Can Human Action Be Explained?

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Columbia University, New York November 10, 2009
Can Human Action Be Explained?
By Charles Taylor
Professor of Political Science and Philosophy Emeritus at McGill University, Taylor is author of many books and articles including of Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989) and A Secular Age (2007). For more biographical information, see p. 26 below.

Posted by the Committee on Global Thought

The Committee on Global Thought advances interdisciplinary research and programs on globalization at Columbia University, New York (
Columbia University’s Heyman Center for the Humanities, Committee on Global Thought, Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion, and Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life sponsored this lecture.
In his introduction, Columbia University Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Akeel Bilgrami noted that Taylor is thinking again of the themes of his dissertation, The Explanation of Behaviour (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980 [1964]). But, Bilgrami added, “It turns out his subject today, and what he’s been writing about recently, is broader than that. He’s linking the themes of that book, and questions of reductive1 ideas about the human mind and explanation of human behavior, to larger forms of reduction about which he’ll tell us at length.”
Unauthorized, Samuel C. Porter, Ph.D. transcribed, added headings and footnotes, and lightly edited Taylor’s talk for readability from the Vimeo online 57-minute video (Source:; accessed 7/22/10).

I am going to be discussing various issues about explaining human action but I want to concentrate on reductive modes of explanation – actually two, which are not the same but which are operating in synergy. I want to raise the issue about these and obviously stand very hostile to both. But I won’t be mainly laying out the arguments, today, for why they’re wrong but trying to understand how they work, how they convince people, how they sometimes work against each other, and sometimes work for each other. So there’re two kinds of reduction I want to talk about.

Reduction One: Vulgar Marxism

Reduction One is the form you see, for instance, in a certain kind of maybe vulgarized Marxism, which takes various human goals, splits them into two and ranks them very differently. On one hand, you have the goals that have to do with human life, making the means to life and human reproduction – the kinds of goals that we share with all sorts of other animals. On the other hand, you have other kinds of higher goals, so called “higher goals,” that have arrived in human culture – moral aims, ethical goals, aesthetic judgments, and so on. This kind of reduction undercuts the second class in favor of the first class – and that in two ways.

Number one: when it comes to the issue of explanation there’s a kind of explanatory reduction. Famously, the more vulgar kind of Marxism says what actually moves history, what actually explains why history changes and why new modes of production arise is the value that they have as modes of production. Then we can explain why different ideologies, different religious views, different legal systems come into place – because they subserve the development of this new mode of production and therefore that’s why they’re happening. So human beings’ intrinsic interest in these religious, moral or other doctrines is given second place in an explanatory framework to these basic – let’s call them – life goals.

Another way in which this kind of reduction occurs, which weaves into the explanatory reduction, is to allow that the kinds of things we’re responding to when we’re seeking the life goals are real factors in the world; and, the kinds of things that we think we’re responding to when we think we’re seeking the so called “higher goals” are not. They’re in some sense projection.

So when people alter their mode of production because they find that they can produce more, and more people can survive and so on, they are plainly, in doing that, responding to a reality. There really is a greater chance for human life and the means for life involved in this mode of production as against that. But when people respond to a certain way of living because it’s allegedly ethically higher, this is not responding to something, as it were, really there. This discrimination is not anchored in reality but is projected by themselves. They have this kind of sense or they feel this way or they have a sense that this is the case. They feel this way either because human beings always do as a matter of brute fact; or they feel this way because, in certain accounts, as members of this society and this mode of production, they find themselves drawn to it because it is, as it were, favoring and helping along this mode of production. So you have explanatory reduction here – real explanatory motivations are at this level.


Now I want to introduce this word: meanings. I want to introduce this word not in the sense of linguistic meaning but in the sense of where we could speak of the significance of X for me or the significance of Y for me or for you and so on. The meaning it has in my life.

I prefer meaning to significance because for some reason in English the word significance doesn’t pluralize well. Significances sounds terribly like jargon and I like to tell myself I’m not using jargon. But of course we all really do, so I’ll use this word meanings.

All right, so let’s look at that again from the standpoint of meanings that a certain alternative way of organizing production is better in terms of the sustaining of life – that’s the meaning it has for them. It’s something that’s better because it sustains more life.

This judgment of meaning, this perception of meaning, is a perception of something real. It really does [exist]. It’s not something that they’ve invented. It’s not something that is just a matter of how they feel. It’s not something that they’re projecting on the world. It’s something that is really there that they have recognized.

But that a certain mode of life – that of contemplation, of philosophy, the citizen life, or what have you – is a higher mode of life than other modes: that can’t be seen. That has a meaning there.

The theoretical life – let’s look at Aristotle2 – is the highest mode for human beings. It’s the mode that he says, in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, is the closest to the divine. This perception is not a real perception. It’s not as it were grasping some reality there. There isn’t an objective fact of the matter that shows the theoretical life to be higher than other modes of life.

But it is something you have to explain in terms of the way in which human beings feel – maybe in this society, maybe in general. But it has to be, as it were, explained. That they’re projecting superiority onto this otherwise inert reality is something you have to explain, see it as a matter of meanings that are ultimately projections, meanings that are ultimately real perceptions. When you get them you get them right; and you can show that this meaning really inheres in things.

