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.

The closest thing I have to an historiographical principle is to always be suspicious of what Charles Taylor calls ‘subtraction stories’. While he uses the concept to refer to congratulatory stories of rational emancipation in which human beings have gradually dispensed with myths and illusions that served to limit them, it can equally be applied to refer to narratives of gradual decline in which we have progressively lost touch with the authentically human. To call something a subtraction story does not entail that we think the story is false so much as that it is simplistic. In the more sophisticated forms of subtraction stories, elements that are empirically accurate serve to reinforce the plausibility of an account that is appealing on a narrative level but analytically deficient.

The temptation here is to flip to the opposite extreme, responding to the obvious simplicity of a subtraction story by denying its claims in their entirety. For instance, to respond to those who say we have lost everything by claiming that we have lost nothing. While the inverse position might be more sensible than that which it is a response to, it’s no less questionable to me because it reproduces the narrative structure which is the underlying problem. There’s a certain temptation to these positions, with the bold pronouncements of epochal change (or lack thereof) which they license. I think sociologists are far too prone to them. In practice, I lean much more towards the pronouncement of change rather than its denial because I think things are changing in a significant way. But I think this narrative temptation inheres in any attempt to offer accounts of social change that go beyond the merely descriptive.

Much of Charles Taylor’s work has, in effect, been variations upon a theme. This was an overriding concern to argue against the understanding of “human life and action” implicit in an influential “family of theories in the sciences of man” as he puts it in the Philosophical Papers volume 2 (all references from this). The common feature of these theories is an “ambition to model the study of man on the natural sciences” and they tend to either “show themselves up” or “avoid the interesting questions” (pg 1). While there are certainly differences within this family, in some cases reciprocally conflictual ones, it is such differences which account for the variations upon Taylor’s overarching theme. However his underlying point concerns their shared allegiance to naturalism and the understanding of human agency implicit within it. By ‘naturalism’ Taylor means “the view that man can be seen as part of nature – in one sense or another this would surely be accepted by everyone – but that the nature of which he is a part is to be understood according to the canons which emerged in the seventeenth-century revolution in natural science” (pg 2). One key methodological injunctions flows from a commitment to naturalism: the need to avoid subjective properties entering into explanation and to give an account of things in entirely objective terms. How stringently this is interpreted varies but the result is varying degrees of suspicion of properties of objects which are dependent upon subjects i.e. those features which only exist in experience.

The impulse is one which seeks to expunge subjectivity, so as to clear away unreliable experience and leave us with cold hard facts. The problem here is a simplistic treatment of the distinction between what John Searle describes as intrinsic and observer-relative features of the world, such that objectivity is seen to be exhausted by the former and the latter is left as (unreliably) subjective. Instead Searle offers us a more complex understanding of contrasting ontological and epistemic senses of objectivity and subjectivity. ‘Objective’ and ‘subjective’ can be features of objects (describing their mode of existence) or they can be features of judgements (describing their relationship to the external world):

  • Ontologically objective entities (or types of entity) do not depend for their existence upon any perceiver. In many ways the sun rise depends for its existence upon perceiving subjects but the sun itself exists independently of our perception of it.
  • Ontologically subjective entities (or types of entities) depend for their existence upon a perceiver. For instance pain is real, in the sense that it doesn’t go away simply because we wish it to do so, however it can’t exist in the absence of a subject feeling pain.
  • Epistemically objective judgements (or types of judgement) are true or false in virtue of ontologically objective states of affairs. Two competing theories of the formation of stars are in conflict precisely because they make irreconcilable claims about the same ontologically objective type of entity.
  • Epistemically subjective judgements (or types of judgement) lack this connection to ontologically objective state of affairs. To say one star is more beautiful than another does not easily permit reasoned argument. Obviously the distinction between epistemically objective and epistemically subjective is a matter of degree however in a way that is not the case for the ontologically objective/subjective distinction.

