Charles Taylor on Disenchantment

As perhaps the world’s premier scholar on the character of Secularism, Charles Taylor shouldn’t need an introduction. If the reader is unfamiliar with him, however, he or she should simply accept that Taylor has had a remarkable career. Following the publication of his landmark book A Secular Age, Harvard’s Belknap Press published a volume of Taylor’s essays related to the themes he earlier explored in Secular Age; the work is titled Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays.

Below is an abbreviated version of one of his essays from Dilemmas, titled “Disenchantment-Reenchantment” (it is Chapter 12 of Dilemmas); the bracketed numbers [xxx] indicate a page number in the original English-language hardback release. Taylor’s essay is 15 pages or so, and of course has more meat. Currently, I’ve only reduced it to about 1/4 of its original size. I plan to post more such abbreviations.

Possibly, the general thrust of Taylor’s argument may be found in the final words of the summary, below: “Despite the widespread loss of the magical world and of the metaphysics of the Great Chain of Being –even despite the widespread loss of belief in God– a strong evaluation of meaning is still possible in the modern world, even if it is a world painted by a reductive and mechanistic science, so long as this reductive language doesn’t swallow the self-perceived integrity of the evaluating agent, so that it cannot be said to truly evaluate the wonder of the world and be so motivated, by this evaluation, to respond in love.”



Disenchantment “designat[es] one of the main features of the process we know as secularization” [287]. The German word for “disenchantment” is “Entzauberung”, which contains the word “Zauber”, or magic: it literally translates as de-magicification. Disenchantment’s origins are in certain religious concerns to delegitimize “all the practices for dealing with spirits and forces, because they allegedly either neglected the power of God, or directly went against it. Rituals of this kind were supposed to have power in themselves and hence were blasphemous. All such rituals were put into the (unstable) category of “magic.”” [288]

There were “two main” features of the enchanted world that “disenchantment did away with” [287]. The first was that (1) the world “was one filled with spirits [God, angels, Satan, demons, spirits of the wood that were “almost indistinguishable from the loci they inhabit” [290], etc.] and moral forces [semi-personal things like the relics of a saint, candles blessed at the feast of Candlemas, love potions, etc.] [that] […] impinged on human beings” (the boundary between humans and these were “porous” [287]).[1] The second was that (2) “meaning [was] within the cosmos” because it was a “Great Chain of Being” – being was understood to have levels, and to be hierarchical, so that some things would share meaning and even power. “The same superiority and dignity and rule that the soul manifests over the body reappears in the state in the preeminence of the king, in the animal realm in that of the lion, among birds and fishes in the supreme status of eagle and dolphin.” [291] These correspondences further mean that changes in one part of the whole Chain can ripple through the hierarchy of Being (e.g., one can attempt to cure venereal disease through mercury, for Mercury was the god of the marketplace, where venereal disease is contracted [291]).

Feature (1) concerns popular piety, while (2) concerns “elite theory” – both “interpenetrated and strengthened each other.” [292] Further, (2) could draw on some features of (1), even if (2) does not strictly require (1) for its own justification. Indeed, (2) “is easier to believe in a world of enchanted sensibility” [292], but unlike (1), “is easier to imagine recovering in our world” [292]

In both cases, the enchanted world has causal powers that are not like chemical causes (i.e., they do not target specific material circumstances), and meanings that are not located in the responses of human minds to an environment. The efficacy of enchantment is wrapped up in inherent meanings outside of us, any one of which can impose itself upon us, “tak[ing] us over”, “bringing us, as it were, into its field of force.” [291]

In the modern world, however, “thoughts and meanings are only in minds”, so objects are not charged, and “the causal relations between things cannot be in any way dependent on their meanings, which must be projected on them from our minds.” [291] Meanings are in the mind, “in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us, and this has to do with our nature as creatures who are thus capable of such responses, which means creatures with feelings, with desires, with aversions – that is, beings endowed with minds, in the broadest sense.” [288-289] So meaning lives within thought, within “our responses” and concerns “the significance, importance, meaning we find in things.” [288] Thus, meaning and thought fall on one side of an “inside/outside geography” with a “boundary dividing them”. [289]