In this mode of production, it really has the consequence of allowing more people to live and to survive and so on and that’s something it really has. In the other case, it’s something that is projected.

A Typology of Meanings

Now let’s look at the evolution of this kind of reduction in our history. I want to look at Aristotle and I want to look at Hume3 and all this to describe very quickly a kind of typology4 of different kinds of meanings. Some are clearly, simply, as it were, projections on our part; or things we just happen to feel. Some are plainly meanings we really perceive and you can get right or wrong; and if some get it wrong you can tell people why they got it wrong and so on.

This is a terribly rapid thing. I just want to use Aristotle for a few seconds, Hume for a few seconds and a couple of other references to set up this typology which we can then, in a sense, play around with.

First of all, a lot of ethical discussion today turns on whether and where in this typology you situate the important ethical insights. I could go off into that and that would take us three or four hours and that would be fascinating. But I want to not do that in order to connect up to another kind of reduction and see how that works together with the kind I’m just describing now.

Model One – Aristotle

The first model is that of Aristotle and Plato.5 In the ethical writings of these authors and others like them you have certain modes of action together with the motives implicit in them, which are picked out as objectively higher than others. This is the object of a strong evaluation.6 So [we have] Aristotle’s theoria, that is, contemplation or, if you like, disinterested contemplation and [an] understanding of the world, of our lives and so on. Or – Aristotle again – the life of the citizen participating in government together with other citizens of the polis as against a lower form – the life of the householder which is of course also important for Aristotle, also essential, creating the means of life for the family, which is of course, higher again than simply the one who enjoys drinking wine, particularly if they don’t cut it with water and so on.

So you get a hierarchy.

The belief is that this hierarchy is objective and it is the task of reason – logos – to discern this. For Plato and Aristotle the task of reason is – and even with Plato it is clearly how he thinks of reason as the capacity – to discern this kind of order, this kind of ranking.

But then of course there are other examples.

You have the Christian view of agape,7 of charity. Plainly that is one of the theological virtues. The word virtue8 comes in very easily here. Agape is seen to be intrinsically higher.

Or you can think in more contemporary terms of some people thinking of their career. Some people might think I really want to be a composer, a writer, an artist because these are really significant careers. “Dad wants me to go to law school but….” So you get that kind of judgment. There’s a sense that this is something more important. Or it may be, in the modern day, personalized because of the modern notion of identity: “This is for me what’s really important.” But this kind of discernment is what I’m talking about. It’s Model One. It’s the kind you still model on ancient philosophy, a Plato and Aristotle type of structure.

Of course it follows that there is a very strong sense that you can get it wrong. It’s objective. There’s an objective correctness here and that the whole Nicomachean Ethics is meant to take you from – I mean Aristotle’s method is to lay out at the beginning all the things that people think are the good life. The good life is, as it were, this higher or proper ordering of one’s different goals. He takes you through a whole lot of arguments to get you to see that if you thought that it was simply a life of pleasure, or if you thought that it was simply a life of moneymaking, you got it wrong. That isn’t – can’t be – it. Let’s come to the point where you can see this is the right order.

I want in the end to have four categories.

Model Two – Nausea

At the very antipodes of this idea, this meaning, let’s say the meaning for Aristotle that the contemplative life has as the highest, most divine mode of human action – the very opposite of that is something like – I have to use an example like this but I find it very useful – the notion or the meaning of nausea. Certain things just nauseate us. I can say this in a four letter word but let me say it as excrement – human beings just find that nauseating. This is at the absolute antipodes, clearly, from what Aristotle thinks is the status of the theoretical life. It’s just a brute fact that we find – and it may even not be all of us but that some or most of us find – certain things nauseating.

You can perhaps train yourself. I understand in the army people wade through … marines … pig guts and so on in order that they won’t throw up when they’re in the battle field, etc. So you can actually train yourself not to be nauseated. Okay, so then it’s not nauseating anymore. There’s no real, underlying fact of the matter. You’re not wrong if you don’t find it nauseating. You can’t be convinced, think for a minute, ponder. Don’t you see? No. It’s just a brute fact.

So we have at the other end of the spectrum a set of meanings which are impervious to reason. You can’t be talked into or out of them. You can deviate from the majority in your perception of them. You find you’re terribly trembly and find a lot of things nauseating or you don’t; or, you’re terribly tough and you find a lot of things perfectly okay that a lot of people find nauseating. Okay, you’re not right, you’re not wrong. You’re just different. See. It’s just a brute fact.

Model Three – Hume

Now, somewhere between these two extremes is situated a modern theory which, I think, really was most persuasively launched by Hume. I’d like to look at that now. An immense amount ink is spilled about this and I’m sure I’m going to offend somebody in the hall here who says, “That’s not what Hume meant!” Probably you’re right. But anyway I want to make Hume mean a certain thing, experimentally, which gives us a clear contrast.

