On Charles Taylor

Lazarus Saturday (East); Holy Saturday (West)

I THINK Charles Taylor is an one of the most important living philosophers today. And I think his magnum opus, A Secular Age (henceforth referenced as ASA), is even more important. Lately I've been working through my dissertation, cleaning it up with final edits and trimming it down by at least 10,000 words (limit is 100,000, I had 105,000, and I need space for a conclusion). Below, you'll find a section I cut that introduces the life of Charles Taylor. Next week I'll post another cut section on his book ASA.

The Interdisciplinarian Taylor
Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1931, Charles Taylor was raised bilingually (his mother’s family is French-speaking and his father’s family is English-speaking) and is now also fluent in German. He received his B.A. in history from McGill University in 1952 and then went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar to study philosophy, politics, and economics from 1951 to 1955. He remained at Oxford as Fellow of All Souls College until 1961, when he completed his doctorate under Isaiah Berlin and G. E. M. Anscombe (a student of Wittgenstein). Since then, he has taught politics and philosophy at his alma mater and the University of Montreal. He was also Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford from 1976 to 1981.

From this brief snapshot of his education, Taylor’s range of interests stands out: history, philosophy, politics, economics, and sociology. His publishing career demonstrates an even broader range of interests, having written on all of the above, plus the philosophy of language, epistemology, hermeneutics, moral theory, aesthetics, and even religion. In an era of increasing academic specialization, Taylor has contributed to a dazzling array of academic fields. As Ruth Abbey puts it in her collection of essays on Taylor,

in the era of the Fachidiot as Nietzsche put it, Taylor’s ability to contribute to philosophical conversations in all these areas distinguishes him as an untimely thinker. This feature of his thought can be characterized as untimely because the wide and widening span of his work means that he resembles the canonical thinkers of the western philosophical tradition more than he does most contemporary philosophers (Charles Taylor, 2004, 1).

After publishing a guide to Taylor’s ASA (How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, 2014), James K. A. Smith was asked in an interview how Taylor’s work had influenced him. It is precisely this interdisciplinary nature of Taylor’s work that Smith points to:

[H]e sort of “contains multitudes,” as Whitman might say. He is a unique blend of scholar. Taylor is a philosopher who is equally at home in both “analytic” and “continental” camps. But he also puts his philosophical expertise to work on cultural analysis, ranging into history, theology, psychology, economics, and more. Of course, this also gets him into trouble with the specialists, but that’s the price one pays for being a fox and not a hedgehog (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2015/05/01/an-interview-with-james-k-a-smith-on-how-not-to-be-secular-and-how-to-read-charles-taylor/).

In a 2014 interview conducted by Taylor’s former student Chris Bloor, Taylor addresses this aspect of his work. He discusses the importance of networks for his scholarship precisely because he works in so many fields:

I’m doing things across disciplinary boundaries, and I probably make lots of mistakes when I cross these boundaries and poach in historians’ territory or political scientists’ territory or sociologists’ territory. You make less terrible mistakes if you’re working with sympathetic social scientists, historians, and so on (https://philosophynow.org/issues/74/Charles_Taylor).

So while Taylor is formally characterized as a philosopher (described by Richard Rorty as “among the dozen most important philosophers writing today, anywhere in the world” [cited in Begley, “The Mensch of Montreal: Charles Taylor’s Authentically Ethical Life” in Lingua Franca May/June 1993, 39]), his interests and work are clearly interdisciplinary, as ASA also demonstrates.

The Action Oriented Problem Solving Taylor
But Taylor’s interest in such a diverse range of disciplines is not a mere intellectual curiosity. He is motivated by a desire to solve problems. Hence, when he is engaging in philosophy, his mode of philosophizing is not system oriented, but rather problem oriented. As Abbey points out, his writing is timely because his writing is mostly provoked by a dissatisfaction with the dominant ideas of the time or with the ways the problems are being formulated. Consequently, Abbey continues,

Such direct engagement with the formulations of particular problems at particular times explains the sense one often has of Taylor’s thinking beginning almost in media res: When we read his work we so often find ourselves plunged into the midst of a current debate. This lends his writing an immediacy and vitality that sets it apart from the more formal and detached tone of many other contemporary philosophers (Abbey 2004, 2).

