Charles Taylor: A Philosopher For Today

Meeting chaired by Victor Suchar

Harry Cowen

University of Gloucestershire

4 April 2006

Introduction: Biographical material.

Charles Taylor was born 1931. He is a Catholic Canadian philosopher who is also recognised as a major political theorist. He is one of the world’s leading hermeneuticists, but a thinker not easy to pigeonhole, given the range of his writings in both the social sciences and philosophy. One of the founders with British sociologist Stuart Hall of the precursor of New Left Review, he represents a rare example of the philosopher- activist, always attempting to bridge the worlds of academe and practical politics. A leading member of the New Democratic Party in Canada, he became Vice – President of the NDP in the Province of Quebec.

An electoral candidate for the NDP on a few occasions in Montreal, he lost in 1965 to the Liberal Pierre Trudeau, who soon after became Canada’s Premier. Taylor was for many years both Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at McGill University, Montreal. For a period in the 1980s, he became Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, succeeding the major political theorist Sir Isaiah Berlin. Currently, Taylor is Emeritus Professor at McGill and Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern University. Among his main works are The Explanation of Behaviour (1964); Hegel (1975); Philosophical Papers (in 2 volumes, 1985); Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (1989), and The Politics of Recognition (1992).

It is not my intention here to discuss all of his writings, but instead to focus on what I consider to be certain of his seminal writings that may offer an insight into why he has become a major contemporary philosophical voice, not least in the pursuance of teleological thinking and in affirming the Enlightenment tradition in the face of postmodern thought.

Sources of the Self

Sources of the Self, irrefutably a tour de force of modern political thought, constitutes a search for the moral sources of our modern identity. For Taylor, the modern world has focused on certain precepts which have offered ethical direction, namely ‘rights’ ‘autonomy’; the avoidance of suffering’ and the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’. He presents three axes of moral thinking:

our sense of respect for and obligation to others;
our understandings of what makes a full life;
the range of notions concerned with dignity.
Yet in the modern world, he argues, in tension with these, has been the ideal of the disengaged self. Within the modern moral consciousness lies a tension between ‘the affirmation of ordinary life, to which we moderns are strongly drawn, and some of our most important modern distinctions’. (Taylor,1989:24). He continues: ‘we are in conflict, even confusion, about what it means to affirm ordinary life’.(p.25).

Arguably, the central statement of Taylor’s work, preceding a wholly impressive historical analysis of the route of the self, is one which elides the sphere of the moral with the definition of identity:

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame of horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand. (Taylor, 1989:27).

This was a clear rejoinder to John Rawls (1979) and the latter’s conceptualisation of the ‘unencumbered self’, lifted out of society, and those perspectives of ‘neutrality’ in the social science that have enabled theorists to hide their politics behind the veil of ‘scientific’ methodology. Indeed, says Taylor: ‘…it is on these grounds that I oppose the naturalist thesis and say that the horizons in which we live must include strong qualitative discriminations’. (Taylor, 1989:32).

Part I introduces Taylor’s underlying thesis is that there is a close connection between the different conditions of identity, or of one’s life making sense. ‘We must inescapably understand our lives in narrative form, as a ‘quest.’ And in tracing the historical development of the self, the book focuses on the connection of four terms: our notions of the good; our understandings of self; the kinds of narrative in which we make sense of our lives, and conceptions of society: i.e., what it is to be a human agent among human agents.

Taylor, in his sweeping, sometimes shapeless but always engaging historical analysis, devotes the major parts of Sources of the Self to tracing the four prime sources of our modern understanding of the self

Part II, charting the historical development of ‘inwardness’, discusses Plato’s notion of the nurturing of ‘self-mastery’ and Augustine’s dictum that "in the inward man dwells truth" Descartes’ ‘disengaged reason’ was a concept for situating the moral sources within us; Locke and Enlightenment thinkers, with their ‘punctual self’ produced a further advancement in the historical process of disengagement. Indeed, the 17th and 18th century contract theories spelled the shift from a communal sense of identity towards people starting off ‘as political atoms’. (Taylor, 1989:193).

Part III analyses ‘The affirmation of ordinary life’, seen as another towering feature of the modern identity. Witness Protestantism and the Reformation; Francis Bacon’s scientific revolution; 18th century Deism and the idea of the Providential order; and then the very flourishing of the culture of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of economics, the new consciousness in the modern novel and the changes in sensibility, so that sentiment takes on a moral relevance.

