The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor isn’t looking to pad some insulated chamber in the ivory tower. A passionate intellectual and internationally recognized philosopher, he has always been interested in the intersection between ideas and life, belief and practice. His widely read works of cultural analysis like Sources of the Self (1990) and A Secular Age (2007) are exercises in what Taylor calls “philosophically inflected history,” with a view to helping us get our bearings in the present. He is a philosopher interested, not in intellectual parlour games, but in the way that ideas shape and influence culture.
But Taylor is equally curious about how ideas bubble up from ways of life and communities of practice. He doesn’t only analyze or explain social realities; he is just as eager to listen to cultural voices. One can see this in his investment in the Province of Quebec’s Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (better known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission), a multi-year project that included town hall meetings in every region of the province, seeking to understand how ordinary believers live out their faith in a secular age. In Taylor we find a philosopher who has returned to the agora, mixing it up in the marketplace of social commerce.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Taylor to discuss a range of issues. In this selection from our conversation, we discuss how Taylor’s philosophical research has been motivated by his own existential questions about faith in modern life.
—James K.A. Smith, Editor
James K.A. Smith: Professor Taylor, thank you so much for making time for this conversation.
Charles Taylor: No, thank you.
JS: Your work has really spawned the theme for the Fall 2014 issue of Comment, devoted to the “cracks in the secular.”
As a philosopher I’m intrigued by how your background as a philosopher equipped you and prepared you to write books like Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. I can see the Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty rumbling around in the background, and I see Hegel doing a lot of work—though it’s not like people need to know that to be able to constructively engage your cultural analysis in these books. But did those philosophical sources enable you to do that? Could you ever have imagined, when you were writing your Hegel books, say back in the 70’s, that you would one day write a book like A Secular Age?
CT: Oh, yeah! I mean I wanted to write something like that. I remember in the 60’s—after Explanation of Behavior but before I actually wrote Hegel—I remember in the 60’s thinking, “This is very strange that there are all these people in the media and in my discipline that think I’m nuts.” [Laughs]
And I think they’re missing something. What is this? How do you explain this total difference—not just a difference of belief, but difference of what “the obvious” is, what the default position is. I wanted to write a story of the rise of modern unbelief or whatever, to try to explain it to myself. So it was always there, and I did these other things, and I knew I had to do some of these other things to get myself up to speed.
Then—maybe it was providential—I got this invitation from the Gifford Committee in Edinburgh [Taylor’s Gifford Lectures form the basis of A Secular Age]. Nobody else worries about Gifford’s will [laughter—since Gifford’s bequest that the lectures be focused on natural theology is often ignored] but I thought, “Let’s be appropriate here. This is the kind of call, maybe, finally to write this book.” I was scared to because it makes it so big for you, so important for you, that if you try it and then you fall off the cliff; you never get back up again.
That started a ten-year process. That was ’96, the lectures were in ’99, but I still worked on the project for a long time [A Secular Age was published in 2007].
JS: So in some ways it kind of grew out of your own existential questions.
CT: Yes, that’s right.
JS: And you saw that there was philosophical cultivation that had to happen, and then you would be in a place to do that.
Do you think the particular philosophical sources that you had engaged were important as opposed to … I mean I don’t want to caricature anything, but if you had had a more straight-up analytic philosophical training, do you think you could have done the same cultural analysis?
CT: Well, that’s not quite the right question, because I did have a straight-up analytic training, and I reacted against that. I thought, “This can’t be right! I mean this just doesn’t get in touch with anything. This is ridiculous!”
I came to Oxford—I did a history degree first, but I went to Oxford and did PPE (Philosophy, Politics, Economics) and I was fed a lot of the typical “sense datum” stuff—the most low-level, stupid, epistemological representational system, which I thought just can’t be right. You can’t discuss any important issues of human life. Then—see this is where my real sources come in!—some other guy was there with me as an undergraduate who spoke Russian, spoke French, went to Paris all the time. He gave me a book of Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception. He said, “You sound as though you would benefit.” Benefit? I read it and it was like, “Wow! [laughs] This is what I’ve been looking for!”
So I started to work on that. The Explanation of Behavior [Taylor’s dissertation and first book], in a way, is Merleau-Ponty heavily disguised in analytic language so that I could get it through the doctoral program.
