Chapter 15: The Immanent Frame

In the previous chapters, Taylor has taken us through a genealogy of the emergence of our Secular Age, now, in the final few chapters, he turns to describe the experience, the “conditions of belief” of our Secular Age. He is now ready to return to the question he first asked in the introduction: “why is it so hard to believe in God in (many milieux of) the modern west, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?” An obvious answer to this question is that, in a sense, Taylor has been describing this all along. Taylor took us through the shift from the porous self—open to Spirits, forces, meanings from outside of itself—to the buffered self—now closed off with a deep internal life. This entails a sharp distinction between the interior life and the outer world that the earlier experience of the self would not have recognized. Closely related to this shift is the growth of “discipline,” especially through the process of Reform, intent on producing an orderly, productive, well mannered populous: “These involved the development of discipline, of self control, particularly in the areas of sex and anger.” We come to see a much sharper distinction between the “private” and the “public,” and there is a “withdrawal from earlier forms of promiscuous contact with others.” These shifts lead to the modern individual, now disembedded from society, and acting as a free, rational agent in the modern moral order. Society is no longer seen as being grounded in some Transcendent source, or existing since time out of mind, but rather, is grounded in human flourishing:

“The social orders we live in are not grounded cosmically, prior to us, there as it were, waiting for us to take up our proper place; rather society is made by individuals, or at least for individuals, and their place should reflect the reasons why they joined in the first place, or why God appointed this form of common existence for them. These reasons in the end come down to the good or human beings, not qua fillers of this or that role…”

And so we come to live within an “immanent self-sufficient order,” what Taylor calls “the Immanent Frame”: “…the buffered identity of the disciplined agent moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular. All of this makes up what I want to call “the immanent frame.” And again:

“What we share is what I have been calling “the immanent frame”; the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constituents such a frame in that they are part of a “natural”, or “this-worldly” order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the “supranational” or “transcendent”. But the order of itself leaves the issue open whether… we might have to invoke something transcendent. It is only when the order is “spun” in a certain way that it seems to dictate a “closed” interoperation.”

In essence, by saying we live in an “Immanent Frame,” Taylor is saying we live in a constructed, secular world which is entirely immanent, it needs no recourse to transcendence. All of those features of the enchanted medieval world which were grounded in, open to, or participating in transcendence, have now been re-created and reimagined to be entirely closed in on themselves. Our world is entirely contained, framed, constructed within the Immanent Frame and does not need Transcendence. In the Immanent Frame, the buffered self replaces the porous self, the disenchanted world replaces the enchanted world, the modern moral order replaces the cosmic hierarchies, secular time replaces higher time, exclusive humanism replaces an ethic that takes us beyond human flourishing. Essentially, by saying we live in in “the Immanent Frame,” Taylor is simply saying that we are products of a Secular Age, embedded in the context of this centuries long genealogy he has been outlining. We live entirely in a context and social imaginary that needs no reference to the transcendent.

Now while all of us inhabit this self-sufficient immanent frame, as the “sensed context in which we develop our beliefs;” two possible “takes” or “spins” are possible. We can have an “open” take on the immanent frame, and recognize that this is not all there is, there is some Transcendent grounding for the world, for society, for the self, that Eternity lies beyond history. We may find or believe that it is possible to open ourselves up to this source of Transcendence and experience transformation or guidance. This “open” stance, may be motivated in part by the sense of meaninglessness and flatness, of an entirely immanent order, and of modern consumer society. On the other hand, we can have a “closed” take on the immanent frame and see immanence as entirely self sufficient. We may find ourselves appalled by the “fanaticism” and “authoritarianism” of religion and be attracted to the freedom of immanence. Taylor describes the difference: “What emerges from all this is that we can either see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, a distraction, or an obstacle to our greatest good. Or we can read it as answering to our deepest craving, need, fulfilment of the good.”

Each of these stances, Taylor emphasizes, can only be accessed by something like “a leap of faith.” We might have all sorts of reasons for why we choose one stance over the other, but our stance is motivated primarily by our “sense of things,” by “our sense of what is really important in human life, or the ways we think that human life can be transformed, or by the constraints, if any, of human history, and so on.” In certain milieu, the closed or the open take seems undeniable, obvious, and a different perspective can hardly even be imagined or entertained. Taylor contrasts here the “open” spin of the bible belt with the “closed” spin of a secular university, in either case, one “take” is almost homogeneous.

