Materialism, Meaning, and the Humanities

Taylor’s theism is directed, in part, against a reductionist materialism, which would 1) in its utilitarian forms (which include Darwinian accounts) “reduce” human motivations to sustaining life (either that of the individual or of the species) and see all human behavior as driven by the efforts to seek pleasure or avoid pain; or 2) in its biochemical forms claim that all human behavior is a product of chemical reactions in the body.  He is adamant that there must be “something more” than this to explain human aspirations and behavior.

In particular, Taylor says there are three things a reductionist materialism cannot account for: 1. Any sense of there being non-human forces or powers to which we, as humans, can connect.  This, straightforwardly, is the place where “transcendence” makes its appearance.  There is something that transcends the exclusively human—and the experience of or faith in the existence of that transcendent something cannot be accounted for in reductionist materialist ontologies.

2.  There is the observable fact that moral motivations play a large (although hardly exclusive) role in what humans do.  There are issues of value—of what gives pleasure or what gives pain, what is seen as admirable, and standards apart from desire itself by which any particular desire is deemed endorsable or not.  We subject out own desires and behavior, as well as the desires and behaviors of others, to judgment—and the materialist view has a hard time accounting for the standards that are deployed in our making of judgments. This is a version of the fact/value dichotomy–and Taylor (I think) is sympathetic to the pragmatist view (most fully articulated by Hilary Putnam, but clearly already there in William James and wonderfully expressed by Kenneth Burke) that we are always already valuers, that our attention to things (to facts, to what is the case) is driven by what “concerns” us, what we think matters, is significant.

3. Finally, we have aesthetic responses, finding beauty in some things, and turning away in disgust from others, along with desires to produce such artistic objects and to spend time in their contemplation and consumption.  We might say that here we find admiration for work well done—for accomplishments that go beyond just getting the job done, just being “good enough.”  Standards of excellence are applied in all kinds of fields—from artistic endeavors to athletic ones to simply the “style” and competence with which the most ordinary tasks are done.

Taylor does not insist that only faith in a transcendent can underwrite objections to reductionist materialism.  But what he does show is that religion (at least in some cases) shares a cause with the humanities: the cause of showing there is something more than materialist satisfactions (the utility maximizing rational individual of classical economic theory) that “matter” to human beings.  The humanities are also committed to a sense that humans derive (find) meaning in a variety of activities and relationships that are not captured by a single-minded pursuit of utility.

Of course, ever since Matthew Arnold (at least), the humanities’ attempts to describe those sources of non-utilitarian meaning have come across as pretty desperate, a kind of hysterical special pleading.  In fact, the humanities seem caught between two antithetical strategies in such presentations of their value.  Either, they try to demonstrate that the humanities have a utility value, just one that is not reducible to pleasure/pain or straightforward economic gain.  Or they try to argue for the uselessness of the aesthetic and of knowledge for its own sake, finding in such non-utility a welcome respite from the obsessions and demands of a consumer culture, where getting and spending rules over all time and effort.

I am more inclined to go the “meaning route.”  That is, I don’t want to focus on what the humanities and the arts “do” for the person who either pursues them actively or consumes them somewhat more passively.  In other words, I am not very attracted to or convinced by the Martha Nussbaum type arguments about how reading the classics (from Lucretius to George Eliot and Henry James) makes us better moral subjects and better democratic citizens.  Perhaps she is right.  But I’d hate to be committed to saying that those who do not do the requisite reading are somehow doomed to be deficient moral subjects and citizens.

Rather, I think it more demonstrably (phenomenologically) true that subjects locate meaning through processes of valuation that prove much more multifarious than any utilitarian or Darwinian calculus can account for.  In particular, I would push the thought that what is found valuable (and hence worth striving to create and working to sustain) is much more the product of a self’s relation to, embeddedness in, others and the non-human world than the utilitarian/Darwinian account would suggest.  Which is to say that, along with Dewey, I believe “morality is social.”  Morality, in this case, covers both what contemporary philosophy (following Bernard Williams) calls morals (rules of conduct mostly directed toward establishing and maintaining optimal relations to others and to the world) and ethics (questions pertaining to what is the “good life,” of what ends I—and others—should pursue).  All the issues pertaining both to morals and ethics are worked out, thought through, acted upon, and subject to the judgment of others within the ensemble of social relations and practices in which the self is embedded.

Does that mean that “society” plays the role of the “transcendent” in my form of humanism?  I am willing to accept that characterization of my position.  The social is the “horizon” (to use that term from phenomenology) within which judgments of meaning and value are made.  The humanities, then, would become the study of how those judgments were/are made by various different people situated in various different societies.  But not just how those judgments were made, but also what those judgments were/are.  The humanities and the arts, as is often said—and Taylor argues that the same is true for religion—proceed by way of exemplars.  There are no hard and fast rules for making judgments—and there is no way to proclaim apodictic truth for any particular judgment.  Which is not to say that there are no reasons one can offer for one’s own judgments.  But we should fully expect that such reasons will prove more convincing to some than to others—and that the extent to which reasons are convincing will depend quite heavily on the social context from within which those reasons are heard and evaluated.