The problem with naturalism in social sciences is that it seeks to expunge the ontologically subjective and epistemically subjective from social inquiry. Taylor’s underlying point is that the methods of the natural science are fundamentally inapplicable to the social sciences because the objects of the natural sciences are fundamentally different to those of the social sciences. Crucially, human beings use language and interpret their own behaviour and position within the world. Furthermore, these self-interpretations are partly constitutive of what human beings are. My understanding of who I am, what I’m doing and why I’m doing it are characteristics of me as an entity susceptible to investigation. In so far as it leads this dimension to be excluded from inquiry, or treated as an epiphenomenon of an underlying objective process, then we are left with an absurdly lopsided view of the domain we attempt to study. As Taylor puts it: “our personhood cannot be treated scientifically in exactly the same way we approach our organic being” (pg 3). For Taylor the necessity of interpretation follows directly from this.

In his recent book of essays Charles Taylor discusses poetry and resonance. This reflects his long standing interest in how “speech, linguistic expression, makes things exist for us in a new mode, one of awareness or reflection” (pg 56). What does this mean? It is a rejection of the view that words acquire meaning by designating things we already experience. It is an assertion that words make new experiences possible:

Well, wind would be there for us, even if we had remained pre-linguistic animals; we might seek shelter from it. And breathing would be there, as we gasp for breath running.

But spirit? Not that gift, that rushing, that onset of strength to reach for something higher, something fuller. This sense of the force of the incomparably higher only takes shape for us in the name. Spirit enters our world through language; its manifestation depends on speech. (pg 57)

On this view, poetry comes to be seen as performative, possessed of a capacity to create new meanings through establishing new symbols. What is at stake here is the “poet’s straining to find the right word” (pg 57) and what this ‘rightness’ constitutes. Is it a circumvention of linguistic constraints in a subjectively pleasing format? Is it an experience transcending language but nonetheless inner? Is it human nature or the human condition? Is it God?

Taylor sees modern poetics as existing between subjectivism and objectivism, understanding its goal as being “to manifest hitherto inaccessible reality and possibilities of being” (pg 58). This sees poetry as an event, in which words open up contact with something higher or deeper, making something manifest that was not previously present. Previous speech or experience prepares us for these possibilities, manifesting in actuality as resonance: “this new word resonates in/for us; that the word reveals what it does is also a fact about us, even though it is more than this” (pg 60). It speaks to us because of those aspects of our character which are not just part of us but present in others as well.

However modernity poetry does not (could not?) make reference to established public meanings in the manner of earlier poetic traditions. This creates the possibility of ‘opening new paths’ and ‘setting free new realities’ but also the risk that “language may go dead, flat, become routinized, a handy tool of reference, a commonplace, like a dead metaphor, just unthinkingly invoked” (pg 60). The possibility of resonance rests on the contrast between ordinary descriptive speech and poetic language. If this disjuncture is lost then so is resonance, with poetic expression becoming mere word play in the face of the everyday. In such a case, we lose something communal because “the resonances which matters are those which link speaker and hearer, writer and readers, and eventually (perhaps) whole communities” (pg 61).

In the previous post of this series I explored Archer’s arguments about relational reflexivity: on this view the socialisation process should be understood as an active and ongoing engagement by a individual that is profoundly shaped by the matrix of relations within which they were embedded at any given point in time. There are two key concepts Archer uses to make sense of this biographical process:

