Monday, September 8, 2008

Beyond Belief

I never know what to make of philosophical historiography. Charles Taylor new Templeton book, A Secular Age, is such a work. In a recent post at Immanent Frame, Taylor picks up on a distinction made in his new book between 'porours' and 'buffered' selves. A buffered self is like you and me, selves for whom there is a discrete frontier between itself and the world, between the mental and all else. A porous self is one for whom this discrete border does not exist. (I wonder what Taylor would make of the extended mind thesis)?

Does it make sense to ask, Is this accurate? I don't think so, for a reason I'll provide in a moment. But even if I do not think that this sort of work is something that can be accurate or inaccurate, it is still possible to disagree with certain claims made in it. I have one claim in particular in mind that I'll address below, which is this: that the difference between ourselves and our ancestors has less to do with different beliefs, and more to do with different 'experiences.'

First let me register my qualifications on philosophical historiography. Taylor tells a story about how, roughly five-hundred years ago, a porous experience of self was supplanted by a buffered experience of self. As Taylor acknowledges, this account has similarities to Weber's theory of Entzauberung. For us, purposes, meanings, intentions, and values are intrinsically mental predicates, whereas for those who experienced a porous self, such things were parts of the environment as much as parts of the soul, and a world that itself embodies meaning, purpose and value is a an enchanted, zauberische world. Of course, while I detect a hint of nostalgia in Taylor's piece (he is a practicing Catholic after all), Taylor's work succeeds as admirably as any at being a fair-minded, work of descriptive philosophical historiography.

Taylor’s story is consistent with itself. We might even be able to say that it is consistent with the facts, were it not the case that in history, more often than not, the facts are decided by story we are trying to tell. Danto made this point classically: we can say, in a rather uninteresting but unassailable way, that at 7pm, just after sunset, January, in the year 49b, Julius Ceaser rode his horse across the river Rubicon--but this hardly makes for a historical fact. There is no history here at all. History requires tying earlier events to later events within a narrative framework, and that narrative framework requires ascribing psychological predicates like desires and intentions. Thus, to make the above fact interesting, we could say that Ceaser crossed the Rubicon and thereby ended the Roman republic--but this fact is unaccessible, or even meaningless, outside of the narrative about the fall of the republic and the rise of the empire. If that's the case, then I'm not sure what it would mean to call a work of philosophical historiography 'accurate.'

Nonetheless, there is one claim made in Taylor's post that is questionable regardless of whether it is accurate. He asserts that the difference between ourselves and the selves of our forebearers is not a matter of belief, but of 'experience.' He doesn't define experience, but I suspect he means something like existential mood, horizon, attunment, or what-not.

So, Taylor claims that beliefs are not at stake here. I wonder. Here is an example common both to our forebearers and many today: Heaven is a place beyond time and in heaven we will meet and enjoy company with our relatives and loved ones. 'Meet' and 'enjoy' are temporally extended predicates. It is not clear at all what it would mean to meet, or to enjoy oneself, divested of extension in time. This conjunctive belief cannot be maintained. It would not be right, in the end, to say that the belief is false; it would be better to say that it is confused. Nonetheless, it is a belief, at least in the sense that it is a proposition that, when uttered or written, a large number of people throughout history have and would assent to.

So, I want to say that while the difference between us and our ancestors is not a question of truth or falsity (ignorance vs. knowledge), it is a still question of belief; a question of whether a belief embodies a coherent concept. While it would be wrong to call our forebearers ignorant, it would be okay, I’d argue, to call them confused. Following this argument, while it is not fair to assert that our ancestors were wrong and we are right, it does make sense—I might claim—to say that we are less confused than they were, that we do not have here a mere difference in worldviews, but a normatively constrained difference wherein confusion and consistency are criterial.

As I said, I do not say that Taylor is wrong, only that his claim is questionable. I suspect that there really is something to the notion of 'experience' as Taylor uses it, but it is something that has to thought-through, not just asserted.

1 comment:

  1. Charles Taylor will be on BookTV on C-Span talking about his book this weekend.