Chapter 3: The Great Disembedding

In Taylor’s brief third chapter he seeks to understand the disembedding that took place for the modern conception of “the individual” to emerge. Taylor begins with an examination of “early religion” those religious forms of the axial age that existed before the advent of the “higher religions”  such as Judaism, Buddhism or Confucianism, which brought about a first disembedding. Those early societies which Taylor describes were small clans or tribes which were constituted by very diverse religious outlooks. In those societies, religion and society were utterly inseparable: “this consists in the obvious fact that the very basic language, categories of the sacred, the forms of religious experience, modes of ritual action, etc. available to agents in those societies is found in their socially established religious life.” In his exploration of the social imaginary of these early tribal societies, Taylor wants to argue that there just wasn’t the same modern sense of identity as a unique individual. The agent in such a society was embedded in his world to a degree we moderns would have a hard time imagining the pre-axial person’s sense of identity. What constituted the identity of such a person extended beyond what we think of as “the individual.” To try to give the modern a sense of this, Taylor gives the example of a person’s gender, his family of origin, or important life decisions such as marriage, its hard for us to imagine “who” we would be, in what sense we would be “ourselves” if we were say, the opposite sex, or born in a different family. This is roughly analogous to what Taylor is trying tell us about the sense of identity of these early humans: 

“Behind this issue…lies something deeper, which touches, what we would call today the “identity” of human beings in those earlier societies. Just because their most important actions were the doings of whole groups (tribe, clan, sub-tribe, linage) articulated in a certain way (the actions were led by chiefs, shamans, masters of the fishing-spear) they couldn’t conceive themselves as potentially disconnected from this social matrix. 

There was sense no self appart from the tribal self, the tribal self was constituative of the self. This social embededness, within a tribe, clan, ect. is the first of Taylor’s three ways these early humans were embedded in their world. Society was essential because the primary way people related to “transcendence” (in the form of spirits, gods, ect.) was via the rituals of the group, led by a representative of the group such as a priest or shaman. Second, there is a cosmic embeddedness, in which the local geography is infused with spiritual power, assaulted by spirits, or infused with gods, a spirituality known as Totenism. Third, the concern of the tribe is with “flourishing” and not, as in Taylor’s dual conception of the medieval spiritual system, with “beyond human flourishing”: “What people ask for when they invoke or placate divinities and powers is prosperity, health, long life, fertility…[etc.]” As an interesting aside, Taylor notes the modern appeal of paganism is connected the similar emphasis on human flourishing. The three forms of embeddedness are connected. The social embeddedness is required to promote human flourishing by placating and warding of cosmic forces that impinge on the common good. 

With the emergence of the Axial age religions, a massive shift and the first disembedding occurs.  One of the common features of axial age religions is the split of the cosmos into the transitory, fallen, this world, and the transcendent, perfect other realm. In the case of Judaism for example, a transcendent creator God stands beyond the world and wills a good beyond mere flourishing, this throws the three forms of embeddeness into a new light. First, the life within the clan, tribe, linage, ect. can no longer be the highest good, there is a transcendent higher calling that challenges the status quo. Thus, the prophets challenging the King, or Christ telling his disciples to leave their families to follow him. Second, there is a cosmic shift. The evil that is part of the created order is no longer to be negotiated with and tolerated as part of the order of things but must be resisted, overcome and eliminated. The created world is fallen and must be transformed. Finally, as we have already mentioned, there is a good beyond human flourishing that should be perused. This creates a new higher class of individuals who seek to live beyond more human flourishing, and the complimentary dual system (flourishing/beyond flourishing) that Taylor described earlier, develops. Taylor points out that we are still not yet at the point where “the agent who in his ordinary “worldly life” sees himself as primordially an individual, that is, the human agent of modernity.” Rather, we are still in an embedded world: “This “world” was still a matrix of embeddedness, and it still provided the inescapable framework for social life, including that of individuals who tried to turn their backs on it, insofar as they remained in some sense within its reach.” (Taylor is talking here of the monks who go beyond the mere human flourishing of clan life to peruse a life of devotion to a Beyond. With the complementary system, the monks too have their place in the larger social order, by providing merits for the ordinary believer.) 

With the movements of Reform and their processes of disenchantment, the disembedding that leads to the modern conception of the individual takes place. The creation of the buffered self—that is, the self that is unassailed by spirits, unmoved by transcended passions, and constituted by itself and not its relation to others, is obliviously a major step towards the modern individual. The move to personal devotion, and the cleaving of clan and family that comes with it, is another step in this direction. Finally, the movements of Reform challenge the sacredness of the established order, while also acting as a force of disenchantment, through the Reformation attacks on the holy host, the saints, relics and adorned churches. Taylor summarizes: “Both in their sense of self and in their project for society, the disciplined elites moved towards a conception of the social order as constituted by individuals.” 

In our own time, we tend to think of the individualism or “the individual” as a natural “common sense.” This is reflected, as Taylor points out, in our epistemology which assumes that we first naively apprehend the world as it is, and only later project value upon it. We also conceive of society as made up of individuals. Taylor is keen to point out that this too, is just another subtraction story and that our individualism is no more natural than our secular society, and it too, is a contingent creation. Taylor also points out that we need to distinguish between the fact of embeddedness and the content of embeddedness. In modernity, we are of course, still in some sense, socially embedded, we do find ourselves to be part of groups and so on. However, the content that is imparted to us in our modern embeddedness is to act, think and be, as an individual. In this sense, we are individuals, we are still embeded, but our mode of being so to speak, our way of acting socially in the world (as individuals) is very different from that of our ansestors: “To be an individual is not to be a Robinson Crusoe [that is to literally grow up alone on an island, with no form of social embeddedness] but to be placed in a certain way among other humans.”

Taylor concludes the chapter by noting Christianity is itself a force for disembedding. Drawing on Ivan Illich, he points to the story of the good Samaritan, where the tribal good is transcended by  Christian agape love: “If the Samaritan had followed the demands of sacred social boundaries, he would never have stopped to help the wounded Jew. It is plain that the Kingdom involves another kind of solidarity altogether, one which would bring us into a network of agape.” Taylor contrasts the two senses of “the world” found in the New Testament. One, is “the world” as in God’s good creation. The other, is the “present sacralized order of things”, the transitory domain of Ceaser to which God’s kingdom is opposed. Christians are opposed to the world in this second sense and thus act as a “disembedding force.” However, Taylor point out that there is a corrupt and a faithful way of going about this. Is the world overcome by “networks of agape” or by the forceful imposition of “the law of God” with force? When the later method is used, the tactics of the world are used against it, and in the end, the world wins:

 “ The irony is that it somehow turned into something quite different; in another, rather different sense, the “world” won after all. Perhaps the contradiction lay in the very idea of a disciplined imposition of the Kingdom of God. The temptation of Power was after all, too strong, as Dostoyevski saw in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Here lay the corruption.” 

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