Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor
The philosopher Charles Taylor is a sadly endangered type: the philosopher-statesman. Born in Montreal in 1931, Taylor studied at McGill and Oxford, where he was a pupil of Isaiah Berlin and G.E.M. Anscombe. In 1961 he returned to his hometown to teach at McGill, and during the next decade he lost four races for the House of Commons, most notably in 1965 to future Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. By the end of the decade, Taylor was sufficiently well-known as a politico that even his writing two successive books on Hegel could not tarnish his public reputation. Taylor later taught at Oxford, then McGill again, and more recently at Northwestern. Over the years his interests have shifted from analytic philosophy to the concrete political realm; he has made major contributions to the fields of human rights, multiculturalism and communitarianism.
Taylor is particularly animated by the problem of Québécois nationalism, which concerns—and perhaps has determined—two of his chief sympathies: liberal democracy and multiculturalism, not just within societies but among them. Those sympathies conflict, of course. On the one hand, Taylor knows that liberal democracies are supposed to treat all people equally; on the other hand, he is sympathetic to his concitoyens’ desire for a French Quebec, an assertion of ethnic chauvinism that mandates legal privileges for one ethnic group and disabilities for another, such as the law prohibiting commercial signs in English.
As Taylor sees it, Quebec is not merely his worry but all of ours. For what he is asking—along with contemporaries like K. Anthony Appiah, Seyla Benhabib and Amy Gutmann—is how the Western liberal can reconcile a preference for liberal democracy with the illiberalism necessary for cultural preservation or self-preservation, which many accept as understandable goals. To those who feel that this tension is not easily resolved, the Jewish character of Israel, say, is not just a case of ethnic chauvinism—it is also the embodiment of a people’s aspirations to endure and thrive. At the same time, the believer in cultural preservation will be sympathetic to the Palestinian people—not just as individuals seeking justice but as a community with collective aspirations that could not be fulfilled by citizenship in some other Arab country.
The tension between liberal democracy and certain kinds of preference—whether the preference is construed as ethnic, religious, national or all three—at times feels unbearable for the Western liberal. Americans, as it happens, are particularly ill suited to dealing with the claims of religious and ethnic pride. We get to eat our cake in a country that is basically nice to us all, Scientologist and Sikh alike. The United States, for all its paroxysms of xenophobia, is unusual for being a country where ethnic chauvinism has basically no popular support or institutional sanction. (Representative Peter King’s recent hearings on American Muslim support for terrorism are a shameful exception.) Here, even outright bigots tend not to think anymore that their bigotry should be written into the law. With two possible exceptions—affirmative action and the case of self-governing Indian reservations—America pretty uniformly sides with liberal democracy, one adult/one vote, hedged by colorblind constitutional rights. Yet this is decidedly not the case for many other countries, even our closest cousins: Britain contends with Scottish nationalism and, of course, the once-violent conflict in Ireland; while Canada has, in addition to its native peoples, the far more politically charged issue of Québécois nationalism.
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Taylor is a more relevant statesman as a philosopher, with his electioneering days behind him, than he was as a politician in the 1960s. He has also become a very famous philosopher since then. In 1989 he published Sources of the Self, a voluminous philosophical and historical treatise on the evolution of identity in the West. In that book, Taylor argues that the modern human derives identity from “first, modern inwardness, the sense of ourselves as beings with inner depths…second, the affirmation of ordinary life which develops from the early modern period; third, the expressivist notion of nature as an inner moral source.” In 2007 he published A Secular Age, in which he tries to explain our “move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others.” It is a book so big that a reviewer could mention its heft (“weighing in at 1.3 kilos,” said the Guardian’s critic), a book that you may not have read but sense you ought to reckon with, the Infinite Jest of historical philosophy. Robert Bellah, the great sociologist, called A Secular Age “one of the most important books written” in his lifetime, which is the kind of hyperbole that at least keeps you from selling it to the used bookstore. That year, Taylor won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, a lucrative honor previously bestowed on the august, like physicist Freeman Dyson, as well as the not, like Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright.
Sources of the Self and The Secular Age bracketed shorter books, including Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition” (1992), in which Taylor attempts, rather inconclusively, to make sense of the Quebec problem. In 2008 he co-wrote a 300-page government report affirming Quebec’s French identity but suggesting ways to make it more accommodating to minorities. Earlier this year he published Dilemmas and Connections, an essay collection, not as boring as its meaningless title suggests, that updates points made in A Secular Age. Not long before, a conference on Taylor had yielded Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, a collection of twelve responses to A Secular Age from leading scholars in different fields, like Bellah and the theologian John Milbank.
Read one at a time, Taylor’s books can be illuminating and actually quite gripping. The Ethics of Authenticity, also from 1992, is a spirited defense of the West’s much-derided emphasis on fulfillment, or self-actualization, or what Taylor calls “authenticity” (this short book can function as Cliffs Notes for Sources of the Self). Yet his books can also be scattered, repetitive and windy, like the disparate essays in Dilemmas and Connections. Sometimes, Taylor is the kind of writer so fearful of simplifying a complex truth, or flattening out nuances, that he runs out of space (or courage or stamina) just when he seems about to say what he is trying to say.
For example, in the essay “Democratic Exclusion (and Its Remedies?),” in the new collection, Taylor writes that “a full understanding of the dilemma of democratic exclusion shows that there is no alternative” to what he calls “sharing identity space.” Sounds promising. But a few sentences later, as it occurs to you to ask what “sharing identity space” means, he writes:
What this means in practice is beyond the ambit of this essay. Solutions have to be tailored to particular situations. But some of the political mechanisms of this sharing are already well-known, for example, various brands of federalism, as well as the design of forms of special status for minority societies, such as we see today in Scotland and Catalonia, for instance. But many other modalities remain to be devised for the still more diverse democratic societies of the twenty-first century.
Here, as in numerous other passages in his work, Taylor is a master of the philosopher’s tease. After all the foreplay—the meaty problem (democratic exclusion), the examples both famous and less so (Scotland and Catalonia), the careful array of possible solutions—the climax is postponed. It is “beyond the ambit of this essay,” except we know that achieving it will involve “other modalities.” Cold shower, please.
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Still, when you take the recent books by and about Taylor together—as only a professional philosopher or a book reviewer would do—you see they offer an intelligible vision of how to think about the modern world. Because Taylor writes so much, any synopsis of his views is necessarily a travesty. I am about to attempt one, and it will leave out a lot; from this new collection alone, I am scanting his essays on Iris Murdoch and Paul Celan, which means I seriously underplay Taylor’s interest in art and literature. And I surely misrepresent him, for nowhere does he state the propositions I am about to ascribe to him; this is my gloss, and I don’t expect he would use language like mine.
Nevertheless, let’s consider five propositions I believe characterize Taylor’s recent work. The first is “Once enchanted, we are now disenchanted.” Up until about the year 1500, Taylor believes, people in Christendom were enchanted, had “porous selves” open to metaphysical notions, theophanies, divine guidance, etc. Since that time, we have become disenchanted: whereas once most people had no choice but to believe, belief is now an option. Today, even if we choose to believe in something unseen, belief is necessarily of a different character than it was in an enchanted age, when belief simply was.