in the bushes. Of the Anaximander fragment-the oldest snippet of western philosophy still available-he had the gall to ask: “By what authority should it speak?”3 I, contrarily, am awed and beg to ask it questions. I cannot believe that antiquity must win the right to address us. We, I think, must justify our speculative excursions into antiquity. I sniff Heidegger too in the Parisian air as Sartre and de Beauvoir murmur that they admire the uniforms of the German occupying army. I know also that he was there for George Grant.

Heidegger, above all, insisted that the question concerning technology be addressed. Grant addressed it, and the result was as close to wisdom as a Canadian produced in his time. Heidegger is there also for Charles Taylor. A professor of philosophy at McGill, Charles Taylor produces close to wisdom in our time. What's more, like Grant, he has an uncommon ability to speak commonly.

Let this be plain: Taylor sees Hitler as “something demonic,” but he explains that “Heidegger has no place for the retrieval of evil in his system, and that is part of the reason why Hitler could blindside him.” One the other hand, Taylor goes on, Heidegger's account of “the origin of language, its telos, and the human essence can be the basis of an ecological politics… the basis of a ‘deep’ ecology.”4 But for such a project, we need more than the homely feel of a hammer or any other hand-tool. We need instead people who understand the technology but are not yet so wholly (and I will not grant Taylor his modifier “polemically”) “anti-humanist” as Heidegger.

I like what Taylor says when he talks to other than professional philosophers. That happens in the small paperbound book, The Malaise of Modernity, which comprises the CBC Massey Lecture Series for 1991. Despite the unhappy title, this book is a sane and sensible exploration of the modern conditions in which self-fulfilment is not vilified but made to stand at the centre of genuine value. No friend of “wild capitalism”, the glorification of fragmented individualism, Taylor nonetheless explores how we can be self-regarding without being merely selfish. He worries about authenticity.

He offers political prescriptions which are rooted in the ontological critique of technology, but which are also joyfully democratic in content and abundantly humane in intent. Charles Taylor is, among other things, a social democrat who has long argued for a rewriting of socialist theory as complete and far-reaching as that of Karl Marx a hundred years ago. But just as George Grant could not restore a lost, ruined conservatism, Charles Taylor is not the one to restore social democracy. It is not the fate of Canadians to be located at the fulcrum of political thought. For the moment, though, he'll do.

It will not be easy for the rest of us. His philosophical arguments are not easy. They dazzle. They are ever so essentially wise. They display virtuosity and versatility. They compel reflection. Charles Taylor pokes and Charles Taylor prods. He deals with topics from “chimp language” to “half-baked, neo-Neitzschean theories…[derived] from Foucault or Derrida.” He inspires and he deflates.

In agreement with him on almost every political point, I remain philosophically at odds. As an unrepentant epistemologist, I am challenged at every turn. I can only hope that the politically challenged will engage Taylor in one book or the other. College students inclined toward the study of their own society should find The Malaise of Modernity well within their reach. College teachers interested in a trenchant philosophical inquiry into contemporary social issues from multiculturalism to welfare economics will be fascinated by Philosphical Arguments.

The Malaise of Modernity is limpid, kind and optimistic. Philosophical Arguments is eloquent, capacious and vigorous. Both critique disengagement, instrumental reason and atomism. Both go quietly and remorselessly beyond Heidegger.

  1. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) pp. 53-64.
  2. Elizabeth Hardwick, “Reckless People,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 13 (August 10, 1995), p.11.
  3. Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), p.24. The fragment has been accessibly translated by Luciano De Crescenzo: “The material cause and first element of things was the Infinite and into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, of necessity, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.” See: The History of Greek Philosophy: Volume l - The Pre-Socratics (London: Pan Books Limited, 1990).
  4. Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 125.

Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.