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Charles Taylor
Full name Charles Taylor
Born Template:Birth date and age
Montreal, Quebec
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic, Hegelian
Main interests Communitarianism
Secularism · Religion · Modernity

Charles Margrave Taylor, (born November 5, 1931) is a Canadian philosopher from Montreal, Quebec best known for his contributions to political philosophy, the philosophy of social science, and intellectual history. Taylor currently teaches at McGill University in the Department of Religious Studies. He has delivered a cogent commentary on the development of behaviorism and cognitive science

Career[edit | edit source]

Taylor began his undergraduate education at McGill University (B.A. in History in 1952). He continued his studies at the University of Oxford, first as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College (B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics) in 1955, and then as a post-graduate, (D.Phil. in 1961), under the supervision of Isaiah Berlin and G.E.M. Anscombe.[1]

File:Charles Taylor.jpg

Charles Taylor

He succeeded John Plamenatz as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford and became a Fellow of All Souls College. For many years, both before and after Oxford, he was Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he is now professor emeritus.[1] Taylor was also a Board of Trustees Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern University in Evanston for several years after his retirement from McGill.

Taylor was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986.[2] In 1991, Taylor was appointed to the Conseil de la langue française in the province of Quebec, at which point he critiqued Quebec's commercial sign laws. In 1995, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2000, he was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec. He was awarded the 2007 Templeton Prize for progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities, which includes a cash award of US$1.5 million. In 2007 he and Gérard Bouchard were appointed to head a one-year Commission of Inquiry into what would constitute "reasonable accommodation" for minority cultures in his home province of Quebec, Canada.[3] In June 2008 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in the arts and philosophy category. The Kyoto Prize is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Nobel.[4]

Views[edit | edit source]

In order to understand Taylor's views it is helpful to understand his philosophical background, especially his writings on Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Taylor rejects naturalism and formalist epistemologies. He is part of an influential intellectual tradition of Canadian idealists that includes John Watson (philosopher), Paxton Young, C.B. Macpherson, and George Parkin Grant.[5]

In his essay "To Follow a Rule", Taylor explores why people can fail to follow social rules, and what kind of knowledge it is that allows a person to successfully follow a rule, such as the arrow on a sign. The intellectualist tradition presupposes that to follow directions we must know a set of propositions and premises about how to follow directions.

Taylor argues that Wittgenstein's solution is that all interpretation of rules draws upon a tacit background. This background is not more rules or premises, but what Wittgenstein calls "forms of life". More specifically, Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations that "Obeying a rule is a practice." Taylor situates the interpretation of rules within the practices that are incorporated into our bodies in the form of habits, dispositions, and tendencies.

Following Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, Michael Polanyi, and Wittgenstein, Taylor argues that it is mistaken to presuppose that our understanding of the world is primarily mediated by representations. It is only against an unarticulated background that representations can make sense to us. On occasion we do follow rules by explicitly representing them to ourselves, but Taylor reminds us that rules do not contain the principles of their own application: application requires that we draw on an unarticulated understanding or "sense of things"—the background.

Taylor's Critique of Naturalism[edit | edit source]

Taylor defines naturalism as a family of various often quite diverse theories that all hold “the ambition to model the study of man on the natural sciences.” [6]

Philosophically naturalism was largely popularized and defended by the unity of science movement that was advanced by logical positivist philosophy. In many ways, Taylor’s early philosophy springs from a critical reaction against the logical positivism and naturalism that was ascendant in Oxford while he was a student.

Initially, much of Taylor’s philosophical work consisted of careful conceptual critiques of various naturalist research programs. This began with his 1964 dissertation The Explanation of Behavior, which was a detailed and systematic criticism of the behaviorist psychology of B.F. Skinner that was highly influential at mid-century.[7]

From there Taylor also spread his critique to other disciplines. The still hugely influential essay, “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” was published in 1972 as a critique of the political science of the behavioral revolution advanced by giants of the field like David Easton, Robert Dahl, Gabriel Almond, and Sydney Verba.[8] In 1983’s “Cognitive Psychology” Taylor criticized the naturalism he saw distorting the major research program that had replaced B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism.[9]

But Taylor also detected naturalism in fields where it was not immediately apparent. For example, in 1978’s “Language and Human Nature” he found naturalist distortions in various modern “designative” theories of language.[10] While in 1989’s Sources of the Self he found both naturalist error and the deep moral, motivational sources for this outlook in various individualist and utilitarian conceptions of selfhood.

