In our last article, we explored Charles Taylor’s discussion of a new religion that took shape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Providential Deism. Yet, as we saw, it was not entirely new but in many respects a development and expansion of themes already expounded on by the Protestant Reformation. Where the Protestant Reformers accused Catholicism of being authoritarian, superstitious, obscurantist, and for neglecting God’s this-worldly purposes, the Deists appropriated these criticisms and applied them to all of Christianity, just as some atheists would later appropriate them and apply them to religion just as such. The implication of Taylor’s argument is that Protestantism was already a step on the road to atheism.
In the next few articles we’ll explore developments within this movement, what Charles Taylor calls “the expanding universe of unbelief,” in the nineteenth century. The first thing Taylor wants to call our attention to is the new kind of self-consciousness that Providential Deism engenders, what he calls “the buffered self.” The “buffer” Taylor alludes to is the sense, within the modern consciousness, of there being a sharp differentiation between the inner and the outer. On the one hand we experience our bodies as a kind of container for our consciousness, distinguishing what is “me” from “the world out there.” Hence what is “inner” is “mine,” and what is “outer” just is—a kind of unmediated stuff that we just encounter. In this way the distinction arises between subjective (mine) and objective (just is), between interpretation and fact. As we saw in an earlier article, the “porous self” characteristic of premodernity does not experience itself in this way. It does not make such a sharp distinction between the inner and the outer, the subjective and the objective, interpretation and fact. Its situation is altogether more fluid.
This can all be pretty abstract, so perhaps it will be useful to put things more concretely. We all know what a “haunted house” is. In the child’s experience the house is haunted; it has, in other words, a property that attaches to itself, just as it is. There is something intangible coming out of the house that causes the child’s experience. In the adult’s experience, the house might be vaguely unsettling or “creepy,” but it’s not the house itself that has that property, rather it’s the projection of the mind onto it. The adult recognizes a distinction between the objective fact of the house, as just being dark and run down, or just happening to be the place where a crime was committed, for example. The adult recognizes a distinction between the objective fact of the house and the subjective experience of it, how it appears to them personally. The child has a porous self in the sense that these distinctions are not so sharp; the adult has a buffered self in the sense that they insist on the importance between what is “in here,” what is “my mind,” on the one hand, and what is “out there,” the “objective facts” on the other. The porous and the buffered self are not so much different ideas as they are different ways of being in the world, far below the level of discursive reason.
And this distinction between childhood and maturity helps us to get at an important aspect of how the buffered self can develop. To be an adult is to have overcome a prior, weaker stage of development, to have acquired a certain independence, self-confidence, and self-mastery. As we’ve seen, enlightenment Providential Deism sees itself as emerging out of a similar kind of immaturity. Once people were superstitious and ignorant, and “revealed religion” (as distinct from what they called “natural religion,” the original kind that was free of dogma and ritual) might have been OK for them back then, but now we can have real knowledge, so it’s unworthy to continue in the old ways. Just like the individual, society needs to “grow up.” People who have made this transition—out of “revealed religion” and into an enlightened frame of mind—have accomplished something important. People who haven’t are holding us back.
So one important element of the buffered self that goes along with Providential Deism is a self-conscious sense of maturity, of having made an important transition. The more conscious one is of this transition as an accomplishment, the greater the sense of self-worth that flows from it. But the payoff is not only this but also freedom from the kind of irrational fears that haunt children and the superstitious. There is no cosmic judge, no hell, nothing at all to be afraid of from the religious quarter, for the same reason there is no monster under the bed and nothing ominous about black cats or Friday the thirteenth. Freedom from nonsense goes hand in hand with maturity, for the society just as for the individual.
Finally, the sense of disengagement that goes along with the buffered identity—the sense of being distinct from the world around us—brings with it a sense of power. My ability to disengage from a ritual is intimately caught up with my power to see through it, to identify it as mere theater. The chemist’s ability to analyze a material dispassionately, as only a collection of matter and force, gives her the power to transform it into a useful material, just as the doctor’s ability to view the body dispassionately, as only a collection of tissue, gives her the power to heal an illness. Dispassion might not be satisfying in the immediate, visceral sense that emotional engagement is, but it’s powerful.
Self-regard, freedom, and power, then, are the positive aspects of the buffered identity, according to Charles Taylor. He points out, however, that we are also familiar with a negative side. When the porous self is suppressed, we are cut off from the world around us. That’s just what a porous boundary is: one that a substance can pass into and out of. It permits a connection between the inner and the outer. Similarly, a buffer is a barrier, one that prevents such interchange. So when the buffered self takes over, one can acquire a sense of being isolated, adrift, cut off from something more profound than one’s self. One acquires freedom and power, yes, but freedom and power for what? This quandary is well summarized by the stock, existentialist answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” “Make your own meaning.” Meaning can only come from within because one has become so estranged and isolated from what is without.
Of course, not everyone feels this “malaise of modernity,” but plenty of people do. Taylor argues that what emerges out of the Enlightenment era is a bipolar situation, characterized by the extremes of rigid, authoritarian orthodoxy on the one hand, and a barren, materialist atheism on the other. Again, not everyone experiences things in these terms, but Taylor’s point is that quite a lot of people do. This in turn leads to persistent attempts to find a third way that avoids both extremes but preserves what is best in both. Taylor calls this “the nova effect” because, starting in the nineteenth century, it leads to an enormous diversification of philosophical and religious positions all aiming at basically the same thing, to resolve this malaise of modernity without sacrificing its accomplishments.
“As a whole,” Taylor writes, the situation,
remains unstable, in the sense that there is no long-term movement toward a resolution of whatever kind. Successive generations keep re-opening the issues in new ways; children desert the solutions of their parents: one generation reacts to the Fibbonian high culture of the eighteenth century by turning evangelical; not very long after their descendants have become unbelievers, and so on. Both those who hope that unbelief will encounter its own limitations and aridity, and will peter out in a general return to orthodoxy; and those who think that all this represents an historic march toward reason and science, seem doomed to disappointment. Over time, there seems no stable solution.
Finally, Taylor draws our attention to the peculiarity of a widely felt aspect of modernity: its difficulty positing a satisfactory answer to the question of purpose and meaning. For Taylor, the important thing here is not that modernity is meaningless, but rather that the widespread sense that it is meaningless is historically unusual. “This is,” he writes,
after all a remarkable fact. You couldn’t even have explained this problem of people in Luther’s age. What worried them was, if anything, an excess of “meaning,” the sense of one overbearing issue—am I saved or damned?—which wouldn’t leave them alone. One can hear all sorts of complaints about “the present age” throughout history: that it is fickle, full of vice and disorder, lacking in great or high deeds, full of blasphemy and viciousness. But what you won’t hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong, that is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning. This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces, or gods won’t “get to” it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it.
Taylor’s point is not, however, that the world emptied of meaning sometime around 1750 and we’ve all been living in the ashes ever since. His main goal in writing his book, A Secular Age, is to give naturalism and secularity a history: to show it, not as “obviously just the way things are,” but as a dynamic, creative construction of living, willing human beings. A felt loss of meaning is part of that story, but hardly all of it. In the next article we’ll explore an important development in nineteenth century thought: what Taylor calls, evocatively, “the dark abyss of time.”
Daniel Halverson is in the PhD program at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history of evolutionary biology in the Victorian and WWII eras.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: