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In the thirty-sixth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Charles Taylor, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at McGill University. Ream and Taylor open by exploring the relationship shared by perceptions of selfhood and perceptions of how societies organize themselves. Taylor then addresses what happens when misalignment between the two occurs as various perceptions of selfhood come into conflict with one another in common social and political spaces. Ream and Taylor then discuss Taylor’s calling to academic philosophy yet how that calling was never entirely divorced from Taylor’s commitment to public service. For example, Ream and Taylor discuss Taylor’s service as co-chair of the Québec Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. After discussing the impact Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl made on Taylor’s thinking about selfhood, Ream and Taylor explore how Taylor identified and framed the questions he pursued in works such as Sources of the Self and A Secular Age. Following up on these works, Ream asks Taylor to explore the significance of Taylor’s most recent works, The Language Animal and Cosmic Connections. They then close their conversation by discussing Taylor’s perceptions of the academic vocation along with when and how scholars can be of service as public intellectuals.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Charles Taylor, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at McGill University. Thank you for joining us. 

Charles Taylor: Very pleased to be here.

Todd Ream: As I grappled with developing a suitable summation of the breadth and depth of your work, which I will admit was not easy, one idea that I came up with is that it exists at the intersection of how we understand ourselves, our sense of selfhood or philosophical anthropology, and how we organize ourselves, or in our case, in the United States and in Canada, much of Western Europe and other nations, are our sense of democratic practices. If that’s somewhat accurate, can the sense of how we understand ourselves be separated from how we organize ourselves, or does one inherently lead to next? 

Charles Taylor: Yeah, no, I think we can. I think one of the big struggles that goes on in everyone’s life is how to understand themselves. So the very deep, most powerful emotions that they have, or the ideas that move them most deeply. And that is something which the way we organize ourselves isn’t the way that life is set up for us, but it’s not so much that there’s a conflict between them. Though there can be, but that it’s very, very hard to articulate, the very deepest feelings we have. 

I mean what, what we find beautiful, what we find moving. And of course, anyone who has some kind of religious faith has to recognize that they have a very inadequate way of formulating what that, all that is about, right? And they’re, we’re searching always for languages. They wish to do that. Without ever finding exactly the right word. Or if we think we’ve found the right word, then we’re fooling ourselves. So I think this is a challenge for everyone. 

Todd Ream: In what ways, if any, do you think is the unsettledness in our present culture due to perhaps a misalignment of how we understand ourselves and how we organize ourselves?

Charles Taylor: Yeah, well, I think what’s the problem in the present culture is that we have very, very deep disagreements on how we understand ourselves. Even people who, let’s say, share the same supposedly share the same faith. I mean, take Christians in North America today, right? Politically, there are some of them who are rushing out to vote for Trump. There are others who are totally horrified at that, right? 

So, what exactly is going on here? Well, they have a very different understanding of what the faith means. And I can’t pretend to be neutral in that, because I have a certain understanding of what the faith means to me. And it seems to me very incompatible with the kind of dismissal of the other side, with a sense of that the other side is in some ways evil or deeply mired in sin and so on. And there’s really no attempt to come to understand the other side. 

Whereas, I think that the big, big problem for us is that we live in very diverse societies and we haven’t learned how to set about trying to understand what moves the other people, right? And that’s something very, very different. Articulating that is very, very different. Or we articulate it in a purely condemning language. I mean, you are dishonest, you guys are whatever, you don’t understand, you have no idea, etc. Some of which may be true, but it doesn’t help us to grasp what’s going on. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. Are there any practices that you might recommend that would afford us with the opportunity to realign our understanding of who we are, especially who we are, say, in a diverse culture, pluralistic culture, and then, in turn, how we might live well together? 

Charles Taylor: Well, I think there are. Now, there are certain ways of holding seminars, whatever the word is. You would have to, let’s say you get 30 people from one stream and 30 people from the other stream, and they spend the weekend together. Now, that’s been done on various issues. And it’s very interesting that, of course, people have to be willing to listen, otherwise they wouldn’t come to this weekend, right? They would be wasting their time.

But if they’re really wanting to listen, then they invariably come out saying, I really learned something, you know? I thought those people had sort of horns on their head and so on. But no, I see that, I’m not agreeing with them, but I can see what they’re driving at and so on. And they, they, come up with a more nuanced view.