This drive to engage problems is precisely why we have an 874-page book on secularism.

Taylor’s problem-solving orientation also drives him to be highly active beyond publishing and classroom teaching. He has a long history of receiving distinguished awards, of which the most recent is the first Berggruen Prize, which will be awarded annually for “a thinker whose ideas are of broad significance for shaping human self-understanding and the advancement of humanity.” Sponsored by the Berggruen Institute, a research organization dedicated to improving governance and mutual understanding across different cultures, especially between the West and Asia, in 2016 Taylor received a cash prize of $1 million. In 2015, he shared the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity with Jürgen Habermas. Begun in 2003, this prize (of more than $1 million) celebrates the importance of the intellectual arts and rewards lifetime achievement in the disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prizes. In 2014, he received the Kyoto Prize, which is Japan’s highest private award for global achievement and is awarded annually to those who have contributed to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual improvement of mankind. The award is fifty million yen, the equivalent of US $500,000. In 2007, the year he published ASA, Taylor received the Templeton Prize for his life’s work. Named after the American-born British entrepreneur and businessman Sir John Templeton who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropic efforts, it is awarded to a living person who has affirmed life’s spiritual dimension in an excellent way. The stature of this award is indicated by previous winners: Mother Teresa in 1973 (six years before she received the Nobel Peace Prize), T. F. Torrance in 1978, Billy Graham in 1982, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1983, Stanley Jaki in 1987, et al. The prize is adjusted to always surpass the Nobel Prizes because Templeton felt religion was ignored in the Nobel Prizes. So Taylor received $1.5 million in 2007! He also received the Marianist Award in 1996, which is discussed later. When asked by Bloor how he intended to spend such an incredible amount of prize money, Taylor pointed to his networking again:

A lot of what I do in philosophy, in my work in general, comes out of networks. Certain people I work with need to meet together, and we can’t simply wait until we all get invited to go to a symposium in London or wherever. It’s very helpful to be able to move around, and to move other people around, and to bring them together in small groups, be it in New York or Chicago or Europe, or even Delhi, which is one of the places we’ve been meeting. That’s essential for everybody in this type of work, unless you’re a total hermit and get it all out of your own head, which I could never possibly do (Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, 2010, 32).

But Taylor’s activism is not limited to the world of academia.

In addition to traveling for conferences and small-group networking, Taylor has also long been active in politics. In his comparison of Taylor’s (Canadian) response to modernity with the responses of Jürgen Habermas (German) and Maruyama Masao (Japanese), Robert Bellah notes that all three have combined social science with philosophy, “all of them with what Habermas has called ‘a practical intent.’ That is, each of them has been not only a scholar, but an activist, and all in the service of the great modern ideal of democracy” (“Confronting Modernity” in Warner, VanAntwerpen, Calhoun, eds., Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age 2010, 32). This is evident very early in Taylor’s career. During his student days at Oxford he launched one of the first campaigns to ban the hydrogen bomb in Britain. And he has remained politically active in Canada ever since. Most recently he served the government of Quebec as co-chair on Le Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d’accommodement reliées aux differences culturelles. Taylor describes the value of his experience in politics in terms of learning: “The unity of theory and practice is true for me, in the sense that I have learnt enormously from my involvement in politics. There are things I have learnt that I never could have learnt in books” (cited in Smith, Charles Taylor, 2002, 16-17).

The Irenic and Catholic Taylor
Before turning to ASA in the next post, two final points about Taylor deserve mentioning. First, Taylor is extremely irenic, which is summed up in a fairly lengthy but excellent characterization by Charles Mathewes and Joshua Yates:

Charles Taylor’s work has always suffered from a deficit of melodrama. Despite his engagement with some of the most profound and contested issues of our time, his work evinces little in the way of operatic apocalyptic prophecy, thundering jeremiad, or panting messianic expectation. Nor will one find there an unwarranted optimism or a plaguing pessimism (let alone a fashionable cynicism). He is neither breezy nor brooding, neither complacent nor contemptuous. If anything, his work exhibits a nondefensive sincerity—patient with those who confuse it with overearnestness, but impatient with the siren song of ironic distanciation that those so confused offer as an alternative—that is anathema to such hysterics (“The ‘Drive to Reform’ and Its Discontents” in Colorado and Klassen, eds., Aspiring to Fullness in a Secular Age 2014, 184).