Hume does seem to be a kind of anti-Aristotle because – I’m taking this from the Enquiry – he’s much more brutal and up front in the Treatise. Of course, was it because the Treatise was a flop? Did he really change his mind? Let’s forget that. Let’s just take the Enquiry.9

He poses the question very early about the foundations of morals: “Whether they are derived from reason or from sentiment?” Reason or sentiment? His first answer is that both seem to have a case. Because we do argue about moral issues, about right and wrong. But on the other hand it seems that

The final sentence, it is probable, which pronounces characters and actions amiable or odious, praiseworthy or blamable, that which stamps on them the mark of honor or infamy, approbation or censure, that which renders morality an act of principle and constitutes virtue or happiness and vice or misery, it is probable, I say, that this final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling which nature has made universal in the whole species.

Now what Hume seems to be saying here is that the ultimate, as it were, judgment on which this all hangs is just a sentiment, just how we feel, just how nature has made us. In a way, at that level, it’s like nature has made us to find certain things nauseating, certain things approvable and certain other things condemnable. So this seems to be a brute fact about us. The notion of brute fact is a key concept here. It’s not the deliverance of reason that we approve virtue and abhor vice, as it seems to be for Aristotle.

But this sentiment is not like our reaction to nausea because it’s directed toward certain human qualities. We sometimes need to reason in order to determine whether these human qualities exist in a given case or not, whether they apply to the case or not. So Hume seems to make a contrast case to morality in this regard when he looks at what we call aesthetics, judgments of beauty. Because he does say in this same discussion:

Some species of beauty, especially the natural kinds, which on their first appearance, command our affection and approbation and where they fail of this effect, is impossible for any reasoning to address their influence or to adapt them better to our taste or sentiment.

So these particular judgments it would appear – aesthetic judgments – we have a beautiful landscape – it seems to me he’s saying it’s rather like a case of nausea. Ordinary people say, “Wow, the Grand Canyon!” But when somebody says, “Grand Canyon, a hole in the ground,” then you can’t say anything to them about that. But he does want to make the contrast – note – between the moral and the aesthetic.

This is interesting because, of course, the origin of Hume’s position is Hutcheson10 and the Scottish moral sense theory. Hutcheson rehabilitated in a certain sense, as a specific kind of feeling, the moral sense. But he also rehabilitated as another specific kind of feeling the sense of beauty, the aesthetic sense. They were equally given a kind of good status by Hutcheson. Hume you find already distinguishing them.

So, he says, in order to pave the way for the moral sentiment as against this aesthetic one and

to get a proper discernment of its object it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede and nice distinctions made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained.

So we have something intermediary between the nausea case and the Aristotle case where there’s a foundation of just basically we approve of certain things but also where we sometimes have to argue a great deal about whether the object before us really belongs to the class that we approve or disapprove. It may not be obvious at all and you may have to go through all these things he mentions here: comparisons, complications and so on.

So what do we then admire, as a matter of fact? What do we approve? Hume, when trying to examine this question, takes the example of

the benevolent or softer affections, which, whenever they appear, engage the approbation and good will of mankind…. No qualities are more entitled to the general good will and approbation of mankind than beneficence and humanity, friendship and gratitude, natural affection and public spirit; or whatever proceeds from a tender sympathy with others and a generous concern for our kind and species.

Here, Hume is speaking to what is entitled to our approbation. But, I think, and here is where Humeans are going to disagree, he’s speaking of the vulgar, that is, offering an expression of a common sentiment.

The word entitled here really rings Aristotle – this is the right thing to approve of.

But I think he is really offering an expression of a common sentiment. For Hume this sentiment can be explained as a joint creation of two other motives, two other values we universally share. One is what he calls “utility” – whatever conduces to life, to health and the fulfillment of non-harmful desire in human beings, that is, something which is useful. But it isn’t only our own utility. The thing is that we are endowed, in Hume’s view, with sympathy.

So we have this reaction to whatever conduces to utility, in general. Not just for me, but for people in general. This, he thinks, is the Hutchesonian special mode of feeling which he, like Hutcheson, thinks is phenomenologically distinct. We sense that there’s a difference when we are moved to approve this wonderful, generous action that somebody else has done to quite different people. I mean we even do this back in time and think that so and so, who lived in the past, can’t have any effect on us, was a generous person; or another Nero, an awful tyrant. We approve or disapprove. We have the sense that this is a different kind of feeling from the anger I have when you take my purse or rob me and so on. He’s following the Scottish tradition.

Now just because it’s the real occurrence of benevolence and not simply the semblance of it, there’s always room for argument. Perhaps the philanthropist is actually weaving the scheme to get somebody under control and is giving out goodies in order to do that. Or perhaps we see somebody taking a knife to someone else and someone says stop this cruel man and it turns out to be a surgeon taking out a dangerous tumor. So we can be corrected. Our first-off reactions can be corrected.

Hume was a very – I mean you can get sucked into this. It’s very interesting because it’s a wonderful sort of exhibit A of the development of the 18 century concept of polite society and the sense of having moved to a further stage in human development from the ancients. There’s a wonderful passage in the Enquiry where he points out that the ancients, he says, disapproved of “luxury or refinement on the pleasures and conveniences of life” because they thought this to be “the source of every corruption in government and the immediate cause of faction, sedition, civil wars, and the total loss of liberty.”

This is certainly true. You can hear Catoth inveighing against the corruptions that arise in society.

But, says Hume,

we moderns, who now attempt to prove that such refinements rather tend to the increase of industry, civility and arts, regulate anew our moral as well as our political sentiments and represent as laudable or innocent what had formerly been regarded as pernicious and blamable.

In other words, if you read my colleague Adam Smith11 you will understand that the search for luxury has a quite different role in our society and helps to not only produce prosperity but also helps us to get out of the world in which war making was the major virtue; and, rather, peaceful production and peaceful exchange is the major virtue.

What he sees here is that this ability for reason to change our moral sentiments and moral approbations is something that operates as well in history. What he is really underlining is this: We have come to discover that the search for luxury is not necessarily harmful, not necessarily undermining human good. On the contrary. And when we’ve done that then there’s no problem in our feelings switching as well, and we can even argue with each other about them.

So if usefulness therefore be a source of moral sentiment, and if this usefulness not always be considered with reference to self, it follows that everything which contributes to the happiness of society recommends itself directly to our approbation. Here is a principle which accounts in great part for the origin of morality. And what need we seek for abstruse and remote systems where there occurs one so obvious and natural.

Hear that Aristotle?

What need we to search for these abstruse systems when there is one that is so obvious and natural? It’s obvious that, as it were, the importance of utility and the sympathy that we have with each other produces this sentiment. A footnote to this passage adds:

It is needless to push our research so far to ask why we have humanity or a fellow feeling with others. It is sufficient that this is experienced to be a principle in human nature. We must stop somewhere in our examination of causes and there are in every science some general principles beyond which we cannot hope to find any principle more general.

So this is a stopping point.

There’s no way you can go beyond this and say, “Well, the reason why we value human happiness is that it’s important because….” Which of course you could do if you were Aristotle, valuing the good life as he understood it.

So the positive value of utility needs no explanation and sympathy is a brute fact.

So what we have here is reason but reason with a different role; and that means it’s also reason of a different kind. Where the ancients had this notion of reason as the power to discern the hierarchy of goals, now reason is really what we would call instrumental reason. It’s the issue of what actually conduces to human happiness. We saw that with luxury. We find out that the common belief that they had that this actually undermines human happiness and well being is wrong, or at least in certain circumstances is wrong, and we are realizing those circumstances by developing modern commercial society. It’s more complex than simply some general rule. But we now find in our circumstances that that is not wrong. We find that instrumentally the search for luxury is something that can actually be harnessed to everyone’s benefit and therefore we switch. So reason is a quite different kind of thing. It’s not the discernment of hierarchical order and ends. It is really instrumental reason.

Therefore we get the picture of Hume which I think is fundamentally right but which people argue about that, as he says over and over again, reason is not itself a motivating force. Because what he means is that X causes Y is not a motivating force by itself. But if you value Y then it is a motivating force; or, if you very much disvalue Y and want to avoid it, then this fact, together with that valuation, will move you. So it is not reason itself – the role that reason is being restricted to is instrumental reason – which does the moving.

Contrast Plato. On the contrary, the perception of this being higher is something that deeply moves you. As a matter of fact Plato would argue that you haven’t really seen that reason is higher unless you love it. I mean if you say I guess reason is higher but take me back to the tavern and so on, then you haven’t properly grasped it. To grasp it properly is to be moved by it. It’s a totally different construction.

I want to look at this for a second longer before I jump to the other side of the attempt to look at the other kind of reduction.

What Ethics is All About

This, of course, goes along with a complete reorientation of our understanding of what ethics is all about. In a sense, what Hume makes morals about is our perception of utility for ourselves – and others – and we respond to that. So, really, morals is all about how we treat each other, or to use a quote from Tim Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other,12 in a certain sense. Morals is about that kind of question.

The paradigm question for Plato and Aristotle is: What is a worthwhile life? And they derive how we should treat each other from their understanding of what a worthwhile life is. We have – as a kind of agreement in a lot of contemporary discussion – to divide these two questions and they’re sometimes called ethics and morals respectively. We think of Bernard Williams, and even Habermas13 has come around to using this language. Morals being issues of how we treat each other and ethics being issues of what a good life is.

So we find some of the succession out of Hume involves splitting these two and saying, well, we can make morals fairly exact. Not exactly science but a study where we can get really clear answers [to the question of] what does conduce to the general good.

But when we come to ethics – what people consider a good life – “Well, that’s something everyone does for themselves and there isn’t a right or wrong here. I can’t tell you what to do or what to be. You can’t tell me what to do or to be.” And we even have a further development of a kind of Kantian – I mean in a certain sense Kant14 is overturning Hume but, still, in an important sense downstream from Hume because Kant considers the set of issues of how we should treat each other to be central; and you get the answers to them out of another kind of reason, which is universalizing: wertrationalität, not instrumental reason but value reason.15 But it’s still not the reason of the ancients.

Nausea, Vision, Hume, and Aristotle

So we have a whole lot of absolutely fascinating issues here. Let me therefore layout these – actually there are four possibilities. I’ll lay them out quickly and if you’re all confused just forget them and remember the two (laughs). You can lay them out in a kind of system from different kinds of meanings and how they are either commanding us or demanding something or simply, de facto, what draws us.


So, on one end, you have the nauseating.

Vision of Color16

There’s another interesting thing people discuss here which are classical secondary properties. It’s clear that my perception of red – I hope I’m not color blind – in the chairs here is something which you judge to be right [Taylor is pointing to chairs in the audience]. So it’s not like nauseating. You can judge it to be right or wrong. But what it is to judge it right or wrong is simply that people with normal perceptual apparatus say this is red and that is some kind of light blue, etc., and this [Taylor is looking at his sport coat] is whatever it is. And that’s all that it means. So, in a certain sense, it’s very close to nauseating. It’s just how people de facto react – with this proviso – unlike the nauseating one – that we can say that people that deviate from these judgments: it’s some problem that they have. If they were normal they would get that. So these are two on one end of the spectrum.

The Hume-Derived Category

Then we get this Hume-derived category, which is very interesting because there is an issue of reason, of getting it right – up to a point. You can be corrected and one can say, “Look, your sentiment of rage at that poor innocent doctor taking the tumor out because you thought this beast was a cruel monster – your sentiment of disapprobation or rage at him is really totally wrong. It’s inappropriate. Now listen to me and I’ll tell you what was actually going on.” So up to a point this can be corrected. But it can only be corrected through instrumental reason. “I’m telling you that this knife is not there in order to inflict pain on him. It was there in order to save his life. So take that in and change your judgment.”

But the reasoning, as it were, the normative reasoning, doesn’t go all the way down because it stops at the point where I show you that it conduced to his utility. At that point, if you want to go on asking, “Well, why is that important?” The answer is, “Sorry, you are just not a normal human being if you can ask that. This is not something we can go on talking about.”

The Aristotle-Plato Case

Whereas, in the fourth case now, the Aristotle-Plato case, we have this idea that the reasoning can go all the way down. That is, if you ask, “Well, why is this goal, theory, what have you, a really valid goal, then we can give you reasons. Reason can show that. There’s nowhere reason simply stops by saying, “That’s where it stops.” The way Hume stops is by saying, “We got to stop somewhere. There’s got to be a principle somewhere and in any science you arrive at a principle you can’t get beyond.” And the principle we have here is utility or general utility, which draws people’s approbation. Well that’s not allowed for in this fourth category.

Nausea, Vision of Color, Hume, and Aristotle – four categories.


Before I go on to the second half here you can see that this plays a tremendous role in ethical life today. Take ecology, the fight to keep the planet from being destroyed and so on. On one level this can be argued out in terms of, “Well, look, if all the glaciers in the Himalayas melt, and the Ganges, Mekong and Yangtze rivers dry up seasonally or totally, at one point a lot of people are going to suffer. And if the level of the sea rises and Bangladesh is flooded a lot of people are going to suffer terribly.” That’s certainly very important and we could argue about this; and this is a Humean type of argument.

But if you note around you the ecological movement, there are some people who define themselves as deep ecologists, for instance. They aren’t denying that the first reasons are important. But they’re saying they aren’t enough. And they’re saying what? They’re saying, properly understood, our existence in this environment, this earth and so on is something that makes demands on us, that objectively calls on us to behave in a certain way towards the natural environment, to respect certain of its crucial features, to shore them up and not to destroy them and so on. A certain demand is made on us; and here, someone reasoning in the Humean way can’t really take this in. They can say, “Well, okay, we can understand you feel that way. We can even maybe promote this to something everyone is supposed to feel. But it’s just a game. We can take that as a brute feeling but not as a correct perception of what is really important.”

So when Thoreau says, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,”17 this was meant to be an actual perception of some reality which other people don’t realize. And the [Humean] response could be, “Well, I’m glad you feel that way. I feel that way too.” But that wouldn’t be doing justice to this. So this is a very crucial issue that we’re still always discussing.

There’re all sorts of issues and I’d love to go on about them and maybe we could in the discussion. One of the things that bedevils this is that the historical modes of these ethical views – take Aristotle’s theory, Christianity, what have you, examples I gave – all give a very profound set of reasons why [their] kind of reasoning is right. For instance, Aristotle is ultimately grounded in this notion of the forms as what makes the world as it is, what makes human life what it is. And of course Christianity is grounded in a certain notion of our relation to God, and so on.

People say, “Well, we don’t buy that anymore.” But I don’t think that that settles the issue. The very interesting issue is: Should we go on arguing this way even if we don’t know yet, or don’t have an agreed idea yet, what the deeper reasons are? Nevertheless, Should we go on considering some perceptions of the form this is a higher good than that legitimate and true? That’s the issue. And we could go on about that.

Reduction Two: Efficient Cause18

But first of all let me look at the other kind of reduction. The other kind of reduction is a pure explanatory reduction. It’s an attempt to explain human life and action, which we normally consider in terms which involve purpose and people’s understanding of their own situation; and their purposes and their own understandings of their own situation explain why they do this and don’t do that and so on. That kind of explanation, which makes use of, to speak rapidly, of what you might call teleology, purpose and intentionality – their understanding of their own situation.

Allegedly, some people hold, the proper, deeper account, which can be given of this, is in purely efficient-causal terms. In other words, what is going on here is a sense that the Galilean-Newtonian revolution in natural science showed us that our explanation of physics, nature and so on, ought to be carried on in purely efficient-causal terms – that purpose and so on has no place here, which it very much did for the Aristotelian, premodern explanations of the world – and this applies to our explanation even of human beings.