It follows that extra-human things have only two ways of “imping[ing] on the mind” [290]: (α) we can respond to them or else be stirred up unusually by them, or (β) by virtue of our bodily nature, external things can affect “our strength, moods, motivations, and so forth” – yet “in all these cases […] meanings […] [are] a function of how we as minds, or organisms secreting minds, operate.” [290-291] The world’s meaning “only comes into existence as the world impinges on the mind/organism.” [291]


Some are happy with disenchantment; some are not, and seek re-enchantment. If disenchantment is a mark of the secular order, and secularism best or exclusively provides us with unqualified goods, then re-enchantment may be seen to “threaten” those goods. Yet these souls need not fear: disenchantment is, “in some sense”, “irreversible”: the desire for re-enchantment “may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.” [287]

Now, “people who look to” re-enchantment “bridle at the idea that the universe in which we find ourselves is totally devoid of human meaning”, that is devoid of any strong “ends of life” (such as “this is really meaningful as a way of life; or this life is really worth living, or this form of being is a real fulfillment, or a higher way of being”) apart from our “subjective projection[s]”. This subjectivist model of illusory meanings is alleged to come from a “combination of Weberian rationalization and post-Galilean science”, leaving us “with a world deprived of meaning, and offering no consolation.” Yet Taylor asks: “Is this really our predicament?” [295] “[W]hat sense can we make of the notion that nature or the universe which surrounds us is the locus of human meanings which are “objective,” in the sense that they are not just arbitrarily projected through choice or contingent desire?” [294]

Instrumental meanings that we project upon “our natural surroundings” by virtue of their utility for “our organic needs” are not enough (and “can put in danger the very survival of the planet” [294]), so this line of thought goes [292]: “the complaint which one finds again and again […] targets a reading of our modern condition in which all human meanings are simply projected. That is, they are seen as arbitrarily conferred by human subjects. None would be valid universally. Universal agreement on these meanings would result from de facto convergence of our projections.” [293]

Yet “this projectivist outlook doesn’t follow from disenchantment in the double sense” of (1) and (2). “True, human meanings are no longer seen as residing in the object, even in the absence of human agents. These meanings arise for us as agents-in-the-world. But it doesn’t follow from this that they are arbitrarily conferred.” [293] In “the modern turn to the subject” [293], true knowledge was first seen as a mirror of sorts, as accurate representations of extra-mental things, but it turns out that knowledge “is not simply a representation within us. It resides rather in our dealing with reality. […] Some similar working through needs to be done in this domain of human meanings. [We must enquire] how we can discover in human experience what meanings must be recognized as universally valid.” [294]

In our dealings with the world, we make strong and weak evaluations. Weak evaluations (or imperatives) can be reduced to preference, and can be defeated by other preferences or by ethical commitments. Insensitivity to one of these cannot reflect poorly on an individual. (We don’t register a faculty deficit in someone who prefers chocolate to cookie-dough ice cream.) We make other evaluations and claims, however. Some evaluations are strong responses, such as “our sense of wonder at the greatness and complexity of the universe, or of the love of the world it inspires in us” [297], and some imperatives are strong, such as “act to reduce unnecessary suffering” [294]. These cannot be so easily defeated, and attempting to do so “reflects negatively on us” [294], signals that if one does attempt to opt out, one is “defective in [his or her] perception of beauty [or goodness], rather than just being disinterested in this kind of thing.” [295] A strong evaluation, such as wonder at the world, not only registers the response of wonder, but the imperative to wonder; it registers that “one should feel [this], that someone who fails to sense this is missing something, is somehow insensitive to an object which really commands admiration.” [297] Strong evaluations “track some reality”; “underlying” them “there is supposed to be some truth in the matter” [297].

