What is Modernity?
Charles Taylor is one of the most popular and influential contemporary Canadian philosophers. His career is dedicated to understanding how we form our identities and conceptions of what it means to be human. He has produced an extensive body of work that draws upon the thoughts of a wide breadth of philosophers, politicians and scientists.
His historical approach to examining self-hood has revolutionized the way that people understand modern-day ideas about the ‘self’. He traces links between our ideologies today and the development of theories through centuries of civilization. Unlike many traditional economists, psychologists and politicians, who think of people as rational actors that make decisions to maximize utility, Taylor thinks that people’s behavior is reflective of their search for meaning and recognition.1
Creation of the Self
Taylor is most well-known for his insights into the different sources that go into making the self in the modern world. Proponents of individualism often believe that we are self-made, but using a historical perspective in his 1989 book Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Taylor shows that many events and paradigm shifts have shaped our idea of the self.3
In Sources of the Self, Taylor focuses on the era of Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Romantics. In each of these periods, leading thinkers tried to find the meaning of what it meant to be human, and Taylor suggests that all these historical understandings of the self are built into our conception of self today. He spends quite a bit of time discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th century philosopher, who built in ideas of emotions and aesthetics into his account of the human self.3 He suggests that Rousseau, along with other Romantics, have influenced the importance of love, art and individuality reminiscent of our idea of the self today.1
The book fits into Taylor’s tendency to embed his philosophical and political arguments into history because he wants to show that what it means to be a human being is not only determined by nature but is consistently in a process of becoming and embedded with the past as much as the present.3
Taylor critiques naturalist modes of thinking which are based on the idea that all human and social phenomena (and therefore the self) are best understood with reference to nature. Taylor believes that there is much more to human action and behavior. Instead of reducing humanity to concepts like homo economicus, Taylor believes that we have to understand human actions by trying to understand the world in which they exist and are trying to find meaning, which requires an imaginative leap. Although Taylor isn’t a proponent of naturalism, he does believe that it’s growing precedence as a mode of thinking in the past 400 years has had an influence on our self-understanding, but by pointing to its limitations, he hopes to open up the conception of self.4
Taylor also critiques naturalism because it portrays itself as the natural forward march of reason instead of understanding itself as an ideological stance. It portrays itself as the “truth” of humanity. Taylor has claimed that “there is no escalator of history inevitably pushing us towards more rational thought”. 5 He takes a hermeneutic approach to truth instead, believing that truth is interpretation rather than a scientific fact. Instead of ideas of humanity moving from right to wrong, Taylor suggests that while we tend to resolve certain weaknesses in philosophical theories, we often introduce other potential issues.3
The Politics of Identity
Branching off from his more general interest in the formation of identity, Taylor was also very interested in ideas of multiculturalism. Individualism is often about staying ‘true’ to oneself and having the freedom to form an individual identity. However, Taylor emphasizes the fact that being true to oneself does not exist in a vacuum and should not mean either standing apart from others or trying to share a singular identity with people like you.3
Multiculturalism is actually quite a controversial topic. It is a moral idea that we all share a commitment to changing dominant patterns of representation and communication that marginalize certain groups and instead celebrate everyone for their diverse interests and cultures.6 It has stakes in economic and political spheres as well as it emphasizes the need for remedying policies that will aid people who have suffered due to their marginalized identities.6
Taylor agreed, all the way back in 1994 when he wrote Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition that we need to move away from a distinction between first-class and second-class citizens.7 Yet, when we begin to recognize everyone for having a unique identity and having equal rights, no one ends up being unique; we are all the same as all individual unique beings.
Taylor suggests that this contradiction has occurred because recognition, a value that proponents of multiculturalism hope to achieve, has come to mean two different things. Recognition on the one hand means the equal dignity of all citizens, with an emphasis on equality and similarity. Echoed in this sentiment are ideals of ‘color blindness’, which we now recognize as problematic, alongside differentiating people based on the color of their skin.8 At the same time, recognition has to do with a ‘politics of difference’ which emphasizes that everyone has the right to be recognized as a distinct individual.9
To remedy the conflicting goals, Taylor suggests that we need to understand the formation of identity and of recognition as socially-based activities. He says that identity is formed against the backdrop of those that are important to us and between people who are interested in one another.8 Dialogue and interaction with others shapes the construction of multiculturalism and therefore recognition is not about recognizing people and their identities as isolated from what is around them, but as part of a wider system. That is why Taylor says that it’s not just about ‘having a self’ because we are active agents in the construction of the selves. Therefore, we also have the potential to be better selves and treat others more ethically.3
Charles Taylor was born on November 5th, 1931 in Montreal, Canada.10 He was raised in a bilingual and bi-religious household, the youngest of three boys. His mother was a Francophone Catholic and his father an English-speaking Protestant.10 These dual cultures might have influenced Taylor’s ideas about how people act like seekers, seeking identification and choosing between existing communities and cultures.3 Political discussions were commonplace at the dinner table, especially surrounding the identity of Quebec, Canada’s only real bilingual province, and its place in Canada.11
Taylor stayed close to home for his undergraduate degree and obtained his bachelor’s degree in History from McGill University in Montreal in 1952. Taylor then earned a Rhodes Scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford. This time, Taylor obtained a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1955.11 He stuck around Oxford and became a Fellow of All Souls College completing a Master’s degree in 1960, and then a Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1961.11
He married Alba Romer, a social worker and artist in 1956 and over the span of 10 years, the two had five daughters.11 Over the next twenty years, Taylor hopped between postings in Montreal and at Oxford. He originally left Oxford to join the Political Science departments at McGill and Université de Montreal in 1963. During this time, Taylor was also heavily involved in politics. His interest in Canadian federalism led him to serve as vice-president of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) and as President of the Quebec NDP. He ran in four federal elections.11
However, when Oxford appointed him as Chichele Chair in 1976, considered to be the world’s most prestigious position for political philosophy, he returned to England.11 It was during this time at Oxford that Taylor became a mentor to Michael Sandel engaged him in critiques of liberalism and individualism. The pair became friends and Taylor helped Sandel write his first book, a critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.