I now have as my paradigm cases here, moving down from Aristotle and Hume, people like Dennet and Pinker.19 The argument is something of the following kind: either you go along with Descartes and you think that there really is, beside the physical universe surrounding us, something totally spooky and ghostly called the mind or the soul; or, if you don’t do that, then you somehow have to accept that what you’re now hearing from me, which may sound sensible or not sensible, what’s meant to be logical and so on, is something that can only be emanating from my mouth because I have a brain and a nervous system and a certain amount of experience in the way that this is set up, etc. So either you are a dualist or you’re not a dualist.

But if you accept that it’s something to do with – that my saying all this is not some disembodied mind speaking but something to do with the way my brain is working and so on, then – brains? They’re matter. Matter has to be explained in terms of efficient-causation. So the explanation has to be in terms of efficient-causation. Q.E.D.20

You can see that there’s a big argument going on, which I’m on the other side because I’m a great follower of Merleau-Ponty,21 and I think that this notion of our being embodied beings is an absolutely correct notion. But it’s very interesting that we Merleau-Pontians have a totally different sense of the word embodied than do say Dennet and Pinker and so on. Because we think of embodiment as living in the world as embodied beings. We live in a world with a sense of the world that comes from being the kinds of beings that we are. Some things are up, some things are down. Some things are easy to reach, some things are very far to reach. And that this embodied sensibility is crucial to our lives. We don’t have even the possibility of more and more distant, disengaged ways of dealing with the world unless we are living in this engaged form. It’s a totally different notion of what embodiment means because it’s embodiment of a live, active body with purposes, goals and so on – as against embodiment seen purely in terms of the causal mechanisms that underlie this kind of action.

So in a certain sense, from our point of view, there’s a massive slippage in the logic of this. I mean they start off with the Cartesian view that there are these two kinds of things – minds and bodies – but, and Descartes would agree with this, when it comes to bodies, it’s only mechanism which counts. “Okay, René, that’s fine. We agree with you totally. We just want to throw the mind out.” And so we have embodied beings but understood purely mechanistically.

Of course this doesn’t follow. But it’s very interesting to read them because they never really face that. They just assume that. I just heard Dennet speak a few months ago. It was exactly the same thing. If you don’t explain your conscious reasoning in terms of all the little sort of gremlins there that are dumber and dumber and dumber, “then you are not a materialist,” he said, looking horrified. Then you have some spooky stuff in there. Then it’s not science.

So you have this very powerful view. This is another kind of reduction. This is a pure explanatory reduction and the kind of claims made, “Well, you may think that the reason why Obama said this yesterday and so on was that he’s figuring out that if you can get some more Republicans on side, etc.” But, no, the real point underneath is there’s some kind of computer here and the wheels are running, etc., working it out and it can be understood on this deeper level mechanistically in the same way a homing missile or my computer can be similarly understood. There’s a very profound difference in what life means and so on involved in this.

But if you take that line you can see that you’re locked into the other reduction as well, that is, the reduction that says there are no meanings which can be shown to be validly holding meanings, right to the very bottom, as it were. There are only meanings that are meanings for us because at some level it’s a brute fact that they’re meanings for us.

These two reductions can come apart. Because you think of certain kinds of Marxists who at least partly have bought the first reduction but who famously said, I mean you hear these people, Luckacs22 and others at various times, talking about mechanistic materialism. They’re materialists. “We’re all materialists,” they say, because these are two kinds of people that call themselves materialists. “We’re all materialists but these other bourgeois thinkers are mechanistic materialists or bourgeois materialists; and we’re dialectical or historical materialists.”

So they seem to be taking Reduction One on board but not Reduction Two. But what I’m saying is that the logic of argument is such that you couldn’t do the opposite. I don’t see how you could do the opposite. If you take Reduction Two on board – this mechanistic reduction – you have to buy into the debunking of any, if you like, intrinsic meanings or meanings that are all the way down or meanings that can be argued for as objective and so on. At some point you have to simply stop and reinterpret them as brute facts that we simply desire.

You can see this because if you look at the way this kind of reduction is attempted, really, which is using computer theory, partly with some help from connectionism and so on, in order to understand our intelligent performances as kinds of computation, you see that, they can, if this explanation were to actually work – if this computer model of the human mind were actually to work – you could see how they could recuperate three of the four kinds of meanings that I laid out here. They can give a perfectly good explanation of nausea. It just triggers this off. They can give a very good explanation of why the normal human perception of color comes out with the answers it does. They can give a perfectly good explanation, supposedly, of why it’s wired into us to find that what creates human suffering is something that we don’t like; what creates human well-being is something that we react to positively. We can even give – I mean take the Dawkins’ selfish gene idea as something that explains why we have super sympathy for some people – for kin – and not for others. The idea is that a gene operates with a whole collection of genes that form an organism but the gene that makes it more likely that that whole collection will reproduce itself in the next generation will itself of course be more widely spread in the next generation and so on and so on. So we have the famous idea of the selfish gene, which is a very bad, stupid image. They admit it’s a metaphor and on the next page they’re obviously taking it totally seriously.

