Are we living in a disenchanted world?

In this episode, Charles Taylor reflects on what we mean by the word ‘disenchantment’ today, illustrates our modern society through the concept of the imminent frame and gives an overview of the elements needed to create progress and bring people together in a movement of positive ecumenism. This talk was part of John Main Seminar in Bruges, Belgium. Charles Taylor is a philosopher known for his examination of the modern self.

Read the first part of the transcripts from Charles’ talk in Bruges or listen to the full podcast at the bottom of the article. 

“Thank you all for the chance that you’re giving me to try out some of the ideas I’ve been working on, about the situation we’re in today. So let me launch into that. I think we always have to try to get a hold on the age we live in and what characterizes it and what its important features are, how we’re going to be able to respond to it.

And so I keep thinking about that. And this is where I’m at at the moment. I think what people call, the secular age that we live in has been put together by several developments, some of them very long-term developments, some of them very recent. If you take some of the longest-term developments, there are a couple that I think have gone under the name of disenchantment – this famous word that Max Weber first pioneered and it’s become very common and it’s used in so many senses that that sometimes it confuses more than it clarifies, but I want to pick out two sentences that I think are very important. 

What I mean by disenchantment?

One is a long-term development, I mean over five centuries, I think you know, let’s say 1500 to 2000. Disenchantment in the sense that 500 years ago in Europe, our ancestors lived in a world that they felt was full of spirits, magic forces, the spirits of the woods who were in some ways malign because they could give disease to the cattle or destroy the crops. Other kinds of forces, relics that were, on the contrary, very benign relics that could cure various diseases and so on.

And this was not a matter just of what people believed, it was a matter of their sensibility, they had a real experience of this. This wasn’t just something that they worked out, a theory that they subscribed to. It’s something they really felt and if you go to other parts of the world today that still have that kind of sensibility.

People have written about African ethnographers and so on and you find this very similar kind of sensibility. I think that we make a terrible mistake in our present situation where we are relatively insensitive to that dimension of things. And think that those people were just mistaken in many ways. They certainly work as we are all mistaken in some important respect. But I think the difference is also a difference of, as I say, sensibility, how what one feels that one gets from the world and walks around and how one experiences it.

And as a matter of fact, we could think of ourselves as deprived in relation to them just as much as we can think of them as deprived of the kind of knowledge we have in relation to us. And as a matter of fact, it’s a very important part of Western culture that really springs from the Romantic Revolution which has been trying to recover a certain kind of sensibility in relation to the world that surrounds us. So that’s one very big change: living in a disenchanted world in that sense.

There’s another important aspect that you could describe by the word disenchantment which is really at the level of well-educated belief, educated theorizing were all that at the level of very general sensibility. 

Less long ago, 300 years ago, 250 years ago, people looked at society in the light of and its relation to conceptions of the cosmos and conceptions of the cosmos that were very morally charged. There are higher kinds of being and lower kinds of being. There are levels of being. You know, the famous Great Chain of Being that Arthur Lovejoy described and that the idea of seeing the society is embedded in the cosmos made one think that well, society has to conform to an order of things that is there prior to it and it is normative for it. So, people saw the different levels of power and might and importance in society, royalty, nobility, clergy, common people, people living in cities, burgers peasants and so on. They saw these as arranged in an order of priority and higher and lower. So, in a certain sense, the structure of society is something that is made, that is there, or if we try to deviate from it, then terrible things happen to us. We have to read society through the grid of these notions of cosmic order. And once again, these have just about disappeared from our radar from, our screen of belief. 

it's a very important part of Western culture that really springs from the Romantic Revolution which has been trying to recover a certain kind of sensibility in relation to the world that surrounds us. So that's one very big change: living in a disenchanted world in that sense.
Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor

We're living in an imminent frame

I think here the most important development which has brought this about is the coming of 17th-century natural science based on the idea that there is no moral distinction to be made between different forces and different causes of laws and so on with which we explain the universe around us. So that’s the second kind of disenchantment, we live in a disenchanted world, a world of science and I try to put those two developments together and to say that we live what I want to call in an imminent frame today.

And once again, these have just about disappeared from our radar from, our screen of belief.
Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor

By that, I want to try to explain what I mean by that living in an imminent frame. First of all, the imminent frame is, you could see it put together a major part by looking at modern natural science, for our description of the cosmos which surrounds us and looking at our way of understanding history today, for our understanding of how we see society.

And instead of seeing societies as embedded in these cosmic moral orders, we all look at our societies as built in certain historical moments I mean the American republic and we know the dates of the Declaration of Independence 17 76 and the American constitution in 1787 and so on. Or, you name any country, we look back to a certain moment which is present. Constitution was set up by name named people with certain particular acts and decisions and so on. So we see this as human-made orders constantly being made and remade and remade. That’s the other aspect of our conception of the imminent frame. But I want to try to make a bit clear what I mean by living in the imminent frame. Because this is very important. I don’t mean the imminent frame, the idea that the world we see is understandable purely in terms of natural science, as for the constitution of the universe, and purely in terms of particular acts of foundation and un-foundation and undermining in regard to the societal world. That can have a theory that’s all there is.

But living in the imminent frame is being aware that what we share with everybody else in this imminent frame is precisely these reference points: the natural science and the order of history as we’ve seen it. But we differ very profoundly on whether that’s all there is. So, we’re very one thing to adopt a position that that’s all there is, and a lot of our co-inhabitants of this imminent frame adopt that position. People in this room don’t, in general, and that makes a very profound difference. But we’re aware all the time that what we share with them, what we have to refer to, if we’re going to communicate to them about many questions is constituted by what I’m calling the imminent frame. So, we were living in it, but living in it in very different ways.”

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