Part IV treats nature as a source of the self in ‘The Voice of Nature’, first through Rousseau and Kant. Taylor views Rousseau as ‘the starting point of a transformation in modern culture towards a deeper inwardness and a radical autonomy’.(Taylor, 1989:363). Expressive individuation became one of the cornerstones of modern culture through the writings of Wordsworth, Hegel and Herder, who viewed human beings through the prism of a larger natural order, whilst arguing that access to such a natural order stems from within.

Part V focuses on ‘the subtler languages’, embracing the moral ideas of universal benevolence and democracy in Victorian times, and the Romantics’ perspective of nature as the expressive self.

Taylor concludes that human life is ‘irreconcilably multileveled’ as a result of the ‘inward turn’, given that: (a) the original unity of the theistic horizon has been shattered; (b) the sources of the self ‘can now be found on diverse frontiers, including our own powers and nature’; (c) not everyone is living according to recently evolved beliefs – we need to take a cut through time if we are to comprehend our society; (d) the concepts of the self connect with certain notions of inwardness, which are thus peculiarly modern and are themselves intertwined with the moral culture; (e) we are thus better equipped to understand the standing areas of tension or threatened breakdown in modern moral culture.

Beneath the agreement on moral standards ‘lies uncertainty and division concerning constitutive goods. At the same time, we are enmired in the ‘conflict between disengaged instrumentalism and the Romantic or modernist protest against it’.

Critiques of Sources of the Self.

Of course, Taylor is not without his critics, not least for his own underlying theistic values. Quentin Skinner (1994:37-48) finds Taylor’s position that ‘the secularised outlook’ is unable to cope with moral challenges, unlike belief in God, as problematic. History contradicts Taylor’s priority, argues Skinner: look at the catastrophic results of religion in Western Europe. Indeed, part of the Enlightenment project itself was positioned to challenge the idea that the full significance of human life can only be appreciated by belief in God. Taylor’s reply (1994:213-257) re-affirms the differences in assumptions, and points to the ‘havoc’ wreaked from atheism in the 20th century. However, whilst restating that the ‘scale of affirmation of humanity by God must be placed higher than humans rejecting God’, he does concede: ‘But I am far from having proof.’ (Taylor, 1994:226).

Owen Flanagan, in his work Self-Expression (cited in Smith, 2002) suggests that Taylor’s account of identity has two basic flaws: it is ‘intellectualist’, in that it lends too much weight to reflection and articulacy, and it is ‘moralist’, in that it exaggerates the role of moral principles in constituting identity (in Smith, 2002:96). The use of Taylor’s Hegelian historical method comes into question. Nicholas Smith argues that contact with moral sources may be desirable, but it does not follow that moral sources are necessary for moral life (Smith, 2002:116).

The obvious criticisms have emerged from the analytical philosophy school, which carps that Taylor’s sources are not really philosophy, but more like literature and rhetoric. On the other hand, those in the Continental tradition can appreciate that the recovery of moral sources ‘is their true vocation’, but they ‘turn away from traditional modes of philosophical analysis in pursuit of this goal’. (Smith, 2002:119).

Taylor & the Social Sciences.

Taylor’s writings on the social sciences, including psychology and political science, show philosophy as a critical tool at its best. I would contend that his probings into the underlying assumptions of the so-called scientific approach to human life make his work an essential antidote to contemporary scientism.

Explanation of Behaviour (1964) anticipated a plethora of writings critiquing the model of social sciences which attempts to mirror the methods and claims of the natural sciences. Hence Taylor’s Weberian stress upon the human activity of ‘interpretation’ in the social sciences, and his constant Aristotelian pursuit of the teleological for understanding human action and behaviour.

The book targeted the behaviourist school in psychology, which saw the science as based on mechanistic explanation of behaviour. Taylor argued that intentionality and meaning has no role here, and contended that behaviourism needs to show that animal behaviour is explicable in mechanistic terms, yet it cannot do so. It is clear, states Taylor, that the laws governing animal behaviour are not actually mechanistic. Teleology is clearly important. Agency, including intentionality, is present in higher animals: agency per se is not uniquely human, indicating the continuity between animals and humans, although certain aspects of agency are unique to human beings (and this constitutes the heart of Taylor’s later works on the human sciences).

Taylor’s second volume of Philosophical Papers, ‘Philosophy and the Human Sciences’ (1985) contains major essays enunciating Taylor’s critique of scientism. ‘Interpretation & the Sciences of Man’ demonstrates the ‘hermeneutical component’ in the human sciences following in the wake of Dilthey, Gadamer, Ricoeur and Habermas. He attacks the sterility of an epistemology of human sciences that looks to the natural sciences. ‘What of phenomenology?’ he enquires. One must evoke the meaning of an event to the subject, who is not a stone. The whole human dimension of inter-subjective meanings is sidelined in the social sciences, not least in the work of those empirical political scientists propelled by their goal of a verifiable science and the search for brute data. The world cannot simply be transformed into facts. Hermeneutics is the way forward, not ‘value free’ analysis and ‘prediction’. Political science may recognise the sphere of beliefs, but ignores the collective and communal growth of beliefs. Common, shared meanings are the bedrock of community (Taylor, 1985:39). Human sciences cannot be ‘value free’; they have to be moral sciences. Ideas such as prediction can have no place here, given that humans, as agents, do reflect and thus may change a possible, predicted outcome.

Along parallel lines, ‘Neutrality in Political Science’ (originally in Laslett & Runciman, 1967, but also in ‘Philosophy & the Human Sciences’, 1985) attacks the idea that political philosophy (dealing with values) can be separated from political science (dealing with ‘facts’). Such a dichotomy must lead to the maintenance of a political system, and thus does not challenge the latter. The point is, Taylor argues, that any given framework of political analysis must necessarily contain a conception of human needs, wants and purposes. The adoption of a framework of explanation carries with it the adoption of the ‘value slope’ implicit in it.

In setting out a given framework, a theorist is also setting out the gamut of possible polities and policies.’(Taylor, 1967:89).

The functionalist theories such as that of American political scientist David Easton’s A Framework for Political Analysis offer a trenchant example, with their use of terms such as ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’ as description of facts or actions. Utilisation of the human organ analogy turns them into value-laden terms, and thus they are ideological. Significant political questions cannot be answered by ‘neutral’, scientific explanation. Taylor suggests a seminal political example: a theory is needed to explain why McArthyism arose in the 1940s. A number of different factors are available which may answer the question, such as ‘personality structure’; the ‘United States political framework and the struggle between the Executive and the Legislature’. Taylor notes that the task of theory in political science is ‘to discover what are the kinds of features to which we should look for explanations’ (Taylor, 1967:62). One must pick out crucial variables. But the theoretical frameworks erected for this purpose are indeed competing frameworks. In this respect, a Marxist is likely to identify crucial variables different from the behaviourist or the psychologist. Each theoretical framework contains an implicit set of values, which relate to human needs. To this extent, a political science, in searching for a framework, cannot avoid developing normative theory.

What kind of criticisms has Taylor’s work on the human sciences attracted? Clifford

Geertz, the social anthropologist (in Tully, 1994) argues that in attacking the natural sciences and their methodology/epistemology, Taylor has missed the many kinds of changes (social, technological, epistemological), which have occurred in the sciences, in physics, chemistry, biology, etc. He misguidedly lumps the sciences together.

But Taylor, in rejoinder (1994) holds onto the separation of natural & social sciences: human beings, he reaffirms, possess a set of features different from stars or amoebas, and what we can say about them is evidently different.

Taylor & Political Philosophy.

Another disciplinary strand of Taylor’s overarching hermeneutical project is political philosophy. It is in this realm of analysis that has situated him as one of the contemporary world’s leading philosophical communitarians. Understanding politics must be informed by political philosophy. His critique of atomism lies at the heart of his work in political philosophy. In his essay ‘Atomism’, in Philosophy & the Human Sciences (1985), he identifies atomism as the feature most closely characterising the doctrines of social contract theory in the 17th century and after. Writers such as Hobbes and Locke have left a legacy of ‘the primacy of rights’, which now serves to justify individualistic political actions and structures. Atomism represents for Taylor a view about human nature and the human condition, which is inaccurate and damaging. Where Hobbes, in assuming self-sufficiency, dismissed any discussion of quality of life being developed in society, Taylor notes that the very capacity to exercise autonomy and freedom can only be developed socially (not simply in the arena of the family) and culturally. Underpinning Taylor’s political philosophy is the notion of social morality, and a sustained critique, along with fellow North American political philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre (1981), Michael Sandel (1982) and Michael Walzer (1983) of the individualism which re-emerged with a vengeance in the late 1970s and the 1980s through the writings of right-wing philosopher Robert Nozick and liberal philosopher John Rawls, and through the state social policies of Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Says Taylor:

He (the free individual) cannot…following Nozick…be concerned purely with his individual choices and the associations formed from such choices to the neglect of the matrix in which such choices can be open or closed, rich or meagre. (Taylor, 1985:207).

