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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is one of the world’s leading living philosophers. Chris Bloor talks to him about philosophy and society.

Charles Taylor’s intellectual journey took him from studying at McGill University in Montreal to Balliol College Oxford, then back to McGill. There he has taught philosophy and politics while writing a series of influential articles on concepts of freedom and the nature of explanation in the social sciences. His books include works on Hegel, as well as Sources of the Self: The Making Of The Modern Identity. His most recent book, A Secular Age, was published in 2007. In 2007 he was also awarded the Templeton Prize for his life’s work, which comes with an award of $1.5 million; and this year he was awarded the Kyoto Prize, which includes an award of 50 million yen ($500,000).

Chris Bloor: Professor Taylor, were you surprised to win the Kyoto Prize?

Charles Taylor: Yes, I was indeed, because it’s a very rare honour. I didn’t expect it at all. I understand it more now that I’ve gone there and talked to the judges. They’re not only looking for people who have done something important intellectually, but they look very much at your attitude – whether your motivation is to help mankind and so on. And the application to the political world of the idea of helping humanity was very important in my motivation.

Before that you won the Templeton Prize?

That’s right. That was even more surprising in a sense, because in previous years they were giving it to natural scientists who were interested in a link with spirituality, and not at all to … whatever I am! I guess I’m somewhere in-between a social scientist and a humanities person.

What are you going to spend the money on?

A lot of what I do in philosophy, in my work in general, comes out of networks. Certain people I work with need to meet together, and we can’t simply wait until we all get invited to go to a symposium in London or wherever. It’s very helpful to be able to move around, and to move other people around, and to bring them together in small groups, be it in New York or Chicago or Europe, or even Delhi, which is one of the places we’ve been meeting. That’s essential for everybody in this type of work, unless you’re a total hermit and get it all out of your own head, which I could never possibly do. I need to work like that. I’m doing things across disciplinary boundaries, and I probably make lots of mistakes when I cross these boundaries and poach in historians’ territory or political scientists’ territory or sociologists’ territory. You make less terrible mistakes if you’re working with sympathetic social scientists, historians, and so on.

You found the analytic philosophy at Balliol College dry and uninvolving. Do you have any advice to students who might find philosophy off-putting or not what they expected?

Really, it’s a DIY situation – do it yourself! That’s not necessarily impossible – I don’t mean do it yourself alone. I suppose I can best put this autobiographically. When I felt like that in Oxford, I found some like-minded graduate students, and we very quickly discovered some interesting authors – in our case Merleau-Ponty – so we read them together. This is what you sometimes just have to do, if it isn’t on offer in the course you’re doing. And on the web it’s even easier to get hold of interesting stuff and discuss it than it was for us back in the 50s.

The flip side of that is that some students, particularly in multi-disciplinary courses, find philosophy fascinating but overwhelming. They embark on required texts such as Heidegger’s Being and Time or something by Foucault, but they can’t understand them, there’s something missing which they expect to be there. What would you advise such students?

Well, yeah, that’s a very difficult thing, because you are quite right, sometimes, as with the work of Foucault, it can take a really big investment of time, particularly if it’s just you and the text and you’re reading it for the tenth time, asking ‘What’s going on?’ But there are some good commentaries out there. Hubert Dreyfus has written a commentary on Division One of Being and Time that I think really bridges the gap between Heidegger and anybody with a certain knowledge of philosophy in the English-speaking world. But it is certainly true that for both Heidegger and Foucault you definitely have to retool your mind (laughs). You don’t get it right away, because they’re not writing in terms immediately connected to the terms you’ve been used to.

Do you think there’s a problem in trying to fit such characteristic and difficult thinkers into a typical university syllabus?

At any given moment, in any given situation where people are discussing things, there are assumptions so deep they’re not even seen as assumptions, because they look so obvious – they look like ‘two and two make four’. The great example that I’ve been battling with throughout my life is the whole epistemological tradition from Descartes. Descartes says in one of the letters that we get all our ideas from the impact of the outside world causing representations in our minds. When he was saying that, he was saying ‘two and two make four’ – an obvious thing – yet it’s actually quite wrong in many ways (laughs). But people don’t see that: they get so into this ‘obvious’ way of thinking that it just never occurs to them it might be wrong.

When you get somebody thinking beyond the obvious, at first you’re baffled by what they’re saying – they seem to be speaking nonsense: ‘two and two is five’! ‘Retooling your mind’ means being able to haul the absolutely unquestioned frameworks up and looking at them, and seeing that it ain’t necessarily so; or maybe it is so in a way in the end, but you have to argue for it in light of other possibilities. That’s a very big change. And before the penny drops, you can be completely baffled by a text where somebody’s challenging your basic assumptions. It looks like somebody’s just denying obvious facts about the world or the mind.

