Looking for another story

As promised, a somewhat more substantive comment on Charles Taylor’s book ” A secular age”.

He begins his investigation with a little bit (several long chapters) of history. With the emphasis on story, though. He makes quite clear that he is not a historian, he is not resting his case on detailed historical studies – which would be difficult anyway, given how much he attempts to cover. The purpose of his story is to develop a more convincing theory of secularization, to replace the standard story according to which the rise of modern society just made secularization happen.

What remains unsatisfying (up to this point at least) is his lack of argument for how and why the “official” story remains unconvincing. Let’s take an example from chapter 2, entitled: The Rise of the Disciplinary Society. The topic is the attempt to increase discipline society as a whole by various Reformation forces. The question is: why did elites feel the need to increase discipline not just amongst themselves, but also amongst “the people”. Taylor briefly considers two explanations given by the “official story”: on the one hand, the elites simply felt threatened by disorderly elements (such as beggars), on the other hand a disciplined society was needed to improve and sustain the military, in particular productivity had to be increased to cover expenses.

Taylor then goes on to say: “So intervention was driven by fear, and ambition; to head off disorder, and to increase power; a negative and a positive motive. But it seems to me that this can’t be the whole story.” (p. 103, my italics)

Of course, whether or not this seems to be sufficient for Taylor is nor really relevant to the question, whether or not this indeed is the whole story. There is not much of argument, however. And, to be honest, Taylor does not really seem interested in putting forward such an argument. After all, if you wanted to show that motive x is not sufficient as an explanation for phenomenon y, you would probably have to look very carefully at particular cases, lots of original sources (letters, diaries…) to find out, what motive was crucial in a given case. Taylor does no such thing, he is not a historian.

Can we reconstruct his project to justify this procedure? It seems that we can. The real interest in his alternative story is not in whether or not this was in fact the motivation behind any particular case of introducing discipline. We should understand his project as an attempt to take seriously the official reasoning behind any of these steps. Officially the reasoning is theological, inspired by religious good will. The question Taylor seems to be in the business of answering is: can we take this perspective seriously?


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3 Responses to “Looking for another story”

  1. ben wolfson Says:

    Can we reconstruct his project to justify this procedure?

    There’s a bit that comes surprisingly late in Sources of the Self in which he tries to justify his potentially too top-down ideas not archives-driven approach to historical change. Naturally I can’t remember what he says about it other than that he makes it plain that he’s aware that it’s a charge that can be made against him (and, despite his apologia, apparently was). I don’t believe the reason given there was that he wanted to understand the official reasoning, though.

  2. madamechauchat Says:


  3. fieldus Says:

    A Secular Age – Charles Taylor

    I first heard mention of Charles Taylor via
    Is that all there is? | By genre | Guardian Unlimited Books
    Secularism, he charges, has left us leading hollow, atomised lives, devoid of what he (to my mind bafflingly) calls “fullness”. To be su…

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