  1. The necessity of selection that obtains when morphogenesis impinges on the social context(s) a subject inhabits: “more things to know, to do or to be – new occupations, new organisations and new relations” (Archer 2012: 97). However the novelty which characterises these opportunities also precludes any authoritative source of normative guidance. While the subject might not confront them alone, either in the sense of the opportunity being unique to them and/or lacking others from whom an attempt can be made to solicit guidance, these others are similarly situated vis-a-vis the novelty as novelty. There is no ‘common sense’ view to turn to where such novelty is concerned and, as a consequence, confrontation by it constitutes an initial spur towards reflexivity. Though, as discussed in the last post, the form this takes is empirically variable. In a natal context characterised by established ‘relational goods’ and a relative degree of normative consensus, the necessity for selectivity will tend to be low given the subject’s likely investment in their (highly valued) present circumstances. However as they begin to explore beyond this context, encountering variety will increasingly necessitate selectivity: other things to do and other ways to be poses the challenge of either recommitting themselves to their initial investment in their natal context or beginning to look beyond its normative horizons.
  2. Shaping a life refers to the ongoing and unavoidably provisional attempts made by subjects to establish a satisfying and sustainable form of life for themselves. This involves inventorying, accommodating, subordinating and excluding concerns: working out, under our descriptions, what matters to us and how to live life in a way which expresses these concerns. We have limited time, energy and resources. We find ourselves situated within a stratified social world which leaves some opportunities available and others foreclosed. The practical projects we might otherwise form on the basis of our concerns could require resources we do not or are never likely to possess. Furthermore such projects, as well as the underlying concerns themselves, exist in relation to each other. Some are mundanely compatible or incompatible but others are complementarity or contradictory. We can enjoy rich food & fine wine while seeking to preserve a certain level of physical fitness (incompatible) – there is a tension between them but it can be negotiated reflexively. On the other hand, our love of fine wine cannot be sustained alongside, say, a religious commitment to teetotalism (contradictory). Ultimately, one commitment or the other has to be surrendered by us given the necessity of ‘shaping a life’. It’s important to recognise that this is not the pursuit of an isolated ‘Sartrean Self’: our placement within the social world is integral to the challenges we confront in ‘shaping a life’ and, in turn, individual or collective projects of modifying that placement (or the overarching structures within which we are ‘placed’) can be well understood within this framework. Furthermore, as per the notion of relational reflexivity, “the reflexive practical reasoning involved is shaped by the networks of relations within which it takes place because these profoundly affect what does and can satisfy the subject and be sustained by each of them” (Archer 2012: 97)

Shaping a life is a messy and complex process. This is particularly true during adolescence where subjects are preoccupied by discerning and deliberating about their nascent concerns because they are learning about their selves and their circumstances. Archer places great stress upon novelty at the biographical level and this is integral to her project of linking an account of social change at the macro and micro levels in a non-reductive way. Any encounter with novelty is understood as producing a response in the individual, with the nature of this response being a variable matter conditioned by the subject’s relational-reflexively shaped pre-dispositions towards their context and the personal concerns which act as the normative ‘sounding board’ through which novelty is ‘filtered’:

Relationally, each ‘invitation’ to a new experience produces a response from the subject, via the experiment taking place between them, one registered in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (which may come close to reflex-rejection where fear or repugnance are concerned). What is of supreme importance, even though it may be misjudged, misevaluated and not be sustained, is the subject’s discovery that a previously unknown experience ‘matters to me’. This is the beginning of practical reasoning about how one should live because it furnishes the potential raw materials, which may or may not be mutually compatible and thus have no guarantee of being retained. […] Discernment is messy, incomplete and provisional for eighteen-year-olds. Nevertheless, what caring means remains constant, even if the ‘list’ of their concerns undergoes additions and deletion as well as accommodation and subordination. (Archer 2012: 104)

The notion of ‘concern’ here is emphatically not that of wanting or desiring. The things I want can matter to me but, from Archer’s perspective, it’s the concern in virtue of which they matter that is important here. When we experience things as mattering in this way, it leads naturally to the challenge to commit presuming circumstances allow. On this view, our relations with the world are unavoidably evaluative: what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ cannot be ignored if we want to provide an adequate explanation of social action. However the fact things matter to us does not, in itself, provide guidelines for practical action and we can be sure about a concern while still later coming to feel we’ve mischaracterised or misunderstood what mattered to us and why. Even with a clear understanding of what matters to us, the process of subsequently shaping a life is a complex task:

Yet this is of real concern to students, who at least want to make lasting commitments and are quite capable, for the most part, of projecting ten years ahead and describing the contours of the life they would then like to b leading. this means their undergraduate years will also be the time (for some) when the necessity of selection meets the need to shape a life. Why is this described as a ‘need’? Because no one can simply continue adding to their list of concerns ad infinitum since they have insufficient time to attend to them all and would discover some conflict, generating dissatisfaction (for example, it is almost impossible to be an avid gardener and to be travelling for six months of the year). Consequentially, complementarity between concerns is sought and not as some abstract idea or strain towards consistency, but because it is desirable in itself. It is what protects that which matters to us most by ensuing it is well served and that concerns of lesser importance are not allowed to detract from it. This is why subjects (excepting the ‘fractureds’) actively though fallibly seek to dovetail their concerns. (Archer 2012: 108-109)

