Chapter 2: The Rise of the Disciplinary Society

In this chapter, Taylor starts to describe the process by which we move from and enchanted to a disenchanted world and describes how the movement of “Reform” takes us into the modern, disciplinary society. He begins by asking how to explain the rise in the interest in nature for its own sake in the late middle ages. He contrasts this with view of the middle ages where nature was encountered as a source of contemplation: of the glorious divine order reflected in nature or as a reminder of the great miracles of God. A loaf of bread could remind one of the feeding of the thousands while contemplating the whole of nature could put one in awe of the Creator. In the late middle ages, movements in art, ethics, and science shifted how people thought of nature. Taylor points to the recovery of Aristotle, the realist turn in art and the recovery of ancient greek nature ethics as examples of this phenomenon. Taylor sees the spirituality of the time as a possible motivation for this turn, an increased emphasis on the human, suffering Christ. The new religious order at the time, the Franciscans, focused on bringing Christ to the people, and developed a spirituality of the presence of God in nature. The interest in nature for its own sake, Taylor points out, was not a move away from religion by any stretch, but rather, very much motivated by piety:

“The new interest in nature was not a step outside the religious outlook, even partially; it was a mutation within this outlook. The straight path account of modern secularity can’t be sustained. Instead what I’m offering here is a zig-zag account, one full of unintended consequences.” 

In other words, Taylor wants to stress is that we do not move from the enchanted cosmos to the modern disenchanted cosmos, in any kind of straight line, rather, he posits a less straightforward “zig-zag” line leading to disenchantment. The movement towards secularity happens through religious “mutations” and reforms, rather than, as the mainstream secularization thesis would have us believe, by a steady stripping away of religion.

Taylor then turns to the Nominalist overturning of Thomism. The key shift that Taylor sees happening via nominalism is a new conception of nature. In the Aristotelian cosmos, things (rocks, trees, cows ect.) were teleologically directed towards the good which fulfills their nature. The paradigm example is the acorn which has a nature to become a tree, and it orients itself towards that end. Taylor summarizes: “The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God’s will, except that He it is who has created the thing thus.” This is precisely the sticking point for the Nominalist, to say that each thing has its own internal good, independent of the will of God, seems to be a violation of His sovereignty. That is part of the reason for Occam’s rejection of “essences:” things are just particular things, there is no “cowness.” “Cow” is only a word we give to those lumbering four legged creatures with udders. Order is not internal to the cosmos, in the sense of internal patterns, essences or final causation, but rather, order is extrinsic to the cosmos, imposed by the will of God. Taylor discusses how this leads to a new stance on the world. Rather than finding and discovering patterns or essences in the world and living according to them, we now adopt a stance of instrumental reason. The “purpose” of an object is the function it serves in God’s creation, our approach to creation takes on this same instrumental approach, things are to be used to serve our ends, rather than us being subservient to the ends within things. Taylor calls this the “mechanization of the world picture” the cosmos is now conceived of in mechanistic terms. The language and metaphors of techne or human poesis are now used to describe reality. A key shift for Taylor is that the cosmos ceases to be normative, as a system of patterns with which we should come to terms and learn to live by, but rather is a large machine:

“…The world is a vast field of mutually affecting parts. This has been designed to work in certain ways, that is to produce certain results. The purposes are extrinsic, in the sense that we can’t understand things in terms of supposedly normative patterns at work in them. But we can grasp the purposes if we can discern what ends a mechanism of this kind is well designed to serve.”

This leads to a radically different stance to reality and the religious life:

“Living a godly life in this world is something very different… It is no longer a matter of admiring a normative order in which God has revealed himself through signs and symbols. We rather have to inhabit it as agents of instrumental reason, working the system effectively in order to bring about God’s purposes; because it is through those purposes, and not through signs that God reveals Himself.” 

One brief aside before we continue our summery. An interesting point of comparison here is the intelligent design movement, which wants to argue for an “Intelligent Designer” as the best explanation of the complexity of biological life. ID theorists claim that there are certain features of our evolutionary history which are inexplicable on standard darwinian accounts and are best explained by an Intelligent Designer (ID theorists prefer to remain vague about who, or what this Intelligent Designer is. (He/She/It could be the God of classical theism or a super intelligent alien from another dimension injecting information into the evolutionary process.) Philosopher Edward Feiser, has critiqued this perspective from a Thomist perspective, arguing that ID theorists presuppose the same mechanistic world picture as their ultra Darwinist detractors:

“Living things are for ID theory to be modelled on ships and statues, the products of techne or “art”, whose characteristic “information” is not “internal” to them, but must be “imposed” from “outside”. And that is just what A-T philosophers mean by a “mechanistic” conception of life.” 

Now, to return to our account. The shift that takes place in the Nominalist turn in a sense provides the backdrop for the rest of Taylor’s account in this chapter. The shift towards the mechanistic world picture and the stance of instrumental reason, is one factor behind the rise of the disciplinary society. Taylor introduces a new term, “civility”, which plays a key role in his account. Civility is what distinguishes the ‘civilized’ from the ‘savages,’ it is the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘nature:’ “It is what we have, and those others don’t, who lack the excellence, the refinements, the important achievements which we value in our way of life.” On a civilizational level, civility included well structured, responsible government who kept the peace, cities, technology, arts and sciences. On the personal level, civility included self control, sound education and polite manners. It was recognized that civility was “the fruit of discipline” and was formed by the struggled to reshape oneself. Of course, civility was mostly idealized and embodied by the elites, but Taylor notes a key shift beginning in the sixteenth century, when there began to be an attempt to “make over” the ‘unwashed masses’ under the norms of civility. This was initially motivated in part because of the threat that the masses posed to the elite, Taylor points to the “poor laws”, which effectively outlawed begging or giving to beggars. This was motivated by the large scale movement of the poor into the cities causing unrest, crime and disease. However, Taylor also notes that later on, “the reform of society comes to be seen as an essential part of statecraft, as crucial to the maintenance and increase of state power.” The key motivating factor here was military might: 

“One needed a healthy, numerous, and disciplined population from which to draw good fighting men; one needed a numerous and productive people to get the revenues needed to arm and sustain those men; one needed a sober, ordered and industrious population to keep production high. Governments were ore and more concerned to make over their subjects in a more thoroughgoing way, not just to maintain order, and prevent riots, but to participate in the ever-higher stakes of the balance of military power in Europe.” 

Taylor distinguishes between different types of programs to reform society, which are helpful to summarize in order to get a sense of the scope of the reforms. 

First there are the poor laws, which applied instrumental reason to the problem of poverty in an attempt to eradicate it. Taylor notes a shift here. In the middle ages poverty was seen as a path to holiness and the poor had an aura of sanctity. In the early modern period there was not place for the poor in the well oiled machine of society. The poor were often regarded with suspicion or disgust, was this person really in need or just too lazy to work? Second there was a crack-down on elements of folk culture. Attempts were made to root out pagan or unchristian elements in society. Events like the Carnival were attacked with a new vigour, motivated by a religious desire for orderliness and the repulsion to uncleanliness of civility. Third there were attempts by absolutist governments to improve the wellbeing of their subjects and more broadly to improve them. Taylor lists some of the reforms:

“try to establish schooling, to increase productivity, and to inculcate a more rational, hardworking, industrious and production-oriented outlook in their subjects. Society was to be disciplined with the aim of inducing self discipline.” 

Fourth, reforms were made to government itself, attempting to make governance more effective, efficient, disciplined and powerful. It was the success in producing a more effective government that made all the other reforms possible. All of these reforms included the “proliferation of methods,” new procedures and modes of behaviour that attempted to “rationalize behaviour,” in an attempt to discipline the population. This was a widespread attempt to discipline, rationalize, re-order the citizens to produce hard, industrious workers.

Taylor notes that beyond the economic and political motivations of Reform, the twin ideals of civility and religious reform were also powerful drivers. On one hand, there was the attempt to get people to live up to the demands of the gospel and to eliminate the gap between the two speeds of the medieval system. On the other hand were the ideals of civility and the attempt to make the whole society “civilized.” Taylor emphasizes that the goals of civility and religious reform were largely intertwined and not incompatible with each other. He gives the example of the Puritans:

“The Puritan notion of the good life… saw the saint as the pillar of a new social order. As against the indolence and disorder of monks, beggars, vagabonds, and idle gentlemen, he “betakes himself to some honest and seemly trade, and [does] suffer his sense to be mortified with idleness”… These men are industrious, disciplined, do useful work, and above all can be relied upon.”

