Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Summary of a Summary: James Smith on Charles charts and memes

James Smith[1] summarized Charles Taylor’s[2] A Secular Age, distilling a 900 page tome into a thin, accessible ~140 page volume...and also readable (Smith is a phenomenal writer with playful sensibilities who shares my love of 'cross-pressured' fiction).  He called it How (Not) to be secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

It is a wonderful little book, that took me longer to read than most books three times its length, as I tried to inculcate the language and ideas.  According to my custom, I tried to capture the more complex or helpful ideas into images.  

Then I realized, I had a series of images that was essentially a pictorial summary of a 140 page text that was a summary of a 900 page text…

…a sort of reading James Smith reading Charles Taylor.

So why not post it?  This blog has seen stranger, more obtuse content after all:

Role of Reform in Contemporary Social Imaginary

Here is Taylor's historical story of how we got to this cultural moment that could have been otherwise.

Hubris of Inevitability

Smith/Taylor's emphasis on the non-inevitability of secularism reminded me of analogy in Gould's evolutionary narrative:

Art as Meaning Refugia

And their assertion that secularization cannot be accounted for with the standard 'subtraction stories' but requires 'additions of meaning' to get to the current synthesis, 'inventing' 'art' as an end rather than a means, reminded me of this year's complicated Pulitzer (You'll have to wait until next weeks year end fiction summary for my take on the novel).


Art = an immanent space where we try to satisfy lost longing for transcendence…a ‘place for modern unbelief’ to live without settling for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism – but also without having to return to religion proper.”

The Francis Rorschach

The Francis Rorschach self-diagnoses pretheoretical unthoughts that predispose our 'secularization stories.'

Aspiration to Wholeness

‘Aspiration to wholeness’ was one of my favorite ideas - which takes two forms, depending on which way we've flattened our world.  Those who major on the immanence of this world have to account for fullness, and those who major on transcendence have to affirm the ordinary (which has occupied much of my preaching lately, the transcendent frame has to make as much sense of immanence - work, romance, pain, tedium - as the immanent frame has to account for transcendence).

Epistemology Follows Ethics

Epistemology follows ethics regardless of worldview (note: the meme isn't meant to suggest mystery, but sequence.  Biologically, the egg unequivocally precedes the chicken, laid by some evolutionary proto-chicken)  


“Baseline moral commitments stand behind close world structures, specifically the coming of age metaphor of adulthood”

Taylor Summarized in an Equation

Of course, it wouldn't be a stanford summary without trying to express something analytically.  Taylor argues that transcendence haunts us.  It is the feeling that our experience and observation is not somehow divisible by 'The Closed Frame' of the secular subtraction stories or exclusive humanism.

Sure, we can make sense of beauty without reference to the transcendent, but is it parsimonious.  At least it leaves us cross pressured, leaving a remainder of reductionism

The closed frame lacks “sufficient resources to account for fullness”...or, it is indivisible, leaving non-trivial remainders that require explanation for our synthesis to truly 'correspond with reality.'

 The Long Middle

 Human Porosity and the Buffered Self

“Malaise is itself one of the consequences of the buffered identity” 64

“The same “buffering” of the self that protects us also encloses us and isolates us…sealed off from enchantment the modern buffered self is also sealed off from significance”

Insulation leads to isolation.


Four Eclipses of Exclusive Humanism

One of Taylor's central and most helpful ideas is that the subtraction stories of secularism (e.g. Dawkins God's =n-1), that what we have is the inevitable remainder of disenchanting the universe, is insufficient, mainly because we insisted that 'meaning' remain in our disenchanted universe.  To retain meaning, we had to add something for everything we subtracted.  So secularism was not so much a series losing but of eclipses, replacings.

This post was written while listening to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire 
(Which Smith also claimed as the dominant soundtrack of his book, not only because its good writing music, but because it captures the cross-pressure of modernity so sublimely). 

[1] Philosophy professor at Calvin
[2] Philosophy Professor at Toronto

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