A Canadian philosopher worth reading

Posted: May 21, 2007 9:47 AM
A Canadian philosopher worth reading

In winning the Templeton Prize for religion, philosopher Charles Taylor is not only $1.5 million richer, but he also joins an august company of scholars and world leaders, including physicist Freeman Dyson, author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, evangelist Billy Graham, and Mother Teresa. I’m delighted Taylor won, because he’s one of the three or four leading philosophers in the world. I consider him the most important conservative thinker writing today.

The strange thing is, Taylor’s views on contemporary political issues are hopelessly liberal. As a student of his work, I invited Taylor year ago to give a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. I asked him to speak on the topic of how we in the West went from the ancient idea of the soul to the modern idea of the self. He gave a beautiful talk and answered questions, and then we had a small dinner in his honor.

Several conservative luminaries were present: Irving Kristol, Charles Murray, Ben Wattenberg, and Michael Novak (who also won the Templeton). The Clinton impeachment scandal was heating up, and naturally everyone wanted to know what Taylor thought about the matter. Incredibly this great moralist could do no better than say, “It’s ridiculous. A media circus. Let’s forget about it and move on.” Having just heard Taylor’s lecture on the dilution of our public moral vocabulary, everyone in the room was dumb-founded. Later someone said, “We have to overlook the guy’s politics. He’s Canadian!”

Yes, Taylor’s politics are drearily conventional, which may be the price he pays for maintaining his intellectual credibility in a very liberal academic climate. But even though he would never put it this way, Taylor’s philosophical work is profoundly conservative. He is one of the few explicitly Christian thinkers in the leading precincts of academia. Taylor’s arguments are worth reading because they provide intellectual ammunition for what many of us conservatives believe. The only thing it doesn’t do is offer a strategic plan of action.

Taylor’s magnum opus is Sources of the Self, a magisterial account first published in 1989 of the origins of the modern identity. This book is an education in itself, and I suggest reading it twice, once to grasp the powerful and sweeping scope of the argument, and then a second time, to digest the rich morsels. Here you will see how we have moved in the West from the idea of the soul to the idea of the self. Taylor shows how traditional morality was challenged by the morality of the inner self, so that we now have two rival moralities contesting the public sphere, with traditional morality on the defensive and what Taylor calls the morality of authenticity in the ascendancy.

Taylor’s book The Ethics of Authenticity is a wonderful short account of why our young people today attach such a high value to such things as “sincerity” and “self-fulfillment.” Somehow Polonius’ advice to Laertes—“To thine own self be true”—has become a kind of contemporary gospel. Taylor describes it this way: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way and not in imitation of anyone else’s. This gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.” Taylor traces the intellectual lineage of this way of thinking, and shows why some of the most enthusiastic backers of modernity fail to appreciate the deeper moral sources that modernity draws and indeed depends on.

I first encountered Taylor in the mid-1990s through his book Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Accustomed as I was to having my own critique of political correctness challenged by academics educated beyond their intelligence, I was astounded to find in Taylor a much more profound account of the rise of identity politics than anything I had encountered. Basically Taylor makes the case for the universal application of fundamental liberal principles while at the same time making room for recognizing group identity and group claims where only secondary liberal values are concerned. I apply some of Taylor’s insights to the Muslims in my most recent book The Enemy at Home.

Taylor’s work has become more explicitly religious in recent years. His most recent book, published in 2003, was a new interpretation of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Taylor shows why James is still relevant and that even though some forms of the old-time religion don’t make much sense today, in other ways religion is more germane than ever to make practical sense of our lives. I don’t consider this book Taylor’s best effort, but that still makes it very good.

I wish I could read Taylor’s forthcoming book on secularism now, since I am in the process of finishing my new book What’s So Great About Christianity, out from Regnery in October. But Taylor’s A Secular Age is not out until September. This is Taylor’s eagerly-awaited study of how we came to live in a secular age. At one time virtually all of the orbit of life in the West was shaped by religion and specifically Christianity. But now we live in a time and place where our political, economic, scientific and cultural activities are largely removed from the sphere of religion. I want to learn from Taylor what we have gained and what we have lost, and whether it is possible to retrieve some things that have been hastily left behind.

Taylor’s Templeton award will, I am sure, free him to be even more productive in the future. This is one of the best things that philanthropy can do: find a man of genius like Taylor and then liberate him to focus completely on his work. Don’t even let the man make his own bed or clear his dishes. This is how the dukes and earls of old got so much work out of the artists they patronized. The Templeton foundation is in this great tradition. Eventually I think this prize will come to be seen as more important than the Nobel. Charles Taylor is one of the reasons why.