Chapter 8: The Malaises of Immanence

Having described the rise of exclusive humanism and the buffered self, Taylor now moves on to a different phase of the story he is telling. In this chapter, he wants to describe the “experienced predicament” that the shift to Deism and exclusive humanism brought about. In other words, both Christianity, and the exclusive humanism that developed in contrast to it, will themselves spur on new reactions and counter reactions that open up new possibilities, new positions and new existential modes. To lead us through this, Taylor begins with a review of the Buffered Identity, that sense of self that develops after Disenchantment. The self is no longer porous—vulnerable to Spirits and Demons or pulled into Higher Time—the boundary between the “inside” and the outside” has closed off. Taylor sees both an objective shift—brought about by Disenchantment—and a subjective shift—brought about by the modern stance. The self is closed off from Transcendence, and this is reinforced by modern stance of the disengaged, polite, autonomous individual. 

Now the buffered identity has a lot going for it. As we have already mentioned, it is free from incursion of Spirits, Demons and the like. Along with this comes a freedom from the fear that would have held captive those in earlier ages: we no longer have to be afraid of the night, of being possessed, of dark magic, etc. There is a sense of “invulnerability,” a word Taylor choses intentionally because it captures the fearless freedom and autonomy of the buffered self. With exclusive humanism and the locating of moral sources within, there is a new kind of inner strength and self possession. Another essential feature is the historical consciousness, the notion that this new rational stance was a hard won accomplishment: “Part of the self consciousness of modern anthropocentric is this sense of achievement, of having won through this invulnerability out of an earlier state of captivity to an enchanted world.” This sense of pride and accomplishment leads to a feeling of superiority over the “uncivilized,” past or present. Taylor points out how even the disinterested, objective tone of the “anthropocentric consciousness,” displays a sort of aloofness, a standing apart and looking down from above. He gives the example of Gibbon’s historiography: 

“Gibbon is an excellent example. The sense of invulnerability and distance from the unreason of the past finds expression in the cool self-possession, the “unflappable” tone in which the wild and disturbing antics of monks and bishops in Byzantium are recounted. In-vulnerability is enacted in style, in which the extreme, God-haunted acts of our forebearers are held at a fastidious distance through the unperturbable voice of a dry, ironic wit. This tone tell us: We no longer belong to this world; we have transcended it.” 

For all of its benefits, the buffered identity has a “dark side.” Precisely that stance which makes us feel “invulnerable” can make us feel as if there is something missing. Taylor says it well. The buffered self can “also be lived as a limit, even a prison, making us blind or insensitive to whatever lies beyond this ordered human world and its instrumental-rational projects. The sense can easily arise that we are missing something, cut off from something, living behind a screen.” Along with the emergence of the modern moral order, exclusive humanism and the buffered self, comes an existential sense that something has gone amiss, or been lost, that something of our humanity has been left behind or that Transcendence is no longer accessible to us in our cage of immanence. This “wide sense of malaise,” this intuition that the disenchanted world is “flat, empty,” motivates a search for “something, within or beyond it, which could compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence.” More and more people find themselves in a middle place, repulsed by the authoritarianism of Orthodoxy, and unsatisfied with the Buffered identity of Exclusive Humanism. At the same time, they are pulled in both directions, attracted by the Transcendence of Orthodoxy, and by the freedom of Exclusive Humanism. This phenomenon, of push and pull, revulsion and attraction, Taylor calls “cross pressure:” the extreme poles of exclusive Humanism and Orthodoxy push and people towards “alternative spiritual sources.” This creates what Taylor calls the “Nova effect,” a proliferation of new options, some purely immanent, some with a connection to transcendence, others somewhere in between. The Nova effect is partly caused by the cross pressure of Orthodoxy and exclusive Humanism, and also by the critiques levelled at both; as their inadequacies are exposed, new positions emerge. Another factor feeding into the Nova Effect is the fragility of belief in such a pluralized, fractious environment. People are attracted to new options, and can imagine inhabiting different modes of being. The sense of freedom that the Disenchanted, buffered self affords, makes switching positions easier as well. There is no longer a need to fear the hostile spirits if you leave the security of your community, we see ourselves as invulnerable, autonomous individuals. Taylor also makes the striking observation that within the modern moral order and the equalizing effect that has, its harder to see a difference between different faith positions: 

“Now the condition of modern society, within the modern idea of moral order, and the democratic, direct-access society which has entranced this, is one of maximum homogeneity. We are more and more like each other. The distances which keep the issue between us at bay get closer and closer. Mutual fragilization is at its maximum.”  

