Charles Taylor

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 critics
February 29, 2008

Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog. Click here to read Prospect's exclusive interview with Charles Taylor


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.

Taylor's critique starts from the belief that you can't understand human actions unless you make an imaginative leap into the worlds of the agents—a leap which has no counterpart in natural science. You can't understand ethical or aesthetic values on the model of animal preferences because all human cultures give central place to some version of the distinction between "lower" appetites and higher goals by which appetites should be judged and regulated. Taylor argues, in short, that narrowly scientific, reductive approaches to the human world always prove "terribly implausible."

For Taylor, all outlooks, actions and meanings take place against largely unarticulated background understandings—something he suggests both Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein understood. These background understandings—or moral and social "imaginaries"—will generally centre on beliefs about the universe and the place of humans in it, the good society and the good life. Naturalism then finds its support in one particular scientific "imaginary."

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Taylor's account of the rise of naturalism shows us modernity against a background of pre-modernity, thus throwing characteristically modern values into relief. We are predisposed to see the universe in "flat" rather than hierarchical terms and to understand everything as existing in a single temporal order. So did Descartes. But reading Descartes in context, we see that this is in fact a peculiar way of understanding the world. Taylor challenges naturalism's understanding of its own history as the "forward march of reason," and shows how it emerged from religious, cultural and political movements.

This brings us to the second major concern of Taylor's work. Beyond demonstrating the limits of naturalism, Taylor is concerned to help us understand our modern selves, our values and culture. What is the modern social imaginary? Taylor gives the most worked-out answer in one of his masterworks, Sources of the Self (1989). Here, he sets out to tell the story of the evolution of the modern self—or perhaps just the "self" insofar as it is really only in modern times that humans have had a strong sense of selfhood. Taylor seeks to unweave a number of conceptually distinct but historically related strands to the self. First, we moderns characteristically make a sharp distinction between the inner self and the outer world, finding the sources of reason and value not, as classical and medieval cultures did, in some higher, external realm, but by ordering our inner lives properly. We assume truth and virtue are reached by stepping back from the outer world and getting our thoughts and emotions in order—by following logical procedures, listening to our conscience and subjecting our emotions to reason.

The second distinctive characteristic of the modern age is the significance it attaches to ordinary life. In a movement that began with the Reformation, we have come to find value in spheres once thought of as "low"—work, family life, play, sport, sensual enjoyment. Two further elements to the story are worth mentioning. First, beginning with the Romantics, modern culture took an "expressivist" turn. Previously, people had been expected to conform to some more or less standard model of the good life. The Romantics, however, attached a new value to self-expression and authenticity, in both individual and collective-national forms. Second, while at first the new ways of thinking and feeling were limited to the elite, in the 20th century the culture of the "inner self" and in particular its "ethics of authenticity" seeped downwards, transforming the values of ordinary people. Nowadays we all seek our own paths through life, whether experimenting with alternative religions, finding ourselves through travel or expressing ourselves through taste in music and books.

Taylor has sometimes been classed as a "communitarian." But that term is misleading if it suggests someone unsympathetic to the modern values of freedom and self-expression. Taylor has always argued that modern culture is enormously, perhaps uniquely, rich—his quarrel is with what he sees as its pathologies. I have mentioned his criticism of naturalism, but his argument with aspects of liberal individualism is another example. Taylor is no enemy of liberal democracy. But he has argued that liberals are often not sufficiently sensitive to the strength and value of cultural ties—particularly nationality and language. We need a politics, Taylor has argued, that can articulate liberal forms of community and identity, otherwise we will simply get illiberal versions of these things. The challenge facing nations with high immigration, like Britain, France or Canada—as Taylor argues in our interview with him—is not, as some multiculturalists have argued, to dismantle national culture, but to tackle the obstacles that hinder integration, including narrow, monistic or xenophobic identities among both migrant and "host" cultures.

There are few better living examples of an engaged public intellectual than Taylor. Born in 1931, he was brought up in Quebec. In the 1950s, he studied at Oxford, where he became a theorist of the "new left"—a loose group of young intellectuals united by little more than a desire to distance themselves from both Soviet-style communism and British Labourism. Regular visits to France left him with a taste for francophone thinkers. In 1961, he gained his doctorate—a critique of psychological behaviourism—under the supervision of Isaiah Berlin. He returned to Canada and, in the 1960s, ran four times for parliament as a candidate for the centre-left New Democratic party. He was never successful, but the 1965 election found him in a high-profile contest in the Quebec constituency of Mount Royal against friend, fellow intellectual and future Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Taylor returned to Oxford in 1976 to become Chichele professor of social and political theory, and while there published two widely read books on Hegel that did something to reconcile English-language philosophers to that famously obscure German. Hegel's metaphysics—in particular his pre-Darwinian, teleological view of nature as an expression of spiritual power—may be dead, Taylor argued, but he analysed better than anyone the tensions between scientific instrumentalist and Romantic expressivist values, tensions which remain at the centre of society, culture and philosophy today.

Taylor's move back to Canada in 1981 marked a new phase in his political career, this time as a leading commentator in debates about the future of the Canadian federation and Quebec's place in it. He has consistently argued for devolution but against independence—he is as suspicious of tidy answers in politics as in philosophy. His position on Quebec has informed his qualified support for multiculturalism, expressed most famously in an influential 1992 essay "The politics of recognition." Taylor acknowledges that his bilingual upbringing has informed his argument that language cannot be understood, as many scientifically influenced linguists and philosophers have argued, as a purely representational tool. Following Rousseau and Herder, Taylor suggests that language determines what it is possible to think and feel—much like the "background understandings" with which language is intertwined. At 77, now a widely honoured elder statesman, Taylor has just been appointed to co-chair a government-sponsored inquiry into the accommodation of religious minorities in Quebec.

It would be hard to make the case for Taylor as a great stylist. He writes too much and too casually. But looking over his books, I find them better written than I remembered. He is a notable phrasemaker—the "ethics of authenticity," "politics of recognition," "shared understandings" have to some degree entered the academic lexicon. He wears his learning lightly, and writes, like he dresses, in a casual, open-necked style. If the major books go on a bit, the articles and essays don't mess around.

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Two final features of Taylor's work deserve note. One is the breadth of his learning. No contemporary philosopher moves as easily between anglophone, French and German thinkers, helping outsiders see what is of value in thinkers and schools with whom they are not familiar. The second is a great generosity of spirit. Taylor writes with appreciation and insight about a wide and idiosyncratic range of figures—Isaiah Berlin, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Stuart Hall, Iris Murdoch, Alistair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty and Clifford Geertz, to mention a few. And he is generous about more minor academic figures. Looking over his bibliography, it is striking how many of his essays have been written for festschrifts.

Like Taylor's early work, the new book, A Secular Age, is in part a quarrel with naturalism—in this case naturalistic accounts of religion's place in the modern world. Ever since the Enlightenment, naturalistically minded thinkers have assumed science and modernity were inimical to religion. A particularly confident version of this viewpoint predicts that with time religion will succumb to modernity—bringing about the "death of God." This view looks less credible now than it did 150 years ago, with around nine out of ten Americans now professing belief. Yet a more modest variant—to which both Dawkins and Hitchens subscribe—is widespread; this holds, first, that scientific progress has been animated by a timeless commitment to scientific truth, and second, that insofar as religion has survived, this is thanks to the tenacity of pre-modern modes of thought.

A Secular Age sets out to offer a richer characterisation of secularisation and the nature of contemporary belief, both religious and sceptical. Where Dawkins-type naturalists see modern religiosity as a throwback, Taylor argues that all modern western religious attitudes—believing and non-believing—are expressions of a distinctively modern culture. Building on the narrative developed in earlier works, the first part of the book traces the evolution of this culture from its emergence in the Reformation and counter-Reformation to the present. Again, much of the analysis revolves around a contrast between a pre-modern understanding of the self as embedded in a confined, hierarchical and purposeful order—"an enchanted world," with only the fuzziest distinction between nature, man and the supernatural—and a modern "disenchanted" understanding, premised on sharp distinctions between the natural, supernatural and human. The self emerges on this understanding as a new entity, to some degree cut off from other selves and the external world, but with a compensatingly rich "interiority." Each modern "self" contains within it conflicting feelings or drives—some higher, some lower—and each is responsible for achieving some sort of ethical ordering of these, through a combination of religious practice, moral and bodily discipline, good work and industry. There is a sense in which this new culture of the self was and is intensely "individualistic." But it was never unsocial. Taylor writes brilliantly about the new social forms—the nation state, the market economy, the charitable enterprise—and the ideals of altruism and public service that have emerged with them.

