In our last article we explored Charles Taylor’s concept of “the buffered self,” a peculiar kind of self-consciousness engendered by Enlightenment rationalism, and which has become customary (at least for educated elites) in our own time. We saw how it can be at once a source of pride, a profound source of accomplishment and self-worth, and also a source of confinement and malaise. Our best moments are those in which we feel ourselves open to others, to life, and the world—that is a very different way of being in the world than the detached, calculating posture of the buffered self. In this article, we’ll see a new development in post-Enlightenment thought.
The Enlightenment is often thought to have begun sometime in the middle of the seventeenth century. On the one hand, Europe had endured generations of terrible, bloody fighting in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, and this left educated elites with a sense that too much emphasis on faith was dangerous. Perhaps if reason were emphasized instead, common ground could be found between Protestants and Catholics, as well as between the different Protestant confessions. On the other hand, the emergence of Cartesian rationalism, and later Newtonian physics, showed that there was real progress to be made in this direction. So the role of faith, in the sense of affirming a certain set of doctrines, began to be de-emphasized among educated elites, and confidence in the power of reason began to grow. Conversely, the Enlightenment is often thought to have concluded with the French Revolution, which, though retrospectively commemorated, was experienced by the people at the time as a disaster. After an initial surge of optimism, the revolution had degenerated into bloody purges within, wars of conquest without, military dictatorship, and finally foreign occupation. A sense of demoralization and exhaustion set in after the wars of the French Revolution in much the same way it had after the Protestant-Catholic wars of an earlier time. Again, educated elites began to look for alternatives.
For many, the solution was straightforward: the disaster had been a natural consequence of abandoning the old faith. For a generation, Enlightenment rationalism went out of vogue and orthodoxy came back in style. But this is not to say that Enlightenment-inspired ways of thinking came to an end; only that they were not in the ascendant for the first half of the nineteenth century the way they had been for the last half of the eighteenth. Like any movement, philosophy, or religion, it changed in response to new circumstances. According to Charles Taylor, it was in this time that a new strand of Enlightenment-inspired thought began to emerge, one that re-infused a sense of mystery, or enchantment, into the universe.
In order to get at how this change took place, we need to make use of a concept from sociology, “the social imaginary.” The social imaginary is a group of people’s unreflective sense of the way they and the world are. The social imaginary shapes thought and feeling below the level of explicit reason and theory. It is, rather, what is implicit, often unrealized or unarticulated, in a given theoretical position. When the social imaginary changes, theory changes as well. It is the difference between our social imaginary and that of people living in a foreign country—or, as we often encounter in history, in a foreign time—that makes the task of comprehension a challenge.
During the early nineteenth century, the social imaginary began to shift away from the Enlightenment’s sense of a self-confident, self-sufficient humanity coming at last to understand a rationally ordered universe, and toward a sense of a universe that was more mysterious, more dangerous, more uncertain. The truth was no longer necessarily lying on the surface, waiting to be discovered through clear-headed inquiry. And it was no longer necessarily going to be a source of confidence or reassurance. The truth could be profoundly hidden, alien, disturbing—if it was available at all.
This change occurred in part due to a growing awareness of deep time (the unfathomable immensity of the past and future) and deep space (the unfathomable vastness, or minuteness, of the reaches of space), which were revealed by geology, biology, and astronomy, and began to be assimilated into the social imaginary. In terms of both time and space, the universe became much larger, more fearsome, during the nineteenth century. But perhaps the more important factor was the emergence of what might be called, somewhat anachronistically, “depth psychology”—particularly in the work of Schopenhauer, and later developed by Nietzsche and Freud. The basic posture involved in depth psychology is the rejection of self-representation as a reliable source of knowledge about the self. Far from having insight into their reasons and motivations, people are, as a rule, deluded about why they do what they do and think what they think, according to depth psychology. We need to take a much more suspicious approach to what people say and believe about themselves if we want to really understand them. A parallel to this depth psychology can be found in what might be called the “depth sociology” of de Maistre, Karl Marx, and Georges Sorel—all of whom emphasized the dark, violent, often hidden undercurrent of social organization.
In consequence, there arises a sense that neither experience nor awareness "touches bottom"—that humanity just as such is out of its depths in a reality that cannot really be understood, and are thus alienated on some instinctive level from it. Reality is no longer a familiar place. Even we are strangers to ourselves. This is what Taylor calls a “dark genesis”—in contravention to the banishment of mystery from Providential Deism and modern scientism. (Philosopher Paul Ricouer has put forward a similar concept with his term, “the hermeneutics of suspicion.”) But it is a mystery that derives from nature, rather than from God. This is part of what Michael Allen Gillespie alludes to in Theological Origins (discussed in a previous article) when he argues that divine attributes were transferred to nature as a result of nominalism.
According to Charles Taylor, the conflict between science and theology that arose in the eighteenth century and has gathered strength since that time has less to do with any particular scientific theory or any particular argument that follows from it, than from a sensibility that arises from the foregoing considerations: especially the buffered self, the posture of disengaged reason, and the dark genesis. This sensibility is the preference for impersonal explanations, as one finds particularly in biology and physics, as against the personal explanations offered in theology. Put differently, physics and biology (we are here excluding the social, or human, sciences) relate us to matter, law, process—to impersonal agents, whereas theology relates us to God, a personal agent, and does so in ways that we can grasp intuitively. The basic sensibility of the latter remains that of the porous self, explored in earlier articles (here and here), where that of the sciences is that of the new, buffered self. Where science has had the largest impact is in making impersonal explanations, and hence the impersonal order, hence naturalism, more plausible and intellectually attractive. This preference for the impersonal is further buttressed by our habitation within an impersonal social order—one governed by laws and institutions, in which one has to navigate frequent, anonymous encounters in the transaction of one’s normal business. Personal relationships are just that—personal, private. They, like faith, are pushed out of the public sphere and into the private. So as we become more used to impersonal encounters in our day-to-day life, impersonal explanations are likely to become more attractive to us.
Daniel Halverson is a PhD candidate 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.
Photo of Charles Taylor by Padraic Ryan.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: