A first look at Charles Taylor

Some friends and I have begun a series of conversations about Charles Taylors’ enormous book, A Secular Age.  Taylor first defines “secularity” in terms of the “conditions of belief,” that is, what made it hard not to believe in God 400 years ago as compared to what makes it hard to believe in God today.  He begins by describing the pre-modern consciousness and contrasting it with the modern consciousness, and then spends about 600 pages (practically a page per year) narrating the change from one to the other.

I am still working through the narrative.  In many ways, I lack the historical chops to engage it critically, so I’ll be reaching out for help there.  But his opening move, the description of modern and pre-modern consciousnesses, has already been helpful to me.  He has a knack for describing the well-nigh indescribable in memorable terms. Most importantly, he coins the terms “buffered self” and “charged object” to capture and explain the shift from what many have called the “enchanted cosmos” to our modern state of “disenchantment”.

Taylor’s Analysis

Broadly, the idea is this.  The “buffered self” is one that sees all “meaning” as occurring inside the human mind, where “meaning” refers to “our responses, the significance, importance, meaning, we find in things.” (p. 31)  For the buffered self, things outside of the mind “only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us….” (p. 31) Because of this, we can isolate ourselves inside the mind, take refuge there, and nothing outside the mind will be able to impose a “meaning” on us because nothing outside the mind has a “meaning” independently of our reaction to it.  The “buffered self” is not a theory or a conclusion of any kind, but what Taylor calls a “naive” understanding: the modern just takes things as being this way prior to any effort at explaining things. (p. 30)  It is accepted as a primal experience in the “disenchanted world”.

By way of contrast, the pre-modern “naive” understanding was one of a “porous self” in an “enchanted cosmos”.  The porous self sees the world as full of “charged objects,” i.e., objects that already have meaning in themselves apart from our reaction to them.  Some of these “charged objects” are non-human minds, like angels and demons and God (p. 32). But other “charged objects” are physical objects imbued with inherent meaning, rather like the evil ring in Tolkien’s famous trilogy, “and this means that the object / agent can communicate this meaning to us, impose it on us, in a third way, by bringing us as it were into its field of force.” (p. 33)  Like a grumpy person whose mere presence somehow imposes grumpiness on us (p. 34), a good or evil “charged object” can somehow impose a good or evil fate or even a good or evil morality on us. When the world is full of “charged objects,” Taylor says,

The meaning can no longer be placed simply within; but nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is in a kind of interspace which straddles what for us is a clear boundary. Or the boundary is, in an image I want to use, porous.” (p. 35)

Throughout his contrast between modernity and pre-modernity, between “buffered” and “porous” selves, he reminds his reader that he is talking about a consciousness, a mode of experience, not a thought process or a faith leap:   “this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of ‘theory’, or ‘belief’.”  He does not mean that a modern, buffered self cannot believe that God exists or hold to a theory of angelic influence on human behavior, but that the modern, buffered self cannot encounter these things “naively,” in the manner of immediate experience.  The buffered self can only encounter the transcendent through an interpretation of his experience, and he is always aware that there are other, rival interpretations.

While Taylor describes both the porous and the buffered selves as “naive” understandings, the shift from one to the other involves what he sees as an important shift from naivete to reflective awareness.  The porous self, he says, encountered transcendent realities like God and angels and the afterlife and so on in a naive way: people had experiences and automatically interpreted them as experiences of the transcendent, but did not notice that they were interpreting the experience.  They thought of the experience + the interpretation as being simply an experience.  But the modern encounter with transcendence is one in which people have an experience and then consciously interpret the experience as one of transcendence or not, choosing their interpretation for various reasons and yet aware that their interpretation is one among several. (p. 11)  On Taylor’s account, neither theism nor atheism, neither the acceptance of transcendence nor the rejection of it, can be naive any longer.

Gaps in Taylor’s Account

As I said above, I think Taylor’s description of the difference between pre-modern and modern consciousness is excellent.  He has managed to put words around the experience behind the individualism so characteristic of our times, and he opens a window onto what it would have been like to be reflexively communal and pious.

However, he tends to a kind of pessimism about the whole process:  the enchanted realm is gone forever, and the buffering process cannot be undone.  While I agree that we cannot go back and become medieval, with all the particularities and eccentricities of that age, I think we can move forward past “disenchantment” to inhabit a newly enchanted cosmos.  I would like to use Taylor’s excellent framework to help me explore this new “enchantment” and this new “self”.

