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Response to Jeffrey C. Alexander

Response to Jeffrey C. Alexander American Journal of Cultural Sociology (2021) 9:9–12 https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00099-7 ORIGINAL AR TICLE Charles Taylor Published online: 20 April 2020 © The Author(s) 2020 I really enjoyed and was instructed by Jeffrey Alexander’s paper. It arouses in me a complex web of agreements and demurrals. I will try to sort them out. One point on which I very much agree with Alexander: social imaginaries need to be understood ethnographically, rather than in the terms of political theory. My description of modern social imaginaries picks out only certain structural features which are common to many imaginaries of modern advanced democracies. But every democratic society inflects these features in its own way, differences which one can only grasp in the kind of terms anthropologists use. For instance, many Western democracies are witnessing a growth of what is often called “populism” (a very problematic term, but I cannot go into that here), by which is usually meant some kind of amalgam of discontent with élite rule, where a strong sense of socio-economic neglect is fused with a sense of cultural threat. But while the neglect is often conceived in rather similar terms, the cultural threat in each soci- ety has to be understood very much in its own terms. (See the very interesting work of Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in their own Land). What this sense amounts to in Quebec is very different from what it means to various sections of voting base of Trump in the US, and also distinct from France, for all the mutual references here (around terms like “laïcité”). People who combat “populism” simply in general, moralistic terms are condemned to lose the argument, as we all saw in Nov 2016. (For another facet of ethnographic inflection of certain common institutions of democracy, see Mukulika Banerjee, Why India votes, London: Routledge 2014.) But my reaction to Alexander’s main thesis is more complex. Our difference is constituted for one part by a misunderstanding of my position, for another, by my terminological failure. First, the misunderstanding. The word “disenchantment” is used in more than one sense. Weber was guilty of this, and the confusion was handed down by him. In one sense it applies to the condemnation, and subsequent (partly consequent) wither- ing of certain practices which are often described as “magic”. This, of course, is built into the etymology of Weber’s term, Entzauberung. The relation is complex, * Charles Taylor cmt1111111@aol.com Department of Philosophy, Leacock Building, Room 414, 855 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, QC H3A 2T7, Canada Vol.:(0123456789) 10 C. Taylor because our Western understanding of “magic”, and its difference from “religion” (cf. Frazer 1959) is constructed out of this condemnation/withering. In this sense, most modern Westerners do not live in an “enchanted” world; that is, a world in which physical objects have causal properties in the moral dimension, or more generally, in the dimension of meaning. Aspirin cures my headache, but the little vial with the blood of the martyred Archbishop that people brought back from Canterbury could cure all sorts of ills, and could also make me a better Christian. There is a sense of “charged” object here, which has powerful analogies to what one might feel at the Lincoln memorial, but which does not apply to most people today. This is an important difference, and to ignore it in an account of the coming of our (Western) secular age would be a big mistake: belief in God in 16th century Christendom was bound up with a belief in God’s power to protect us from evil forms of enchantment (see “beating the bounds” of the parish). The decline of this type of enchantment changes profoundly what I have been calling the “conditions of belief”. Analogously, there is an important distinction to be made between the context in which Kantorowicz’s “King’s Two Bodies” held and  the one we find ourselves in today. Then the hierarchical socio-political order was understood to be embedded in the cosmos, which was similarly understood as hierarchically structured. To go against the social order was to rebel against the cosmos, with potential dire conse- quences (e.g., the horses disobeying men in Macbeth). We have something very close to this in the contemporary invocations of “Gaia” as a warning against our reckless ecological course. But it is not clear how much this is serving as a powerful metaphor, and how much it carries the ontological force of earlier cosmos theories. Because our normal understanding of polities today is that they were erected at identifiable moment by identifiable people, and subsequently modified at certain dates, quite without reference to their cosmic setting. Now, of course, this leads to some analogue of earlier notions of higher times: for instance, 1787 in Philadelphia. I too am a great fan of Durkheim—for all my semi- blasphemous invocation of him in different forms (paleo-, Neo-, and post). And I heartily agree with Alexander, in terms of the general claim, that some kind of pow- erful distinction is still made, and cannot be dispensed with, analogous to the origi- nal sacred/profane one. But something very important has changed. Just what? Here we come to a great failure of the book. I tried to mark the dis- tinction with the term “transcendent”. But it is clear that the term is irremediably polysemic, so that, when Alexander says, “When human beings, with all their col- lective symbols and fantasies, participate in society, powerful collective symbols of transcendence emerge, even inside an immanent frame”, we all nod assent—and that emphatically includes