Charles Taylor: Explanation and Practical Reason
Charles Taylor: Explanation and Practical Reason
Abstract and Keywords
Nussbaum agrees with Taylor's argument and explicates the significance of Taylor's work for the concerns and projects of development studies. She then adds two points to Taylor's analysis: one about the history of science and Taylor's historiography, which Nussbaum finds presented in a manner that seems simpler and more monolithic than it actually is; the other on moral psychology, where Nussbaum suggests that Taylor's account of reason needs to be supplemented with a picture of the connection between argument and motivation, and between reason and passion.
Charles Taylor's argument is, I believe, both convincing and important. And it is especially important for this project, since it shows an illuminating way of looking at the difficult evaluative disputes we encounter in thinking about the development of societies that are both different from one another and also (in most cases) internally heterogeneous. Development is itself an evaluative concept: it implies a progression from one situation to another that is (allegedly) in some ways better or more complete. Sometimes this issue of evaluation is ignored. Sometimes policy‐makers and social scientists proceed as if it were perfectly clear to everyone what the values involved in development are–or even as if there were no evaluative question involved at all, but only certain facts which are alleged to be measurable independently of evaluation. Several of the papers in this volume, notably Hilary Putnam's, but also, in a very different way, Robert Erikson's, convincingly show the incoherence and barrenness of that way of thinking.1
But if we do accept the fact that we are grappling with a difficult evaluative question here, we then need to know how to reflect about such questions. We need to have a clear conception of what it is to ask and answer them, how to argue about them where there is disagreement, and what sort and degree of success to expect from reason and rational argument. Providing a powerful account of rational ethical argument seems to me to be one of the central challenges for a practical philosophy, a philosophy that will really help people to make progress on troublesome human problems. The need for such an account in connection with development problems was certainly one of the primary motivations for bringing philosophers together with economists and other social scientists in this project. And Taylor's account seems to me among the most powerful of those currently before us in philosophy, so his participation in the project is especially valuable. I do not find much to criticize in the paper: I am in sympathy with most of what Taylor says. So in commenting I want simply, first, to say a little more about why I think Taylor's work in general, and this paper in particular, is significant for the concerns and projects of development studies. Then I shall briefly add two points to Taylor's analysis: one about the history of science, one about moral psychology.
A person who studies the history of philosophical approaches to the social sciences over the past several decades in search of a model for the analysis of development would be likely to conclude that she is faced with just two alternatives, each in its own way unpalatable. On the one hand, she would find an approach that conceives of social science as a kind of natural science,2 and of the reasoned understanding of human beings that is the goal of social science as an understanding detached from the commitments and self‐understandings that are characteristic of human beings in their daily lives. Such approaches usually involve some sort of reduction of qualitative distinctions to quantitative distinctions; and they attach a great deal of importance to the simplified mathematical representation of complex human matters. This approach, which has had enormous influence in shaping economic approaches to development, seems to have the advantage of promising truly rational solutions to difficult problems of choice. But it may, in the end, seem unacceptable because of the way in which it obscures or denies the richness and plurality of human values and commitments (both across societies and within each single society), and because of its reductive understanding of what human beings and communities are.
On the other hand, she would find a reaction against this approach, a reaction by now itself well entrenched in the social sciences. The alternative approach insists on restoring human self‐interpretations to the sphere of social analysis in all their richness and variety. But its proponents frequently give up on practical reason, holding that there is no way in which reason can really resolve evaluative disputes. It is held that once we understand that the points of view of the participants in the dispute, to be correctly represented, must be represented from within the participants' own perspectives on the world, and once we understand, in addition, that cultural value schemes are highly various and largely incommensurable with one another, we will realize that practical reason has no effective part to play in such disputes. If it tries to take up a position of neutrality, detaching itself from all the competing conceptions, it will be unable to do so coherently, since no such external standpoint is available. If, on the other hand, it remains within the perspective of one of the parties, it seems that it must prove unfair and insensitive to the concerns of the other party, and be, really, nothing more than an attempt to dominate the other party. At the bottom of all so‐called reasoning, then, is nothing but power. The work of Michel Foucault is frequently invoked in defence of this pattern of reasoning–although I believe that this is in some ways a misleading oversimplification of Foucault's contribution.3
This alternative approach has been highly influential, especially in anthropology, (p.234) literary theory, and discussions of legal interpretation. It has an obvious appeal, where development studies are concerned, since it restores to the field of analysis so much of human life that the other approach omits.4 And yet it may well seem in the end as unpalatable as the other, since it tells us that we cannot succeed in establishing by practical reasoning any conclusions critical of things we might like to criticize in societies whose traditions we are examining. To use Taylor's example, it tells us that any attempt we might make to criticize another society's treatment of women, or to hold that real development for that society must include some changes in women's position, is and can be nothing more than a kind of cultural imperialism.