As a way in, I would like to point out some ways in which Taylor’s analysis of modern and pre-modern consciousness or experience are not entirely compelling.  As cracks emerge in the buffered self, a path may open to a renewed porousness, so to speak.

(1) One can re-achieve naive

To begin with, Taylor stacks the deck by using the terms “naive” and “reflective”.  Even though he intends the terms in a neutral way, still “reflective” is unavoidably better than “naive”.  Taylor argues that the modern self cannot unsee what he has seen, cannot go back from “reflective” to “naive”, so that the journey from enchanted to disenchanted worlds is a one-way trip.  Apart from a violent and dishonest act of will, one cannot give up a reflective state for an unreflective state, right?

There are possibilities that Taylor has not considered.  For example, one can have an immediate experience of something and then later become persuaded to interpret the experience in a way that is untrue to the experience itself.  For example, we are told on all sides these days that gender is a social construct, that is, an interpretation of our experience rather than a primal experience. That’s not true:  to be masculine or to be feminine is an immediate experience, not an overlay of interpretation on top of an experience. But nonetheless we find myriad teenagers these days persuaded by fashion and perhaps by doctors to take their (predictably) turbulent experience of sexuality as a sign that their gender is in question.  In such a case, it will eventually be possible to return to the original experience, accept it for the primal experience it was, and so to encounter masculinity or femininity in a “naive” way once again. It will be a matter of dropping unnecessary, complicating layers of pseudo-reflection.

Or to take another example, there is the category of knowledge that Aquinas describes as “self-evident to the wise”.  That is to say, some things are in fact self-evident, but it takes a great deal of labor and thought to put oneself in a position to see them for what they are.  One can work with, say, the concepts of “potency” and “act” for years, and the mind’s eye gradually grows accustomed to the light of immaterial reality, and at length one begins to realize that some things (e.g., “act is absolutely prior to potency”) are just self-evident.  They are obvious to anyone who grasps the meaning of the terms, but the terms take years to grasp. In other words, it is not always true that the end of a chain of reasoning is an interpretation of experience: sometimes, the end of the chain is the opening of a new, primal experience.  

In other words, one can outgrow a “reflective” grasp of a given situation and mature into a “naive” grasp.

(2) The buffer is not perfect

Another gap in Taylor’s account is his handling of emotion.  Taylor identifies emotions as part of the mind’s life, along with meaning, intention, and so on.  In keeping with his general analysis of the difference between buffered and porous selves, he says that the porous self had emotions imposed on it from outside by love charms or gods or suchlike:  “That is, emotions which are in the very depths of human life exist in a space which takes us beyond ourselves, which is porous to some outside power, a person-like power.” (p. 36) In another place, he describes the enchanted world as one in which “things and agencies which are clearly extra-human could alter or shape our spiritual and emotional condition, and not just our physical state (and hence mediately our spiritual or emotional condition), but both together in one act.” (p. 40)  At one point, he makes the emotion of melancholy a prime example of the difference between porous and buffered selves:

Consider melancholy: black bile is not the cause of melancholy, it embodies, it is melancholy. The emotional life is porous here again; it doesn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. (p. 37)

He comments on how we moderns may be relieved to be told that our depression is merely a result of low dopamine or some other chemical imbalance.  But, he says,

a pre-modern may not be helped by learning that his mood comes from black bile. Because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows that he’s in the grips of the real thing.  Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded self–I want to say “buffered” self–and the “porous” self of the earlier enchanted world.

Now, this way of handling emotion lands Taylor in a quandary.  An emotion is something charged with meaning, with intention: anger is not merely a “boiling of the blood about the heart” or whatever, but is directed at someone.  Having a “crush” on someone is not just feeling fluttery but a kind of wanting to do something with or for someone.  This is why Taylor puts emotion inside the boundaries of mind.  But in regards to the example of chemically caused depression, Taylor puts the “feeling” of depression outside the mind:  the buffered self can retreat into itself from the “feeling” that it identifies as not me.

This inconsistency tracks our experience, really.  On the one hand, our emotions are definitely a component of our interior life, to the point that we readily say “I feel that” in place of “I think that”.  On the other hand, we frequently feel the pull of emotions against our deeper aspirations, and so we see them as opposed to the “real me” of the mind. It is the classic conflict between the spirit and the flesh outlined by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans.