I mean, the problem is, how do you get a population of 300 million going through that process? You know, even if they, even if they wanted to, how would you organize it? But there are methods. And people have tried them out, in which this kind of confrontation sounds too combative, but this kind of meeting and mutual listening can actually change people. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. When you think about the lessons offered by history, perhaps looking at, say, the last 225 years of history. Do you believe that it’s just inevitable that periods of misalignment may occur, that we’re going to have these tensions and we’re going to have to work through them? 

Charles Taylor: Yeah, absolutely, because the situation changes. New generations come along, new technologies come along, new ways of life come along, and they just, that’s, if you like, how we’re organized. And that just throws out of whack the previous understandings that we might have. And we have to get back to trying again.

And I don’t see any way out of that in history. There’s not going to be a final moment when one is going to catch up with the other. So we have to somehow favor this idea of listening and trying to see what the other person is really all about what they’re like, and so on. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. I want to talk now, if I may, about some of your biographical details and your calling to philosophy. You’re a native of Montréal and earned an undergraduate degree there at McGill. Second undergraduate degree as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and then while studying with Sir Isaiah Berlin, a graduate degree from Oxford. But at what time did you determine philosophy was your life’s vocation? 

Charles Taylor: Well, right at the very end, actually. You know, for a long time, I thought, I’m going to be active in various NGOs that I was very involved with. One of them is a, it’s called World University Service and it raises money in the better off world to help people and help universities and students. And I actually was being considered as a secretary of the Canadian branch of that, right up to my last year when I was still finishing my thesis. 

And then I had a sudden thought that, can I just leave all these questions that have been exercising me for the last six years? Or am I just going to feel terribly deprived? And I finally came to that thought and I wrote to them and said, I I withdraw my candidacy from this job because I want to go on.

And what I did, so I got myself some kind of grant to go on thinking beyond that. And I suppose because the, the big issues that I began to see were exercising philosophy were between the highly sort of mathematically-focused, natural science-focused idea of what it is to understand human beings and precisely what we’re now talking about, the big problems of articulating what really human life is about, what my human life is about. 

And I just found this so ridiculous and outrageous that I determined to try to develop another conception of what that is. And I got certain leads on this from, really, philosophers in the phenomenological world, Husserl, but particularly Merleau-Ponty. So I headed off in that direction and I’ve never turned back. Well, I mean, I never, never solved all the problems, not, not totally surprisingly, but I hope made a certain headway.

So that’s my story. It’s kind of you have to ask yourself why I didn’t see that earlier but I didn’t. 

Todd Ream: You mentioned Edmund Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. What texts, if any, proved more influential than others, in terms of fostering this commitment to the practice of philosophy? 

Charles Taylor: The really big text for me was Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. You know, Phenomenology of Perception, which really came out after the war, right after the war, so not terribly long. Before, I admit I was struggling to find a way of arguing against this very external behavior as a mechanistic understanding of human life. And it’s only when I read Merleau-Ponty that I thought, ah, this is the language that I need. It’s the language in which, but you see it has another kind of, there’s another kind of problem involved with that, that these articulations, are not in a language which everyone’s guaranteed to understand or even find in any way meaningful, right?

So, you try a Merleau-Ponty describing what it is to be a human agent and how the world you see is seen in a way through your way of dealing with it, your way of operating in it, and so on. And you get confronted with people who are doing a philosophy of psychology based really on Descartes and Locke, where the world over the side impinges on us, and we have ideas, I mean, or sense data and so on. And then we put them together, kind of very mechanistic notion, like assembling jigsaw puzzle, and we put together view of the world. 

And none of those concepts, sense data and putting together, in any way articulates the actual experience of being a human being in the world, and thinking this is valuable, that is not valuable, and so on. They just don’t come close to it. So the big debate shifts. What are the languages you need to understand human beings? Can you really look at this Cartesian Lockean notion of sensatum and understand what it is to be a human being, to have a mind? And my argument has been, no, absolutely not. 

But I haven’t been able, and we aren’t, to be on this side of the argument, we’re not capable of producing a language which everybody else can see immediately, yeah, that’s the right one. I mean, lots of people do. But of course, we have endless, endless debate, you know. We’re always correcting each other’s interpretations. But to see that as the, as the way to go is something we don’t necessarily share with a whole lot of other people. 

And what I discovered in the last whatever it was, this is 50 years, I’ve lost count is that there’s been a certain headway on this because in a certain sense, these very mechanistic ways of thinking have really lost a certain credibility among a lot of philosophers.