For the past twenty‐five years, Charles Taylor has been developing a distinctive position in this dispute, one that combines, I believe, the best features of the two approaches, and also reinterprets their disagreement with one another in an illuminating way.5 Beginning with The Explanation of Behaviour in 1964,6 Taylor has consistently offered arguments of very high quality against a reductive natural science approach to the study of human beings and human action, insisting that any human science worthy of being taken seriously must include, and indeed base itself upon, the sense of value and the commitments that human beings actually display as they live and try to understand themselves. On the other hand, he has also consistently argued, as he does here, that this does not leave practical reason nowhere to go. In a series of papers on anthropological understanding of different cultures, he has shown that it is possible to take very seriously the data of cultural anthropology and of history, and the differences between conceptual schemes, and yet to hold that, in certain ways and under certain circumstances, practical reason can legitimately criticize traditions.7 The combination of anthropological sensitivity with philosophical precision in these papers gives them a more or less unique place in the debate, and they are certainly an invaluable guide to anyone working on development issues.8
The present paper is, I think, of special interest in Taylor's defence of practical reason. According to Taylor's own account, in order to argue successfully against an opponent he needs to be able, among other things, to give a plausible account of the opponent's error. And in this paper he does just that. First, he argues effectively against the opponent of practical reason, presenting forms of unmistakably (p.235) rational argument that do not depend on the starting points that this opponent has held, plausibly, to be unavailable. Then he goes on to tell us where the opponent went wrong, and in a very interesting way. For the error of the sceptical opponent of practical reason consists in remaining too much in the grip of the very picture of rational argument that is allegedly being criticized. While objecting to the hegemony of the natural sciences over the human sciences, and while seeking to restore to the human sciences their own rich humanistic character, the opponent has, presumably without full awareness, imported into her analysis one very central part of the natural science model, namely, its understanding of what constitutes a rational argument. For she seems to assume that rational argument requires neutrality, and deduction from premisses that are external to all historical perspectives. If this is not available, then we can say goodbye to reason itself. It is only because of this residual commitment to the rejected model, and her consequent neglect of other forms of rational arguing, that the opponent has been able so quickly to conclude that, the ethical domain being what it is, there are no good rational arguments to be found in it.
This, I think, is a profound diagnosis. In various forms this problem is present in many contemporary positions that end up embracing some form of subjectivism or scepticism about practical reason: in Foucault's work, at least sometimes; in the work of Jacques Derrida, who seems to argue that without unmediated access to the world as it is in itself we have no arguments, nothing but the free play of interpretations; in other ways, in the work of numerous others who have influenced recent thinking in the human sciences.9 What Taylor does is, first of all, to point out the opponent's reliance on a model of arguing drawn from natural science; second, to argue from the history of science that this is not even a very persuasive picture of the way scientific argument goes, especially in times of scientific change; and, third, to offer several models of reasoning that both explain the recalcitrant scientific cases and offer examples of ethical rationality. Like Hilary Putnam, Taylor shows that a really good account of science and scientific progress will not yield as hard a distinction between the scientific and the ethical as has been defended by some philosophers. And he shows that in both areas progress can be achieved by a complex and patient type of self‐clarification, by patterns of argument in which implicit commitments are brought to light. Such arguments might well be said to be as old as Socratic cross‐examination, and to have as their goal something like the self‐understanding sought by Socrates.10
Several morals for development studies might be drawn from this analysis. First, that we ought to reject disengaged pseudoscientific understandings of the human being, in favour of conceptions that give a larger role to people's own commitments and self‐understandings. Second that when we do so we need not and should not give up on rational argument. But we must not expect the rational (p.236) arguments we use to be like those we associate with a certain view of natural science. They are likely to be piecemeal rather than global; they will be very much rooted in the particularities of people's historical situations; and frequently, as Taylor has said, they will be biographical rather than abstract. They will describe progress in a way that may seem to lack neatness and simplicity. For they will be, as he says, inherently comparative in their understandings of development, rather than absolute. And since they are attempts to bring to light what is deep and incompletely perceived in the thought of the person or group in question, they will be, frequently, both highly concrete and somewhat indirect. They may, for example, tell stories, appeal to the imagination and the emotions–tapping, through a very non‐scientific use of language, people's intuitions about what matters most.11 All of this I find exemplified in a striking way in Robert Erikson's account of a sociological approach that is both humanistic and committed to practical reason; and I think that Erikson should perhaps be less defensive than he is about the apparent messiness and complexity of his descriptions. There is precision in the lucid depiction of a highly complex and indeterminate situation; there is evasion and vagueness in the simple schematic description of a multi‐faceted concrete case.