In you work you’ve often been trying to correct a kind of failure of self-understanding of our culture. For example, you called Sources of The Self ‘an essay in retrieval’. In some sense we’re missing what it is to have arrived at this point in our history, so your work is an attempt to explain Western culture in the early 21st century to itself.

I think that’s right. I try to do that by delving back into history. If you’ve lived through a transformation you understand something of how you got to where you now are. But further generations may lose sight of history, and they take the mental landscape they’re in as being totally natural. They therefore miss something about the nature of that landscape, about the nature of their reference points of identity. They take them not as adopted possible reference points, but as the obvious ones you can’t avoid. So they’re living their identity, but in a way which hides very important dimensions and features of it. So it is a matter of retrieval – retrieving the trajectory that brought you to where you are. I think that should be a very important part of philosophical work.

How might that be accomplished?

Well, I think that there are certain moments in university history where this kind of retrieval was maximally facilitated. At the time of Max Weber – maybe we nostalgically magnify that – and even slightly later, you found that philosophy students in Germany, were given an incredibly broad course in Greek philosophy and the history of philosophy, and Kant and German idealism; but they also read Weber, Durkheim, Troeltsch, and Dilthey. So they had a broad understanding of how the questions then being debated had got to that stage.

That was one of the things that struck me when I managed to see the tail end of it – because I think it’s dying out, even in Germany. When I visited Habermas, he was handing on that kind of education to his students, even though he didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of the stuff that he was conveying to them. That’s what got me riled up when I went to Oxford – they were so narrow, those people: they weren’t even reading one tenth of the tradition that had got them to where they were.

I wanted to ask you about Sources of the Self. This year is the twentieth anniversary of its initial publication.

That’s right – already! That’s so fast, it just seems like yesterday!

That was the first book where I systematically presented what I wanted to say. Before, I wrote books on Hegel, and a lot of articles on aspects of social science. I was very much wanting not just to argue against certain positions in social science, psychology and so forth, but to understand why people were defending those positions which I thought were false and very implausible. But in order to see why, you have to see the development of the modern conception of the self. So that was the first attempt I made to open up that area – not simply arguing against certain errors, but trying to explain how the situation could arise in which those errors would be plausible to people. I still feel that was a real turning point in my work, because from then on I could expand and work on that field of problems – how we got to the point where the things we’re arguing about are ‘x and y’ as opposed to ‘y and z’ or ‘z and q’ – why the obvious alternatives seem to be these and not something else. And that’s a real effort of retrieval, trying to see how we got here, and trying to understand it differently.

You make many powerful assertions about modern identity drawn not only from philosophy but from the history of religion, and literature and art and so on. It is difficult for someone who does not have that breadth of knowledge to assess your claims adequately.

Yes. So great (laughs) – so people might go and read something! It connects up with what I was saying about my ideal picture of the German university circa 1920: that we really should have that kind of breadth in our education system for the history of humanities, social science, and so on. So I’m not displeased by that kind of reaction. If people really want to know if an idea is right, then they’ll go and read something, and it will make them capable of forming their own view about how we got to where we are.

The book contains a soundbite that sums up your criticism of the shallower aspects of our culture: ‘Nothing would count as a fulfilment in a world in which literally nothing is important but self-fulfilment’.

Well, ‘what makes things important in the end’ can’t simply turn on fulfilling or satisfying the self. That puts you in a kind of regress: ‘Okay! But what is it that is going to give me self-fulfilment?’ You have in the end to point to some purpose in something beyond you, such as in the way things are, or the way the universe is, or the way human beings are, or the direction of human history. The things that people find deep, deep self-fulfilment in all have that feature. One person says “I want to work with Médecins Sans Frontieres in the Congo” and another person says “I want to write the Great Canadian novel.” It should be obvious that all these forms of very deep satisfaction refer to something that reaches beyond you. So it’s a soundbite, but it has an important truth.

I was thinking about your recent book A Secular Age this morning and a bus passed by with an atheist (or more correctly, agnostic) slogan “There’s probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

I heard about that! It’s hilariously funny. It’s very odd, isn’t it? I’m trying to figure out why this is happening in our time. This new phenomena is puzzling – atheists that want to spread the ‘gospel’, and are sometimes very angry. I think it may be rather like the response of certain bishops to Darwin in the 19th century. The bishops had a sense that the world was going in a certain direction – more and more conversion, and so on – and then they find they’re suddenly upset in their expectation and they get very rattled and very angry. Similarly, we’re seeing this now among the secularising intelligentsia – liberals who felt that the world was going in a certain direction, that it was all going according to plan – and then when it seems not to be, they get rattled. So you get these rather pathetic phenomena. Putting things on buses as though that’s going to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on. A bus slogan! It’s not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody.

