Does history matter? Charles Taylor on the transcendental validity of social imaginaries
Faculty of Arts. Philosophy
History and theory: studies in the philosophy of history. - Middletown, Conn.
, p. 69-85
University of Antwerp
Since its appearance in 2007, Charles Taylor's monumental book A Secular Age has received much attention. One of the central issues in the discussions around Taylor's book is the role of history in philosophical argumentation, in particular with regard to normative positions on ultimate affairs. Many critics observe a methodological flaw in using history in philosophical argumentation in that there is an alleged discrepancy between Taylor's historical approach, on the one hand, and his defense of fullness in terms of openness to transcendence, on the other. Since his faith-based history is unwittingly apologetic, it is not only hard to judge in strictly historical terms, but it also proves that when it comes to the most ultimate affairs history may not matter at all. This paper challenges this verdict by exposing the misunderstanding underlying this interpretation of the role of history in Taylor's narrative. In order to disambiguate the relation between history and philosophy in Taylor's approach, I will raise three questions. First, what is the precise relation between history and ontology, taking into account the ontological validity of what Taylor calls social imaginaries? Second, why does fullness get a universal status in his historical narrative? Third, is Taylor's position tenable that the contemporary experience of living within an immanent frame allows for an openness to transcendence? In order to answer these questions, I will first compare Peter Gordon's interpretation of the status of social imaginaries with Taylor's position and, on the basis of that comparison, distinguish two definitions of ontology (sections I and II). Subsequently, I try to make it clear that precisely Taylor's emphasis on the historical character of social imaginaries and on their relaxed ontological anchorage allows for his claim that fullness might have a trans-historical character (section III). Finally, I would like to show that Taylor's defense of the possibility of an openness to transcendenceas a specific mode of fullnessis not couched in onto-theological terms, as suggested by his critics, but that it is the very outcome of taking into account the current historical situation (section IV).