God loveth adverbs

Jonathan Glover

  • Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor
    Cambridge, 601 pp, £25.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 38331 5

Moral philosophy has not much changed in method since Socrates. Reasons given in support of opinions on moral issues appeal to principles, often about happiness or justice. Opponents of the principles use counter-examples to evoke intuitions which go against them. Some of the principles appealed to in support of abortion also justify infanticide, and some principles used by opponents of abortion also rule out contraception. These more extreme consequences go against the intuitions of most people. Those who care about consistency must either override an intuition, or else abandon or qualify the principle they used to defend or oppose abortion.

In recent years, there has been a debate about the relative status of principles and intuitions. R.M. Hare has suggested that intuitions are prejudices derived from a particular upbringing. Some intuitions, chosen on theoretical grounds, should be taken seriously in everyday life, but none of them should play any part in moral philosophy’s critical thought about principles. Bernard Williams, on the other hand, has queried whether theory has any authority to override our intuitive convictions. Many other philosophers are uncomfortable with both of these positions. The dismissal of intuitions seems to open up the danger of a theoretical morality altogether too abstract, too remote from anything we actually care about. The dismissal of theory seems to open up the danger of morality being confined to a series of gut reactions.

Perhaps, in theorising about our values, it is necessary to look harder at these moral intuitions which are supposed to be either so important or so unimportant. It would be nice to know more about the psychological processes by which a person comes to have a particular set of intuitions. At the level of whole societies, it would be helpful to know more about the history of different sets of intuitions. It would also be good to have a clearer sense of whether anything is special about the rather narrow range of intuitions which figure in moral philosophy. Is the way we value justice or honesty really so different from the way we value living somewhere not ruined by redevelopment, or having friends with a sense of humor?

One great virtue of Charles Taylor’s discussion of our values is that it escapes the narrowness of what is conventionally thought to be moral, and looks much more broadly. Another notable advance is that he goes beyond merely stating intuitions, and both shows how they used to be different and suggests how they came to be as they are. His aim is make us see our own post-Enlightenment culture in historical perspective, so that we can stand back and see its characteristic strengths and weaknesses.

The book is a loose, baggy monster of philosophy. This is partly because it is written in an almost intolerably verbose and undisciplined way. But it is also loose and baggy for more Tolstoy an reasons: unlike most philosophy books, it is crammed with history, and with an attempt to portray aspects of the interwoven lives and thoughts of people at different times. He wants to articulate some of the values we live by, but which have been excluded or silenced in modern philosophy. He hopes to ‘put an end to the stifling of the spirit and the atrophy of so many of our spiritual sources which is the bane of modern naturalist culture’. The book is in some important ways unsuccessful in realising this hugely ambitious aim. Most seriously, its main thesis is not sharply in focus. But it is a remarkable study in the history of ideas which will substantially enrich moral philosophy.

The centre of the project is a set of historical stories, about the inner life, about the value of the everyday world, and about views of self-expression stemming from the Romantic movement. The first story is about the shift, between Greek times and now, towards emphasising the inner life. Plato’s picture of the soul ruling the body does not make much of the inwardness of the soul. The modern stress on individuality is linked to awareness of our complex inner life. Taylor gives a subtle and complex account of how this awareness has a history, and could perhaps have been different. At times there is a feeling that he knows so much that he cannot bear to leave any of it out. This can lead to the controlling argument being replaced by the narrative of a tour guide, as in the chapter which starts: ‘On the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine.’

More important, there is a vagueness about the nature of the ‘inwardness’ whose history is being told. On one possible version, the story is a progressive shift of attention from a dominantly external view of human action to a much greater emphasis on an inner life whose existence has never been in doubt. Such a story has great plausibility, and Taylor’s development of it is convincing.

At times, however, the claim seems stronger: that the very idea of our having inner mental states is a construct of our modern culture. But this seems to hover between the implausible and the unintelligible. Both Greek plays and Greek philosophy make it very clear that the ability to articulate a great deal of the life of thought and feeling was not lacking at that time. The claim has to be, not that the Greeks lacked awareness of what we call the inner life, but that it was not seen as something localised inside us.

This claim about localisation is obscure. In part, this is because of the way our own talk of the ‘inner’ slides between literalness and metaphor. In our dualist moments we resist the idea that our experiences have any literal physical location, seeing the word ‘inner’ as mere metaphor, while at other times we cheerfully locate them literally inside our brains. Taylor’s view that localising these states within us is a cultural construct, together with his hostility to reductionist accounts of a scientific kind, make it likely that it is the metaphorical inwardness he has in mind.