Does this all entail cultural relativism?  Yes, to some extent.  I will in a subsequent post return to the William James’s notion of a “live option.”  There are demonstrably judgments and choices that were “live options” in the past that are no longer so.  Unlike someone living in the 1845 South, I cannot actively entertain the question of whether I should purchase a slave.  This is not simply because no slaves are available to buy.  It is also because, situated where I am in history and culture, being a slave owner is unthinkable for me.

But it is only relativism to a certain extent because cultures are not monolithic; they are in dialogue with other cultures (and with the past), as well as internally riven with all kinds of debates about proper judgments concerning morals and ethics.  The person living in the 1845 South could not be unaware that some of his fellow American citizens found slave-owning abominable.  Being within a culture can isolate someone from others who hold contrary views, but it cannot completely shield him from knowing about those who would dispute his views.  The humanities, we might say, are committed to airing all such disputes—opening out toward the historical record, to other cultures, and to the debates within one’s own culture.  The humanities stake a lot on the idea that the pursuit of meaning and values should be undertaken in and through exposure to as wide a set of judgments as possible.

This open-mindedness of the liberal arts (of the humanities) is, of course, anathema to those who wish to insure the triumph of one particular set of values over another.  All tyrannies try to shut down the public sphere, the full and raucous airing of multiple views.  Established religions have often been guilty of just such attempts to stifle discussion and debate.  Taylor, of course, recognizes that fact.  Hence he has to be very tolerant of non-religious humanists.  His position seems to be that the humanist is missing out on something, on a good thing, by not opening up to a relation with the transcendent (as contrasted to accusing the humanist of heresy).  At issue, I presume, is whether the transcendent of one’s relation to others and to the world is “enough.”

Enough for what?  For fully realizing the potential of life?  It seems like it would have to be something like that.  But I am not sure—and will return to this issue in subsequent posts.

For now, I will finish by considering the relation to the non-human.  I am not inclined (as is obvious by now) to find in the non-human—be it God, Nature, or some kind of life force/energy—a source of meaning.  Yet that does not entail denying that non-human forces and energies exist.  There are natural processes—erosion, earthquakes, weather cycles etc.—that exist apart from the human;  they pre-existed the human and will, most likely, exist after humans are extinct. There are also non-human creatures, some of whom pre-existed us and others of whom (I assume) will outlive the human species.

Moral questions involve, among other things, considering how we value those non-human forces/creatures and what are the optimal relations in which to stand to them.  Am I committed to the notion that whatever meaning and value those non-human forces possess are meanings and values that we, as humans, have created?  Yes, I am committed to that view.  Does that mean that non-human forces can only have meaning/value insofar as they relate to (even serve) human concerns?  That’s a tougher one.  I’d like to think (but don’t fully know how to make this stick) that we humans can value something with which we share the world (whether that sharer is human or non-human) for its own sake.  That is, I can fully acknowledge the other’s right to exist, and to flourish, without seeing the other’s existence as benefiting me in some way.  Here is Kant’s “kingdom of ends.”  That it is humans who see/designate others as ends-in-themselves does not logically entail that such a view is impossible to achieve.

What would be the reason(s) advanced for such a view?  One could be the reciprocity argument.  I am no more responsible for my presence on earth than is my neighbor or a butterfly.  Since I fully expect others to grant my right to be here, it is consistent that I grant their right to be here as well.  Otherwise, I would have to have some argument that would explain why I have more right to be here than the other creatures and processes that I find in the world about me.  Of course, such arguments for the “special status” of humans are rampant in human history, and most religions offer some version of such arguments.  Hence only humans get to be immortal or made in God’s image in Christianity.  There is also the Darwinian/Nietzschean route of saying we live in a totally amoral universe, where it is eat or be eaten, so it is not a question of “special status” for the human, or even for me and/or my tribe, just a struggle for life and death.  But if we accept that moral considerations do have some force in human motives and actions, then the challenge of justifying the “special status” of all humans or of some sub-set of humans is likely to be taken seriously.

A second set of reasons would be more holistic, more ecological.  The idea here would be that the world is sustained (in part) by a set of natural processes that unfold without human direction, but that can be altered by human action/intervention.  We are slowly discovering that such human actions/interventions often have drastic by-products, ones that threaten the sustainability of the world.  Our presumptions of control over the non-human have had bad consequences.  We would be much better off walking with a much lighter tread, leaving others and the non-human to live in peace, exempt from any interference from us.

Are those natural processes transcendent?  In a strict sense, I guess the answer is Yes.  They are certainly non-human.  But they are not transcendent in the more religious sense because they are not, in my view, a source of meaning, or some kind of “personal” entity to which we can have a call-and-response (dialogic) relation.  Taylor persistently wants to reject the “impersonal universe” he associates with modern secularism, while I am fully guilty of finding the non-human “impersonal.”  We stand in relation to the non-human, and can have a drastic impact on its functionings, but I don’t think we can be in dialogue with it, and I don’t think we can establish a relation to it that generates meanings except insofar as we, as humans, find value in the non-human (something which occurs all the time).

Am I fully satisfied with these formulations?  Far from it.  I am using Taylor to sort through my own commitments/intuitions, even as his book challenges me to offer a coherent (and convincing) account of how I justify/understand the assumptions/claims that must underwrite those commitments.  And I am finding that I stand on very shaky ground.

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