‘ The gentle giant of philosophy’
Born of Canada’s two solitudes, it’s not surprising that philosopher Charles Taylor has garnered an international reputation as a bridgebuilder. Searching for common ground across divided lines is intrinsic to his identity.
“ His mother was French and his father was English,” said Lindsay Waters, Mr. Taylor’s editor at Harvard University Press. “ Like the Mississippi River or the St. Lawrence Seaway, that line runs right through him.
“ But divisions can be swept aside, and Charles knows that.”
Mr. Taylor was born in Montreal in 1931, the third child of Walter Taylor, a native English speaker and partner in a local steel factory, and Simone Beaubien, a native French speaker and dress designer.
When Mr. Taylor was growing up, family conversations often included politics, the changing face of Catholicism and the role of French Quebec within English Canada. He has tackled many of those subjects in a worldrenowned academic career that has produced more than a dozen books and multiple essays, and seen him awarded professorships around the world.
Mr. Taylor has written in both of Canada’s official languages, and been translated into at least 10 others.
“ It had a profound influence on me — I can’t imagine what it would be like to come from a single- language household,” Mr. Taylor said of his upbringing in a recent interview with the “ It has infected my entire philosophical life.
“ It gives you a whole different outlook. ( It allows you) to see things ( in Quebec) from the two sides at the very beginning, and you can see that they’re talking past each other and that there is a huge misunderstanding going on all the time ... You feel you either want to walk away from it, or that you need to find a way to break through the barrier.”
Mr. Taylor chose the latter approach, but wavered between whether he wanted to effect change as a politician or an academic.
Before facing that fork in the road in the 1960s, his mind was honed through an extensive education.
Mr. Taylor earned his first post- secondary degree in 1952, a bachelor of arts in history from McGill University in Montreal. He was subsequently awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Balliol College, Oxford University, and, in 1955, earned a bachelor’s degree in politics, economics and philosophy — choosing the latter as his predominant interest.
Between 1956 and 1961, he was named Fellow of All Souls College at Oxford, and studied under prominent 20thcentury philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who supervised his doctoral thesis.
After earning his PhD in philosophy from Oxford in 1961, Mr. Taylor returned to Montreal to work as an assistant professor in the political science department at McGill University and, in 1962, also began teaching in the Université de Montréal’s philosophy department.
But Mr. Taylor’s return to Canada also spurred his interest in the corridors of political power.
Mr. Taylor ran for federal office four times in Montreal under the banner of the New Democratic Party ( 1962, 1963, 1965 and 1968) — his most famous electoral battle a second- place finish in 1965 against future prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who had supported Mr. Taylor in the 1963 campaign before making his own political debut.
Mr. Taylor said he and Mr. Trudeau had a long relationship, often meeting for lunch before and after the election
Citizen. to discuss the hot topics of the day. But they always disagreed on politics in their home province.
“ We disagreed at the beginning and we disagreed at the end on a very fundamental issue that I still think he was terribly wrong about — that you can treat Quebec exactly like any other province,” Mr. Taylor said of his former adversary. “ It’s a terrible mistake and it’s playing into the hands of ( separatists), and I deeply regretted that he came out of retirement to try to sink ( the Meech Lake accord).
“ I think he had a very different reading of Quebec nationalism ... he overreacted against it,” Mr. Taylor said.
The 1968 electoral loss proved a turning point for Mr. Taylor; he delved into academia and never looked back.
“ He couldn’t keep doing both and be a success at either,” said Gretta Chambers, Mr. Taylor’s oldest sister and former chancellor of McGill University. “ He decided to settle down and become a philosopher — that doing both took up too much of his drive.”
Colleagues and former students say Mr. Taylor’s academic career has been defined by two qualities: an uncanny ability to fuse together seemingly disparate ideas and schools of thought, and a tremendous sense of humility in the face of his many accomplishments.
Mr. Taylor’s humble persona is even reflected in his trademark wardrobe: corduroy slacks, running shoes and either a worn turtleneck or rumpled cotton polo shirt.
“ If it was warm it was a polo shirt, if it was cold it was a turtleneck,” said Ruth Abbey, a PhD student under Mr. Taylor at McGill in the early 1990s, and now an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame. “ In a way his wardrobe is a reflection of how down to the earth and human he is — an outward manifestation of what his personality is like. He is not pretentious. He doesn’t have an ego or anything like that.”
At six- foot- four, Mr. Taylor is a tall and gangly man whom one colleague described as the “ gentle giant of philosophy” because of his physical stature and mild- mannered persona.
Ms. Chambers said even Mr. Taylor’s family has always teased him for his “ dishevelled” appearance, “ knotty” hair and habit of wearing running shoes on even the most formal of occasions.
Mr. Taylor’s intellect and ability to rapidly synthesize ideas were also evident in his ability as a lecturer, according to Ms. Abbey, who also published a comprehensive study of Mr. Taylor’s work in 2001.
“ The breadth of his knowledge is incredible — it’s like he’s never forgotten anything he’s read and he makes the connections seem effortless,” she said. “ He is extremely energetic and lectures almost with is whole body. He doesn’t just have hand gestures, he gestures with is whole arms and shoulders. He brings the material alive … it’s as if he’s thinking these things for the first time as he’s saying them in the room.”
While he taught both philosophy and political science at McGill until 1997, the philosopher has lectured and served in professorships around the world, including the University of California, Berkeley, Oxford University, Stanford University and the University of Frankfurt.
As a published writer and lecturer, Mr. Taylor has tackled an impressive range of topics — spanning the fields of politics, history, ethics, language and epistemology.
One of his fundamental beliefs is that rationality is not incompatible with spirituality. He has long argued that the separation of natural science and religion has hurt the study of both, and prevented crucial insights into clashes of religion, culture and morality.
Mr. Taylor said his approach to philosophy is influenced by his Catholic beliefs.
“ It is absolutely fundamental — it gives you a certain perspective on the world,” he said. “ The social- science academy over the last few decades has, by and large, been tremendously focussed on secular explanations and has downplayed the importance of religion to explain phenomenons in history.
“ I was pitched in the other direction in a way ... that seemed to me, from the very beginning, to be highly implausible.”
David Martin, a British sociologist who nominated Mr. Taylor for the Templeton Prize, said the philosopher has “ crossed the divide” and integrated different approaches to examining human history.
“ He manages to occupy a middle ground,” he said. “ And I think you can relate his broader intellectual positions to his contribution and interest in the political debate in Canada.”
Other major areas that have piqued Mr. Taylor’s interest are multiculturalism, language, cross- cultural spirituality, and the modern emphasis on individualism over community.
Due to the breadth of his work, Mr. Taylor is studied by philosophers and social scientists across varied disciplines — from religious theory to linguistic philosophy. Ms. Abbey said that, in some cases, people are not even aware of his contributions to other fields.
“ It’s one of the qualities of his mind that he ranges across all these areas,” she said. “ The system is set up to reward specification and it’s much easier to succeed in a narrow field.”
Mr. Waters said Mr. Taylor is able to focus on many areas without diluting the quality of his work.
“ He is kind of the hedgehog and the fox together,” Mr. Waters said. “ The hedgehog knows one thing ( intimately) and is unaware of the big picture, whereas the fox knows a lot but lacks an attention for details. Taylor is both — he sort of squares the circle.”
Fitting with his reputation for modesty, Mr. Taylor said his work is not as multi- faceted as people make it out to be.
“ I just happen to have a niche, understanding human beings in history, that happens not to fit into any one discipline — it’s a boundary area,” he said.
Colleagues say Mr. Taylor’s work is rooted in his personal passion for Quebec and Canada, and hope for a better world.
“ A lot of this stuff isn’t just head, it’s also heart,” Ms. Chambers said of her brother’s writing.
Mr. Taylor’s work has garnered him numerous distinctions, including the Prix Léon- Gérin, the highest honour for Quebec intellectuals, grand officer in the Order of Quebec and companion of the Order of Canada.
At 75, Mr. Taylor shows no signs of slowing down. His new book, A Secular Age — an analysis of secularization and the modern world — is slated for release this fall. The book, the third in a trilogy based on the Gifford Lectures Mr. Taylor delivered in 1998 at the University of Edinburgh, is widely expected to be his crowning literary achievement to date.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest has also appointed Mr. Taylor to co- chair a commission to examine the accommodation of cultural religious differences in public life. Hearings around the province are expected to begin in the fall of 2007.
Looking back on his life, Mr. Taylor said his path would have been vastly different if he’d been successful in one of his bids to enter the political arena.
“ It would have been radically different. Politics can eat you up — one’s whole life can get entirely absorbed in it,” he said. “ I could easily have spent the rest of my life outside of the academy without the opportunity to read, think and write.”
For their part, Mr. Taylor’s peers are thankful for his political failures.
“ I’m glad he lost those elections,” Ms. Abbey said. “ It would have been a huge loss across so many different fields. Canada’s loss was the world of academia’s gain.”