Underrated: Charles Taylor

The tall man of modern-day philosophy needs a little more looking up to

Joseph Bottum

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.

We do genuinely desire usefulness, even while we never quite seem to ask what makes usefulness a desirable thing. Where MacIntyre sees the incommensurability of differing systems of ethical reasoning, Taylor insists that modernity has bequeathed us a surprisingly comprehensive consensus: on the instrumentality of nature, yes, but also on human rights, the reduction of suffering, self-determination, freedom and equality. 

What we lack, however, is something whose absence threatens the existence of these common goods, for we do not share any account of why they are good. We have been beaten down by modernity so systematically that we refuse, like a badly broken horse, the least suggestion of a source for morality. That allows people like Dawkins to ride us around the show ring for a while, but once all the reasons to be moral have finally been debunked, there will come a day — call it Peter Singer Day — when people start noticing that morality itself has become as illusory as they believed the sources of morality to be.

Throughout Taylor’s work there have been certain constants. His rejection of the naturalism of the scientific revolution as a reasonable metaphysics, a coherent account of the world, for example. So, too, his insistence, manifest most clearly in his 1992 The Ethics of Authenticity, that selves are formed in community, even when the community has somehow decided, communally, that we each carry around our own unique, non-communal selves.

Taylor is the very model of a post-analytic philosopher, using the precise tools of arid British philosophy to dig in the rich but sloppy soil of Continental thought. He’s also something of a postmodern, or perhaps post-postmodern, as when, in A Secular Age, he historicises and deconstructs Nietzsche’s historicising and deconstructing of belief in God. Most of all, he’s a devout Catholic — that great escape, as Chesterton once put it, from the terrible burden of being a child of one’s time — and he has always seen the ways that God, the true source of morality, keeps slipping through the attempts to squeeze Him out of human life and human culture.

No wonder such books as Sources of the Self and A Secular Age sprawl across their pages. Charles Taylor is a tall man — tall tall, as they say — and perhaps we’re not used to looking up enough to see how far he’s reached. But surely we could raise our eyes, just a little more.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"