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A Short outline of Charles Taylor's: The Malaise of Modernity


            This is simply an outline of Taylor’s basic argument in this short work written by Charles Taylor. The idea of this outline is to help the reader understand the book by providing a simple outline of the basic argument that Taylor is presenting here. The book, which is essentially the manuscript is the fruit of a series of presentations that Taylor made at the Massey Conferences which are hosted by Massey College and Radio-Canada, is divided into 10 chapters. In the first chapter Taylor essentially proposes three causes (recognizing that there may be more) of the Malaise of Modernity: (1) Individualism or the Loss of Sense, (2) The Primacy of Instrumental Reason or the Loss of Ends, and (3) The effect on society and politics in general of the loss of sense to an inauthentic individualism and the domination of instrumental reason, or, the loss of true freedom. Taylor considers the first Malaise in chapters 2 to 8, the second in chapter 9, and the third in chapter 10.

            In considering the first malaise Taylor proposes that modern Individualism is based upon (or rooted in) the principle of self-fulfillment,[2] and the moral ideal of Authenticity.[3] The culture of Authenticity, which is a fruit of Modern thought, is obscured by the predominant notion of (the modern cry for) a Freedom of Neutrality,[4] Moral Subjectivism,[5] and Explanations that are based upon the observations of the Social Sciences.[6] Taylor thinks that the culture of Authenticity is a good thing, that needs to be preserved; But, that it must be properly understood. He proposes, therefore, to defend the culture of authenticity by proposing and defending three theses: (1) Authenticity is a valuable ideal, (2) We can rationally discuss Ideals—including the ideal of Authenticity, and (3) that these discussions can produce real, tangible, fruit.[7] Taylor discusses and defends the first thesis primarily in the third chapter (though he comes back to it frequently, and discusses it again in chapter 7), the second thesis in chapters 4-7 and the third thesis in chapter 8.

            We might summarize Taylor’s overall argument as follows: The culture of authenticity must, if it is to survive and not self-destruct (into Narcissism), avoid the notion of self-determining freedom that is constantly pursuing freedom from the influence of others (including tradition, society, and all those that surround a person during their lives). Indeed, argues Taylor, some sort of “Horizon” is necessary in order for me to define myself, and, therefore, to be authentic to myself. A Horizon is essentially a foundation for meaning that is based in some community and social dialogue. Without this horizon, argues Taylor, there can be no self, nor can there be any authenticity. A culture of Authenticity must also not reject that which transcends itself, for that which transcends the self is necessary for defining oneself, as is dialogue with others. It must reject a subjectivism of content, but maintain a subjectivism of manner. Taylor seems to be arguing that there is a transcendent, but how we approach it will be different depending on the horizon upon which we define ourselves.[8] The method or manner of interacting with the transcendent will be different for each person, based upon their horizon; But, there is some entity that transcends us all and which has a signification which is its own, independent of how we interpret it or approach it.[9] To reject the transcendent is to condemn ourselves to futility and the impossibility of ever defining ourselves or ever being authentic.[10] As such, any philosophy that rejects the transcendent, but seeks to maintain a culture of authenticity is, necessarily, self-stultifying.

            Taylor is evidently influenced by the greatest theologians of Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, including Martin Heidegger (whose language Taylor seems to be borrowing throughout this work), G. W. F. Hegel, and the main thinkers of their schools of thought. Aside from these thinkers he also interacts, in this short work, with Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Allan Bloom, Herder, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Peter Berger, Karl Marx, John Locke, Alasdaire MacIntyre, Alexis de Tocqueville, and numerous others.

[1]This book was originally published in English under the title “The Malaise of Modernity”. I, however, read the French translation which is called “Grandeur et misère de la modernité” (Charles Taylor, Grandeur et misère de la modernité, trad. Charlotte Melançon (Montréal : Éditions Bellarmin, 1992).). The title of the French translation is taken from a line in the last paragraph of the book in which Taylor paraphrases a quote from Pascal concerning the state of the human race (Ibid., 150). All references in this short analysis are to the French translation.

[2]Ibid., 26.

[3]Ibid., 28, 30.

[4]Ibid., 30-31.

[5]Ibid., 31-33.

[6]Ibid., 33-35.

[7]Ibid., 38.

[8]Ibid., 108-116.

[9]Ibid., 104, 115.

[10]Ibid., 57-58, 115.

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