But you can see how this works and this can explain why and if people get, as a matter of fact, cathexis23 on their kin and therefore do all sorts of things for their kin that they wouldn’t do for others, even sacrificing themselves. Well, yeah, this would produce a situation – what did [Holdain?] say, “I would sacrifice myself for four cousins and six aunts,” or whatever. You can see how this pattern, according to their way of calculating, would spread the gene even wider.

So all these things can be explained.

But what couldn’t be explained is the perception of real intrinsic meaning.


Well, because if this isn’t a real issue – what is really higher or really better and so on – then in cases of non-delusion, in cases where I’m not deluded, it would have to be the case that some things falling under the category of really meaningful, really good, etc., would draw me, in other words, would have real causal power in most cases, real causal power drawing me towards it.

But this is an impossible property to fit into a mechanistic account, an account of pure efficient-causation. Because how could a property of really fitting a certain normative concept be one that, as it were, allows the entities instantiating it to have this constant causal power. The only thing that could have a constant causal power is something that is just brute cathected. Something that is just X or Y, that is, operative and powerful because it is brutely cathected, and then it would be.

So in order to recognize the efficacy of this kind of discernment you have to translate it into the other kind. You have to move it from the Aristotle category to what I’m calling the Hume category. Then you can do everything else supposedly. Because if you allow the computer model of the mind, all kinds of instrumental reason can be coped with by and according to this mechanistic account.

Then they divide up consciousness into three things: consciousness is in one sense self-consciousness, so some notion of the self figures, and that could be in a computation; and then another element is conscious planning, and if that’s instrumental reason that can fit supposedly into the explanation. What can’t be fitted into it are raw feels or sentients. Well, let’s forget that one. But they think they can get everything. But what they can’t get is intrinsic value.

As a matter of fact there’s something even – I have to read you this last thing from Pinker’s How the Mind Works.24 There’s a certain pathos in this. He comes to the end of the book and he says, “I’ve got this theory which is a mixture of a computer, causal account and an evolutionary account. Wow, you can get more…. And it shows exactly how the mind works and it really can explain everything. Now there are just a few things I cannot fit into this.” And there’s a list of six:

  1. “Consciousness”;

  2. “The self”;

  3. “Free will”;

  4. “Meaning”;

  5. “Knowledge”; and,

  6. “Morality”.

“I mean apart from these (Taylor and audience laugh) trivial questions it’s all explained.”

So that’s where I want to stop because I’ve gone on too long.

I’ve tried to show how these different kinds of reduction feed into each other and in some cases against each other, in the case of certain Marxists and so on. But in our present climate they’re working very much in synergy with each other to make, in various ways, the idea of, as it were, intrinsic meaning, really unthinkable. I mean impossible.

So this is the situation that we face. This is what we argue about or argue against and so on. But I wanted tonight to try to put the strands together. So let me stop there and let’s have a discussion and see what we want to go into and what we don’t and so on. Yes, thank you very much.

Bio – Charles M. Taylor, C.C., Ph.D., born in Montreal, Canada in 1931, earned a B.A. in history from McGill (1952) and as a Rhodes Scholar pursued studies in political science, philosophy and economics at Oxford University where he obtained a B.A. (1955), M.A. (1960) and Ph.D. (1961). Noted political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin supervised his dissertation (cited above). Professor Taylor has taught in numerous institutions, including Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, Frankfurt University in Germany, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Many of his students have gone on to be important philosophers and political theorists. Currently Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University, Taylor also held the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University (1976-81). He is known for his viewpoints on morality and modern Western identity of individuals and groups. His research focuses, in particular, on modernity, pluralism, multiculturalism, the question of identity, secularism, and human motivation. He has written 20 books, including Hegel (1975), Philosophical Papers (2 vols., Cambridge University Press, 1985), Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1989), The Ethics of Authenticity (Harvard University Press, 1992), The Politics of Recognition (Princeton University Press, 1992), Varieties of Religion Today (Harvard University Press, 2002) Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2004), and A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).
Taylor ran for election to high office in Canada four times in the 1960s as candidate for the social democratic New Democratic Party in Mount Royal. In the 1962 federal election, he placed third behind Liberal Alan MacNaughton. In 1963, he placed second in federal parliamentary elections. Most famously, in the 1965 election, he lost to newcomer and future prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. This campaign garnered nation-wide attention since both Taylor and Trudeau were considered intellectuals and “star candidates.” In 1968, in his fourth and final effort to win a seat in the Canadian House of Commons, Taylor came in second as an NDP candidate in the riding of Dollard. In 2007, Canadian Premier Jean-Charest appointed Taylor and Gérard Bouchard to Co-Chair a one-year Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodements reliées aux différences culturelles, to study and explore the widespread, highly charged debate centering on the social accommodation of religious and cultural minorities in Québec. In May 2008, the commission presented its 300-page report. Taylor is also a member of the Social Science Research Council (New York City) working group on religion, secularism, and international affairs. In 1992, the Quebec provincial government awarded Taylor the Prix Léon-Gérin, the highest honor given for contribution to Quebec intellectual life. In 1995, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2000, he was named a grand officer de l‚ Ordre national du Quebec. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Canada and the British Academy as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In 2007, Taylor, a practicing Catholic, won the Templeton Prize ($1.5 million) for exceptional contribution to the affirmation of life’s spiritual dimension; and, in 2008, won the Kyoto Prize ($460,000) for lifetime achievement in arts and philosophy.