Now in order to explain the near “intellectual homogeneity” of the secularist “closed” take, and the fact that this position seems so obvious, self-evident, unquestionable, to many who hold it, Taylor invokes what he calls “Closed World Structures”: “The force of the secularist spin can be understood in terms of what I will call “closed world structures” (CWSs), that is, ways of restricting our grasp of things which are not recognized as such.” CSWs are sort of background narratives, modes of thought, assumptions, etc. That serve to entrench the secularist position and make “open” takes seem archaic and untenable. Wittgenstein wrote about how a “picture” can “hold us captive,” Taylor is invoking this when he describes how CWS act as a “powerful picture which” clouds and cramps one’s thinking and “prevents one [from] seeing important aspects of reality.” Taylor’s first example of this is the way that modern foundationalist epistemology makes belief in God a distant and difficult proposition to defend. Foundationalist epistemology proceeds from self evident propositions; knowledge is then built from these unshakable premises in a deductive chain of reasoning. The problem this creates for belief in God is that: “inference to the transcendent is at the extreme and most fragile end of a chain of inferences, it is the most epistemically questionable.” Now this entire epistemological approach has been critiqued and “deconstructed” by 20th century philosophers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. These philosophers insisted that we are embedded in the world as social creatures, experiencing a world of meanings. Propositional truth claims only make sense against this background of my embedding in reality. We can see how from this way of thinking, skepticism about the existence of an external world, or other minds, can seem absurd. Even something like the existence of God moves from a distant proposition, to being experience near:

“We only have knowledge as agents coping with a world which it makes no sense to doubt, since we are dealing with it. There is no priority of the neutral grasp of things over their value. There is no priority over the individual’s sense of self over the society; our most primordial identity is as a new player being inducted into an old game. Even if we don’t… consider something like the divine as part of the inescapable context of human action, the whole sense that it comes as a remote and most fragile inference or addition in a long chain is totally undercut by this overturning of epistemology.”

We see how this CWS of foundationalist epistemology ends up “naturalizing” its own approach to epistemology, making it seem like “the way things are.” From the perspective of foundationalist epistemology, we really are disembedded individual agents, gazing objectively at a world of objects, extracting information in the form of propositions and organizing them into logical chains. However, seen from the deconstruction, it seems clear that we are cutting reality up into artificial categories and projecting our own values onto the world in the name of objectivity:

“What was driving this theory? Certain “values”, virtues, excellences: those of the independent, disengaged, subject, reflexively controlling his own thought processes… There is an ethic here, of independence, self-control, self-responsibility, of a disengagement which brings control; a stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses. The entire picture, shot through with “values”, which is meant to emerge out of careful, objective, presupposition-less scrutiny, is no presented as being there from the beginning, driving the whole process of ‘discovery’”

Taylor now turns his attention to a different set of CWSs, those he categorizes under the name “Death of God,” essentially these hold that “conditions have arisen in the modern world in which it is no longer possible, honestly, rationally, without confusions, or fudging or mental reservation, to believe in God.” There are two basic ways of construing this, the first is to say that modern science proves that God doesn’t exist; the second claims that religious belief is incompatible with the “shape of contemporary moral experience.” These two CWSs attack both prongs of Taylor’s definition of religious faith. The first, that science disproves God, or proves materialism, undermines “belief in transcendent reality.” The second, challenges the “aspiration to a transformation which goes beyond human flourishing,” by seeing this as a threat, or incompatible with the modern moral order, which is devoted solely to goals of human flourishing. Lets begin with the first of these CWSs, the notion that Science has shown that God can’t exist. This is the kind of argument you often hear from the New Atheists, often couched in language of “growing up”, facing the universe with courage, sloughing off “childish beliefs” and so on. There is a key “naturalizing” move that happens here, where this idea of God being incompatable with modern science is seen as being self-evident: “The crucial idea is that the scientific-epistemic part of it is completely self-supporting. Thats something the rational mind will be led to believe independently of any moral convictions.” And yet, from the believer’s perspective, these claims are a stretch, and the arguments of Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, don’t seem plausible in the least. What could motivate people to be moved by these arguments? Taylor believes that people are moved less by the cogency of the arguments and more by the moral force of the secular humanist position; the values of objectivity, rigour, neutrality, the courage to face a cold universe and move beyond comforting childish fantasies.

