‘ The gen­tle gi­ant of phi­los­o­phy’

Ottawa Citizen - - The Templeton Prize - BY CHRIS LACKNER

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.”


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