- Charles Taylor's Doctrine of Strong Evaluation: Ethics and by Michiel Meijer
Charles Taylor (b. 1931) is among the most important recent philosophers, and there is a growing body of literature assessing his work. Michiel Meijer's book is a welcome addition. The best thing about his book is that it demonstrates the centrality of the idea of strong evaluation in Taylor's work and how it is connected with a concern to explore and advance ontological claims, including about nonanthropocentric reality. Indeed, Meijer convincingly shows how Taylor's work is centered on an "interwoven argument" regarding philosophical anthropology, ethics, and ontology, where the guiding thread is his doctrine of strong evaluation, which involves qualitative distinctions of worth between higher and lower, noble and base, and so on that are seen as normative for our desires. One of Taylor's main aims here, as Meijer makes clear, is to combat scientistic naturalism, which involves "the belief that humans as part of nature are in the end best understood by sciences continuous in their methods and ontology with modern natural science," and which therefore cannot properly account for strong evaluation. Chapter 1 provides an overview of Taylor's doctrine of strong evaluation as it has developed throughout his work. Chapter 2 discusses Taylor's "interwoven argument" and its centrality to his work. The final three chapters critically examine in greater detail the philosophical anthropology of strong evaluation (chapter 3), the ethics of strong evaluation (chapter 4), and the ontology of strong evaluation (chapter 5).
Meijer points out how tentative Taylor often is in advancing ontological claims about what can make sense of our strong evaluative experience, and Taylor sometimes ends up relying on a transcendental argument about how strong evaluation is a condition for the possibility of normally functioning human agency. Meijer rightly notes that this is not enough to establish a moral ontology underpinning strong evaluation. It only shows, I think, what is at stake in whether or not we are able to find an adequate ontology of the sort called for by our strong evaluative experience (or "moral phenomenology"): without this there can be a deflationary effect on our experience, and we can undergo existential disorientation. As I read him, Taylor is often tentative in advancing his ontological views because he is ultimately arguing for a theistic moral ontology (involving [End Page 618] teleological claims), though he also maintains what he calls "anticipatory confidence," that is, a faith informed by reason and experience.
A key value of Taylor's work is that he forcefully raises the important question of whether we can make sense of our experience of the normatively higher within a naturalistic (that is, nontheistic) worldview, and I would have liked to see Meijer engage this issue more. Sometimes Meijer seems to be operating with a Kantianesque skepticism in questioning whether our moral phenomenology can be used to argue for a moral ontology, but Taylor, as a moral realist, does not share this skepticism, and he maintains that this is our mode of access to moral reality. The question ultimately is: What ontology best accounts for our moral experience? Meijer does not hazard an answer to this question, which leaves this reader unsatisfied and wanting more. Perhaps he will do so in future work, but based on his conclusion to this book, one is not sure. He ends by discussing three positions: a standard naturalist approach to ethics, Taylor's hermeneutical (or moral phenomenological) approach that makes the case for a moral ontology, and Putnam's pragmatist approach that regards ontology as unnecessary for ethics. Meijer concludes: "I think we should be interested in all of these debates as there is something ultimately doctrinal and unimaginative about identifying oneself with either side of a philosophical impasse. Although it seems clear that naturalist, hermeneutical, and pragmatic views rest on radically different assumptions about the nature of reality that are responsive to different explanatory goals, it is precisely the attentiveness to the difference in explanatory focus that could make our...