SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

Daniel Philpott

Associate professor of political science, University of Notre Dame

Do you remember when you first read Taylor -- what were your impressions?
I discovered and was encouraged by Taylor's writings during the early years of my graduate study in political science and international relations at Harvard University in the early 1990s. My undergraduate studies of government and foreign affairs focused on Kant, Thucydides, and the ethical dilemmas of war and human rights. By the time I reached graduate school, I encountered a field that had moved in a sharply positivist direction, stressing scientific research design, hypothesis testing -- and neutrality. Taylor's philosophical essays showed me that political scientists were not neutral after all but rather "secreted" their value judgments deep into their empirical analyses. If that were true, then the enterprise of ethics could be just as important as the development of social science theory, despite the fact that the two remain worlds apart in the field of international relations. Taylor's essays should be mandatory reading for every graduate student in the social sciences.

What is your favorite work of Taylor's?
Though it is not easy to select a favorite, I would have to settle on Sources of the Self. Drawing on a breathtaking array of works in Western philosophy, Taylor takes on modernity by redescribing modernity. Not only is the modern self informed by autonomy, choice, and the rational calculation of ends and means, but also by communal ties, aesthetic expression, and spiritual longing. Taylor displays in this book one of the characteristics I like most about him: his ability to criticize modernity without denying what is best about it. Human rights, freedom, and equality are great achievements, he argues, but themselves require thick conceptions of the good in order to be sustained -- conceptions like those offered by religious traditions, for instance.

How has reading Taylor changed the way you view your own work?
Along with convincing me that positive and normative analyses belong side by side, Taylor has also inspired me to write about religion and in a way that doesn't become a "conversation stopper" -- as another brilliant and prominent public intellectual, the late Richard Rorty, an avowed atheist, once called it. Taylor has written about religion both boldly and charitably, commending what it offers to contemporary morality and politics yet cautioning against its easy alliance with the nation or the state. In so doing, he beckons and keeps non-believers in the conversation. Though Taylor, like other public philosophers and theologians, shares an emphasis on narrative and community, he avoids counselling withdrawal or a retreat to an internal conversation.

What do you think has been Taylor's most important contribution as a public intellectual?
Taylor is a true public intellectual according to the definition of Russell Jacoby in The Last Intellectuals -- not just an author of articles read by wide audiences but also an academic who first made a major mark on a field and then has spoken out publicly on that basis. He is one of the few exemplars of "bigthink" -- alongside Alasdair MacIntyre, Jürgen Habermas, and perhaps one or two others. At the same time, he has the uncanny ability to make ideas accessible without watering down their content. To answer the question, his most importance contribution as a public intellectual has been his invitation to Western audiences to reconsider the importance of religion, nation, ethnicity and community, yet without denying the importance of minority rights, tolerance, or the dignity of the individual.

What would you say is his most important contribution to the understanding of secularism in the modern age?
Perhaps my favorite of his essays on secularism so far has been his "Modes of Secularism." Here, he argues for an approach to pluralism that rejects the demand that religious people make their language and arguments conform to a set of "public reasons," as John Rawls and others have held. Taylor seeks, rather, a convergence on individual rights, democracy, and respect for community among a plurality of religious perspectives, each of which brings its own set of distinctive reasons to the table. The great promise of Taylor's vision is that it allows religious communities to contribute their best resources to democratic politics, as they did in the abolitionist movements and civil rights movements in America, but always in a context of respect for fundamental liberal freedoms -- thereby avoiding the fates of Sudan, Bosnia, and Gujarat.

Published on: Friday, June 08, 2007