me. There is an obvious sense in which the US consti- tution is “above”, “beyond”, inviolable (see the term “unantastbar” in the German Grundgesetz—there applied to human beings) by those living under it—and let  us hope Trump does not manage to wreck this. And there are still “charged objects”, and we can speak of Aphrodite’s action when we fall in love. I certainly did  not want to affirm that all of those who cannot believe in pre- modern forms of magic experience the world as “flat and empty”. That would be Response to Jeffrey C. Alexander 11 a ridiculous claim. But on the other side, modernity opens the possibility that we might fear that all powerful meanings are based on illusions. So (a) there is some important difference—or range of differences—here, and (b) the binary ‘transcendent/immanent’ lamentably fails to mark it. What do we do? I am stuck for a general term. But closer studies of different facets of this can reveal features which help clarify what is at stake. But Weberian disenchantment in the primary sense of “demagicization” does make a difference. Those who invoke Aphrodite to describe their love experience are aware that she serves here as a metaphor. Something important has happened. I have recently been working again on an account of post-Romantic poetics. When Wordsworth (1962, p. 99) in Tintern Abbey writes And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime // Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All think- ing things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things. the words strike me with a force, one might say, a conviction, but what I am con- vinced of is radically under-specified. This is what made it possible for Words- worth to be an inspiration to so many people in the 19th century of very differ - ent metaphysical and religious beliefs—from the poet himself, who ended up as a conservative, rather crotchety Anglican opposed to Catholic emancipation, to, say, George Eliot, an atheist. Similar points could be made about Hölderlin, Novalis, Rilke; similarly, Bee- thoven, Schubert (what is troubling the protagonist of the Winterreise?). This is relevant, because many of the Romantics were self-consciously try- ing to respond to a world that was disenchanted, both in the narrow sense of no longer containing objects with moral powers, and in the broader sense of living in a Newtonian universe rather than a Platonic cosmos. One could say that they were trying to “re-enchant” the world—except that the re-enchantment here could never simply undo the prior disenchantment. This is part of what is meant by saying that we all live in an immanent frame. The response to this is irremediably plural; the ways in which we find mean- ing, self-transcendence (in different senses), moral and political aspirations differ. And this brings about a kind of fragilization. This not only depends on the plural- ity itself: the fact that people, including those close to me, adopt a quite different outlook cannot but make the question "should I change?" alive for me. It is also fed by the ontic indefiniteness, or under-determination, surrounding transcend- ence in its various meanings. This is why there is a high proportion of what have been called “seekers”, as against “dwellers”, in our diverse society. This word can be applied to people who sense that, implicit in their option, there is something further to be under- stood, and some further steps in becoming to be carried through. In Christian terms, this corresponds to the very old understanding of faith as a journey. But analogous descriptions will be applied by seekers of other convictions. 12 C. Taylor It is understandable that this growth of the seeker mode will sit badly with those who see the big questions as closed, whether as atheists or believers, and see with dismay their positions being “watered down” or “pared away”. This  is a source of great tension within various confessions in the West today. There are those who see a set of rules, particularly in the domain of sexual ethics, as sanctified by tradition and untouchable, versus those who are looking for a contemporary way of living their faith. At the same time, some analogous split seems to be intensifying in the Islamic world, between those who focus on a supposedly fixed original interpretation of sha- ria, on one hand, and the various currents of spiritual development, many of Sufi inspiration, on the other. This seems to be largely, though not entirely, a coincidence, certainly a most unfortunate one. This, along with the growing tendency to use religion as a marker of political mobilization—sometimes just historical religion, sometimes religion in the white heat of devotion—means that we are in for a rough ride in our contemporary world. Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Com- mons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creat iveco mmons .org/licen ses/by/4.0/. References Frazer, James. 1959. The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London, UK: Macmillan. Kantorowicz, Ernst. 2016. The King’s two bodies: A study in medieval political theology. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Weber, Max. 1963. The sociology of religion. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Wordsworth, William. 1962. Tintern Abbey. In The prelude: Selected poems and sonnets, 99. New York: Holt Rerinhart and Winston. Charles Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at McGill University. Among his books are: Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1989), A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), and The Language Animal (Harvard University Press, 2016). http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png American Journal of Cultural Sociology Springer Journals

Response to Jeffrey C. Alexander

