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.