SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

Craig Calhoun

President, Social Science Research Council

When did you first meet Charles Taylor, and what were your impressions?
I first met Charles Taylor at Oxford, where as a student of Marxist leanings I sought enrichment of my perspective in a seminar on Hegel. The enrichment was, as sometimes happens, transformative. Not only did Taylor's Hegel change my Marx; more importantly, Taylor's immense learning changed my sense of what one ought to know. At first this was intimidating: I wasn't prepared for all the reconsiderations of the original texts on which Hegel drew, often conducted in the original languages. But still a third teaching was even more important: one could wear immense learning lightly; deep knowledge didn't preclude a democratic spirit and the ability to invite questions from even the most naïve students; and even when knowing an enormous amount, one could be eager to learn more. So, knowing a less than enormous amount, I was especially encouraged to learn more.

Did you get to know him better subsequently?
Several years after leaving Oxford, I re-met Taylor through what was then the Chicago-based Center for Psychosocial Studies and is now the thoroughly de-centered Center for Transcultural Studies. A group of mostly younger fellows was reading classical and contemporary theory in search of an intellectual orientation that could survive the backlash against the sixties, dramatic advances in some fields of knowledge, and the intensification of what now is commonly called globalization. We invited Taylor in for a seminar -- and we were charmed, informed, and perhaps above all encouraged. He became increasingly central not only to our thought and discussions but to the group itself. I think Charles found us at a moment in the 1980s when he was focusing his attention anew on several “big questions" that confounded the boundaries between philosophy and contemporary politics. We provided connections to several other disciplines, occasionally original insights of our own, and an attentive but argumentative reception for his explorations of a politics of recognition, multiple modernities, social imaginaries, the self, and secularism. He provided us with a role model, focal point, and friend. Charles raised the standards for each of us, and the group as a whole elevated the work of all its members.

Which is your favorite work of his and why?
Sources of the Self is very important to me. Here, Taylor wrote on the intellectual of history of the idea of self and the different forms of understanding that shape the modern practical as well as the intellectual understanding of the human person. The book -- to which I devoted an entire article a dozen years ago -- is a superb history and a deep and insightful work of theory.

How would you assess Taylor's role as public intellectual?
Throughout his career, Taylor has been concerned not only with abstract intellectual issues but also with the importance of key intellectual problems for the better understanding of public concerns and practical issues in a democratic society. I do not refer simply to the fact that he has been a committed political actor in Canada -- though he has been, and remains, an important one (he was recently named the co-chair of a commission to examine the need to accommodate cultural and religious differences in the public life of his native Quebec). I refer, rather, to Taylor's effort to write clearly and accessibly, even when discussing difficult matters. And I refer to his efforts to connect the most fundamental intellectual concerns to contemporary cultural and political concerns in helpful and engaging ways. He has done this repeatedly on a variety of different themes. His writings have been most influential, perhaps, on the intersection of problems of multiculturalism and expressive individualism. The series of lectures published as The Malaise of Modernity (which outside of Canada is titled The Ethics of Authenticity) is a major example. It has helped to inform discussion in Canada, in North America more generally, in Europe and throughout the world. Still more influential is Taylor's famous extended article on Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (published in a collection edited by Amy Gutman with discussions by a range of leading thinkers including Anthony Appiah, Jürgen Habermas, Michael Walzer and others). This was perhaps the single most influential serious scholarly work on questions of identity politics and multiculturalism that was written in the explosion of discussions of this theme in the late 20th century.

What would you say has been his most significant contribution?
Charles Taylor is one of the very few thinkers who could be considered among the foremost humanists and the foremost social scientists in the world. He is a leader in philosophy, in interdisciplinary social theory, in transnational cultural studies, and in religious thought. His work has profoundly informed our contemporary understanding of individual persons, culture, and society. To this day, his books and other writings are actively read and discussed throughout the world -- by social scientists and humanists of different disciplines and by educated intellectuals more broadly.