On Archer’s account, the process of shaping a life necessitates the prioritisation of some concerns as qualitatively more important than others. In committing ourselves to such final ends, these may then serve to filter novelty much more powerfully than our other concerns e.g. the ramifications for one’s family becomes the immediate frame of reference through which any new opportunity is assessed. Establishing final ends in this sense does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of other concerns – though sometimes it can do this and it’s an issue which fascinates me at the level of individual biography – but it does provide a principle which allows for their relativisation, as an ultimate concern implicitly subordinates other concerns without negating their value. Archer’s extremely sympathetic critique of the work of Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt rests on their occlusion of the relational dimension to these existential questions:

The process of shaping a life is necessarily a matter of relations, but these are not approached relationally by most philosophers, even when they are dealing with careers or, more blatantly, with friendship, romance of parenthood. Instead, they are considered unilaterally, from the standpoint of a single lover. My argument will be that the social relations, within which the designation of ultimate concerns is enmeshed, are indispensable to explaining the life that is shaped. Taylor will be of considerable help here, but his approach will need supplementing by relational considerations. (Archer 2012: 112)

The particular argument of Taylor’s she refers to here is that “in the end, what we are called upon to do is not just carry out isolate acts, each one being right, but to live a life, and that means to be and become a certain kind of human being” (Archer 2012: 112). The crucial question here is how our concerns ‘fit, or fail to fit, together in the unfolding of our lives’. However Archer argues that without a ‘sense of unity’, such that we do not know what kind of life we wish to lead and what sort of person we wish to be, such considerations cannot adjudicate on the present dilemmas we confront. Instead she proposes that this process be seen relationally and cautions that, contra Taylor, the fact that an “internal, subjective sense of what gives unity to his or her own life” must be a personal property by definition does not mean that it is a personal achievement. From a relational perspective,

 it is the relationships accompanying and surrounding her concerns that promote both the subjective sense of computability and objectively make concerns compatible, or the opposite. how do relational considerations help in answer the question Taylor has effectively posed: what does complementarity require, such that it can give rise to the ‘sense of unity’ of a life?


The difficulty for most students at the point of university entry (and usually aged eighteen) is that their concerns are fluid and often incomplete. In other words, they provide insufficient guidance for shaping a life. Whilst ever concerns can be displaced and replaced (without such shifts being prompted by dramatic contingencies), this indicates that discernment and deliberation are still ongoing and thus cannot provide the necessary traction for even being preoccupied about coherence amongst the components that the subject has started to flag up as important to her. This is where the majority of university entrants find themselves.

It is obvious that the eventual constituent concerns giving unity to a life must not be blatantly at odds with one another, such that it is volitionally impossible to serve both (wishing to remain a teetotaller and seeking to become a sommelier). Yet, something more than bald compatibility seems called for if the shape of a life is to prove durable and if it is to be more than one of several designs that ‘on paper’ might seem to yield the same ‘life goods’, to use Taylor’s term. The ‘constituent goods’ endorsed also need to be mutually reinforcing in a manner that requires further clarification. For instance, a concern to continue playing football during someone’s career as an engineer appears neither complementary nor contradictory, but the two do not reinforce one another in any self-evident way. This is where introducing relations and relationality can assist with both of the problems posed above; how to shape a life non-arbitrarily and how to cope with having two final ends. This is because both relations and relationality generate emergent properties whose effects exceed terms like ‘reinforcement’ or ‘deterrent’. They can make a life possible or impossible rather than simply being neutral towards it, as in the above example  (Archer 2012: 115)

The text then offers an extremely detailed example which, for the sake of getting something else done today, I won’t try and summarise. In brief: Archer’s point is that ‘final ends’ can be shared between people and that plural final ends can be incorporated into the ‘unity of a life’ which Taylor invokes. The broader message is that relations and relationality (relations between relations) are integral to understanding the biographical process of shaping a life because, without such a frame of reference, it becomes difficult to understand  at an empirical level the complementarity or contradiction between concerns which we can say at a theoretical level to be necessary for ‘shaping a life’. In successive posts (communicative reflexivity, autonomous reflexivity, meta reflexivity, fractured reflexivity) I’ll try and show what this means in practice.