Brett Williams's Reviews > The Malaise of Modernity

The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

really liked it

Balanced perspective on an uphill battle

Taylor seeks to counter pronouncements of the death of Man by the likes of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. He seeks to do this with practical reality and a genealogy of “authenticity” at the root of individualism’s latest quest for identity. Taylor argues that origins of authenticity have moral foundations in Enlightenment that all moderns, including Bloom, would see as indispensable. However, Taylor agrees with Bloom that the current state of this authenticity is a narrowed and flattened individual. Individuals self-defined, without community, by the exercise of free choice alone. Where choice trumps substance based on the hollowness of “moral subjectivity,” mere difference, and the predictable disconnection from others and a higher calling (the very conditions for significance) that individualism is bound to foster. All “deviant products of the ideal of authenticity,” he writes.

But excess individualism is only half the problem. Maximized efficiency, what Taylor calls “instrumental reason” is seen as the other half. Together these form Max Weber’s disenchantment of the world where sacred structure is dead, relations with men and nature are lost to utility, and “creatures that surround us lose significance in the chain of being, open to treatment as raw materials,” writes Taylor. His goal is to show while our social structure tilts strongly in these directions (dehumanization of over population, mega cities, capitalistic urge, etc.), we can fight uphill against them. But to do that we’ll have to reject moral subjectivity, realizing some ways are superior, built on values substantiated by reason.

Taylor submits that “authenticity” was born around 1800 based on Descartes earlier individualist ideal of “dispassionate rationality.” A kind of self-responsible thought for oneself, and the root of scientific investigation. Locke’s political individualism prior to social obligations, authorities, and creeds also played a role. It was around this time that authenticity was part of an evolution in morality. That humans come with an internal moral sense as opposed to calculating the consequences of divine reward and punishment. Modernity takes us from St. Augustine to Rousseau. It says our moral sensibility is in us, not external (inklings of humanism, secularity, and agnosticism). But at the same time, authenticity gets mixed in with the passions of Rousseau’s Romanticism, critical of disengaged rationality, atomized community, and death of awe.

As a practical matter, Taylor says we don’t want to lose the benefits of individualism or efficiencies that make life easier to tolerate. Marxism demonstrated what happens when trying to force modern individuals back into the commune. Which is not to say we shouldn’t file off modernity’s sharp edges, and if we don’t the West will continue its path to big trouble of another sort. But free societies will never be monolithic unless we fancy tyranny again. Rational argument can revive authenticity by what it was based on, but not everyone’s going to come along. What’s needed is what’s in shortest supply: leaders with a clue of what’s going on. With echoes of Toynbee, Taylor writes, “Governing a contemporary society is continually recreating a balance between requirements that tend to undercut each other, constantly finding new solutions as the old equilibria become stultifying. There can never be…a definitive solution.”
1 like · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Malaise of Modernity.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

January 20, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
January 20, 2017 – Shelved
March 5, 2018 – Started Reading
April 2, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Rick (new)

Rick Sam Charles Taylor -- "Impressive"

message 2: by Pat (new) - added it

Pat Rolston Excellent insights and indeed the review inspires me to get the book!

back to top