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American Journal of Cultural Sociology (2021) 9:9–12 https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00099-7 ORIGINAL AR TICLE Charles Taylor Published online: 20 April 2020 © The Author(s) 2020 I really enjoyed and was instructed by Jeffrey Alexander’s paper. It arouses in me a complex web of agreements and demurrals. I will try to sort them out. One point on which I very much agree with Alexander: social imaginaries need to be understood ethnographically, rather than in the terms of political theory. My description of modern social imaginaries picks out only certain structural features which are common to many imaginaries of modern advanced democracies. But every democratic society inflects these features in its own way, differences which one can only grasp in the kind of terms anthropologists use. For instance, many Western democracies are witnessing a growth of what is often called “populism” (a very problematic term, but I cannot go into that here), by which is usually meant some kind of amalgam of discontent with élite rule, where a strong sense of socio-economic neglect is fused with a sense of cultural threat. But while the neglect is often conceived in rather similar terms, the cultural threat in each soci- ety has to be understood very much in its own terms. (See the very interesting work of Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in their own Land). What this sense amounts to in Quebec is very different from what it means to various sections of voting base of Trump in the US, and also distinct from France, for all the mutual references here (around terms like “laïcité”). People who combat “populism” simply in general, moralistic terms are condemned to lose the argument, as we all saw in Nov 2016. (For another facet of ethnographic inflection of certain common institutions of democracy, see Mukulika Banerjee, Why India votes, London: Routledge 2014.) But my reaction to Alexander’s main thesis is more complex. Our difference is constituted for one part by a misunderstanding of my position, for another, by my terminological failure. First, the misunderstanding. The word “disenchantment” is used in more than one sense. Weber was guilty of this, and the confusion was handed down by him. In one sense it applies to the condemnation, and subsequent (partly consequent) wither- ing of certain practices which are often described as “magic”. This, of course, is built into the etymology of Weber’s term, Entzauberung. The relation is complex, * Charles Taylor cmt1111111@aol.com Department of Philosophy, Leacock Building, Room 414, 855 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, QC H3A 2T7, Canada Vol.:(0123456789) 10 C. Taylor because our Western understanding of “magic”, and its difference from “religion” (cf. Frazer 1959) is constructed out of this condemnation/withering. In this sense, most modern Westerners do not live in an “enchanted” world; that is, a world in which physical objects have causal properties in the moral dimension, or more generally, in the dimension of meaning. Aspirin cures my headache, but the little vial with the blood of the martyred Archbishop that people brought back from Canterbury could cure all sorts of ills, and could also make me a better Christian. There is a sense of “charged” object here, which has powerful analogies to what one might feel at the Lincoln memorial, but which does not apply to most people today. This is an important difference, and to ignore it in an account of the coming of our (Western) secular age would be a big mistake: belief in God in 16th century Christendom was bound up with a belief in God’s power to protect us from evil forms of enchantment (see “beating the bounds” of the parish). The decline of this type of enchantment changes profoundly what I have been calling the “conditions of belief”. Analogously, there is an important distinction to be made between the context in which Kantorowicz’s “King’s Two Bodies” held and  the one we find ourselves in today. Then the hierarchical socio-political order was understood to be embedded in the cosmos, which was similarly understood as hierarchically structured. To go against the social order was to rebel against the cosmos, with potential dire conse- quences (e.g., the horses disobeying men in Macbeth). We have something very close to this in the contemporary invocations of “Gaia” as a warning against our reckless ecological course. But it is not clear how much this is serving as a powerful metaphor, and how much it carries the ontological force of earlier cosmos theories. Because our normal understanding of polities today is that they were erected at identifiable moment by identifiable people, and subsequently modified at certain dates, quite without reference to their cosmic setting. Now, of course, this leads to some analogue of earlier notions of higher times: for instance, 1787 in Philadelphia. I too am a great fan of Durkheim—for all my semi- blasphemous invocation of him in different forms (paleo-, Neo-, and post). And I heartily agree with Alexander, in terms of the general claim, that some kind of pow- erful distinction is still made, and cannot be dispensed with, analogous to the origi- nal sacred/profane one. But something very important has changed. Just what? Here we come to a great failure of the book. I tried to mark the dis- tinction with the term “transcendent”. But it is clear that the term is irremediably polysemic, so that, when Alexander says, “When human beings, with all their col- lective symbols and fantasies, participate in society, powerful collective symbols of transcendence emerge, even inside an immanent frame”, we all nod assent—and that emphatically includes me. There is an obvious sense in which the US consti- tution