The ideal society, orderly society, is filled with hard working men and women who earn their keep. Religion here undergirds the formation of a civil society, and is fundamental in disciplining the kind of hard working, industrious people needed to keep the machine running. Indeed, this religious solution to the social unrest of the times, and the promise of an orderly, clean and peaceful society that it could provide, was, along with fear of damnation, one of the reasons or motivations for being a believer: “Spiritual recovery and the rescue of the civil order go together.” The idea was not so much that all members of the society would be Christian—sectarians like the Huttterites held this view—but rather that the “Godly minority” would control things and keep them on the right track. It is interesting to think here about the Hutterites, whom Taylor does not mention, as emerging in this context. The language Hutterites use to describe their communities, very much fit with the religious/civility ideals of the time that Taylor describes. Early Hutterite writers extolled the orderliness of their communities and describe their members as hardworking and virtuous. They compared their communities to beehives or mechanical clocks in which each part plays its role for the greater purpose of the whole. In the words of the writer of the Hutterite Chronicle:

“Think of the ingenious works of a clock, where one piece helps another to make it go, so that it serves its purpose. Or think of the bees, those useful little insects working together in their hive, some making wax, some honey, some fetching water, until their noble work of making sweet honey is done, not only for their own needs but enough to share with man. That is how it was among the brothers. So there has to be an order in all areas, for the matters of life can be properly maintained and furthered only where order reigns–even more so in the house of God, whose Master Builder and Establisher is the Lord himself. Where there is no order, there is disorder. There God does not dwell, and the house soon collapses.”

The attempt is to produce a society in which the two tier medieval system is abolished and the ideal of human flourishing is subsumed into the greater goal of living beyond human flourishing. Indeed, the Hutterite community of goods is often promoted as the way to live out Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself, and yet, when this is done radically, all parties flourish. 

Taylor makes two further interesting observations about motivations of Reform. First, it seems to presuppose a remarkable optimism about remaking society—one utterly unprecedented in traditional societies, who assumed there was a limit to the degree to which sin and disorder could be overcome—as well as remarkable optimism about human malleability. We can impose order onto a malleable humanity and society to fashion it into conformity with our our ideals. Second, there is an intense attempt to impose order on everything, leaving no room for anti structure. All of society must be remade to live up to the demands of the gospel or of civility and there is no room for evil or paganism, laziness or disorder. 

Taylor takes early modern philosopher, Rene Descartes as a paradigm case and observes the development of a “super buffered self.” Not only are there no spirits or demons encroaching on our internal selves; the passions also undergo a shift. The passions in the ancient conception, while they are seen as leading us into illusion and unreason, still retain some orientation towards the good. In Plato for example, sexual desire is understood as being a feeble desire for Beauty. For Descartes, the passions are only distractions that lead reason astray, they point to nothing higher, or beyond, and have no higher meaning. The passions of the buffered self are only illusions that grip us which must be controlled and contained. The self in Descartes’ conception is also fully self contained and constituted in itself, and not its relationship to others. The modern, buffered self then, is utterly self enclosed, it is not under assault by evil spirits, not pulled by passions to something beyond, but is utterly autonomous and independent of others. 

A related trend is the remarkable advance in manners. While medieval etiquette books cautioned people against blowing their nose on the tablecloth, later etiquette tells people not to blow their nose at the table at all. Taylor gives a fascinating account of how these taboos developed. In medieval times, exposing yourself in public, or “mixing fluids” with others, if done in the presence of superiors was a case of “misplaced intimacy”, you are being too intimate with someone who is above you. Eventually, as equality grows, these taboos become generalized to apply not just to your superiors, but also to everyone else. It is never appropriate to defecate in public. Taylor sees this as a shift from “promiscuous intimacy” to a more guarded and “selective intimacy”: 

“This… reflects…the withdrawal from promiscuous intimacy which is part of the modern disciplined stance. Henceforth, this kind of closeness is reserved for a small circle of people, generally the immediate family; and even there the tabus are partly effective. You keep the multifarious functions of your body, its fluids and secretions, very much to yourself, you keep a respectful distance, and you relate to others through voice and visage, via sight and sound, reserving touch for intimates, or for certain ritually permitted moments like shaking hands.” 

This more distant relationship to others is accompanied by a more distant approach to yourself. Our taboos cause us to distance ourselves from many of our own strong emotions, such as violent rage, or our strange attractions/fascinations and our bodily functions. Together we play the social game with others, reinforcing the taboos with feelings of disgust at those who transgress the rules. Taylor puts it well: “Civilization is in a sense, a matter of feeling shame in the appropriate places.” The modern self is very tightly delineated between the inner and outer. Our outer self is the self we project to the world, the proscribed “professional” or “civil” ways we are able to relate to others, and the general social game we participate in. The inner self is those secretive inner attractions, emotions, or fascinations that we keep to ourselves and feel ashamed about. Taylor’s point about the medieval self, is that these boundaries between public and private were much more porous and much less governed or regulated by taboos. Its interesting to notice how repulsive we find that. 

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