Most of us are not trying to construct an analytical theory around the boundaries between inside-the-mind and outside-the-mind.  Taylor’s whole account depends on this boundary, so for him emotions are a problem. If he puts them squarely inside the modern self’s buffer, then he has to admit that certain physical states (low dopamine, whatever) are directly determinative of mind, blurring the clear boundary between mind and body.  But if he puts them decidedly outside the buffer, then we have a kind of “charged” thing outside the mind, a non-mental thing that is full of intentionality and meaning–something that, as experience shows, can impose its meaning on our wills if we are not careful.  So in the end, Taylor puts emotion inside the mind when it suits his case and outside the mind when it doesn’t. I can’t blame him.

But it does bring up the possibility that the buffered self is not an entirely coherent experience.  In other words, Taylor’s description is bang on here, but the experience he is describing has internal inconsistencies usually glossed over.

(3) Intentionality altogether outside the human mind

The denial of any meaning or intentionality outside the human mind is more radical than it might seem at first.  For example, it would be strange in the extreme to say that animals do not experience emotions.  Such a view might once have been held even by a large minority of theorists, but my impression is that today one would be hard pressed to find even a small group that seriously think animals have no feelings.  Those who live in close quarters with animals learn to recognize moods, desires, aversions, and so on, and absolutely nothing in our experience suggests the contrary. So in at least one case, we have an experience of “meaning” or “intentionality” outside of human minds that is not open to various interpretations.

Of course, animal emotions and desires do not impose their meaning on us in the manner of the “charged objects” Taylor describes.  My point here is that Taylor’s description is incomplete or inaccurate: animal emotions fit neither into the category of neutral object nor into the category of charged object as he divides them.  He is leaving some obvious things out of account in order to keep his divisions neat.

What other quasi-charged-objects is Taylor leaving out of account–and how do those things affect his argument?

(4) Historical inadequacy

Lastly, Taylor’s descriptions do not seem to fit all levels of medieval society.  For example, his account of “charged objects” as possessing within themselves a power to change others physically represents a view explicitly rejected by Aquinas and Augustine and other Church Fathers (thinking for for example of Theodore the Studite’s treatment of icons).  They hold that any evil “magic” power in physical objects is to be explained by demonic activity and not by a power inherent in the things.  Good power in physical things is to be explained by the activity of saints and angels.  The reverence due to an icon is most definitely not due to the physical object in its materiality, but only in as much as it has a relation to Christ or a saint.

In every age, people have a tendency to slouch toward a matter-bound way of thinking and forget that mind is the true center of all.  Aristotle commented that Anaxagoras among the pre-Socratics seemed like the one sober man among a bunch of drunks, because the rest were all trying to explain everything only by material principles and Anaxagoras saw that mind must be the true key to everything.  And in the Christian era, the fathers were trying to get people to rise above a matter-fascinated, physical-obsessed way of seeing to a spiritual, mind-centered way of encountering the world.

I am inclined to see superstition in this light: the matter-bound person sees the object itself as having a kind of power, where the spirit-centered person sees the object has having power only in virtue of some mind at work.  So the battle against superstition was just one facet of a broader, constant fight the clergy were waging, a battle that must be waged in every age.

Seen from that point of view, the person who saw “charged objects” as having in themselves a power to effect physical change is actually closer to the modern, disenchanted view than Augustine of Aquinas. Both the ancient peasant and the modern pedant are unable to rise above the material object as the locus of power.  The difference between them is that the ancient peasant had at least an inkling of what Augustine and Aquinas saw clearly, namely that mind or some kind of intention is at play, while the modern pedant has lost the spiritual altogether and sees only inert, physical stuff. On this account, Aquinas’s understanding of “charged objects” is not moving away from the medieval peasant and toward the modern consciousness; rather, both the medieval peasant and the modern consciousness are steps away from the perennial Christian view held by Aquinas.

In other words, for some educated medievals, the essence of “enchantment” was the centrality of logos to all things. It was not about witches and spells.


In upcoming posts, I hope to explore each of these four gaps in a more positive way.  I’d like to talk about my own experience of re-achieving a kind of naivete in a central area, about the possibility of a more coherent “naive” experience of self, about the “charge” in even inanimate objects all around us, and about replacing the term “enchanted cosmos” with a description more centered on the transcendentals (being, one, good, true, etc.).

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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5 years ago

Thank you for this. I enjoy reading your melliferous prose and benefitted from your exposition. Although he has been on my personal reading list for several years, I do not think I am ready for Taylor yet. Godspeed!