It seems symptomatic of when you say that modern people are stuck between two polarised positions – as you put it, Strong Atheism on the one hand, and on the other, Strong Religiosity. But this leaves the average person wavering between the two, not particularly drawn to one pole or the other, but kind of messing around in the middle.

That’s right. And it can lead just to perplexity, or it can lead to bricolage – putting together your own position. In A Secular Age I mention lots of people who obviously do so. Victor Hugo is a very good nineteenth century French? example of people who put together a middle position, and I think it’s a very, very widespread phenomenon today – including the cases where it’s de facto bricolage, but it doesn’t appear that they’ve put it together themselves. Then there are the cases where people are self-consciously putting it together. That’s what people often mean when they say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious. ‘Not religious’ means I don’t belong to any tradition with a pre-existing formula that I would have to sign up to; but I’m ‘spiritual’ in that I’m exploring this whole area.”

This scene of such a tremendous number of different positions – spiritual, anti-spiritual and what have you – being held simultaneously in the same society – is undoubtedly unprecedented in history, I think, and the number of positions are multiplying. There are positions which were just not thought of a hundred years ago at all. That passage about the two extremes people are reacting to was my attempt to look at some of the underlying dynamic.

You make the point in your work that liberal democracy is confused when it holds itself up as neutral. You say, in fact ‘liberal democracy’ is itself a value, which sometimes comes into conflict with other values, as it should, and we should recognise that this is inevitable.

Yes. I think that there’s no such thing as total neutrality, particularly in terms of what the good life is. For instance, the notion of participating, of being a citizen, taking part in determining the future of yourself and your society – I think this is not an ‘optional virtue’, as it were (laughs): it’s very close to the health and lifeblood of liberal, democratic society. We should be upfront about that.

You’ve suggested that when considering the claims of different cultural perspectives, it’s valuable to adopt a ‘language of perspicuous contrast’ – striving for a form of discourse which highlights the differences between those cultures rather than attempting to gloss over or reconcile them.

I think that’s what we have to aim at if we want to get these differences out into a sphere where there can be a rational and calm discussion of how to live together with tension between different groups. It’s only by coming to such a language that we can have a discussion that doesn’t degenerate into a kind of stigmatising of the other. It’s not just important in the classroom or the anthropology monograph, it’s tremendously important in our public debate. We need it very badly in our diverse societies. I’m very pleased about what happened in a public consultation in Quebec over religious extremism. People started off saying very xenophobic-sounding things, but then others, particularly Muslims, came along and said “this is just wrong.” The debate evolved to a non-caricature way of presenting the differences. I think that’s what we always have to try to do.

In an interview with Bryan Magee in 1978 you said a lesson from Marx is that “at the very moment when men have developed immense potential to control their lives and to make of themselves whatever they want, this power is, as it were, wrenched from their hands by their own internal divisions.” Similarly, in Ethics of Authenticity, you wrote of ‘La Lotta Continua’ – ‘the continuing struggle’ – a phrase you borrow from the Italian Red Brigade. Is your message here that a degree of conflict and upheaval is inevitable in Western society?

I hope we don’t have to get used to this level of disarray in our economy! But yes, in a general sense there are no final, determining solutions. There are deep dilemmas, and we’re being pulled in different directions, and we’re going to have to find the least destructive way of putting things together. I think that’s true also of the current dilemma, of on the one hand needing markets and a certain degree of free agency in them, and on the other hand, the need to head off the terrible consequences that markets can bring about if left unfettered. The resolution’s going to be difficult.

The same thing is true of the two tendencies I call the ‘technologist’ and the ‘expressivist’. I think most of us have both tendencies, but there are obviously people who are more into one or other, and they square off against each other. We’re never going to reach a final and definitive solution. That’s what I mean by La Lotta Continua. There’s always going to be the problem of putting perspectives together. There will always be people pushing terribly hard in one direction and not paying attention to other requirements. We are always going to need to knit together a solution that will last for a while between opposing tendencies.

So is the hope that we can strive towards some higher level in which the fundamental conflicts of culture are resolved a pipe dream?

Yeah. That’s a pipe dream. It’s a beautiful dream, but it’s not something we can possibly hope for. It’s a pipe dream in the kind of sense that Marxism in its original form contained. This means that Marxism’s a tremendously interesting philosophy to read, because it holds out an important definition of the main cultural contradiction – as opposed to its error of thinking that we can resolve it. It’s just as bad not even to see the contradiction – to have this bland neo-liberal view that there are no major cultural contradictions at all, and things will all go swimmingly, that we’ll all just globalise. This is the absolute nadir of blindness. Those neo-liberals have to be put to read Marx – and if they totally convert to Marxism, then maybe they’ll have to be corrected by a dose of reality!

Chris Bloor studied under Charles Taylor and now philosophizes in London.


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