But we are left with the battle between different languages of description, different ways of getting at what it is to characterize human life and so on. There’s areas like moral philosophy, where you get one way of articulating morality, which is in terms of law, principles how to do what you’re allowed to or not allowed to do to other people, and so on. And that’s a very important part. I mean, it goes right back to the Ten Commandments, right? The way through to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a set of rules of how you do and don’t treat other people, right?

But there’s another dimension, too, if you like morality or ethics, which is the dimension of what’s a really fulfilled human life. What is human life all about? What is it? And you get the same kind of issues arising on both sides of this barrier. 

So speaking in terms of what’s a fulfilled human life, I would, for instance, say, that if you have a life in which you have no concern for the people around you, in which you’re not moved by pity or by a sense of solidarity or by a sense of identification, to reach out, that there’s something limited. I mean, something very, very imperfect, incomplete in your human life. 

And on the other hand, you get someone focusing on the law element, saying, no, no, I mean, that that’s not the language. The language is read Kant, read the Ten Commandments, whatever. And I think that that second language misses something important. I mean, you can, you can run through all the required actions, not necessarily for the deepest and best reasons. 

So you see the struggle between these two languages, even when it stops in the area of epistemology. how do we understand the human subject, understand the world, it continues in all sorts of other areas, like the area of morality, ethics, right? There’s still another way of conceiving an area of thought, which continues with those two traditions and their confrontation with each other. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. When you think back to your beginnings as a philosopher, were there any individuals, perhaps even mentors who had a greater impact upon you than others and helped you advance your understanding of your calling? 

Charles Taylor: Yeah, not so much mentors but they certainly were people that were more sympathetic to this, and, but they were, they were some of my colleagues, some of the people that I worked with, and so on. All the mentors available in Oxford at the time, were onto something else really, and I gained a lot from them, but not necessarily in the development of my thought. 

I mean, for instance, take Sir Isaiah Berlin. I admired him very greatly. What I admired about him was that he had, that he was a very multicultural figure. He was Jewish, brought up in Riga, spoke Russian and German as a child, and then came to the UK. And then he used his tremendous cultural and multilingual understanding to give a number of lectures in a number of books informing the English philosophical scene about figures like Vico and Herder, figures that were totally off their screens, but had some really important cultural impact on the world. 

And so I learned a tremendous amount from him, but he wasn’t precisely in this area. He himself didn’t want to challenge the hegemony of this way of thinking about epistemology and so on. He just quietly left that field and talked about these other things, which are very valuable. 

So, I mean, he was a great friend of mine too. I thought his company was wonderful and, and he has immensely, immensely interesting thoughts. But they didn’t touch this crucial area, which I was really all worked up, and still am all worked up about.

Todd Ream: I want to ask you now about one of the dimensions of your early work, in particular, your work on Hegel who was the focus of several of your early book length projects. In what ways, if any, do you believe Hegel was misunderstood or underappreciated by your contemporaries at that time?

Charles Taylor: Oh, at that time it was terrible, because there had been a big flourishing of English Hegelianism at the end of the 19th century. And then we had this, I would say, kind of positivistic reaction, the influence of the Vienna School, Vienna Positivism, on Oxford, which not everybody bought but they all bought the debunking attitude towards Hegelian language. I mean, it’s just a lot of verbiage pouring out. It has no, no meaning. 

And as a matter of fact, I got the job of doing the Hegel book for the Penguin series. They had a series on all the major philosophers because the person who was editing that, A. J. Ayer recognized that none of his colleagues would take it up. They wouldn’t touch it. He was desperate looking around for somebody to do it. So I said, sure, I’ll do it because I was kind of interested in that whole development. 

And so I wrote this book. But unfortunately the books are meant to be slim, right? Short. And you look at any other book in the series, it’s all, you can swallow it in an afternoon. But I got worked up. And so what I produced was just way beyond. And Penguin said, no, sorry, sorry, forget it. 

So I was left with this unsalable book, but it was picked up by Cambridge and, and then published. And then it was attacked by a lot of other people who were doing work on Hegel, on the grounds that it didn’t, it wasn’t, talking enough or only about the philosophical predecessors of Hegel. So it should have been talking only about Leibniz and Kant. 

But my perception was that Hegel came out of that extraordinary period of German culture, the Romantic period in the 1790s, that Hölderlin, the great poet, was a colleague of his in the Tübinger Stift and later on, etc. And he then took a turn of saying, all this can be translated into a very rigorous, rationalist language.