Taylor returned to McGill in 1982, where he became an Emeritus Professor, designated to professors who have been a full professor at the University for at least five years.12 He remains a member of faculty in the Philosophy department.
Outside academia, in 2007, Taylor co-chaired the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices in the Quebec government’s response to addressing the definition of reasonable accommodation for religious and cultural groups in the province. Founded alongside historian Gérard Bouchard, the Commission is now known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.11
2007 was also the year that Taylor received one of his biggest awards, the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The Templeton Prize is a $1.8 million dollar prize, which Taylor won for his book A Secular Age. This is but one of many awards that Taylor has received throughout his career, with others including being the first recipient of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal Achievement in Research, the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and even Japan’s Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy.11
Insights from Charles Taylor
“To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.”
– Charles Taylor in his book Sources of the Self 2
“Hermeneutics (interpretation) helps us make sense of human actions and reactions, responses and attitudes, behavioral causes and effects. This kind of reflection makes these humanly understandable, graspable and palpable or real for us. Such interpretation of self happens against the backdrop of a whole ‘landscape of meaning’ within which an agent operates. This includes a whole constellation of motives, norms and virtues. Such packages of interpretation are rooted in an overall philosophical anthropology. This process of searching for coherence without ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity and essential to our own integrity.”
– Charles Taylor in his book The Language Animal 13
“We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining our identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression.”
– Charles Taylor in his book Multiculturalism 2
“We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others – our parents, for instance, and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”
– Charles Taylor in his book Multiculturalism 2
“The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least in God, or the transcendent. Belief in God is longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith.”
– Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age 2
“Anything like an overlapping consensus [about foundational principles] is always something you have to go on working for. Some people may deny it but it’s something that must exist for all kinds of societies to succeed. I think that we can get, today, very wide agreement on issues.”
– Charles Taylor in an interview for New Statesman 14
Where can we learn more?
Taylor has published dozens of books throughout his career. Thankfully, you can find a compiled list of all his books here, but we’ll briefly describe some of his noteworthy texts that we haven’t mentioned yet:
Hegel, published in 1975 is probably the book that got Taylor’s name known in philosophical and academic circles. He studied the 19th century philosopher and suggested that many of his insights were still relevant to contemporary society. It was in this book that he first took a historical approach of understanding the development of the concept of ‘self’.15
In 1992, he published The Ethics of Authenticity in which he discusses the tendency for us to believe the world is in decline (known as declinism). He suggests that although we do face some challenging moral and political crises that we should make the most of our situation and focus on how to become an authentic version of ourselves.
Fast forward to 2016 and Taylor began to take an interest in the ways in which language shapes people’s identity. He published The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, which criticizes a popular philosophical understanding of language as a tool to encode and communicate information. For Taylor, language also shapes that information and our selves.
Taylor also has an impressive list of published papers which can be found here. A number of his shorter essays have been compiled into two books: Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1 and Philosophy and Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2. However, as these were published in 1985, you should check out the website if you’re interested in his more recent work.
If you’d prefer to listen to Taylor, you can check out a list of his interviews here. His most recent interview was with Australian network ABC News in which Taylor discusses the fragility of democracy and tries to answer the question of whether it can resist racial and religious discrimination. You can also listen to a podcast version of Taylor’s A Secular Age where Taylor examines how it was possible for Western society to move from a place where it was almost impossible to not believe in God to a place where believing in God is just one of many options.
- Rothman, J. (2016, November 11). How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/how-to-restore-your-faith-in-democracy
- Goodreads. (n.d.). Charles Taylor Quotes. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/14187.Charles_Taylor
- Calhoun, C. (2016, October 13). This Philosopher Has Reimagined Identity and Morality for a Secular Age. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/charles-taylor-philosopher_b_
- Rogers, B. (2008, February 29). Charles Taylor. Prospect Magazine. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/charles-taylor-profile-secular-age
- Fitterman, L. (2017, December). A philosopher of the here and now. McGill News. https://mcgillnews.mcgill.ca/s/1762/news/interior.aspx?sid=1762&gid=2&pgid=1854
- Multiculturalism. (2010, September 24). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/multiculturalism/
- Taylor, C. (1994). Multiculturalism: Expanded paperback edition. Princeton University Press.
- Manning, K. (1997). Book review – Multiculturalism and “The politics of recognition”. NASPA Journal, 34(2), 157-163. https://doi.org/10.2202/0027-6014.1009
- Political Not Metaphysical. (2016, May 27). Charles Taylor, “The politics of recognition”. WordPress. https://politicalnotmetaphysical.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/charles-taylor-the-politics-of-recognition/
- Abbey, R. (2020, November 1). Charles Taylor: Canadian Philosopher. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Taylor
- Mathien, T., & Grandy, K. (2007, June 24). Charles Taylor. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/charles-taylor
- McGill. (n.d.). Emeritus Professors. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.mcgill.ca/edu-ecp/people/emeriti
- gcarkner. (2020, January 9). Provocative quotes on identity from Charles Taylor. WordPress. https://ubcgcu.org/2020/01/09/provocative-quotes-from-charles-taylor/
- Taylor, C. (n.d.). The Books Interview: Charles Taylor. Interview by J. Derbyshire. NewStatesMen. https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2012/02/interview-secularism-religion
- Taylor, C. (2009, September). Charles Taylor. Interview. Philosophy Now. https://philosophynow.org/issues/74/Charles_Taylor