3 - Modernity and disenchantment: some historical reflections  pp. 37-48

Modernity and disenchantment: some historical reflections

By Quentin Skinner

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The historian Alexander Kinglake wanted the following inscription to be placed on all churches: Important if true. The same motto could equally well be inscribed on Charles Taylor's masterly new survey, Sources of the self. In some measure the appropriateness of the motto is simply a tribute to the intellectual weight of Taylor's achievement, an achievement which it is a pleasure as well as an honour to be helping to celebrate in this book. But in part its appropriateness stems from the fact that Taylor's most recent message, like that of the churches, is that our present secularised outlook may be inadequate to meet the moral challenges posed by modernity. It is this aspect of Taylor's philosophical position on which I should chiefly like to comment.

Taylor's wish to question and transcend our ‘stripped-down secular outlook’ appears in Sources of the self in connection with his analysis of what he takes to be ‘moral imperatives which are felt with particular force in modern culture’. Although Taylor states and restates his list of these imperatives at a number of different points, he cannot, I think, be said to do so at any stage with complete consistency. Without being overschematic, however, I think one can say that he distinguishes four main elements in our modern vision of ‘strongly valued’ goods.