For the rest of the chapter, Taylor sketches out some of the positions generated by critiques of the Buffered Self, the Modern Moral Order and Exclusive Humanism. The sense that something has been lost with Disenchantment and the buffered identity that we briefly discussed above, generates “malaises of immanence.” This manifests itself in various ways. The purely immanent world, drained of Transcendence, it is felt, lacks an ultimate purpose or meaning. Life, or the world it seems, looses a “thickness,” a weight or a depth. The consumerist, commercial lifestyle of modern society feels like a hollowed out kind of existence: 

“…this experience has been identified particularly with the commercial, industrial, or consumer society. They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of fright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness or slag heaps, ora an aging industrial townscape.” 

Walker Percy captures this sense of malaise powerfully in his novel “The Moviegoer,” through the words of his main character, Binx Bolinx: 

 “…living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, where everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead, and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall pray to desire.” 

Taylor creates a taxonomy of three different general categories of critique and response to these modern modes. (especially the buffered self) His taxonomy is an attempt to group different responses together under general themes. For example, his second category brings together various “Romantic” critiques, but these generate a whole host of unique responses.

Taylor’s first category brings together some general critiques of the Modern Moral Order that find it lacking in some way. The unifying concern here is that the sense of purpose in our lives that this mode affords is insufficient and we must ask, with Peggy Lee: “Is this all there is?” There is a charge that “Benevolence” is too “tame” a motivation or moral source and that more radical, demanding moral sources are needed. Taylor points here to the Christian abolitionists who were appalled at the bourgious morality that did not want to upset the status quo. Other radicals such as those behind the French revolution, would also echo this critique. There is also a critique of the “reduction of human motivation” to mere enlightened self interest. This leads us to the dim lights of the commercial society, an eclipse of heroism or martyrdom, and isolates us from others: “This sense that the modern notion of order involves an eclipse of the human potential for moral ascent, either in theory or in practice of commercial society, has been an important driving force in modern culture.” Further, there is a critique that the modern moral order reduces our highest purpose or moral aspirations to mere moralism. Taylor’s ongoing invocation of Christian agape as irreducible to any moral code could be seen as a reaction against such reductionism. 

The second category, as we have already mentioned, contains “Romantic” critiques of the modern moral order. There is a critique of the dualisms of the modern moral order, that it sets reason against emotion, and so on. In its place, Romantics such as Schiller posited unifying pictures of the world and found in Beauty a unity of the “moral and the sensual.” The Pietist embrace of emotion and spiritual experience can also be seen as a counter reaction to the disengaged rationalism of the buffered self. The Romantics also critiqued disengaged stance for cutting us off from deep sources—within, or in nature, in others, in Transcendence—leading to a hollowed out existence. This disengaged, calculating reason, not only cuts us off from what is most meaningful, but it is actually a dangerous, prideful stance. It alienates us from the harmony of nature and tries to impose its will on human beings or on the natural world. Many in the modern environmental movements would argue that the ecological and human disasters we face today, can be traced to an overreach of precisely this kind of prideful, disengaged stance. 

The last category critiques the modern outlook for being too optimistic and for leaving out the more tragic elements of the human condition. First, the conception of providence and the order of mutual benefit in Deism, seems to these critics to be an overly optimistic conception of things that ignores human suffering. Similarly, the Christian view of the eschaton seems like a facile false hope, an attempt to escape the real suffering of the world. Suffering must be contended with and it is suffering which shows the fragility of life and gives it meaning. Another attack is made on the modern moral order and its equalizing effect, because it obscures the possibility of aristocratic heroism, the warrior virtues, or, on the Christian side, saintly self giving and asceticism. This is tied up with the shallow conception of happiness in the modern moral order, which is so aptly captured by Percey in the quote above: “Where needs are satisfied…and men are dead, dead, dead, and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.” This shallow sense that all that is needed for human happiness or fulfillment is for all basic needs to be met, reduces the human to a shadow of himself and has him chasing shadows. Finally, more recent critics of exclusive humanism such as Heidegger and others, argue that this conception of things has no place for death, and sees it only as something to be overcome. In contrast, it is actually the recognition that we are all mortal that gives life meaning, and a life lived “unto death” is actually a life lived in greater fullness.

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