The Loss of Meaning: The Price We Pay for Modernity and Rationality (Excerpt from “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor)

Posted on September 13, 2010 by

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The Malaise of Modernity

by Charles Taylor

The following excerpt is from the eighth chapter of “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor. In this work, Taylor describes the transformations in religion that came with the rise of modernity. Rather then eliminating religion, modernity removed its role from the universal to the particular; in other words, it is not religion that has been eliminated, but particular forms and manifestations of religious life. More importantly, these formal forms of religion have been replaced by new ones resulting in “the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals and groups seize in order to make sense of their lives and give shape to their spiritual aspirations.”

This work contains one of the most nuanced and critical readings of secularism and modernity. While the author writes from the perspective of a Christian, many of his insights would be beneficial to Muslim intellectuals. In the absence of such critical works in our community (with the exception of a handful of thinkers such as Sayyid Naquib al-Attas and Ziauddin Sardar) it might be prudent to take the works of Taylor and Gillespie as a starting point in understanding modernity – after firmly rooting one self in traditional Islamic epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and theology.

In this excerpt, Taylor describes the feeling of loss by the removal of the transcendent from our daily lives. I have used subtitles to break up the text; they are my own additions and are not contained in the original text.

[The Eclipse of the Transcendent has Resulted in a Sense of Loss]

“There is one central axis with which we are all familiar. There is a generalized sense in our culture that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost. I put it in the optative mood, because people react very differently to this; some endorse this idea of loss, and seek to define what it is. Others want to downplay it, and paint it as an optional reaction, something we are in for only as long as we allow ourselves to wallow in nostalgia. Still others again, while standing as firmly on the side of disenchantment as the critics of nostalgia, nevertheless accept that this sense of loss is inevitable; it is the price we pay for Modernity and rationality, but we must courageously accept this bargain, and lucidly opt for what we have inevitably become. One of the most influential proponents of this latter position was Max Weber. But wherever people stand on this issue, everyone understands, or feels they understand what is being talked about here. This is a sense which, at least in its optative form, seems available to everyone, whatever interpretation they end up putting on it.

[Key Words In Describing this Sense of Loss]

To get farther with this, and bring out more what it involves, we have to venture on some phenomenology, and this is always hazardous. How do we describe this sense? Perhaps in terms like these: our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.

[This Loss of Purpose May Manifest Itself as an Identity Crisis or a Mid-Life Crisis]

This is the kind of lack which can show up with adolescence, and be the origin of an identity crisis. But it can also show up later, as the basis of a “mid-life crisis”, where what previously satisfied us, gave us a sense of solidarity, seems not really to match up, not to deserve what we put into it. THe things which mattered up to now fail.

[Framing This Sense of Loss In Terms of "The Meaning of Life"]

This is just an attempt to give some shape to a general malaise, and I recognize how questionable it is, and how many other descriptions could have been offered here. But the malaise also takes a number of more definite forms, in terms of defined issues, or felt lacks.

One way of framing this issue is in terms of “the meaning of life”, Luc Ferry’s “le sens du sens”, the basic point which gives real significance to our lives. Almost every action of ours has a point; we’re trying to get to work, or to find a place to buy a bottle of milk after hours. But we can stop and ask why we’re doing these things, and that points us beyond to the significance of these significances.

[The Fragility of Meaning]

The issue may arise for us in a crisis, where we feel that what has been orienting our life up to now lacks real value, weight. So a successful doctor may desert a highly paid and technically demanding position, and go off with Medicina Sans Frontieres to Africa, with a sense that this is really significant. A crucial feature of the malaise of immanence is the sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning, analogous to the existential fragility we always live with: that suddenly an accident, earthquake, flood, a fatal disease, some terrible betrayal, may jolt us off our path of life, definitively and without return. Only the fragility that I am talking about concerns the significance of it all; the path is still open, possible, supported by circumstances, the doubt concerns its worth.

Once again the stances we take to this can vary enormously. Some people are unruffled, even as others are by the existential dangers. They see the possibility as “only theoretical”. But everyone understands this kind of issue, as they do people raising questions about “the meaning of life”. This was not true in earlier epochs. True there was the danger of “acedia”, the inexplicable loss of all motivations, or joy in one’s activity. But this is a quite different experience, because it doesn’t involve doubt and questioning about the value of the activity in question. For a monk to suffer from acedia in his vocation was a sin; it was not a form of questioning of God.

[The Nausea of Everyday Living]

This way of framing the issue partakes of the post-Axial outlook, which opened up the idea that there is “one thing needful”, some higher goal which transcends, or gives sense to all the lower ones. But the sense of emptiness, or non-resonance, may arise in a quite different way. It can come in the feeling that the quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, arrange them, in order to live has no meaning, beauty, depth, sense. There can be a kind of “nausee” before this meaningless world.

Some people indeed, want to reject the first way of framing the issue, the “one thing needful” way, the way of post-Axial culture. We shouldn’t try to force life into a single over-riding purpose; we should be suspicious of questions about the meaning of life. These people want to take up an anti-Axial position, they want to rehabilitate “paganism”, or “polytheism”. But whatever one’s stand on this polemic, the malaise is felt on both these levels, and we all can recognize what is going on when it is.

[The Flatness of Our Attempts to Solemnize Crucial Moments in Life]

We can feel this emptiness in the everyday, but also it comes out with particular force in what should be the crucial moments of life: birth, marriage, death. These are the important turning points of our lives, and we want to mark them as such; we want to feel that they are of particular moment, something solemn. So we talk off “solemnizing” a marriage. The way we have always this is by linking these moments up with the transcendent, the highest, the holy, the sacred. Pre-Axial religions did this. But the enclosure in the immanent leaves a hole here. Many people, who have no other connection or felt affinity with religion, go on using the ritual of the church for these rites de passage.

[The Emptiness of Urban Existence Resulting in Flight]

But we can also just feel the lack in the everyday. This can be where it most hurts. This seems to be felt particularly by people of some leisure and culture. For instance, some people sense a terrible flatness in the everyday, and this experience has been identified particularly with commercial, industrial, or consumer society. They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape. We may response negatively to the outsider’s elite stance, the judging of ordinary people’s lives without real knowledge, that these feelings seem to reflect. But however mixed with unacceptable social distance and superiority, these feelings are easy to understand and hard to shake off. And if we think of the immense popularity in our civilization of the flight away from certain townscapes, to the country, the suburb, even to wilderness, we have to admit the virtual universality of some reactions of this range. The irony of the suburb, or garden city, is that it provokes in more fortunate others some of the same feelings, viz., of the emptiness and flatness of an urban environment, which were responsible for its existence in the first place.

[Summary]

I have distinguished three forms which the malaise of immanence may take: (1) the sense of the fragility of meaning, the search for an over-arching significance; (2) the felt flatness of our attempts to solemnize the crucial moments of passage in our lives; and (3) the utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary.”

(p 307 to 309 of “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor)

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