The second CWS under the “Death of God” category is the notion that belief in God is incompatable with the aspirations of the modern moral order. A “subtraction story” underlies this account. Once we threw off our childish myths and belief in God, our innate human values come to the fore:

“What emerges comes about through this loss. The upbeat story cherishes the dominance of an empirical-scientific approach to knowledge claims, of individualism, negative freedom, instrumental rationality, But these come to the fore because they are what we humans “normally” value, once we are no longer impeded or blinded by false or superstitious beliefs and the stultifying modes of life which accompany them.”

Seen from the vantage of the subtraction story, religious belief can be nothing but regression, an archaic and dangerous illusion in the modern word. From the vantage point of belief on the other hand, we have “lost touch with crucial spiritual realities.” But the subtraction story falls flat. Indeed, Taylor has been arguing against precisely this kind of subtraction story all along. Secularity, the humanist ethic, modern epistemology etc., are not “natural”, but rather, they are constructed products of a contingent history. What the subtraction story misses in its account of the emergence of the modern ethic is: “the possibility that Western modernity might be powered by its own positive visions of the good, that is, by one constellation of such visions among available others, rather than by the only viable set left after the old myths and legends have been exploded.” In its “naturalization” of the modern ethic, this CWS obscures the contingency and creativity of the exclusive humanism and creates a meta-narrative. James K A Smith, following Lyotard, explains: “For Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (for even pre-moderns and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by and appeal to universal reason.” The appeal to “universal reason”, or in Taylor’s language “naturalization”, hides the fact that this is not a “self-evident” ethic, but rather, a product of history. Taylor sees nothing wrong with “Grand Stories” or “Master Narratives”, indeed, he thinks they “are essential for our thinking”, however, we to wield them with humility: “We need to be lucid about what we are doing, and ready to debate the ones we’re relying on. Attempting to repudiate them just obfuscates matters.”

A final CWS that Taylor sees in operation is the sense of freedom from the constraints of higher authority that the modern ethic affords. We see this in a figure like Camus, who sees the individual looking out into an absurd universe and choosing courageously to create his own meaning. Or in Nietzsche, we see a radicalized version of this: the “death of God” opens up the exhilarating freedom of choosing your own destiny, perusing the “will to power.” Taylor summarizes:

“The story line here is this: once human beings took their norms, their goods, their standards of ultimate value from an authority outside of themselves; from God, or the gods, or the nature of Being or the cosmos. But then they came to see that these higher authorities were their own fictions, and they realized they had to establish their own norms and values for themselves, on their own authority. This is a radicalization of the coming to adulthood story that figures in the the science-driven argument for materialism. It is not just that freed from illusion, humans come to establish the true facts about the world. It is also that they come dictate the ultimate values by which they live.”

There is an immense force to this CWS, and the attraction of this moral vision can really draw people towards secularism. Christianity is seen as being stultifying, authoritarian, suppressing happiness and sensuality. Now, the sense is that we are free; we can courageously face the void and choose our own meaning. Taylor has some critiques. Can we really choose our own values or meaning? Or is this something that we discover, come into contact with? We see our values as something standing above us, judging us, beckoning us, calling us to obey: “It is not at all clear that Humians, Kantians, let alone Nietzscheans, can offer a more convincing account of [the aura surrounding these standards,] than the traditional [references to God and the cosmos].” Furthermore, given the story Taylor has sketched about the emergence of the Secular Age, the story Camus wants to tell about “inventing” his own meaning and values in the face of the absurd, just doesn’t line up with how the modern ethic actually came about:

“But how coherent is the view of the creation of meaning and value in the face of the void? Certainly as an account of what happened in the early stages of modernity, it verges on fantasy. If you had tried to explain to Locke or Grotius that this is what they were doing, they would have stared at you in incomprehension.”


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