SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

Saba Mahmood

Associate professor of social cultural anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

When did you first read Charles Taylor, and can you recall your initial impressions?
I first read Charles Taylor's work in graduate school when I was just beginning to think about different conceptions of freedom in liberal thought and concomitant models of self and personhood. I began with Charles Taylor's Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2, which opened up a pathway for me into his remarkable work, Sources of the Self.

When you met Taylor in person, did any of your impressions change?
I first met Charles when I started teaching at the University of Chicago (in the late 1990s). I participated with him in a small working/reading group convened under the auspices of the Center for Transcultural Studies. The group met for three years to read and discuss the question of secularism within different historical and national contexts, with a particular focus on how to theorize about the relationship between liberalism and secularism.

One of the most enduring impressions I have of Charles from these meetings is not simply his erudition (which won't be a surprise to anyone who has read his books), but his ability to listen, engage, and reflect upon ideas and criticisms offered by others. I know of very few intellectuals of Charles' caliber who have the capacity to think about a problem collectively with others, to teach as much as to learn from this process of engagement, and, in the end, to produce work that is remarkably synthetic but also true to his own long term projects and goals. These qualities are a testimony to Charles' remarkable humanity and intellect, one that in its copiousness and precision has provoked us to think about some of the most difficult issues of our times.

What do you think has been Taylor's most important contribution as a public intellectual?
Charles Taylor remains one of the most important philosophers of our times first and foremost in his refusal to step back from the task of thinking through some of the most challenging questions confronting the global community today. His recent work -- including Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited and the about-to-be-published A Secular Age -- succeeds in unsettling many of society's dearly held beliefs and commonplace assumptions about religion, violence, and secularism.

Published on: Friday, June 08, 2007