Taylor begins his narrative with the epistemological problems the Enlightenment posed against Medievalism and eventually against itself. These thinkers (Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes) held to an atomistic view of man and society. They rejected the medieval worldview of "final causes" (4). The world was no longer seen as "symbol manifesting the rhythm of the divine" (5).
This hard Enlightenment anthropology will itself break down (almost immediately). Some couldn't live without a God; these are the mild Deists. Others took the epistemology consistently and became radical materialists.
The German Romantic Counter-attack
Post-Reformation Germany never experienced the same "church versus state" problems that France did. Thus, German's religious expression to the Enlightenment was formed differently: pietism. Pietism stressed a heart-felt religious experience of the soul's meeting with Christ (11). There followed a denigration of dogma and confessional status. Like with the Enlightenment itself, the reaction in Germany went along two paths.
This introduces Hegel's "identity of difference and identity." Starting slowly, following Taylor, here is what I think he means. Hegel is trying to overcome the Kantian duality. Hegel wants to overcome this with his notion of "overcoming oppositions." Therefore, identity cannot sustain itself on its own, but posits an opposition, but also a particularly intimate one (80). In short, Hegel married modern expression with Aristotle's self-realizing form (81).
Following this was Hegel's other point: the subject, and all his functions, however spiritual, were necessarily embodied (82-83).
The Contradiction Arises
Contrary to mindless right-wing bloggers, Hegel did not form the "dialectic" in the following way: we posit a thesis (traditional community), then we negate it (cultural marxism), which allows for the "synthesis" (our pre-planned solution all along). Here is what Hegel actually meant: there is reality, but the very structure of reality already contains a contradiction. The subject then must overcome that contradiction.
Taylor notes, "In order to be at all as a conscious being, the subject must be embodied in life; but in order to realize the perfection of consciousness it must fight and overcome the natural bent of life as a limit. The conditions of its existence are in conflict with the demands of its perfection (86).
Building on Hegel's premise that God/Geist/Spirit, which is the ultimate reality, must be embodied in history, it follows that one must ask in what manner is it embodied? One of the most fundamental modes, Hegel posits, is in religion (197). Briefly stated, Hegel sees each epoch in human history as manifesting religion, but always in a contradictory way. The Greeks were able to apprehend "the universal," but they could only do so in a finite and limited way (and thus the infinite/finite contradiction). This contradiction is not a bad thing, though, for it opened up the possibility of the Christian religion (with a detour through the Hebrews). Hegel sees the ultimate religious expression in the Incarnation.
A Dialectic of Categories
When one is studying reality, Hegel says, one can start anywhere in the system, for each facet is ultimately tied together (226). If we start with "Being" then our method will proceed dialectically. What he means by that is the very structure of reality has a contradiction, and in overcoming that contradiction Being moves forth to something else. Throughout the whole of this discussion, Hegel is starting from Kant and reworking the system along problems he sees in Kant.
To avoid confusion, and to silence the right-wing conspiracy bloggers, Hegel's idea of contradiction is this: he has a two-pronged argument, the first showing that a given category is indispensable, the second showing that it leads to a characterization of reality which is somehow impossible or incoherent (228).
Hegel is trying to overcome the dilemma that social life poses: per man's subjective life the important thing is freedom of spirit. However, man also lives in community and the norms of the community often bind his freedom of spirit (it is to Hegel's credit that he recognized this problem generations before Nietszche and the existentialists).
Hegel suggests the form man must attain is a social form (366). It is important to note that what Hegel means by "state" is much different than what Anglo-Americans mean by it. Hegel means the "politically organized community" (387). Let's explore these few sentences for a moment. Throughout his philosophy Hegel warns against "abstractions," by which he means taking an entity outside its network of relations. With regard to politics, if abstraction is bad then it necessarily follows that man's telos is in a community. Man comes into the world already in a network of relations.
As other reviewers noted, this book is excellent. I have a few qualms, though. While Taylor is correct that Hegel cannot simply be seen as a "conservative," Hegel does embody (pun intended) most of the main 19th century views of conservatism: fear or Revolution, fear of an unbridled free market, a hierarchical social order culminating in monarchy--Taylor notes the latter and is frankly embarrassed by it. Still, a good read.