Uncomfortable Immanence

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a significant work on modern secularism. James K.A. Smith writes a helpful condensation and commentary in How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith reflects on our discomfort with pure materialism:

“There is a fundamental discomfort with materialism and its attendant reductionism that generates a resistance and unwillingness to settle for the closed account of materialism…Taylor identifies three ‘fields’ of cross-pressures to which he will keep returning in chapter 16:

  1. Agency: ‘the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents’;
  2. Ethics: ‘we have higher spiritual/ethical motives’ that don’t reduce to biological instinct or ‘base’ drives; and
  3. Aesthetics: ‘Art, Nature moves us’ because of a sense of meaning; these are not just differential responses to pleasure.”

~Smith, p. 104

One example I have seen of #3 is John Gray’s The Silence of the Animals. Since we and the world are temporary, susceptible to decay and death, beauty is a shimmering vapor issuing from the pit of entropic death. Is that really all there is to beauty, or does beauty whisper to us that we are haunted by transcendence?


One thought on “Uncomfortable Immanence

  1. Smith is on my to-read list; I won’t be able to avoid him forever.

    Materialism is a strange creature. There is no object of knowledge that is not a form or a bundle of forms, and yet matter is supposed to be something other than form — solid form, form one can drop on one’s foot. Matter is really quite strange as a category, once one thinks about it. It seems to assume nominalism and a sort of perennial agnosticism about the nature of knowledge — matter is what resists understanding. Of course, we couple materialism and mathematical realism in our popular conceptions of what science is supposed to do. The intelligibility of the world we think to be really there, and mathematical in character. Yet one can be something other than a realist about mathematical objects — one can be a functionalist regarding scientific theories, but then reductionism is purely methodological, and there is no knowledge anywhere. Science just works. Gassendi, I am told, fused together mathematical realism and a sort of particulate materialism _a_la_ Lucretius. They don’t really fit together, but that’s what we’ve inherited.

    So when people talk about “materialism”, I often wonder what they mean, and usually suspect they mean something else.


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