Finally, Taylor points out that the process of rational argument is frequently associated with raising the level of discontent and unhappiness in the people who are doing the arguing. People who, as a result of arguments such as those he describes, become aware of the variety of human societies and lose the isolation of what Taylor calls their ‘encapsulated’ condition frequently feel pain: both the pain of a new dissatisfaction with current arrangements and the pain of reflection itself. It seems to me that this is an important observation, and one that arises in development in significant ways. If one is committed to measuring development in terms of utility–construed either as happiness (pleasure) or as the satisfaction of current desires and preferences–one will be bound to judge that self‐understanding is inimical to development, in such cases. Taylor seems to me to be right that self‐understanding has a value of its own, apart from any utility (so construed) it brings. And his example of the changing position of women shows us one case where the pain of discontent has had a definite positive link with development. This connection is also supported by Amartya Sen's data on women's changing perceptions of their health situation.12
My one quarrel with the picture of scientific change presented by Taylor is that the picture he opposes is actually much less plausible, even initially, than his (p.237) account makes it seem. Taylor's final answer to the alleged conceptual discontinuity between ancient Greek science and Galilean science is, I think, the right one: that there were all along interests in practical control and being able to lead a flourishing life that motivated all parties to the dispute, interests in terms of which partisans of the new science could show its superiority, in a way that the old‐time Aristotelian could not deny. My objection is only that the fact that ancient science did have an interest in practical control is unmistakably clear; the opponent's account of the alleged conceptual discontinuity has simply obscured it by describing the ancient picture in too narrow and monolithic a way.
In fact, if one looks not only at Plato, but also at the people who were actually doing science in the ancient world–above all at the development of Greek medicine–one finds ubiquitous reference to practical manipulation and control, and one finds that this is one of the primary hallmarks of the scientific. Doctors regularly defend their procedures on the grounds that they work, and oppose rival medical procedures on the grounds that they are too abstract and schematic to be useful.13 Even mathematics is repeatedly presented as a discipline whose primary point and motivation is its practical usefulness, in measuring and navigation and so forth. Prometheus, in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, calls it ‘chief of all the clever stratagems’.14 Even if the later Aristotelians of Taylor's story played down this aspect of science, they could hardly have been ignorant of it, since Aristotle himself gives it prominence.15 So it seems to me that the opponent's story does not really get off the ground; the alleged rupture is just bad history.
Why is this worth mentioning here? It is worth mentioning because so much of the historiography on which contemporary debates about conceptual discontinuity are based is bad in exactly this way. So many alleged discontinuities look like discontinuities because the historian in question has made a highly selective use of texts, or has stuck to theoretical work, neglecting the history of popular thought. Much of Foucault's work is flawed in this way,16 although I still believe it to be important work. My experience is that if one studies any single society in sufficient depth one finds in it a rich plurality of views and conceptions, frequently in active debate with one another; and frequently these debates themselves are very important in explaining such large‐scale conceptual shifts as do take place. This is essential to any good history of the later reception of ancient Greek ideas. Amartya Sen and I have argued that it is also essential to good work on India, where the existence of debate and internal criticism needs emphasis.17 If I have any slight criticism of Taylor's historiography in several of his papers, (p.238) it is that things sometimes look simpler and more monolithic than in fact they were. Appreciating their complexity gives us new ways of understanding how practical reason can function in social argument, and reinforces the general picture Taylor presents here.18
Now I want to make a point about psychology. Despair about the efficacy of practical reason, in the recent philosophical literature, frequently takes a form slightly different from the form that Taylor criticizes here (the form of despair that seeks scientific neutrality, even while it holds it to be unavailable). Frequently the problem of practical reason is put in terms of an alleged gap between reason and motivation. The argument imagines some bad or immoral person, and then says, ‘All right. Even supposing that we can show to our satisfaction that this person is engaging in bad reasoning, even if we can convince ourselves about her by an argument that moves us, isn't there something troublesome about the fact that the argument doesn't do anything for that person? Have we really given that person reasons for action, if they are not reasons that have some force with that person, in the sense that they arouse desires and emotions of the appropriate motivational type?’ The point is often made by saying that the only reasons we should care about are ‘internal’ reasons, reasons that are (or could become) part of the system of desires and motivations of the person involved. If that does not happen in our case, there is something peculiar about calling these reasons for that person at all, or saying that a rational argument has established something that this person ought to believe or to do.19 But the question of what reasons can become ‘internal’ for a person seems to depend very much on what desires and emotions that person happens to have. And this seems to be something that rational argument can do little or nothing about. Even if the argument should convince our person to believe its conclusion (this argument says), it is hard to see how it could reform her desires. But unless this happens, nothing much has been accomplished.
This is a deep and complex issue in philosophy, and, indeed, in life. I cannot even fully state it here, much less resolve it, but what I want to suggest, as my second friendly amendment to Taylor's account, is that I think he needs to supplement his account of reason with a picture of the connection between argument and motivation, between reason and passion. And I suspect that if one probes this issue, one will find that the sceptic about reason is in the grip, here too, of a picture of reason that is the outcome of a relatively recent naturalistic understanding of the human being, a picture that could not withstand the scrutiny of our deepest beliefs concerning who we are.