And so I tried to trace that. So I was really involved in trying to understand what got Hegel going, what, what, what he was trying to deal with. And that’s the, that, it’s strange. But that book, it’s successful in Germany, because it was translated into German, because students as in German scholars, are all now writing minute discussions of this passage of the Logic or that passage of the, and no one is explaining to students what got Hegel going in the first place and my book tries to do that. So I don’t know if I did it well or badly, but for a lot of people, the translation of my Hegel book is the only game in town in a sense to do that. 

Todd Ream: Admittedly, I took a graduate seminar where we focused for the full semester on the Phenomenology. And your book proved to do just what you were mentioning for me was to provide this bigger picture of what is really at stake and what’s going on here and thus some interpretive context too.

In what ways, if any, do you believe we may still misunderstand or underappreciate Hegel and his work?

Charles Taylor: No, I think this can go on forever. I think that there’s things that people haven’t really worked out. And I was trying to show how the very difficulty, how the logic emerges from here, from that. And I’m sure there’s a better way of doing that, a clearer way of doing that. But it was the best I could do at the time. 

So I think someone as complex as Hegel, who had, first of all, plunged into this, the culture of this Romantic period, which I’ve never fully left, you can see that it inhabits the book that had just, just come out. On one hand, and who wants to understand how this was taken a certain rationalist direction, but not at all rationalist as other people understand reason, there’s lots more that can be written on that. It’ll come back up at some point as a major issue, and people will say, well, Taylor, he did a kind of job here, but it doesn’t really get to the core. 

Todd Ream: The responses to the questions that you dared to ask over the course of your career garnered recognition such as the Gifford Lectures, Templeton Prize, Kyoto Prize, the Kluge Prize. How do you determine which questions merit asking and which questions, at least for a period of time, you just have to set aside?

Charles Taylor: Well, which questions are worth asking? I want to say certain things that struck me as worth asking. So, the first big thing I engaged on, a big project beyond the things that emerged from my education and so on, were the Sources of the Self, which was the first great crux of that. And what that consisted in was people talked about the self, the human self as though it was something that existed since the beginning of human life. And it has to be understood in the same terms. 

When I thought about that, I thought the understanding of the human agent is so different. With Plato and Aristotle on one hand, with Augustine on the other hand, with the medievals again, and then with the moderns and so on, that this needs to be sorted out in a kind of way. So that was a challenge, because you have to lay out what you think are the dimensions of our understanding of the human agency itself, and how within these dimensions, there’s tremendous change over time, and you have to characterize what the change is. 

So that was the first really big, you might almost say, foolish obligation or task I took on. Because that’s something where you have to have an encyclopedic understanding, which I certainly didn’t have, and perhaps no one can totally have, of all the different epochs. And, so I did say some things which were very controversial and which will remain so.

And then the next big task, next big project was A Secular Age. And there again, it’s a matter of taking a very long history, the history of the rise of a secular understanding of the world, as we would say today, and try to explain what, what happened, what occurred, and so on. And that was, that’s a crucial issue because everybody in social science was talking about secularism, secularization, and so on.

And I thought there again, they’re thinking that everybody is on the same page as far as the issues are concerned, way back to the Middle Ages until today. And it just didn’t seem to me to be true at all. So we have another understanding of what secularity is, another understanding of what religious faith can be, and try to tell a story which makes sense of the move from one to the other through a series of intermediate stages.

So it’s the same kind of sense that I had in relation to the Sources of the Self that there’s a story here to tell about how people are different in different ages and the problems, the questions are different, which can make more sense of how it moved from there to here. 

There’s a lot of people, particularly a lot of people who wanted to reject religious faith, but just thought it was a matter of some kind of strange superstition and so on, no, no need to figure out the detail of that. It’s just all unfounded dreaming. And the major accounts of what’s happened is that a lot of people woke up, that this is unfounded dreaming and dropped it, right? 

So, that’s like saying that the kind of whole outlook and sense of self of some medieval peasant and the understanding of self of a modern city dweller is basically the same, same issues, but there’s just one was smarter than the other, or had lucky enough had scientific friends and so on. And that seems to be utterly ridiculous. It’s not at all. So that raises questions about what are the forms of religious faith today. And I began to try to address that in that book. 

