The Question of Modernity Pt. III (Darren)
Two Theories of Modernity, 2001, The International Scope
Modern Social Imaginaries, 2002, Public Culture
Modernity and Disenchantment: Some Historical Reflections, 1994, Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism
These three essays were gathered together in an attempt to get a better handle on the phenomenon of modernity. As I kept coming across Charles Taylor’s name in current debate on the issue, including in Jameson’s A Singular Modernity I decided to turn to his work for insight and further exploration. I was not disappointed although I was left with the impression of Taylor of a man of great intellect and good intentions trying to buttress the crumbling walls of the great fortress that was once modernity against the enemies of post-modern skepticism as to its contents and accomplishments.
I have to admit that I remain unconvinced of Taylor’s assertions but I do feel I have a better grasp of what it is that certain people find worth defending in the modernist project as well as an understanding of what modernity must come to terms with if it is going to reinvent itself as a viable and desirable meta-narrative.
The first essay is actually a commentary and critical examination of Taylor’s earlier work by the philosopher Quentin Skinner. Written in 1994 it certainly demonstrates a particular commitment by Taylor to the lineage and ideals of the enlightenment as embodied in the modernist project. Skinner notes that Taylor conceives of modernity as a western centered cultural structure, thus giving it a location in both place and history, but also sees it as a movement that radiates outwards and downwards to the whole of the world. It is this second aspect that marks Taylor so strongly as a modernist. Further, Taylor sees that there are real and incontrovertible gains that have come about as a result of the modernist project. Taylor does not situate these gains as being either historically or culturally specific but instead posits them as real epistemic gains. Thus, for Taylor modernity has an inherent force that drives it out and down to the rest of the world. As of 1994, Taylor does not make an important differentiation that he comes to later; that between cultural and acultural modernity.
By 2001 Taylor has moved to making a clear distinction between cultural and acultural modernities. Cultural modernity is that which has arisen within a specific culture, namely western Europe and Anglo-America. On the other hand is acultural modernity which sees the time and place specific changes of modern transformation as culture neutral as a teleological point that all developing and advancing cultures have and will go through on their way to the wherever they are going to go. Taylor rejects this second form of modernity and its lack of subtlety and sensitivity. Taylor also rejects the majority of negative modernities, or those accounts that deny modernity in its entirety because he believes that the majority of them fall prey to the same totalizing and universalizing impulse as the dominant acultural theories of modernity. On Taylor’ account any account, positive of negative, that adheres to this claim of universality is dangerous and lacks reflective sensitivity to its own historical and cultural origins. In particular Taylor sees that acultural theories foreground and screen out in very revealing ways in regards to the underpinnings and tacit ontological commitments of modernity and that they have a vested interest in denying all form of contingency since any admission to it undermines their universal claims.
At this point it might be tempting to say that Taylor has taken a hard intellectual left in the direction of post-structuralism but this would be premature. What Taylor reveals in his 2002 article is that his modernist impulses are alive and well even if his vocabulary is highly sensitized and his appreciation of the difficulties that the modern project faces is refined. While still admitting of the two forms of modernity he notes in his 2001 article Taylor now wants to talk of modernity in its social sense as a new conception of societies moral order that, like the modernity he described earlier in his career, moves out and gains in intensity as it goes forth into the world. Taylor’s modernity may be social in origin but it is still striving for the universal and has real normative, and now Taylor adds ontic, force. This takes the form of three moves of the modern social imaginary that occur in the public, economic and political spheres. In all these spheres changes have occurred that can be traced directly to the rise of modernity and their effects have been moving out into the world ever since changing the world in their own image.
What ensures that Taylor remains a modernist and not a post-structuralist is that these events he describes hold no problem for his philosophy. Rather than finding the modernity he describes either suspect or corrupt he lauds the accomplishments it has achieved and in the end fails to turn a truly critical gaze upon the foundations of the project as a whole and all that it has claimed to achieve and in whose name. m. As long