These evaluations grow out of the more primitive strata of our reactions (of wonder, beauty, terror at our sense of cosmic history and of our kinship with the depths of nature, etc.), but do not reduce to mere reactions. “A hostile critic will object that these are just feelings. We sense depth and greatness, but does this correspond to reality? Is there a reality to which these feelings can correspond, if we do away with all religion and metaphysics?” [296-297] Our modern “cosmic imaginary” does not “alter in any way the awe or admiration we feel before these things.” [297]

Yet our reactions, such as admiration, are not wholly separable from the “facts about how our reactions are to be explained”; though the response is basic, it is not unmediated: for theists and atheists “the account of what properly inspires wonder will be different, and will connect to different things” [297]. Atheism itself does not undercut the integrity of our motives and responses, but some accounts do. When we admire altruism, the possibility of making a strong evaluation depends (for example) on whether our response of admiration can survive an egoistic sociobiological account of human motivation [298]. On such an example, both altruism’s seeming motive and a strong sense of the admiring response are undercut. Some kinds of reductionism do rule out strong meanings, but this is not the inevitable result of scientific inquiry – a portrait of the cosmos only does this if it undercuts the integrity of such motives and responses.

The integrity of these responses cannot be grounded on our simply having them, either. We cannot just say “that explanations of why we experience these meanings are irrelevant to their validity; that they stand on their own, because we feel them strongly.” [298] Those who experience wonder need to articulate the sense of this wonder, for these articulations “are not simply derivative and secondary” (every “way of giving expression to what appears as a similar reaction modifies it, develops it, gives it a different thrust” [299]), and they are “never complete”.

So reductionism per se is not the problem (Taylor cites Hofstadter: “to me, reductionism doesn’t “explain away”; rather, it adds mystery” [296]). The new image of the cosmos produced by our scientific advances does not necessarily uproot meaning, only a particular read of it does. Looking at “our dark genesis” [296] in both cosmic and biological evolution, a strong reaction of wonder is not only possible, but arguably right. Wonder is critical in one’s response both within the enchanted and disenchanted worlds; the new cosmic imaginary gives ample ground still for wonder, even a reductionistic account does – but not an instrumental stance, which acknowledges no mystery, only puzzles. Instrumentalism only allows for weak meanings.


“[I]n what way does a scientific account of the world “disenchant” it beyond recall” [299]? No matter how mechanistic our accounts of the world are, this can’t eliminate “our wonder at the scope and intricacy of the resultant system.” [299] The conflict would then seem to lie in whether reduction and mechanism can apply also to “our own psychology and behavior” [299], for this would destroy the integrity of any strong evaluation. Yet scientific accounts “are intended to avoid teleology or intentionality, purpose or evaluation as causally relevant factors, whereas accounts of what we are doing which recognize strong evaluation make essential reference to such factors.” [300] Ergo, if the “upper language” of our intentions and evaluations reduces to the “lower language” of mechanism, this nullifies a condition for strong evaluations. A reductive scientific account of the universe does not undercut the possibility of human meaning, of strong evaluations, but a “reductive explanation […] of human life” [302] does.

Can “anthropocentric articulations […] do justice to our sense of wonder”? This turns on the verity of “a reductive account of human life.” [302] Despite the widespread loss of the magical world and of the metaphysics of the Great Chain of Being –even despite the widespread loss of belief in God– a strong evaluation of meaning is still possible in the modern world, even if it is a world painted by a reductive and mechanistic science, so long as this reductive language doesn’t swallow the self-perceived integrity of the evaluating agent, so that it cannot be said to truly evaluate the wonder of the world and be so motivated, by this evaluation, to respond in love.

[1] On p.288 he describes the “big change” between selves in an enchanted pre-modern world and modern selves after disenchantment: the porous selves “of yore” are replaced by “buffered” selves.


6 thoughts on “Charles Taylor on Disenchantment

  1. ‘In the modern world, however, “thoughts and meanings are only in minds”, so objects are not charged’ has a delicious ambiguity in that “not charged” might mean either that the objects are “not given a responsibility,” or that they are “not bonded by an ionic attraction.” Perhaps it just means that they are not suspected of having committed any crime.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Summaries: Peter Brown on Christianization | Into the Clarities

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  4. Pingback: Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World | Into the Clarities

  5. Pingback: Excerpt #3 — Frederick Beiser on Hegel and the Romantics | Into the Clarities

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