But there again, I mean, you could, the big criticism that I have to hang my head in face of is you’re maybe going too fast. You’re not looking closely enough at the ground as you move forward. The criticism I make of my opponents could be made to me at a finer grain level. And the more so in that it doesn’t follow that this, even if this is a very good picture of the West, it can tell you anything about secularism as it develops in China and India. Because I think you can’t. It doesn’t, you know. 

And but I must say this has been to me a very, very exciting zone, which has opened. And it costs for a little bit for a lot of people liking that book, even if they disagreed with it, that the issue of what, how secularism is utterly different in Chinese culture and Indian culture and so on could be put on the table and addressed by people who are experts in these different domains. And there’s been a lot of that. It’s been 1066 and all that terms has been a good thing to have that book there. Even if it’s full of errors. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. Once you’ve identified these stories that need to be told, and you’ve determined that you’re going to focus your energy, your efforts and your time on it, what have you learned about how to organize your time and your efforts when pursuing answers to those questions and telling those stories? How do you go about tackling one of these projects?

Charles Taylor: Yeah, Well, I mean, it has to appear to you at the beginning much simpler than it turns out to be, or you wouldn’t have the temerity to undertake it. So, it’s a series of oh, that wasn’t quite right, or I’m really not taking account of that. It’s a series of those piercing perceptions in what appeared to be a simpler problem at the beginning that takes you from one stage to the, to the next. 

So it’s, once again, it’s not as simple question of history. I’m going to tell the story of X to Y, it’s all bound up with perceptions of how different we are from our predecessors and getting a language for that and, yeah, yeah. So I wish I could say I was tremendously organized and, and I know how to discipline myself and so on. But it doesn’t work that way. 

Inside, you make headway and then you think, oh, that’s not quite right. And you’re back on the left foot again on the back foot. And you finally come to a point where you say, it’s the best I’m going to be able to do. I’ll send it to the publisher and that’s it.

Todd Ream: Well, those efforts have certainly been well-received. And as one who was a grateful graduate student when you were working on your sources of self, and it already put your works on Hegel into circulation, I appreciated them I will say and many others are too. 

Want to transition now, if I may, to talking about some of your most recent works. The Language Animal: The Full Shape of Human Linguistic Capacity was published in *2016. And then just recently, your Cosmic Connections, which you referenced earlier, Poetry in an Age of Disenchantment was published. In the first of these two interrelated works, you proposed linguistic holism. Would you begin by offering an overview of that proposal and what you mean by it?

Charles Taylor: Yeah, well, there’s really, as I look back on that book, language book, there really are two senses in which you can talk about holism. Number one is that, in developed language, there is a sense when I use a word to describe something seriously, I’m not joking, I’m not caricaturing, that this is the right description, this is the right word. But you can only articulate, even raise the question, is that the right word, if you have all the resources of language at your disposal, right?

So, think of an argument that used to be yours, you’re characterizing that as foolishness or characterizing that as stupidity or in characterizing that as a bad faith description. You have an alternative in mind, and you are, what captures better that behavior, that situation, and so on. And you have to defend yourself against it, right? Because you’re making an implicit claim. So the whole of language, in a certain sense, is kind of prior to any particular argument about a particular description. That’s one sense of holism. 

The other sense of holism, and maybe I didn’t make this clear enough in the book, is that language has this important place in human life that it, it’s a mode of being together with others in which we bring up things for discussion or perception, which are recognized as not for me and for you only, but for us, right? A kind of sharing of that consciousness. 

And if I had to rewrite that book, I’m not going to try this in my life, but if I had to rewrite that book, I would make more of this, that the extraordinary thing is that I drew on people like Bruner. And I’m recently reading a book that I should have been, published before mine and that I should have been using but I didn’t know existed, which is by Greenspan and Shanker, about children and how they’re inducted into language. And you realize that their only way to induct children into language is by intense communication, intense sense of what children love and always looking for. 

They want their parents to talk to them, to play with them, to pay attention to them, and that gives them a sense of who they are and so on. So that it’s this being, I call it, for us, and not for you and for me, but for us. Language is always that kind of place in human life. 

I mean you can see this in certain very sophisticated situations where, let’s say some, some politician has actually been caught with his hand in the till, but it isn’t yet public knowledge, but the inside dopesters in Ottawa or Washington all know about it, so they’re all talking about it at a cocktail party in which there are other people that are not privy to this. And so they’re not raising it themselves. 

So you have this situation in which this phenomenon of dishonest behavior is for this whole group of people, but not for others in the same conversation that they’re talking about. So they’re kind of hiding that. You can see how it can be a real matter of interest for whom in all that conversation this knowledge is really existent. 

