Sunday, April 11, 2010

Kenny: The Rise of the Disciplinary Society

In Chapter 2, "The Rise of the Disciplinary Society", Charles Taylor attempts to weave a contrasting set of intellectual and social moves in late medieval and early modern society into a narrative of secularization that does not simply tell what he has called a "subtraction story".

His aim in sections 3 and 4 is to outline how the instrumental view of human reason became dominant in Europe, whereby "a stance of poiesis" enters into "the domain of praxis" (p. 113). This is a set of moves is accompanied by what he calls a science of instrumental efficacy articulated by men like Cusanus, Ficino, and da Vinci.

The instrumental view of nature characterizes God primarily by his unlimited sovereignty, in contrast to the ancient characterizations of the cosmos as the realization of the Form (as in Plato). Nominalist writers like Descartes and Mersenne understand nature as a great mechanism because their God possess an all powerful will that can subject the universe to total manipulation. Efficient causality replaces teleology.

But Taylor wisely wishes to avoid placing all the causal force on a shift in ideas. He also spends a considerable amount of time on Justus Lipsius and the rise of Christian neo-Stoicism. This combines his earlier discussion of the "drive for order" and reform through a new understanding of man and his nature. Lipsius’ man of constancy, who stands above the disorder of the passions, when combined with the new religious drives for reform - including both voluntary and state institutions - represents an important social and cultural shift in Europe at this time: the goals of being totally rid of violence and social disorder, and to bring civility to everyone.

But where did the energy for reform come from? Taylor argues that for the Calvinists it came from a belief in providence attached to their programmes, and for the neo-Stoics a newfound belief in natural order. These two complementary beliefs receive an important column of support from the emergence of early modern natural law: "what emerges out of this reflection on Natural Law is the norm of a stable order of industrious men in the settled courses of their callings, dedicating themselves to growth and prosperity, rather than war and plunder, and accepting a morality of mutual respect and an ethic of self-improvement." (p. 129)

It was no accident that the move towards an ethic of poiesis, whereby virtue was understood as the dominance of the will over passion, was charted by Descartes, schooled by neo-Stoics at La Fleche. For Descartes the passions were to be brought under the instrumental control of reason, a reason fully detached from the proposed outcome of deliberation. Taylor argues that Descartes' key term was generosity: where once it had meant to live with a sense of one's rank and the honour attached to it, Descartes internalized its meaning so that generosity meant living up to a non-socially defined rational agent. What moves us now is not a place in tune with nature but an intrinsic sense of self worth.

And so at the end of section 4 the buffered self has been added to the disengaged rational agent: the one removes fears of spirits, the other now operates on the fears of desire. So equipped early modern man should now be able to stand back from desire and rationally determine how he should order himself.

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