Taylor and Hermeneutics[edit | edit source]

Concurrent to Taylor’s critique of naturalism was his development of an alternative. Indeed, Taylor’s mature philosophy begins when as a doctoral student at Oxford he turned away, disappointed from analytic philosophy in search of other philosophical resources which he found in French and German hermeneutic and phenomenology.[11]

The hermeneutic tradition develops a view of human understanding and cognition as centered on the decipherment of meanings (as opposed to, say, foundational theories of brute verification or an apodictic rationalism). Taylor’s own philosophical outlook can broadly and fairly be characterized as hermeneutic. This is clear not only in his championing of the works of major figures within the hermeneutic tradition like Dilthey, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, and Gadamer.[12] It is also evident in his own original contributions to hermeneutic and interpretive theory.[13]

Communitarian critique of Liberalism[edit | edit source]

Taylor (as well as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, and Gad Barzilai) is associated with a communitarian critique of liberal theory's understanding of the "self." Communitarians emphasize the importance of social institutions in the development of individual meaning and identity.

In his 1991 Massey Lecture, "The Malaise of Modernity," Taylor argued that political theorists, from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, have neglected the way in which individuals arise within the context supplied by societies. A more realistic understanding of the "self" recognizes the social background against which life choices gain importance and meaning.

Philosophy and Sociology of Religion[edit | edit source]

Main article: A Secular Age

Taylor’s later work has turned to the philosophy of religion, as evident in several pieces including the lecture “A Catholic Modernity” and the short monograph “Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited.”[14]

However, Taylor’s most impressive contribution to date is his book A Secular Age which argues against the secularization thesis of Max Weber, Steve Bruce, and others.[15] In rough form, the secularization thesis holds that as modernity (a bundle of phenomena including science, technology, and rational forms of authority) progresses, religion gradually diminishes in influence.

Taylor begins from the fact that the modern world has not seen the disappearance of religion but rather its diversification and in many places its growth.[16] He then develops a complex alternate notion of what secularization actually means given that the secularization thesis has not been borne out. In the process, Taylor also greatly deepens his account of moral, political, and spiritual modernity that he had begun in Sources of the Self.

Politics[edit | edit source]

Taylor was a candidate for the social democratic New Democratic Party] on three occasions in the 1960s, beginning with the 1962 federal election when he came in third.

In 2010, Taylor said multiculturalism was a work in progress that faced challenges. He identified tackling Islamophobia in Canada as the next challenge.[17]

Interlocutors[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]


  1. 1.0 1.1 (1996) Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers, 774–776, London: Routledge.
  2. Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter T. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. URL accessed on 19 April 2011.
  3. Commission de consultation sur les pratiques d'accommodement reliées aux différences culturelles
  4. North American Kyoto Prize Web Site: Kyoto Prize
  5. Robert Meynell, Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom: C.B. Macpherson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011.
  6. Taylor, Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 1.
  7. Taylor, The Explanation of Behavior (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1964).
  8. Taylor, Philosophy and The Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 15-57.
  9. Taylor, Human Agency and Language, 187-212.
  10. Taylor, Human Agency and Language, 215-247.
  11. “Interview with Charles Taylor: The Malaise of Modernity” by David Cayley:
  12. Taylor, “Self-Interpreting Animals,” in Human Agency and Language, 45-76.
  13. Ibid.
  14. A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture, ed. James Heft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Varieties of Religion Today (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
  15. Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
  16. Taylor, A Secular Age, “Introduction.”
  17. includeonly>"Part 5: 10 leaders on how to change multiculturalism: Charles Taylor", Globe and Mail, 21 June 2012.

Selected Books by Taylor[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • 2011 : Robert Meynell, Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom: C.B. Macpherson, George Grant and Charles Taylor. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press (2011).
  • 2005 : Emile Perreau-Saussine, Une spiritualité démocratique? Alasdair MacIntyre et Charles Taylor en conversation, Revue Française de Science Politique, Vol. 55 No. 2 (Avril 2005), p. 299-315 [1]
  • 2002 : Redhead, Mark. Charles Taylor: Thinking and Living Deep Diversity. Rowman & Littlefield
  • 1995 : James Tully and Daniel M. Weinstock ed., Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The Philosophy of Charles Taylor in Question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1995).
  • 1991 : Quentin Skinner, "Who Are 'We'? Ambiguities of the Modern Self", Inquiry, vol. 34, pp. 133–53. (a critical appraisal of Taylor's 'Sources of the Self')

External links[edit | edit source]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
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Online Videos of Charles Taylor[edit | edit source]

«Rencontre avec Charles Taylor» (25/11/2001) ; Chasseurs d’idées, Télé-Québec.
  • (French)
«La religion dans la Cité des modernes : un divorce sans issue?» (14/10/2006) ; Charles Taylor and Pierre Manent, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal,  «Les grandes conférences Argument».

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