SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Assistant professor of political science, Northwestern University

Do you remember when you first started reading Taylor? What was it that drew you in and got you excited?
I started reading Taylor as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, when I was writing my dissertation on the politics of secularism in international relations. I came across his essay "Modes of Secularism" in Rajeev Bhargava's edited volume and couldn't put it down. I was fascinated by the historical insight that he brought to bear upon modern formations of secularism. He writes with a unique and appealing combination of authority, vivacity and clarity that works across conventional disciplinary boundaries without disregarding their significance.

Which is your favorite work of his and why?
His about-to-be-published book, A Secular Age. It is phenomenal.

Has reading Taylor changed the way you view your own work -- and if so, can you give an example?
Taylor is a mentor and a role model for me because he is a successful academic, a valued public intellectual and -- perhaps most importantly -- a remarkably kind person, a great listener who has a certain calming presence in the room. He has also been a source of encouragement in insisting that the kind of work that I do, which involves the secular and the religious in the context of international relations, will find a place in my discipline as well as an audience beyond it.

What has been Charles Taylor's most important contribution as a public intellectual?
To help us understand the history of contemporary modern Western habits and ways of thinking, knowing and organizing ourselves socially, politically and, now, secularly/religiously. There is nothing more valuable than a philosophically and spiritually rich history of the present, which is what Taylor offers. He is also an eloquent and unassuming speaker who is able to communicate his views clearly to a wide audience.

You mentioned Taylor's forthcoming work on secularism. What do you think its most important contribution will be?
This latest book will demonstrate that the secular-religious binary that we know and live is not obvious, natural and given but is instead the contingent product of a massive and complex sociological, theological and historical transformation that began in Latin Christendom and continues to evolve today. I expect that the book will accomplish what many of us academics aspire to: the feat of allowing the reader to see what appears to be immediate and given in our world in an entirely different light and thereby opening avenues for new and unforeseen thinking, research and practice. No one does this quite like Charles Taylor.

Published on: Friday, June 08, 2007