Charles Taylor and John Locke on reason

by Eric Daryl Meyer

“I have borrowed the term ‘self-responsibility’ from Husserl to describe something that Locke shares with Descartes and which touches on the essential opposition to authority of modern disengaged reason. What we are called upon to do by these writers, and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn’t genuine unless you develop it yourself:

‘For, I think, we may as rationally hope to see with other Mens Eyes, as to know by other Mens Understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of Truth and Reason, so much we possess of real and true Knowledge. The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains makes us not a jot more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opinatrety, whilst we give up our assent to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation… In the Sciences, every one has so much, as he really knows and comprehends: What he believes only, and takes upon trust are but shreads.'[1]

Plato, of course, says something analogous…. But what is different with the moderns is that the requirement to work it out oneself is more radical and exclusive, and tis in virtue of their very notion of reason.

Plato enjoins us to stand out against custom and ‘opinion’ in order to arrive at the truth. But the truth at which we arrive is a vision of the order of things. It is not absolutely excluded in principle that our best way of getting there might be to be guided by some authority–not, indeed, the corrupt and erroneous one of popular opinion, but by someone with wisdom. Once we have science [according to Plato], of course, we can dispense with guidance, but it might help us to come to this independent condition.”

I think that our first instinct is to apply this “scientific” mode of reasoning to religious questions—and it tends to strip religions down to bare and vague transcendence—which is about all that any of us can “work out for ourselves.” I’m more and more confident that this mode of reasoning itself needs to be questioned, not least because it is a “tradition” all its own. Taylor is proving immensely helpful in that project.

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[1] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1:4:23.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 167-68.

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