Taylor may be the most important philosopher writing in English today. He is drawn to big issues like the evolution of the modern self, and his latest book defends religion from its criticsby Ben Rogers / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Charles Taylor’s new book A Secular Age is well timed. Begun long ago, it is now published in the middle of intense public discussion about religion. But though the book reads like an argument with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it won’t be joining theirs at the front of the bookshops.
That is a pity, as Taylor is arguably the most interesting and important philosopher writing in English today. It is also in some respects surprising. For Taylor has most of the attributes that the public look for in a philosopher. His work addresses the big issues. He is politically engaged—indeed, he is a leading public figure in his Canadian homeland. He writes appreciatively about thinkers—including Hegel, the French existentialists and Heidegger—whom most anglophone philosophers view as suspect, but whom many students and non-philosophers find attractive. He addresses himself not just to academics but to educated readers. Tall and handsome, he is a confident and charming public speaker. It has to be said, however, that at 850 pages, A Secular Age is not the Taylor book one would recommend to a novice.
What makes Taylor so important? Over more than 40 years, four large books, four or five slimmer essays and several volumes of articles, he has worked out a distinctive network of arguments and an exceptionally rich analysis of the modern self and its values—an analysis that reveals us to be altogether deeper and more interesting, but also less self-aware, than we tend to suppose.
At the heart of Taylor’s thought is a critique of “naturalist” modes of thinking, whether manifest in philosophy, social science, economics or psychology. For Taylor, naturalism is the view that all human and social phenomena, including our subjectivity, are best understood on the model of natural phenomena, by using scientific canons of explanation. So wherever possible, apparently complicated social entities should be reduced to their simple component parts; social and cultural institutions and practices explained in terms of the beliefs and actions of individuals; value judgements reduced to brute animal preferences; the physical world to sense data; sense data to neurological activity and so on. Taylor believes that in the last 400 years, naturalism has fundamentally reshaped our individual and collective self-understanding. Seeing the limits of this mode of thought promises to give us a critical purchase on ourselves and our culture.