Saturday, April 30, 2011

Meeting two great Canadian thinkers

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Charles Taylor, bridge-builder
Last year, through my repeated academic encounters with philosopher James K.A. Smith, biblical scholar Kavin Rowe, and sociologist James Davison Hunter, I came to know a bit of the work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It was through his notion of the "social imaginary" that my most significant academic paper was glued together. His lectures have kept me awake and my mind alert on road trips back and forth between Virginia and Iowa. Taylor does a marvelous job of narrating intellectual history in the West, which is a very important task for any academic discipline.

Another Canadian who has contributed to my academic learning these past few years is David Cayley. In my first year of grad school, while studying restorative justice, I read his excellent book, The Expanding Prison. Caley's work in that book recently helped me piece together a paper on what I see as the Anabaptist influences on what came to be known as restorative justice.

Imagine my surprise then, when I came across this excellent series of interviews from the CBC, in which David Cayley interviews Charles Taylor about his life and work. I've only listened to the first episode and I'm hooked. It's an excellent summary not only of Taylor's life and significant work, but also Western intellectual history in general. It's like a "philosophy for dummies" course for those like me with no formal philosophical training, but who find philosophy tremendously helpful in their work. Check it out:

The Malaise of Modernity

In the first episode, Cayley describes Taylor as a bridge-builder in a number of respects. He's had academic training in other disciplines besides philosophy. While he was studying philosophy at Oxford he helped convene a conference which brought the British analytical school of philosophy together with the continental school, which in the mid twentieth century was no small feat (the conference was a disaster). Later, Taylor ran for public office in Canada. This "man in the middle"/bridge-building dimension of his life is endearing to me, as I try to do similar work in my own particular ways.

Particular attractive to Taylor's philosophical work is that it has both an historical and anthropological dimension. It's historical because he's keenly aware that history matters a great deal and won't do his work without paying special attention to it. It's anthropological because he understands that our intellects are not somehow floating outside our bodies, but rather knowledge is an embodied practice. Most philosophy from the Enlightenment onward holds the disembodied view. But because ideas always have consequences, Taylor does a great job of illustrating how this mechanistic, causal, and disembodied way of imagining and construing knowledge has taken political, social, cultural, and institutional shape in the West. He is working at the deep structures of Western thought, trying to show us the "nonsense" of Cartesian thought, yet knowing that it is now so deeply entrenched in society we will never completely "get over it." As Western thought is now being colonized all over the globe in the form of globalization/hypercapitalism, a Western problem is really quite a global one.

As it relates to Cayley's work, something struck me as an interesting historical line to trace, maybe a dissertation topic: The constantinian shift (Christianity becoming the imperial religion) in the fourth century and its formalization of ascetic movements into monastic orders. According to Cayley, it was in these monastic orders where individualistic notions of crime and punishment took shape in the twelfth century and spread to things like canon law, used in the inquisitions as late as the fifteenth centuries. Cayley goes on to narrate how monastic orders became the inspiration for "penitentiaries" and prisons in the West. But to go another direction, it's perhaps telling, then, that in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk before splitting with the Roman Church, has been charged with an individualistic understanding of sin, salvation, and justification, a legacy we're still living down. Then a century later, after bloody wars across Europe, Enlightenment thought begins to take shape. A century after that, nation-states begin to form as we know them today and the first brand new Enlightenment-based nation-state is born, the United States of America.

So I wonder about the origins of individualism. Taylor notes that Descartes was working post-Galileo, so the scientific revolution is an important thing to keep in view as it relates to individualism but especially idealism. But as it relates to notions of justice, I wonder if this monastic legacy is worth looking into as it relates to the history of theology in the West but also intellectual history in general.

All right, that's enough punching above my weight for one day, but I do recommend the Taylor interviews to anyone with a hint of interest in philosophy and intellectual history. It's helpful and important stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment