SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

Rajeev Bhargava

Professor of political theory and Indian political thought, University of Delhi

Do you remember when you first met Charles Taylor? Can you re-create for us what that was like?
I met Charles Taylor 30 years ago in Oxford. I had heard about him only weeks earlier when a friend, a student of Bernard Williams, told me that in Williams' opinion, there was one contemporary philosopher who was breaking new ground -- Charles Taylor. I wanted Taylor to glance through a draft of my B.Phil. thesis on Hegel. Taylor commented generously on it, not in the least offended by the temerity of the thesis, for its "outstanding" feature was the startling omission of the best recent book on the subject. It was foolhardy of me to ignore this book not only because no thesis at any level could possibly be written without reference to Taylor's magisterial Hegel but also because only a little later this work was to have a major impact on my thinking. So a common admiration for Hegel brought Taylor and me together.

I subsequently read more of Taylor -- in particular, The Explanation of Behaviour, which I used in teaching the philosophy of social science in Jawaharlal Nehru University. This work had striking affinity with Merleau-Ponty's philosophy. I had known the French philosopher's work since my college days in Delhi when I bunked classes in economics to find "meaning in my life." Merleau-Ponty's pull was magnetic not because of what he wrote -- I wonder if I understood him then? -- but because of the sheer magic of his name. Its very sonorous sound lent him a certain aura. He seemed even more lustrous when, driven by the dry, self-consciously anti-literary style of analytical philosophy, I left Oxford for a month to visit exotic book shops in America and discovered some of the best-looking books ever! Merleau-Ponty's books, as published by Northwestern University Press, dazzled me. But it was Taylor's books that made me understand them years later. So Merleau-Ponty, too, drew me to Taylor. What kept me drawn to Taylor was the world created by his books -- every single one of them. And for me personally, Taylor's combination of simplicity, generosity, and -- if I might use the term -- nobility was irresistible.

Can you pick a favorite?
That's difficult. For a start, Taylor's range of concerns takes one's breath away. Cutting across specialist boundaries, he has written illuminatingly about a wide spectrum of philosophical topics -- moral theory, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and aesthetics and political theory -- as well as on the history of ideas and the history of political and social thought. He draws upon and speaks insightfully on a wide variety of philosophical traditions. His persistent and quite definitive critique of positivism is accompanied by a careful construal of a philosophical anthropology that underpins his own understanding of social science. His vision of human beings is compelling. For Taylor, human beings are deeply social and historical, self-interpreting, strongly evaluating, ethical animals who are at once necessarily embodied, almost always expressive in pre-reflective and reflective media, and prone to ever-richer articulations of their own condition. But I cannot single out any one book that spells all this out. Still, the first chapter of Hegel, entitled "Aims of a new epoch" always takes my breath away. It is one of the most complex, enriching and fascinating first chapters in the history of Western ideas.

How has Taylor influenced the development of your own work?

In four main ways:

  • Taylor's insistence that moral reasoning is a form of practical reason. He aims to establish not that some position is correct absolutely but rather that it is superior to some other plausible position within a certain context.
  • Taylor's own distinctive brand of deep pluralism -- his commitment to the idea that any plausible conception of human flourishing is so rich and complex that it can never be fully embodied in one life, one society, one culture, or one civilization. For Taylor, the sources of the values of even one society or one civilization are too varied and diverse to be captured by doctrines driven by single principles or values. Like Berlin, he accepts that many of these values generate conflict. However, unlike Berlin he believes that we can struggle towards their eventual resolution or reconciliation. This makes him a decidedly progressive thinker in the old-fashioned sense of the word without committing him to the idea that there is an eventual blissful state where all conflicts are resolved and overcome.
  • Taylor's continuous struggle against a narrowness of vision bred by an unreflexive attachment to styles, approaches, methods or even particular philosophical schools, academic disciplines, political ideologies, and even civilizational outlooks.
  • Taylor's remarkable readiness to be open to other outlooks and civilizational resources -- even though he has complex religious as well as secular roots and is steeped inescapably in Western civilization.

What do you think has been Charles Taylor's most important contribution as a public intellectual?
To show that one can be a public intellectual without losing nuance, that one can be public and yet be immune to any categorical classification and that one need not reduce complex thoughts to formulas. There are few ideas that Taylor completely rejects or wholly embraces. He is able to do so because though he stands on one side, he helps us to imagine what it's like to be on the other side. What he says about the pragmatist philosopher William James, is equally true of Taylor himself and his entire philosophical outlook.

Commenting on James' view on the struggle between belief and unbelief in modern Western culture, Taylor says: "James is our great philosopher of the Cusp. He tells us more than anyone else what it's like to stand in that open space and feel the winds pulling you now here, now there. It needed someone who had been through a searing experience of morbidity and had come out the other side. But it also needed someone of wide sympathy and extraordinary powers of phenomenological description and one who could feel and articulate the continuing ambivalence in himself." Likewise, Taylor forces us to catch both horns of a dilemma while acknowledging all along that no one has a knock-down argument to compel us to let go of any one theory. He may come down on one side of the argument but not without leaving us bereft of the force of the other side.

What do you think is his most important contribution to the understanding of secularism?
I'd prefer to say something about a small part of secularism rather than the concept in general. Taylor has shown that political secularism is not an "optional extra." It is always flattering to hear him speak glowingly about my conception of secularism based on "principled distance." But really the idea is his own because the philosophical and intellectual conditions that made it possible stem entirely from his writings and outlook.

Published on: Friday, June 08, 2007