Particularly I want to have stressed more the way we originally learned language in what Bruner calls these formats. As I say, this new book that I’m now on to is really much better at developing that, developing the whole sense that language arises in conversation between human beings. 

So it’s utterly different from language seen as just codification of information, and I hand it over, I bring it over, and I hand it over to you, and I tell you this particular piece of information. So it’s quite, quite different from that, and it’s the explanations that you have for the way that language codifies are experienced by Hobbes and Locke and Condillac completely inadequate to this. So that’s in a way the continuity between the two books. It’s different kinds of holism in a sense. 

Todd Ream: In what ways, if any, then is the nature of language as we presently practice it, insufficient in terms of grasping with the full spread of realities, in which we may exist? 

Charles Taylor: Yeah, I think we’re always missing something that’s happening around us but maybe we can miss less if we take certain measures that is— and I’m thinking particularly of people’s understanding of the meaning of their lives, people’s understanding of the most important elements or most important standards in their life, people’s understanding of whatever they have in the way of a faith. 

This is very, very hard to articulate. It’s very interesting because you articulate differently if you’re talking to different people because in some cases you think that person will never get this, so I’m going to give another more or less reduced version of what is important to me, or I’ll just reach for something, for something recognized out there, like a certain religious faith. Although, the understanding that each of us have of this may be very, very different, and I know it’s different, so there’s something inadequately communicative about saying identifying myself by that to this person. 

What interests me now, I mean, if I go on with another project, it’ll be trying to say something more about these languages of articulation, of what the most important meanings, standards, whatever, in our lives are. What’s going on there? What are the different languages? How they’re constantly, constantly changing. 

You know, I mean, take the faith that one has. One’s always changing, growing or maybe progressing, whatever it is. I mean, it presents itself in different ways over time. And so you’d have to always find a fresh language or fresh languages. And that’s in the nature of things. I think in the nature of what human life is about, you never arrive here at a final adequate interpretation.

Todd Ream: In your recently released book, Cosmic Connections, you turn to poetry as an expression of language that could address at least some of these insufficiencies. Would you please offer an example or two of how poetry serves us in such ways? 

Charles Taylor: Yeah. Well, I think, yes. A lot of us have some sense that they, that nature or the, let’s say, the planet and all its differences and so on, that cosmos, as people might call it, right, that we live in, is something deeply meaningful for us. Or sometimes we think, when we look at the devastation of the planet by ourselves, we think it should be more meaningful for us, right, than it has been. 

Okay, but now we get the really crucial point in light of a point we made immediately before. What’s the language that you can find which will tell you what the meaning of the cosmos is? And here, I think that we’re in a very strange situation that looks as though it bars any progress, but I don’t think it does, but it looks as though. Why? Well, because there are various kinds of artistic expression, which help to articulate how we can feel about the larger universe that surrounds us.

But it’s very hard if somebody doesn’t get it. To say, okay, I’ll give you an alternative description, right? And what I wanted to do was to show that in the case of poetry of the Romantic time and what succeeds that, which everybody is deeply influenced by that Romantic term. So, how about, I thought to myself, how about if, I try to take some examples like Wordsworth, like Hölderlin, and so on, and do a reading of them, where you can see that what’s happening here, is you have a very powerful sense of cosmic order, but it isn’t one that you could defend in philosophical terms, but it’s very, very powerful sense that arises from that. 

I want the reader, in the end, to put all that into a context, even bigger context than the book, with the underlying idea that there’s always been some sense of the cosmos, which has moved people, and that in the 18th century and before, in the Renaissance period, it was these notions of cosmic order that people believed in philosophically, right, and then the philosophical belief was undermined by modern natural science, and the order of Newton was not like the order that Aristotle offered us. 

But the sense of wanting some kind of contact of that sort remained very strong. So artists, poets, composers, because I have side references to these, but particularly poets, stepped in a certain sense. But they stepped in with a different, different contribution because they aren’t telling you anything which will permit you to prove that’s the real nature of things. They just give you a very powerful sense that that’s the world we live in. Right? 

And so there’s a kind of, I call it epistemic retreat. They’re not trying to say this is the final correct description of things. So we can follow that through. And then other changes occur. You know, the whole sense of a continuing cosmic order really is swept aside by modern sense of the universe since the big bang and evolution and so on.

