Charles Taylor: The Malaise of Modernity

Back in 1991, the notable Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor delivered 5 lectures as part of the CBC Radio’s annual Massey Lectures. The lectures were entitled “The Malaise of Modernity” and were subsequently published as a book by that title. The 5 lectures have since also been posted to YouTube under the title Sociologie de l’intégration (you probably didn’t realise you could read and understand French, eh?).

Serious students of Jean Gebser will certainly want to pay attention to these lectures, as they are very pertinent to the meaning of Gebser’s diagnosis of “the mental-rational consciousness structure” now functioning in “deficient mode”. This is, essentially, what Taylor means by the word “malaise”.

As far as I know, however, Taylor was not familiar with Gebser’s cultural philosophy, which makes Taylor’s reflections on the “malaise of modernity” all that more poignant since they provide independent corroboration of Gebser’s insights, and flesh out, in some detail, what Gebser means by the deficiency of a consciousness structure (in this case, the modern). And in keeping with Gebser’s understanding of the “double-movement” of Late Modernity, Taylor also sees this malaise as implying both a degenerate and a regenerate dynamic even when both are largely unconscious processes, although the regenerative dynamic (or “irruption” in Gebser’s terms) is not yet fully articulate about itself. Taylor speaks of an “impulse” where Gebser uses “irruption”.

So, I think understanding Taylor’s “malaise” is rather crucial to getting at Gebser’s meaning and significance for our times, for we have definitely entered now into a very strange — even absurd — new world.

(I was drawn back to Taylor’s lectures on malaise after making note of some very strange contradictory figures about rates of depression around the world, the significance of which I’ll touch  upon in later posts. Historically, what Taylor calls “malaise” has signalled both the decay of an old order and the onset of a pre-revolutionary situation. This same “malaise” during the Renaissance and prior to the first in the series of the modern revolutions — the Lutheran or Protestant — was called “melancholia” or “the black bile).

The five Massey Lectures  can be accessed here. In my view the third lecture on atomism (very much at the heart of Gebser’s concerns) is the most significant one, but all provide a deeper understanding of “the mental-rational consciousness structure functioning in deficient mode” along with Taylor’s own rejection of traditional dualistic thinking as at all adequate to understanding or navigating through the present.



4 responses to “Charles Taylor: The Malaise of Modernity”

  1. Dwig says :

    It’s interesting to see a rich picture emerge from the perspectives of multiple viewpoints. I’ll put Taylor’s lectures on my reading list.

    I’d like to introduce another voice here: Mary Parker Follett, a polymath of the early 20th century. I think her short essay “Community is a Process” (*V*CZEF2IT0L/CommunityisaProcess.pdf) addresses integration from a Heraclitean viewpoint, and might provide a useful complement to Gebser and other “writers of the integral sage”. A later work, Creative Experience, expands on the idea.

    • Scott Preston says :

      thanks. That is quite the intriguing essay, particularly because it is very close to what Rosenstock-Huessy also wrote in The Multiformity of Man.

      And if you care to compare follet’s with Rosenstock-Huessy’s similar take

      Her emphasis on the “We” as a the holonic person is very much Rosenstock-Huessy’s emphasis as well, only they come at it from different angles, as it were. He in “grammatical method” or dialogics, and she from the Freudian. Otherwise, they are very much on the same wavelength.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    We can follow Taylor’s lectures on the “ethics of authenticity” as a question about the status of truth, can’t we? Authenticity is about truth or truthfulness, although Taylor himself doesn’t make that explicit.

    So, in those terms the “malaise of modernity” also implies a “post-truth society” — that is to say, one that is inauthentic or given over to the “genuine imitation”.

    And about this, there was another worried article in today’s Guardian about “post-truth society”, although not so insightful about it

    So, as I say, we really have entered into a whole new world — the world of the “new normal”.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    I fixed the link to “the black bile”, which wasn’t working properly in the post.

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