We cannot live as autonomous agents prior to society (as suggested by Rawls in his proceduralist A Liberal Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls purports the state to be neutral ‘between individuals’ conceptions of the good life. But such ‘neutrality’, says Taylor, inhibits the encouragement of any strong sense of citizen identification within politics. Some notions of the good need promoting in a liberal society.

The Practical Application of Theory: The Politics of Recognition & Multiculturalism

In the context of Canada and Quebec, Taylor’s position on the recognition of political interests (‘Political Recognition’) stems from his earlier critique of atomism. Atomistic doctrines like the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights, he states, have actually undermined the development of a political culture of citizen self-rule. This has led to crises of legitimation and political fragmentation, with the prospect of a separatist Quebec succeeding from English Canada ever-present. Basically, the Charter is founded more on legal rights than any sense of collective identity, thereby undermining participatory democracy. The subsequent devaluation of the majority will represents a more widespread tendency throughout the modern West (charted in Sources of the Self, discussed above, but also more briefly articulated in The Ethics of Authenticity (1992), originating as a series of Massey Lectures, ‘The Malaise of Modernity’ 1991, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). The upholding of individual rights indeed acts as a bulwark to the acceptance of French-Canadian claims for recognition (which has led to fragmentary modern nationalist movements). Taylor argues for ‘deep diversity’ as an antidote to individual rights, in dealing with the strains of a pluralistic society, perceiving it as the only way for different groups to co-exist in a Canadian federal society.


Charles Taylor’s is a major voice in preserving the values of the Enlightenment, embracing both socialism and liberalism. He represents the rare example of the academic and the practical philosopher. He has been a unique figure in straddling the "human" disciplines: philosophy and epistemology; political philosophy; philosophy of social science; hermeneutics; literature and the arts. A key figure in opposing atomistic thinking and its practical corollary of individualism, he has made a cogent plea in his communitarian writings for the re-emergence of public discourse and the moral identity. He is a figure that stands alongside Habermas in the contemporary world, although more accessible. He is a robust analytical philosopher who crushingly demolishes the many inconsistencies of arrogant claims to ‘value free’ empirical investigation in the social sciences, especially in psychology and political science, whilst offering crucial insights into the role of commitment and human agency, which move beyond the analytical tradition. But his particular landmarks for the way forward remain locked in the vicinity of spirituality. Nevertheless, whereas his situating of the moral self in the theistic realm may rest too much on his own faith, even though he tends not to make the theism explicit, the wide sweep of his work bears ample testimony to the critical spirit.

Harry Cowen

List of References.

Geertz, C. ‘The strange estrangement: Taylor & the natural sciences’, in Tully, J. (ed) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (Cambridge: CUP, 1994):83-950.

MacIntyre, A. After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1981).

Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

Sandel, M. Liberalism & the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: CUP, 1982).

Skinner, Q. ‘Modernity & disenchantment: some historical reflections’ in Tully, J. (ed) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (Cambridge: CUP, 1994):37-48.

Smith, NH. Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals & Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2002).

Taylor, C. ‘The Politics of Recognition’ in Gutman, A. (ed) Multiculturalism, (NJ: Princeton UP, 1994).

Taylor, C. ‘Neutrality in Political Science’ in Laslett, P & Runciman, WG (eds) Philosophy, Politics & Society, 3rd series (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967):25-27, in Philosophy & the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: CUP, 1985):58-90; The Explanation of Behaviour (London: RKP, 1964); Hegel (Cambridge: CUP,1975); ‘Interpretation and the Sciences of Man’ in Philosophy & the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: CUP, 1985):15-57; Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989); The Politics of Recognition, in Gutman, A. (ed) (NJ: Princeton UP, 1992); ‘Charles Taylor replies’ in Tully, J. (ed) Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The philosophy of Charles Taylor in question (Cambridge: CUP, 1994):213-257; ‘Atomism’ in Philosophy & the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers vol. 2, (Cambridge: CUP, 1985):187-210.

Walzer, M. Spheres of Justice (NY: Basic Books, 1983).

Other Works by & on Charles Taylor

Abbey, R. Charles Taylor (London: Acumen, 2000); Abbey, R. (ed) Charles Taylor (Cambridge: CUP, 2004).

Redhead, M. Charles Taylor: Thinking & Living Deep Diversity (NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

Taylor, C. Hegel & Modern Society (Cambridge: CUP, 1979); Human Agency & Language: Philosophical Papers, vol.1 (Cambridge: CUP, 1985); Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1995); Varieties of Religion Today (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 2003); Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, USA: Duke UP, 2004).