Mathewes and Yates go on to suggest that Taylor’s “irenic spirit” is not only an “expression of his demeanor” but also an “intentional mode of living with modernity” that stems from a “passionate commitment to a third way between modernity’s knockers and boosters,” which is grounded in his deeply held Catholic faith (Ibid. For Taylor’s description of modernity’s boosters and knockers, see Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity 2003, 10-12). And this leads to the final point about Taylor: his faith.

Gianni Vattimo has noted that the prohibition of religion is over (“The Trace of the Trace,” in Derrida and Vattimo, Religion 1998, 79-94). Religion is no longer relegated solely to departments of religion or anthropology. All sorts of other academic disciplines are now exploring religion, including economists, literary critics, political theorists, social scientists, and philosophers. And Taylor is too, especially in ASA, which contains the most explicitly Christian language and formulations of all his works. One might try to argue that there has been a religious turn in Taylor’s work. But as Carlos Colorado points out, anybody familiar with Taylor knows that ASA is not Taylor’s first work to emphasize religion. According to Colorado, ASA “represents the culmination of at least a decade’s worth of research exploring a wide range of religious themes, including Trinitarianism and Catholicity as possible foundations for a pluralistic politics” (“Transcendent Sources and the Dispossession of the Self,” in Colorado and Klassen 2014, 73). Colorado adds that Taylor has also been exploring “agape as the grounds for ethics as benevolence; and transcendence as the underpinnings for an entire corner of the ‘modern moral order’” (Ibid.). Moreover, in their work Aspiring to Fullness in a Secular Age, Colorado and his co-editor Justin Klassen make it their explicit mission to demonstrate a more deeply entrenched presence of religion in Taylor’s work. According to their introduction, the contributions are meant to “examine the ways in which transcendence functions, both explicitly and implicitly, in Taylor’s philosophical project as a whole” (2014, 2). Their book sets out to explore,

among other things, this hint of a possibly pervasive religious concern in Taylor’s thought and works in various ways to show where we might or might not recognize it, as well as questioning and exploring the wider significance of such a concern. Aspiring to Fullness in a Secular Age thus calls upon its contributors to take up in a focused way the role of religion in Taylor’s philosophy (Ibid., 3).

Colorado and Klassen go on to also note:

Because Taylor’s entire project, from its very early stages, can be read as a negotiation of the conflict between the declining viability of foundationalist accounts of truth and the lingering problem of justifying human commitments, or at least access to ‘moral sources,’ which he believes remain basic to any honest experience of personhood, the direction of his arsenal at the question of secularization is enormously suggestive. For example, if the practice of genealogy, which Taylor has adopted in works previous to A Secular Age, is shown in the latter to function in some sense as a defense of religiosity to claims of humanity’s ‘inevitable’ immanentization, it may become impossible henceforward to read ‘religion’ out of any of Taylor’s genealogical polemical efforts (Ibid.).

One of the most fascinating contributions to Colorado and Klassen’s collection, offered by Bruce K. Ward, focuses on the presence of Dostoevsky in Taylor’s works. In this piece, Ward is more concerned with the intellectual affinity between Dostoevsky and Taylor than on the influence of Dostoevsky on Taylor because, he thinks, it is more instructive, particularly “for the role that Christianity plays in Taylor’s philosophical program” (“Transcendence and Immanence in a Subtler Language” in Colorado and Klassen 2014, 264). Ward notes that Taylor had understandably been reticent about his faith until the 1989 publication of his Sources of the Self (henceforth referred to as Sources). Ward goes on to observe that, “at a decisive moment toward the end of Sources of the Self, when the affirmation of a theistic perspective appears imminent, he declines the move, appealing instead to Dostoevsky” (Ibid.). The passage from Taylor is worth citing in full, not only for its appeal to Dostoevsky, but more importantly for the hints Taylor offers about both his reticence and his own religious views:

Does [the naturalist affirmation] move us to extend help to the irremediably broken, such as the mentally handicapped, those dying without dignity, fetuses with genetic disorders? Perhaps one might judge that it doesn’t and that this is a point in favour of naturalism; perhaps effort shouldn’t be wasted on these unpromising cases. But the careers of Mother Teresa or Jean Vanier seem to point to a different pattern, emerging from a Christian spirituality. I am obviously not neutral in posing these questions. Even though I have refrained (partly out of delicacy, but largely out of lack of arguments) from answering them, the reader suspects that my hunch lies towards the affirmative, that I do think that naturalist humanism defective in these respects—or, perhaps better put, that great as the power of naturalist sources might be, the potential of a certain theistic perspective is incomparably greater. Dostoevsky has framed this perspective better than I ever could here (517-518).