Having laid out the origins and anatomy of the early modern self, Taylor then goes on to chart its evolution. Christian understandings of the self were challenged by deist and humanist ones. The limits to the humanist creed led in turn to it being challenged by Romantic and anti-humanist movements. Indeed, Taylor suggests, we see in modernity a characteristic dynamic by which the limits of one outlook spawn several others (he writes of "a nova effect") until we get to our own time, where there is an enormous array of worldviews—"deep ecology," Taylor suggests, being perhaps the latest.

We are now better placed to understand the relation of modernity to religion. The naturalists and progressivists are right that modernisation has brought with it secularisation. It has taken us from an "enchanted world," in which the holy and the magical are intertwined with the mundane, to a naturalised one, where even believers understand God as a "transcendent" and in some ways hidden force. But, Taylor contends, it is not the spirit of scientific reason alone that got us here. On the contrary, the modern worldview, including our "scientific" understanding of nature as rule-governed but purposeless, was largely born from the Reformation: "The new interest in nature was not a step outside of a religious outlook… it was a mutation within this outlook."

It is equally mistaken to believe—and this is Taylor's most fundamental point—that the survival of religious attitudes in our own day can only be explained by the process of secularisation having not gone far enough. For Taylor, insofar as we live in a secular age, this means not that religion is in decline or has declined—in some places it is on the rise—but that there is no religious orthodoxy; that religion and scepticism live side by side, often in the same person.

There are, Taylor thinks, several reasons why secularisation has not brought with it a thorough "atheisation." Most fundamentally, we moderns are subject to a number of "cross-pressures." We are proudly commonsensical, suspicious of extravagant belief systems and anything that smells of magic or superstition. Yet the modern or "immanent" universe can also seem flat and constraining. The spiritual and bodily disciplines and good work it demands can feel oppressive or limited. It leaves us with a very imperfect, often violent, nature and a particularly bloody political legacy—and no sure means of escaping these. No wonder the "buffered self" is prone to feel isolated—to hanker after a cosmic order or some route to spiritual transcendence.

Thoroughgoing naturalism in particular struggles to do justice to many of the things we moderns feel and believe. It tends to exist in tension with other aspects of the humanist inheritance—the sense that great works of art, especially music, can put us in touch with something higher; the feeling that some things (great cultural artefacts, what remains of wilderness, human life) are "sacred," or that some causes (the eradication of poverty, the end of political oppression, the preservation of species) are "transcendent." Hence we find even the most hardheaded naturalists, like Dawkins, insisting that atheism has a place for reverence, awe and the sacred. But the more they insist on this, the more problematic their naturalism seems. The big weakness of Dawkins's books has always been the chasm between his materialism—the stuff of his main chapters—and the somewhat starry-eyed humanism, bookended into his introductions and conclusions.

Subject to these cross-pressures, the "great majority," says Taylor, "live in a neutral no man's land between strong atheism and strong religiosity," a land in which people can wander between options, and carve their own path.

Taylor has been a devout Catholic all his adult life—in our interview with him, he describes being brought up in a family of Catholics, Anglicans and ardent atheists and admits to not being able to make sense of the steps that led him as a young man to Catholicism—and it is obvious that his belief has shaped his thought. There is even something distinctively Catholic in his depiction of our searching modern souls and elusive predicament—at once greater and sorrier than naturalists recognise. And as he has got older, his belief has become more explicit in his writing. A Secular Age is effectively a polemic against dogmatic atheism. The history of the "forward march of reason" atheists is often bad. Their worldview feels narrow and they find it hard to offer a position from which to resist the "cross-pressures" that buffer all modern belief systems.

But A Secular Age is also meant, I think, to show how religious belief is not as logically aberrant as atheists like Dawkins suggest. Here it is much less successful. The heart of the atheist case against religion—where "religion" denotes more than a vague spirituality—is that its claims seem wildly unreasonable. Taylor does not even try to persuade us otherwise. The views of naturalists and atheists, whatever their shortcomings, are positively sober when compared to what even liberal churches ask us to believe.

A Secular Age is far too long and undisciplined. Seasons waxed and waned in the time it took me to read it. Yet it is full of insights, and many of its component parts—notably Taylor's discussion of the "pressures" that make a settled view on the big ontological questions hard to sustain—are as good as anything by this magnificent philosopher.

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