January 25, 2008


Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge & London; Belknap/Harvard U. Press, 2007) (This is an important book. There are numerous book reviews of it (e.g., NYT, NYRB), so I incorporate them by reference. The basic question raised is this: "why is it so hard to believe in God in (many miliuex of) the modern West, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?" Id. at 539. “[I]ndividualism has come to seem to us just common sense. The mistake of moderns is to take this understanding of the individual so much for granted, that it is taken to be our first-off self-understanding ‘naturally’. Just as, in modern epistemological thinking, a neutral description of things is thought to impinge first on us, and then ‘values’ are ‘added’; so here, we seize ourselves first as individuals, then become aware of others, and of forms of sociality. This makes it easy to understand the emergence of modern individualism by a kind of subtraction story: the old horizons were eroded, burned away, and what emerges is the underlying sense of ourselves as individuals.” “On the contrary, what we propose here is the idea that our first self-understanding was deeply embedded in society. Our essential identity was a father, son, etc., and member of this tribe. Only later did we come to conceive ourselves as free individuals first. This was not just a revolution in our neutral view of ourselves, but involved a profound change in our moral world, as is always the case with identity shifts.” Id. at 157.).