maandag 8 juni 2009

Taylor, Levinas and Emptiness

Last month Dutch papers payed a lot of attention to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, because of the appearance of the Dutch translation of his book A Secular Age. In that book Taylor explains how the emptying of the churches in the West originates from the teachings those churches offered their members. In the papers’ articles he explains his views.

It is remarkable, after reading those articles, how many parallels one can find between the ideas of Taylor and those of Levinas.

To start with, both philosophers make the concern for an existential emptiness which many people in the West experience nowadays, into an important theme in their work. Taylor speaks about the loss of social relations and traditional religious meanings. This feels as if the connection between ourselves and the cosmos has been cut.

Levinas speaks, above all in his early work, about a surplus of self-consciousness and self-sufficiency of modern man. Because of that, modern man has become lonely and got imprisoned in boredom and weariness.

Furthermore, they both relate – be it in a completely different way – this void to the coming-to-stand-on-its-own of the individual which in the course of time has taken place in the West. Taylor does so through a cultural-historical description of developments in Christianity. The church summoned people to live according to the Gospel. That called for discipline which then came up indeed. Working hard and living a family life became important. This produced an orderly, productive and peaceful society. But exactly because of that, people gradually began to feel they could manage without God.

Levinas presents the coming-to-stand-on-its-own of the individual as the result of the struggle of man against the il-y-a. The il-y-a in Levinas means the threat which originates from an icy cosmos which in its indifference hits people with meteorite impacts, tsunamis and fires. By making use of his rational capacities man fights back against the elements. He counters them and organizes an orderly world of his own.

Both authors describe in related terms the human state of mind in such an orderly society. Taylor speaks of the enclosed self, as opposed to the porous self from before the disciplining, which was in a kind of naïve, natural contact with the surrounding world. The enclosed self has the possibility to take a distance, to disconnect itself from everything outside the mind. Everything becomes open to manipulation by the self. It may see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings things have for him.

Levinas characterizes organized man, in his separation from the cosmos, as sovereign, self-sufficient. He may regard himself as his own origin. Loneliness and boredom are characteristics that both Taylor and Levinas assign to this human creature that has come to-stand-on-his-own. It is good to keep in mind that Levinas considers nevertheless the coming-to-stand-on-his-own of man in relation to a spine-chilling cosmos a great merit, but its emptiness he calls depressing.

What makes them strikingly different is a more detailed analysis of the roots of this development to closure, self-satisfaction and loneliness they both describe.

Taylor finds a change in the effect which was produced by the emphasis on the Gospel. He notes that the original intention of the church with its disciplining impact moved into the background. The discipline itself came to the fore, and that brought us prosperity and safety. Then we no longer needed the Holy Spirit. The challenge now, as far as Taylor is concerned, is to create new forms of meaningful connection.

Levinas, for his analysis, goes further back in time. He notes that the West has already for much longer been in the grip of the belief in rationalization and ordering. That is a philosophical attitude that goes back to Parmenides and Plato and which Christianity took over. Within that attitude reason is the deepest ground of meaning and reality, and human experience is mistrusted. Christianity has not abandoned that scheme but gave it a religious garb by presenting history as a goal-directed divine plan with salvation through Jesus Christ as the pivot on which everything hinges.

From this perspective what is happening with Christianity nowadays is not that mysterious. And disciplining and rationalization are not just some by-effects that have gone wild, as Taylor would have it. According to Levinas, what comes out now has been within from the very beginning.

As to Levinas, something more is needed to overcome our emptiness and loneliness than new forms of meaningful connection. Because these could turn out to be even more of the same: organized, disciplined, forced meaning according to the best Greek-Christian traditions, ultimately grounded in reason and neglecting any particular individual experience of meaning. And with more emptiness as a result.

The only thing Levinas can offer as an alternative is the efficacy of a transcendence that has not the appearance of a historical plan which can be worked out systematically, but one that occurs in unpredictable social encounters. In such encounters the image of a coherent history, a perfect picture, breaks in pieces. There is nothing left to manipulate but nonetheless something happens there. There there is no emptiness and boredom. There happens, to speak with Taylor, “something big”.