He says: ‘Who among us can understand our thought being anywhere else but inside, “In the mind”? Something in the nature of our experience of ourselves seems to make the current localisation almost irresistible, beyond challenge.’ This suggests that we could hang onto the metaphor of localisation, and yet locate thoughts somewhere else, ‘outside’. There is a real problem about what this could come to.

A similar obscurity hangs about another alternative to modern inwardness which Taylor cites, the view that ‘correct human knowledge and valuation comes from our connecting ourselves rightly to the significance things already have ontically’. Taylor sees that we are likely to have problems about the intelligibility of this, but says that the fact that ‘we find the older localisation rather weird and hard to understand, that it rather appears to us as a fuzzy lack of localisation, all show how much we are now within the new self-understanding, defined by this new, exclusive localisation.’ Perhaps. Or it could suggest that the old localisation really is rather weird and fuzzy. The case for the view that we are imprisoned within one way of seeing things can only be made if it has been shown that there is a coherent alternative.

The second story is about the development of the modern cultivation of ordinary life. In Aristotle’s account of the good life, the emphasis is on contemplation and political participation. But in our thoughts about the good life, at least when thinking about what to do next year rather than writing on philosophy, the emphasis is more on the everyday – on life at home with the family or what we do at work. The story of this shift of consciousness, and notably of the role of Protestantism in it, is the most interesting part of the book.

The Protestant belief in companionate marriage being not a mere second best to chastity was a crucial part of the change. Taylor quotes Puritans saying that ‘the indisputable authority, the plain Command of the Great God, requires Husbands and Wives, to have and manifest very great affection, love and kindness to one another.’

Another key to this shift in consciousness was the Puritan idea that even humble work can be done to the glory of God. This was not confined to Puritans: Taylor does not quote George Herbert’s

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

But he does quote Puritans saying, in tones which pleasingly both echo and contrast with Herbert’s Anglican voice, ‘Now if we compare worke to worke, there is a difference betwixt washing of dishes, and preaching of the word of God: but as touching to please God none at all,’ and ‘The homeliest service that we do in an honest calling, though it be but to plow, or digge, if done in obedience, and conscience of God’s Commandment, is crowned with an ample reward ... God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good, but how well.’

The story goes on through Locke, who, Taylor says, changed the adverbs which God loved (‘Where in the pure Reform variant, it was a matter of living worshipfully for God, now it is becoming a question of living rationally’), to the theorists of moral sentiments and the everyday people in 18th-century novels. It concludes with the growth of a view of childhood as a separate phase of life with its own needs, and the related creation of a wall of privacy round the family.

Both in the account of the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ and in the account of Romantic ideas of Nature and of self-expression, problems arise, as they do in all histories of mentalité. There are questions about how far what was written really reflects changes in the way most people thought and felt. And there are inevitable tensions between the need to tell a coherent story and the complexity of the detailed evidence. Some of the time it seems too neat to be true, while at other times the story seems to be out of the narrator’s control.

The main problems come, not in the intellectual and cultural history, but with the philosophical programme to which it is harnessed. The ultimate aim is to put an end to the stifling of the spirit and the atrophy of spiritual sources in modern naturalist culture. The intermediate aim is to make us see that post-Enlightenment naturalist culture in a different way. By giving us some historical perspective, Taylor’s account does make us see at least some aspects of our culture differently. But there are questions about the links between this and the ultimate aim of ending the atrophy of spiritual sources. These can be brought out by asking what the book is about: what is meant by ‘the modern identity’?

There are three key ideas in the argument at the centre of Taylor’s project. The first is that some framework of assumptions about our moral and spiritual nature is inescapable, and that those who think they have dispensed with such a framework simply have an unexamined one. Apart from possible reservations about ‘and spiritual’, this seems both right and worth saying.

The second idea is that our identity is inextricably interwoven with our set of values. This is again true, provided ‘identity’ is interpreted in a sufficiently broad psychologist’s sense, rather than in the narrower sense more common in philosophy. Here Taylor has an attractive spatial metaphor: ‘to know who you are is to be oriented in moral space.’ (At times he seems to take his metaphor too literally: citing the claim of the psychoanalyst Kohout that people with ‘narcissistic personality disorders’ sometimes show signs of spatial disorientation, he says: ‘The disorientation and uncertainty about where one stands as a person seems to spill over into a loss of grip on one’s stance in physical space.’) But the upshot is that the ‘modern identity’ is constituted by a set of post-Enlightenment values which also have a pre-Enlightenment history.

The third idea is about the importance of articulating values: ‘articulation can bring us closer to the good as a moral source, can give it power.’ The metaphor of a moral source recurs through the book and, although it is crucial to the argument, it is never quite clearly explained. To say that describing values people have not known about opens up the possibility that they will be endorsed is one interpretation. But this bare possibility seems too weak to capture the power which Taylor’s moral sources are thought to have. The necessary stronger interpretation is hard to pin down, however. And this leaves obscure the links between giving the more complex historical picture and ending the atrophy of moral and spiritual sources.

If the project is in this way a bit out of focus at the general level, its detailed content becomes clearer in Taylor’s attitudes towards our post-Enlightenment culture. His project has been widely linked with that of Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent writings, which also use the history of ideas about morality and value to gain a critical perspective both on current moral philosophy and on post-Enlightenment culture. Alasdair MacIntyre tends to see that culture as a mixture of empiricism, utilitarianism and liberalism. In his various Protestant, Freudian, Wittgensteinian, Marxist and Catholic phases, there has been a continuing thread of hostility to empiricism, utilitarianism and liberalism. So, unsurprisingly, MacIntyre sees post-Enlightenment culture as a bankrupt enterprise which ideally should be shut down.

Taylor’s view of that culture is a good deal more friendly. His book brings out how much more there is to it than empiricism, utilitarianism and liberalism. And he does not come over as an enemy of liberalism. But he is still a good deal less warm about the Enlightenment than some of us. For one thing, his own Catholicism makes him less than enthusiastic about the secular thrust of the Enlightenment. (In the index, there is no entry for ‘God’ between ‘Gilson’ and ‘Goethe’, but much of the time He lurks just off the page.) And, while Taylor may be friendly to liberalism, he is certainly less so to empiricism and utilitarianism, both of which he sees as one-dimensional theories.

In the part of Taylor that is critical of the Enlightenment, it is sometimes hard to separate his reaction to the Enlightenment from his reaction to two small off shoots of it: the behaviourist psychology and the analytical philosophy of the 1950s. The behaviourist psychology (of which Taylor’s first book was critical) either postulated no mental life intervening between ‘stimulus’ and ‘response’ or else had a very crude account of motivation, to do with ‘reinforcement’ and ‘drive reduction’. There was an implied naive hedonism which Taylor has been in revolt against since he first encountered it.

The analytical philosophy of the period, even when not empiricist, had an agenda dominated by empiricism (as in J.L. Austin’s attacks on sense datum theories). It was cool, careful and precise, but had narrow horizons. There was little historical sense, little interest in 20th-century philosophy outside the English-speaking tradition, little interest in the depths of human psychology, and little interest in politics or religion. Ethics was dominated by a rather unreflective utilitarianism and by debates about whether statements about what ought to be done could be derived from factual statements.

It is clear that Taylor found the narrowness of all this stifling, and again has been in revolt against it ever since. The rest of us in English-speaking philosophy have been richly rewarded, as Taylor has run a campaign to teach us about everything left out, from Hegel to hermeneutics. It has been a bit as though we have been living on a nourishing but austere diet in the old East Germany, while Taylor keeps bringing us bulging bags from the supermarket on the other side of the wall.

Those who first stumble on the supermarket are not always discriminating, however. Sometimes, among all the meat and fresh vegetables and fruit, the bulging bags also contain a special offer of a dozen packets of instant dessert. Taylor’s equivalent of this is his uncritical willingness to take seriously the bogus philosopher Martin Heidegger, who is very occasionally brought out to bolster some platitude. The opinion that the power we have to assent or not to an inclination ‘is essentially in each case mine’ is decorated by the parenthesis ‘jemeinig, to use Heidegger’s term’. And the meandering thought that ‘the boundaries of the good, as we can grasp it, are set by that space which is opened in the fact that the world is there for us, with all the meanings it has for us’ is followed by the aside ‘what Heidegger called “the clearing” ’. This doesn’t illuminate the thought, but it does evoke comic memories of Heidegger in the Black Forest communing with the peasants of the Fatherland: ‘When I sit with peasants in the evening for a moment of rest, next to the fire, most of the time we do not talk at all. We smoke our pipes in silence.’

It must nonetheless be said that this is a major book, with a few easily detected faults. It enriches moral philosophy by reminding us how much more complex real people’s values are than is normally allowed in our theories. Because of this, we can put up with the fact that in the background lurk the two dubious old characters of Heidegger and God.