Taylor thus offers us a glimpse into which way he leans, but only a glimpse. For he only affirms a “theistic perspective” over a “naturalist temper” (defined by Taylor in Sources, p. 19 as one that “would like to do without ontological claims altogether and just make do with moral reactions” and “is very suspicious of this talk of meaning and frameworks”). He will become more explicit about his position in future publications, but even at the beginning of Sources, he provides a clue: “I am not at all neutral on this controversy, but I don’t feel at this stage in a position to contribute in a helpful way to it” (12). But jump forward seven years, and things really begin to change.

In 1996, Taylor received the Marianist Award from the University of Dayton in Ohio (Marianists are members of the Society of Mary, a Catholic religious order that was founded in Bordeaux, France, in 1817. In 1850, its members founded the University of Dayton in Ohio). Established in 1950, the award was originally given to scholars who made a significant contribution to Mariology. In 1986, the focus of the award was expanded to honor a Roman Catholic who made a major contribution to intellectual life. Meager compared to other awards Taylor has earned, the recipient of this award receives $5,000, a piece of Marian-themed art, and an invitation to present a lecture on campus about how their religious faith has affected their scholarship and vice versa. Some recipients of this award have noted the unusual nature of the request but have nevertheless taken the opportunity to reflect on the relationship between their faith and their scholarship. Taylor is no exception.

On the occasion of the presentation of the Marianist Award, on January 25, 1996, Taylor offered a lecture titled “A Catholic Modernity?” (Published in Heft, ed., A Catholic Modernity? Charles Taylor’s Marianist Award Lecture with Responses by William M. Shea, Rosemary Luling Haughton, George Marsden, and Jean Bethke Elshtain 1999). It is in this lecture that Taylor first begins to be explicit about his faith. He opens the lecture with the following introduction:

I am very grateful to the University of Dayton, not only for their recognition of my work but also for this chance to raise with you some issues that have been at the center of my concern for decades. They have been reflected in my philosophical work, but not in the same form as I raise them this afternoon, because of the nature of philosophical discourse (as I see it, anyway), which has to try to persuade honest thinkers of any and all metaphysical or theological commitments. I am very glad of the chance to open out with you some of the questions that surround the notion of Catholic modernity” (13).

There are at least three important points to note from this passage. First, we see his view of philosophy, which hearkens back to his tendency to be problem-oriented in all of his work. The very nature of philosophy, Taylor argues, requires one to attempt to persuade all honest thinkers. In other words, problems must be approached without any ideological agenda. Instead, they must be pursued and explored with an open and honest mind, intent on seeing them through to their logical ends. And this is precisely what one encounters in Taylor. In fact, Taylor’s entire oeuvre both embodies this and is itself an attempt to convince others to do the same.

Second, we find Taylor himself affirming Colorado and Klassen’s thesis, namely, that transcendence is a key component to Taylor’s entire philosophical project. In this Marianist lecture, Taylor begins to be very explicit about his Catholic faith. But before doing so, he says he’s going to talk about issues that have been his central concern for decades, ideas that have been in his philosophical work all along, just not in the same form. And he even tells us why, as we saw in the first point: because the purpose of philosophical discourse is not to preach one’s faith, but “to persuade honest thinkers of any and all metaphysical or theological commitments.”

And third, we begin to see one of the primary problems Taylor is wrestling with. While he will address the secularization thesis in ASA, and although we could frame this in philosophical terms, as Taylor did in all previous publications, the heart of his entire philosophical endeavor seems to be the question of how to be Christian (Catholic, in his case) in a secular age. And this is precisely the primary problem we’re exploring. But to answer this key question, we have to understand what it means to say that we live in a secular age. And to understand that, we must turn to ASA.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.


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  • commented 2018-04-02 08:56:38 -0500
    Very informative, thank you. Is this dissertation on Charles Taylor?