JS: Yes, right: it’s sort of covert phenomenology in conversation with a more analytic school of thought.
CT: That’s right. Then Merleau-Ponty said something like, “All the important schools today descend from Hegel.” I thought, sitting at Oxford, that’s obviously wrong in one way. But sitting in Paris, you have Sartre and you have Marxism, and it starts to make a lot of sense. So maybe what I have to do is, I have to get this whole tradition in my purview. And in a way you can see that [A Secular Age] is kind of philosophically inflected history. Hegel was the first guy to do that on a really, incredibly powerful scale. If you want to do it, you have to come to terms with him, obviously.
JS: That’s actually after your formal training, which probably set you on a different trajectory.
CT: Yes, absolutely different.
JS: Then you came back and said, “No, if I really want to ask the questions I want to ask, I need different sources.”
CT: And I need to break out of a certain picture. You know, “A picture held us captive”—I’ve always used this Wittgenstein expression. People can be captured so they can’t see what you’re saying; they’re always translating what you’re saying back into their picture. I realized I had to break out.
So two things went on together for a long time: first, “giving a better picture of . . .”—so, for example, giving a better picture of what social science is. But then also, how do you explain that people dug themselves into that very unhelpful hole, right? How were we captivated by such pictures?
That constantly threw me back into looking at the whole history of the culture and the issue of A Secular Age was always a part of that.
JS: The Hegel piece is precisely what would attune you as a philosopher to be so attentive to the particularities of the history—the emergence of things, the contingency of things, probably?
CT: That’s right.
JS: Would that have then had a kind of chemical reaction with your own faith in being able to take up a project like A Secular Age?
CT: The two get interwoven. The first impulse is the impulse of a person of faith trying to see, “Why is, to me, the obvious starting point often so totally different from my peers?”
JS: Given what the regnant orthodoxy in your field and in the university might have been.
CT: Right. So that kind of question is always going there, and then that blends into the question of how to understand the growth of Western modernity.
Then in writing the Secular Age book, I read David Martin I was struck: his A General Theory of Secularization really breaks with the whole set of theories before, not just in not seeing secularization’s inevitable, but also because it recognizes difference. I mean one of the things about David Martin’s book is that suddenly we haven’t got a general theory of secularization of the Western World. We have the Anglophone, we have the Francophone, an Italian itinerary. We have the North German itinerary, and that was grist to my prejudice.
So you can see I’m gradually moving towards the idea that understanding the big question I had in the 60’s—why there’s this difference between my own understanding of what goes and that of my peers—has to be a history of, not the whole world, but a history of this culture that we’re in, this Western culture. I’m closing in on the project of taking Latin Christendom and seeing what brought about this shift, for some people, in what’s believable.
JS: Sure! It’s one of the reasons why some people obviously protested that you didn’t take account of these global realities. But of course that wasn’t the project that you were undertaking.
CT: Yes, but I have to say that there are lots of very, very valid criticisms of the form that “you didn’t take account of …” because, as I tried to say in the preface, [A Secular Age] is really like a collection of essays. I realized that my experience puts me in the centre, in the middle of the Anglophone, of the Francophone, and, because of my reading and interest in Germany, in the middle of the Germanophone…, okay?
But it’s also very Catholic-centred. I got this brilliant letter from a Dane who has written a brilliant book, and I hope I can get it translated, saying, “You didn’t understand Luther. You don’t understand how this makes for a different account.” Well, guilty as charged! I mean, I think of [A Secular Age] as a kind of sketch of what will one day (but never come!) be a more complete picture of that question of the Western World.
JS: Well, I think it has functioned as an invitation in that respect. You’re quite content to see people take pieces and trajectories and follow them more deeply and carefully and fill out, colour in the cartoon, as it were.
CT: Yeah, that’s right. Or change some of my summary judgments. You made the point [in How (Not) to Be Secular] about Calvin, and obviously Calvin is not one of my strong points. So I recognize that there are lots of things missing here, but what I’m tremendously pleased at, frankly, is that it started a discussion. Instead of people saying, “He didn’t write about that, so let’s forget that,” people say, “He didn’t write about that!” [laughs]
JS: Yes, and now, “Let’s undertake the work.” It’s a wonderful catalyst for what I think will be a generation of people who are working on these questions, which again, have such existential import.