And then we get another kind of connection that people are finding in the dimension of time, in the dimension of what I call higher times. And there’s 20th century figures like Eliot and Milosz, yeah. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. I want to shift back to asking you now a little bit more about your vocation, and in particular your influence through your writing and speaking and so on, reaches well beyond the boundaries that often define academic philosophy. It includes and has been felt in a range of academic disciplines, many of which we’ve talked about today, interdisciplinary areas, but also has been felt deeply in both the Church as well as the state. 

For example, you ran for office on a handful of occasions and in the 2000s served as co-chair of the Québec Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, otherwise known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Would you please describe for us the process you underwent when determining when and how to invest in public life? 

Charles Taylor: Yeah, well, it’s kind of I felt forced or pulled into it because I’ve always been a political animal. I have to admit, right? Very strong convictions. Twice in my life, if you like, at a certain moment, well, the first one being in the 60s, when big changes were happening in Québec and Canada. And I was a founding member of this party, the Social Democratic Party. I mean, basically, my political convictions are social democratic. So I thought I’ll jump in and establish, help establish this party, and in Québec, which I didn’t really do.

And I ran for parliament several occasions. I don’t regret it at all. I mean, it was a wonderful experience in some ways and in some ways it expressed what I really wanted to do, but not all that I wanted to, maybe it’s lucky I didn’t get elected. 

And then in the later occasion, we had this outbreak in Québec. I think this is something we’re a little bit susceptible to being deeply disturbed by foreign religions coming into our society and wondering whether this will, in some way, change the Québec identity. And that’s something you need to look at Québec society to understand. 

I mean, this is a very special society. There were only about 70,000 French speakers on the banks of the St. Lawrence in 1763 when the British took over, and it could have gone the way of Louisiana, right? The Acadians became Cajuns and lost the language. But it didn’t. And it was a big fight about, I mean, fight to avoid that. And so it’s a very, very successful story. A great success story in a way.

But it’s left behind these worries about will these people change us and so on. And the unscrupulous politicians are not lacking who want to serve on that. I’m afraid it’s a little bit like analogous operations in other countries, like the Trump phenomenon in the States, so not as flagrant.

And so I was given the chance by Charest, Jean, gave me the chance to chair this commission and head off some of these bad consequences. And we did, and we went around the province and I’ve never had a more educative experience. I wouldn’t give that up for anything. 

We wrote a report, which the government largely ignored. But the opposition when it came to power, it was worse than ignoring it. They pretended they were following it and they actually did something directly counter to it. Namely producing legislation, which for Muslim women produces great difficulty in certain jobs. They aren’t allowed to take on certain jobs, and that’s the kind of discrimination that I just don’t feel we should tolerate. So I’ve been involved in this struggle since even after the commission was over, but once again, I don’t regret for a minute undertaking that. 

Todd Ream: What lessons or perhaps even advice would you offer other individuals committed to the academic vocation concerning when and how to invest in public life? 

Charles Taylor: Well the issue is do you have something that only you can or not only you but you could be much more effective than a lot of other people because of your background or whatever? That you can bring about or help bring about or fight for in society. And this is offered to you in the situation like I was phoned up by the premier and said, do you want to sit on this commission job? Which I, whom I already knew.

And I didn’t really hesitate. Well, I did for a minute because I was like, wow, but it was pretty clear from the beginning that this is what I was going to do. So, because you know, I sense that intellectually, but also, if you like, emotionally, in terms of my moral views and so on, I was kind of the person for the job. And so, I jumped in, yeah.

Todd Ream: How do you define, then, a phrase such as the academic vocation? It’s something to which you’ve committed your life, but how do you define it, and what contours shape it, and characteristics might you identify? 

Charles Taylor: It’s a, it’s a more visceral than that, and you have, I mean, like, if you go back to the right after my doctoral degree, where I was going to jump out of the academy and go and do something practical in the world, very useful, raising money for people in the non-Western world and universities. But it was trop fort pour moi— too strong for me, the need to clarify this issue in my way of seeing it. 

The whole pattern of action in the world or retreat to the academy has been much more impulsive than, than maybe I’m making it sound. I felt very powerfully impelled to, in one case, tackle this set of problems, in the other case, for instance, the commission taking on this public job. I feel that here I can do something really important. 

Todd Ream: How then would you define a phrase such as public intellectual? 

