Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ethics of Modernism: The Contribution and Limitations of Charles Taylor

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Ethics of Modernism: The Contribution and Limitations of Charles Taylor

Article excerpt

There is at present a contested, but nonetheless widely shared conviction that art and literature, simply as esthetic objects, no longer have a self-evident claim upon our attention, and that their true significance is therefore to be sought in their connections with aspects of social and political life, which are felt to be more clearly urgent. In one sense, this is a very "academic" issue, since it directly affects the institutional shapes and definitions of the disciplines involved. It is also, however, more than that: arguments about the legitimacy of making social and political demands upon texts and objects that were once seen to require primarily esthetic attention are the academic theater of the much broader "culture wars" that are being waged over the authority of whatever remains of traditional social forms.

These wars have provided occasion for a good deal of rhetoric, but also, at times, for thoughtful reevaluations of traditional categories, such as the "esthetic" and the "ethical." Certainly the often unproductive polemics about the integrity of the esthetic on the one hand, or its social participation on the other, might be superseded if it could be shown that, at certain periods, the esthetic, out of itself, as it were, is capable of formulating ethical demands or appeals. This is the rather counterintuitive case that Charles Taylor makes for the moral significance of modernism. Although he is clearly aware of the bearing of his argument upon current academic-political disputes, his position cannot readily be plotted by reference to them: while insisting upon the social locatedness, and even the social participation of esthetic objects, his concern with them is not based on the familiar emancipatory interests.

Taylor's work, which straddles the disciplines of political theory, ethics, cultural history and criticism, among others, promises, in fact, a richer source of useful interdisciplinary perspectives on the study of literature and the humanities than has hitherto been recognized. As one of the preeminent "communitarian" political theorists, Taylor's work on Hegel and the broadly Hegelian criticisms he makes of a rights-based, procedural liberalism are well known. In Taylor's own arguments, Hegel's methods have generally mellowed into a lucid form of hermeneutics, though many of his chief concerns remain of recognizably Hegelian provenance. Like Hegel, he sets a kind of Sittlichkeit, a thick, historical and communal ethics against a thin, abstract and atomistic Moralitat (Hegel's term for a Kantian and para-digmatically liberal conception of morality). Indeed, much of Taylor's work has been motivated by his rejection of various manifestations of atomism: in psychology, behaviorism; in philosophy, positivism; in political theory and ethics, scientism and extreme liberalism. This orientation as well reflects a Hegelian tradition, one that distinguishes between the superficial clarity of an unhistorical, mathematizing "understanding," which isolates its objects as it analyzes them, and "reason" proper, conceived as historical, broadly contextualizing, and impatient with sharp boundaries.

Yet because Taylor is unwilling, and philosophically unable (on either Hegelian or hermeneutic grounds), simply to wish away the last several centuries of Western history with their persistent emphasis on freedom and individualism, he attempts to show how even the most apparently isolating concepts of individuality and freedom in fact imply a continued and ethically significant social embeddedness. In Sources of the Self (1989) he sketches a cultural history of many of the presently available conceptual components - or "sources" - of selfhood, and attempts to work out the forms of moral connectedness that they imply. Although both The Ethics of Authenticity (1991) and Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (1992) focus on the apparently atomistic notion of "authenticity," Taylor probes it, against the grain, for unsuspected resources capable of supporting an adequate conception of moral responsibility and a common political life. …

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