The intellectual legacy of Charles Taylor: securing the vantage point of (historical) philosophical anthropology

My notes on MacIntyre, A. (2018). Charles Taylor and dramatic narrative: Argument and genrePhilosophy & Social Criticism44(7), 761-763.

This short reflection by Alasdair MacIntyre, one of my favourite philosophers, concerns the intellectual legacy of Charles Taylor, undoubtedly my favourite. He stresses how the reputation of Taylor would have been ensured by his earlier work, establishing himself as both an historian of philosophy and a major contributor to important debates. But it was Sources of the Self and A Secular Age which took his work to a unique level:

Both advance philosophical theses and arguments, but theses and arguments that are put to very different uses from those characteristic of philosophical writing. The change is a change both in genre and in the relationship of author to readers. For Taylor’s theses and arguments find their place in a story which claims to be no less than that of our shared culture, a story of the transformations in how we have come to understand ourselves.

The first tells the story of how we have come to understand ourselves (the formation of our conception “of subjectivity, of reason as requiring disengagement from world and body and, in consequence, an instrumental stance, of the significance of the transactions of everyday life, of the sentiments, and of art understood as the natural expression of feeling”) and the second tells the story of how we have come to understand our relation to what is outside of ourselves and what this means for our orientation to our existence (“a sense of fullness, a sense of, at moments an anticipation of, what it would be to have our lives completed and fulfilled”). As MacIntyre puts it, these are unlike histories of any kind previously seen. Their historical detail has been addressed as a matter of critique but he argues these critics often miss the point:

What such critics have failed to recognize is that the only adequate critical and dissenting response to Taylor would be to construct or at least to gesture towards the construction of an alternative and rival narrative, one that accounted for all that Taylor accounts for and more, one that in addition explains why Taylor’s narrative advances a defective account of modernity and of secularization.

The point is a profound one. Most work in philosophy or the social sciences presupposes a vantage point of precisely the sort Taylor has explicated, a more or less systematic set of assumptions about the way we are, how we have come to understand ourselves and how this has unfolded throughout history. MacIntyre suggests recognition of this is Taylor’s greatest achievement and I agree.

It is a vantage point I’ve been drawn to since I first read his work over a decade ago and it’s one which has an inordinate value to me. Part of the fascination the late modernity literature held for me for so long was the promise of a similar vantage point, with the promise of being much more empirically grounded. I eventually came to the conclusion it wasn’t any such thing yet I still find myself drawn to the terrain Taylor has mapped out which sits so uneasily between philosophy, sociology and history.

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