A Philosopher Who Matters

Detail from The Death of Socrates, 1787, Jacques Louis David, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the moments before Socrates’ execution, he made a plea to his accusers: “This much I ask from them: When my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody.”  You can’t seek Sophia and Mammon, Socrates warned. Fortunately, most philosophers don’t have to worry about this temptation. Trust me: Nobody’s getting rich dissecting syllogisms or parsing Hegel.

Unless you’re Charles Taylor. This week the Canadian philosopher was awarded the inaugural million-dollar Berggruen Prize for “ideas that shape the world”—what people are describing as the Nobel in philosophy.  (In fact, this is Taylor’s second million-dollar prize, having been awarded the Templeton Prize in religion in 2007.)

The award is well-deserved. Taylor is almost without peer (although I could imagine Jürgen Habermas also receiving this prize), and his work certainly exemplifies what the prize seeks to recognize: that ideas do indeed shape the world. So what is it that distinguishes Taylor’s work and has attracted this kind of attention? I think there are several features of his ongoing contribution that stand out.

The Philosopher as Genealogist

Family histories have a way of illuminating why we do what we do. We inherit intuitions and sensibilities and rituals that seem to be simply “natural”—until you spend some time with other families or in other households and then you realize, “Huh, we’re kind of weird.”  And if you do some digging, you get back to a great-grandmother whose matriarchal influence and hard-scrabble survivalism bequeathed habits and convictions that have passed down to the clan that followed. You not only live in her long shadow, you’re living in the world she made. The work of the genealogist helps you better understand yourself.

You might think of Taylor as an intellectual genealogist of the present. He is interested in how we got to the now, whether we describe that simply as “modernity,” or the “age of authenticity,” or our “secular age.”  Despite our chronological snobbery, and our preferred myth that we are de novo and au courant innovators of our selves,  Taylor’s work constantly reminds us of our intellectual great-grandparents and the long shadows they continue to cast over us. So he is almost always trying to track the “sources” of the (modern) self. He’s helping us understand where we came from and why we do what we do.

In this respect, Taylor is very much an heir of Hegel (who was the focus of one of his early break- out books in 1975). On the one hand, he is a throwback to the sheer ambition of a Hegel. In an era when philosophy allegedly “progresses” by means of smaller and smaller puzzles that are solved in peer-reviewed journal articles read by four other specialists, Taylor is effectively rewriting the Phenomenology of Spirit. While professional philosophers earn tenure parsing syllogisms, Taylor is the embodiment of the Romantic, humanistic, and encyclopedic philosopher who wants to make sense of the whole. He also follows Hegel in his attention to the contingencies and vagaries of history. He philosophizes by means of grand narratives that he calls “philosophically inflected history.” He is convinced the answer to our deepest philosophical questions has to be a better story of how we got here and where we’re headed. (Who knew that developments in the fourteenth century would help explain why we live in an age of “mutual display?”)

The Philosopher as Ethnographer

In Taylor’s corpus, however, we also see the philosopher as an ethnographer. While he takes ideas seriously, he has been a trenchant critic of what he calls “intellectualism”—a working picture that assumes human beings are just cognitive information processors, as if we make our way in the world by nonstop deliberation and deduction. Following the lead of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Pierre Bourdieu—and akin to his sometime co-author Hubert Dreyfus—Taylor emphasizes that our “intelligence” is more fundamentally a kind of know-how, a feel for the world that is caught more than it is taught. We know more than we think. Language, for example, is something we use: It’s less a screen for representing the world than a tool for getting things done. Our intelligence is collective know-how that is handed down to us by communities and traditions, so that to be human is to be indebted in a fundamental way to those who apprentice us.

So Taylor’s cultural analysis isn’t just attuned to ideas; Like an anthropologist, he reads the practices of a society. What shapes our experience of modernity is not a “theory,” he emphasizes, but instead what he calls a “social imaginary.” “Broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about the world,” he says, a social imaginary is “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings.” It’s as if we imagine our world before we think about it, and we absorb that imaginary, Taylor says, in the images, legends, stories, and rituals of society. That’s why, if you want to distill the uniquely modern social imaginary, you need to become an ethnographer of modern images, legends, stories, and rituals.

It is this ethnographic attention to lived reality that makes Taylor so attuned to the experience of difference, diversity, and pluralism in late modern society—including an attentiveness to the enduring role of religious communities in western societies. Deeply committed to the liberal democratic project, Taylor’s work shows an enduring concern to forge a common life without flattening our differences or letting the hegemony of some consensus marginalize minorities. He takes seriously how deep our differences go without giving up hope on finding a way to live together. In fact, it was his own experience of difference and diversity in his student days at Oxford that set up the trajectory of his career. As he told me in an interview a few years ago, the seeds of A Secular Age were planted in his own experience of not understanding his peers, and not being understood (in part because he himself had a fundamentally religious understanding of the world). His life’s work has been an attempt to answer the question he first articulated in the 1960s: “Why is, to me, the obvious starting point often so totally different from my peers?” A philosophical corpus that begins from this question is a gift for an age of increasing polarization.

The Philosopher as Civil Servant

Finally—and this was surely a factor in the Berggruen Prize jury’s decision—Taylor is a philosopher who has answered the call to venture beyond the comforts of the academy. Involved in provincial politics from early in his career, one of Taylor’s most notable acts of philosophical civil service was co-directing the Quebec Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences—a blue-ribbon commission tasked with sorting out how a “secular” society like Quebec could nonetheless accommodate religious expressions like headscarves and crucifixes in the public square. Pushing back on a narrow, French rendition of laïcité that tried to inoculate public life from religious expression, the Commission’s report advocated what it called an “open secularism”: a way of making room for deeply held convictions and differences without jeopardizing the common life of a pluralistic society. While the report has had mixed results, it is nonetheless testimony to Taylor’s willingness to put his philosophical gifts to use for the common good.

Perhaps what is most admirable about Charles Taylor—and why not even poor philosophers will begrudge him yet another million-dollar prize—is that Taylor is a “philosopher’s philosopher.” He is indefatigably curious, persistently studious, and just downright enthusiastic about ideas. His ideas have had wide reception, but not because he has “popularized” philosophy or turned it into some digestible seven-point wisdom that will get him a seat on the talk show circuit. (“Digestible” is the last word someone would use to describe Sources of the Self or A Secular Age!)  Rather, Taylor’s ideas are shaping public conversation because he is deeply invested in this mad endeavor of life together that we call “society.” He cares about it enough not to just traffic in platitudes but to offer his best gifts: his philosophy.

James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, editor of Comment magazine, and the author of How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

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