Charles Taylor: Well, I suppose it’s someone who is using the kind of understanding that they have, have acquired because of being in the university or making a long study or whatever of some subject, using it at a moment when the society is about to make a bad turn, a possible bad turn, which you could cast light on why that’s a bad turn, because of what you’ve been studying, because of what you’ve been learning, and so on. 

So you have to ask yourself, I’ve taken all the trouble of getting this kind of knowledge or understanding and so on and it’s very much needed here in the public domain. Do I write an odd letter to the newspaper or really jump into this because there’s a platform offered to get that out there? Either the platform for Parliament or the platform of doing a publicly set-up commission.

And I think that’s the moment. It’s an existential moment that people say where you decide what’s really important for you. And I think you’re sometimes drawn into it. So I think we, we don’t need to be seen as all the time, public intellectuals or all the time not public intellectuals, but there are moments when we can feel that, yeah, this can make a difference. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. As our time draws to a close, I want to ask just a couple of quick questions, if I may, about the cultivation of public intellectuals and exercising those responsibilities. What ownership do you believe perhaps the university should take for cultivating public intellectuals or at least the skills that might allow faculty members to fulfill such a role when they might be compelled to do so or called to do so? 

Charles Taylor: Well, I think that that really touches on another big issue we’re all talking about, which is the humanities. And the temptation for a university, if it wants to grow and make a get in a lot of money by donations or whatever and fund research and so on, temptation is very strong to do this more and more in areas, which everybody recognizes, medical research, research in various kinds of production of different new sub, new substances or new ways of organizing and so on. So it’s very, very tempting to neglect areas like philosophy, sociology, history.

Just take three examples at anthropology, these human sciences, it’s very tempting to see this is kind of, yeah, it’s nice to have that. And it’s kind of like finishing school or for young ladies and so on have a smattering of that, but the serious money ought to go into medical research, ought to go into research into certain new products and so on.

But I think this is a terrible mistake and leads to a great lack that the formation of people who’ve been through a good academic education in one of these disciplines or have taken some courses outside their discipline in the humanities, it’s very important to have that kind of population mixing in the general, in the general population, the general world.

And that’s something that, at the moment, only universities that have the full range of subjects philosophy, history, and so on, can fulfill. And I think a lot of presidents of universities have this vision. They understand this. 

On the other hand, there are pressures. There are pressures. You know, we could have a much bigger operation if we took on all these offers to fund research in medicine and science and so on. And this would also be very useful. I’m not saying that it’s not very often very, very useful. But there is this crucial aspect of the kind of understanding you get by humanistic education that is really important and is hard, is being a little bit squeezed to the frontiers. 

Todd Ream: What responsibility then, if any, do you think the Church has to cultivate public intellectuals?

Charles Taylor: Well, the Church would have to have, and the churches do have educational institutions. I mean, they have, of course, seminaries where you train clergy, but I’m thinking that, that a lot of, I mean, someplace like Notre Dame is a whole university, which is university with all the subjects and so on, and there are across the different denominations in the United States, a lot of those. 

And I think that they have particular obligation to take account of developing the human understanding of their students, even if they’re also, or mainly, teaching them medicine, or teaching them physics, or teaching them chemistry.

Obviously, they also have a sense of what the really important human issues are, which are connected to their faith, and forming people in those are part of their vocation. And I think that’s probably more generally understood by, say, religiously-funded universities, than by the general run..

Todd Ream: For our last question then, are there ways, for example, say at a university, such as Notre Dame, that the Church and the university should work together to foster these capacities that public intellectuals need? 

Charles Taylor: Yeah, well, what form would it take to work together? I mean, I think that one way would be that the discussion, the area of discussion should run through the theology department as well as it should run through the history department as well, and that it would be tremendously useful if people could have both the background in history and philosophy and theology, right?

I think that’s something that would be tremendously useful. And I think it does happen. I mean, I never visited, but I haven’t actually taught at Notre Dame, but I’m sure that it’s, that it is going on because I can see some of the people that I know there who are obviously into all of these.

Alistair MacIntyre, for instance, a philosopher, but also somebody who knows a great deal of history and who knows theology and the history of philosophy and so on. And this is an excellent example of somebody who is drawn on all these sources. The more sources you can draw on in your education, the more, more you can make a real contribution in this humanistic dimension. 

Todd Ream: Thank you. Our guest has been Charles Taylor, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at McGill University. Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom and your insights with us. And congratulations on your recently published book, Cosmic Connections. 

Charles Taylor: Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed this conversation.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).