is “above”, “beyond”, inviolable (see the term “unantastbar” in the German Grundgesetz—there applied to human beings) by those living under it—and let  us hope Trump does not manage to wreck this. And there are still “charged objects”, and we can speak of Aphrodite’s action when we fall in love. I certainly did  not want to affirm that all of those who cannot believe in pre- modern forms of magic experience the world as “flat and empty”. That would be Response to Jeffrey C. Alexander 11 a ridiculous claim. But on the other side, modernity opens the possibility that we might fear that all powerful meanings are based on illusions. So (a) there is some important difference—or range of differences—here, and (b) the binary ‘transcendent/immanent’ lamentably fails to mark it. What do we do? I am stuck for a general term. But closer studies of different facets of this can reveal features which help clarify what is at stake. But Weberian disenchantment in the primary sense of “demagicization” does make a difference. Those who invoke Aphrodite to describe their love experience are aware that she serves here as a metaphor. Something important has happened. I have recently been working again on an account of post-Romantic poetics. When Wordsworth (1962, p. 99) in Tintern Abbey writes And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime // Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All think- ing things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things. the words strike me with a force, one might say, a conviction, but what I am con- vinced of is radically under-specified. This is what made it possible for Words- worth to be an inspiration to so many people in the 19th century of very differ - ent metaphysical and religious beliefs—from the poet himself, who ended up as a conservative, rather crotchety Anglican opposed to Catholic emancipation, to, say, George Eliot, an atheist. Similar points could be made about Hölderlin, Novalis, Rilke; similarly, Bee- thoven, Schubert (what is troubling the protagonist of the Winterreise?). This is relevant, because many of the Romantics were self-consciously try- ing to respond to a world that was disenchanted, both in the narrow sense of no longer containing objects with moral powers, and in the broader sense of living in a Newtonian universe rather than a Platonic cosmos. One could say that they were trying to “re-enchant” the world—except that the re-enchantment here could never simply undo the prior disenchantment. This is part of what is meant by saying that we all live in an immanent frame. The response to this is irremediably plural; the ways in which we find mean- ing, self-transcendence (in different senses), moral and political aspirations differ. And this brings about a kind of fragilization. This not only depends on the plural- ity itself: the fact that people, including those close to me, adopt a quite different outlook cannot but make the question "should I change?" alive for me. It is also fed by the ontic indefiniteness, or under-determination, surrounding transcend- ence in its various meanings. This is why there is a high proportion of what have been called “seekers”, as against “dwellers”, in our diverse society. This word can be applied to people who sense that, implicit in their option, there is something further to be under- stood, and some further steps in becoming to be carried through. In Christian terms, this corresponds to the very old understanding of faith as a journey. But analogous descriptions will be applied by seekers of other convictions. 12 C. Taylor It is understandable that this growth of the seeker mode will sit badly with those who see the big questions as closed, whether as atheists or believers, and see with dismay their positions being “watered down” or “pared away”. This  is a source of great tension within various confessions in the West today. There are those who see a set of rules, particularly in the domain of sexual ethics, as sanctified by tradition and untouchable, versus those who are looking for a contemporary way of living their faith. At the same time, some analogous split seems to be intensifying in the Islamic world, between those who focus on a supposedly fixed original interpretation of sha- ria, on one hand, and the various currents of spiritual development, many of Sufi inspiration, on the other. This seems to be largely, though not entirely, a coincidence, certainly a most unfortunate one. This, along with the growing tendency to use religion as a marker of political mobilization—sometimes just historical religion, sometimes religion in the white heat of devotion—means that we are in for a rough ride in our contemporary world. Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Com- mons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creat iveco mmons .org/licen ses/by/4.0/. References Frazer, James. 1959. The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. London, UK: Macmillan. Kantorowicz, Ernst. 2016. The King’s two bodies: A study in medieval political theology. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Weber, Max. 1963. The sociology of religion. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Wordsworth, William. 1962. Tintern Abbey. In The prelude: Selected poems and sonnets, 99. New York: Holt Rerinhart and Winston. Charles Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at McGill University. Among his books are: Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1989), A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), and The Language Animal (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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American Journal of Cultural SociologySpringer Journals

Published: Apr 20, 2020

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