The philosopher Charles Taylor is a tall man — tall tall, as Hollywood agents say, to distinguish ordinary people from the stratospheric types — and he sprawls in his chair as he talks. Sprawls on the dais as he teaches.
Sprawls on the page as he writes, for that matter, which may be why he seems a little underrated these days. In one sense it's absurd to suggest the man needs more appreciation. In 1989, he published Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, which has only Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue as competition for the most-praised book of philosophy in English over the past 30 years. He came to Britain from his native Canada as a Rhodes Scholar and stayed to complete his D.Phil under Sir Isaiah Berlin and G. E. M. Anscombe. Along the way, he become a fellow of All Souls and the Chichele professor at Oxford, all while maintaining a professorship back home at McGill University, Montreal.
You may think philosophy doesn't pay — and in that, you'd be joined by every philosopher's wife, from Xanthippe onward — but Taylor's work has won him both the £1 million Templeton Prize in 2007 and the £375,000 Kyoto Prize in 2008.
And yet, in another sense, Taylor has faded. He's an eminence, everyone admits, and then they go away to talk about whatever latest bit of ephemera is making the move from the fringe of upper-middlebrow academics to the ballyhoo of the general public. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, for an annoyingly present example — a book that takes a few reasonable observations about statistics and builds them into a rickety tower of rules for life and business. (The takeaway? It's better to be lucky than good.)
The sprawl of Taylor's prose has always prevented the reduction of his work to this kind of catchphrase, as does, in truth, the sprawl of his thought. Where Sources of the Self took up everything from Homer to Hegel, Taylor's latest major work, the 2007 A Secular Age, examines the sources of modern social structures by describing everything from the early Middle Ages to Wittgenstein. It's a testament to the book that, at 896 pages, it became as popular as it did.
Besides, every pseudo-philosophical business book like The Black Swan — or pseudo-scientific atheist book like Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, or pseudo-intellectual economics book like Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics — is finally an exercise in instrumental reason. We want to get something useful out of them, and Taylor has spent decades decrying the instrumentalising of reason, the disenchantment of the world that follows from the self-contradictory demand for usefulness.