1 Robert N. Bellah et al., define “reductionism” as one of four major assumptions of mainstream social scientists, their pre-judgments about the nature of reality: 1) positivism requires “a methodology as close to the assumed objectivism of natural science as possible” (e.g., experiments, quantifying data, statistical manipulation); 2) reductionism: “the tendency to explain the complex in terms of the simple and to find behind complex cultural forms biological, psychological or sociological drives, needs, and in­terests”; 3) relativism: “assumes matters of morality and religion, being explicable by particular constellations of psychological and sociological conditions, cannot be judged true or false, valid or in­valid, but simply vary with persons, cultures and societies”; and, 4) deter­minism: “assumes that human actions can be explained in terms of ‘variables’ that will account for them.” Robert N. Bellah et al., The Good Society. New York: Knopf, 1991, p. 162.

2 Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)

3 Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776).

4 An ideal-type is a mental construct for educational purposes and not necessarily a class into which anything fits perfectly.

5 Greek philosopher Plato (437?-347 B.C.E.)

6 “Strong evaluation” involves “discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower, which are not rendered valid by our own desires, inclinations, or choices, but rather stand independent of these and offer standards by which they can be judged.” In other words, “ … the recognition that certain goals or ends make a claim on us, are incommensurable with our other desires and purposes.” Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 4, 332.

7 Agape is Greek for selfless love for all. It is marked by spontaneous, self-giving that does not calculate costs and benefits; in contrast to philia (the love of friendship) and eros, a kind of passion, ecstasy and madness characteristic of sexual love, agape is a calmer, reasonable love that freely chooses and commits to its object. See “Love,” in James F. Childress and John Macquarrie, eds., Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, 1986 (1967), p. 354. Max Weber uses the term acosmic or world-denying love, as opposed to worldly love, which is always love for particular persons. Weber’s world-denying love is love for all, without distinction – love for whoever comes, friends, strangers, enemies – which, according to Robert Bellah, led Weber to quote Baudelaire in calling it “the sacred prostitution of the soul.” Weber’s notion of the universal ethic of brotherliness, which transcends kinship and other social groups, also seems to get at the meaning of Christian agape and other religious forms of love – brotherliness, sisterliness and neighborliness – at the core of salvation religions as represented by Jesus, Buddha and Saint Francis. See Robert N. Bellah, “Max Weber and World-denying Love: A Look at the Historical Sociology of Religion,” Journal of the American Academic of Religion, 67, no. 2 (Summer): 277-304.

8 In After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Nortre Dame UP, 2007 [1981]), Alasdair MacIntyre defines a virtue as “an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods” (e.g., the virtues of courage, moderation, prudence, justice).

9 David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Kessinger, 2004 (1777); A Treatise of Human Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (1739-40).

10 Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1649-1746).

th Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.E.).

11 Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith (1732-1790), author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments with an Introduction by Amartya Sen (Penguin Classic, 2010[1759]) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Penguin Classics 2009-10 [1776]).

12 Thomas M. Scanlon, Jr. What We Owe To Each Other. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.

13 German sociologist, philosopher and critical theorist Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) and British moral philosopher Sir Bernard Williams (1929-2003).

14 German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

15 On a related note, Max Weber identifies four types of social action: 1) “instrumentally rational” – “determined by expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment and of other human beings … used as “conditions” or “means” for the attainment of the actor’s own rationally pursued and calculated ends.” In short, action oriented to means to certain given ends; 2) “value-rational” – “determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects for success”; 3) “affectual” – “(especially emotional) … determined by the actor’s specific affects and feeling states; and 4) “traditional” – “determined by ingrained habituation.” Max Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 24-25.

16 This seems to be, in Taylor’s typology of meanings, the fourth type of meaning, that is, Model Four – Vision of Color – Sam Porter.

17 American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) in his essay, “Walking,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1862, Volume 9, Issue 56, pp. 657-674.

18 For Aristotle, there are four kinds of cause. A thing’s material cause is the material of which it consists (e.g., for a table that might be wood; for a statute that might be bronze or marble). A thing’s formal cause is its form (i.e., the arrangement of that matter). A thing’s efficient or moving cause is “the primary source of the change or rest” (e.g., the person chiseling causes the statute). A thing’s final cause is its aim or purpose (e.g., for a seed it might be an adult plant). Aristotle uses the word “cause” in the sense of an explanation for how things come about. The Greek word derives from the adjective aitios meaning “responsible,” originally applied to agents. Metaphysics, 1013a.

19 Noted atheist and secularist and American philosopher of mind, biology and science Daniel Dennet (b. 1942) and Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker (b. 1954).

20 Acronym for the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum, “which was to be demonstrated or shown.”

21 French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961).

22 Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic Gyorgy Luckacs (1885-1971).

23 From the Greek, kathexis: holding. Investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object or idea (Source:; accessed 7/22/10)

24 Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

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