(p.239) There has been a tendency in philosophy—ever since Descartes analysed the passions in connection with his view of the mind–body split, dissociating them strongly from beliefs—to think of passions as brute feelings, more or less impervious to reasoning, coming from altogether different parts of our nature. Most philosophers have long since given up the Cartesian picture of the mind–body split; but many still retain the associated picture of emotions as feelings that are distinct from and relatively impervious to reasoning. If one looks back to the correspondence of Descartes with Princess Elizabeth, that very astute and sceptical philosophical mind, one finds in her challenges (and in their mutual references to Stoic ideas) an older and also, I believe, more adequate view of the passions, one that was the dominant picture in the thought of most of the ancient Greek philosophers, and one that was extremely important to their picture of the ways in which philosophy can be practical, changing people and societies for the better.
This picture (which one can find in different forms in Aristotle and in the Epicureans, but above all in the Stoics) insists that emotions or passions20 are highly discriminating evaluative responses, very closely connected to beliefs about what is valuable and what is not. Grief, for example, is intimately linked to the belief that some object or person, now lost, has profound importance; it is a recognition of that importance. Anger involves and rests upon a belief that one has been wronged in a more than trivial way. And so forth. What follows from this view is that a rational argument can powerfully influence a person's passions and motivations. If rational argument can show either that the supposed bad event (the death or insult or whatever) did not take place, or that the purported occasion for grief or anger is really not the sort of thing one ought to care very much about, then one can actually change a person's psychology in a more than intellectual way. The Stoics and Epicureans took on this task in many ways, showing people, for example, that the worldly goods and goods of reputation that are commonly the bases of anger should not be valued as people value them. Such arguments do not just operate on the surface of the mind. They conduct a searching scrutiny of the whole of the person's mental and emotional life. And this is so because emotions are not just animal urges, but fully human parts of our outlook on the world.21
On this basis the Hellenistic philosophers built up a powerful picture of a practical philosophy, showing how good arguments about topics like death and the reasons for anger could really change the heart, and, through that, people's personal and social lives. They compared the philosopher to the doctor: through reasoning he or she treats and heals the soul. It seems to me that such an account of motivational change through argument would be an attractive and important addition to Taylor's picture. I believe that an account like this can be defended (p.240) today,22 and that the defence will make a powerful contribution to the defence of practical reason.
If Taylor chooses to develop his picture of practical reasoning along these lines, he will need to move even further than he has already from the scientific model of reasoning. For good ‘therapeutic’ argument may wish to make use of techniques like story‐telling and vivid exemplification—techniques that lie far indeed from the scientific model—in order to bring to light hidden judgements of importance and to give a compelling picture of a life in which such judgements are absent. All this would fit in well with Taylor's emphasis in his paper on the ‘biographical’ nature of argument, and its function of bringing hidden things to light. Such further developments would yield arguments that could, I believe, be defended as Taylor defends his examples here: as examples of rational argument and epistemic progress.
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(1) See also the papers in this volume by Brock, Scanlon, and Sen, and the comments by Griffin (on Brock) and Sen (on Bliss). For related philosophical discussion, see Sen and Williams (1982), Sen (1980, 1985, 1987), Williams (1973, 1985), and Wiggins (1987).
(4) For a variant of this approach in literary theory, see Derrida (1976, 1979), Fish (1980, 1985); in legal studies, see Fish (1982), and many others. In the development context, a related approach is powerfully presented in Marglin and Marglin (1990). A number of these writers have been influenced by R. Rorty (1979, 1982).
(5) Views with which Taylor's might be fruitfully compared include those of Putnam (1981, 1987), Davidson (1984), and, in literary theory, Wayne Booth (1988). For a related discussion of the law, which makes a powerful case for a richer descriptive language, see White (1989); the implications of Booth's work for legal studies are discussed in Nussbaum (1988), repr. in Nussbaum (1990).
(11) The case for such language in the law is powerfully made in White (1989), a critical review of Posner (1988); White contrasts the language of literature with the language characteristic of much of economics. The case for the use of literary language in moral reflection is made in Nussbaum (1990); see also Nussbaum and Sen (1989).
(14) Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, line 459.
(15) Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I. 1.
(16) The History of Sexuality, for example, relies above all on Plato and Xenophon–both philosophers and both from wealthy oligarchic backgrounds. Both are extremely unrepresentative of popular thought.
(20) I am using ‘emotions’ and ‘passions’ interchangeably; both words are historically well entrenched, and both have, for many centuries, been used more or less interchangeably to designate a species of which the most important members are anger, fear, grief, pity, love and joy.