SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

William E. Connolly

Krieger-Eisenhower professor of political science, Johns Hopkins University

Do you remember when you first started reading Taylor? What was it that drew you in and got you excited?
I started reading him in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I appreciated him then as a critic of both empiricism and rationalism in their most hubristic modes. An essay he wrote called "Neutrality in Political Science" blew up the "fact-value dichotomy" which then prevailed. Another essay introduced a linguistically complex mode of hermeneutics or interpretation to an audience of young scholars looking for an alternative to the stale traditions then offered to them.

Which is your favorite work of his and why?
I have several favorites, but Sources of the Self is probably at the top of the list. In it Taylor delineates the idea of a moral "source," which exceeds established linguistically mediated ideas and inspirations, which must be altered as it becomes infused in this way or that into an intersubjective network, and which alters that network to some degree as it is folded in. This pregnant idea put tremendous pressure on the neo-Kantianism and proceduralism of the day. It spoke to the God that inspires Taylor, but it could also be drawn upon by nontheists whose philosophy of immanence focuses on that fugitive, pregnant juncture between that which already exists and that which is flowing into being in a world of becoming.

Has reading Taylor changed the way you view your own work?
In several ways. He introduced me to the importance of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. He helped me to see the importance of language and the limits of designative theories of language. Most importantly, he has set a model of how to proceed in one's own work when exploring the loose but real relations between the ontological, epistemological, ethical and political registers of reflection. Taylor is not only unusually proficient at each of these levels, but he also constantly explores how his reflections at one level can inform those at others.

What do you think has been Taylor's most important contribution as a public intellectual?
Taylor is a model of what a public intellectual should be. His reworking of the communitarian tradition to maintain its depth while making room within it for what might be called a deep pluralism is to me his most important contribution as a public intellectual. Another would be the agonistic respect he displays to traditions that he subjects to critical reflection.

What about his contribution to the understanding of secularism in the modern age?
I have not read his forthcoming book on the topic. But from recent things I have read, I imagine he will appreciate the contribution secularism has made to modern life, even as he corrects its untenable divisions between public and private life, its own tendencies to closure, and its hesitancy to appreciate the role that faith plays in nontheistic as well as theistic traditions.

Published on: Friday, June 08, 2007