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Escaping from the picture which holds captive – An interview with Charles Taylor

Interviewers: Ibrahim Al-Kaltham - Bassam Baraké

Q1 – Thank you so much for accepting our invitation, Professor Taylor. We would like to begin our conversation by asking you about your academic career, your diverse interests, and the wide range of topics you have been hugely influential in: Who were the most influential people (if any) with respect to your interest in politics and philosophy? Was there any particular event or book that has ushered you to Phenomenology?

I decided to concentrate on philosophy only in my studies for the doctorate. Before that, I took an undergraduate degree (at McGill) in history, and did a further undergraduate degree at Oxford in Philosophy, politics and Economics; my specialty was in Politics. But in the course of study for this second degree, I was more and more repelled by what I considered the arid and infertile approach to philosophy in the dominant English tradition, which was the one built on modern epistemology in the wake of Descartes, Locke, and Hume. So aggravated I was that I changed my mind about my future. Up to the end of my second degree, my intention was to end my studies there, and to take a post in an international ngo working in the field of aid to students (World University Service).

Instead, I registered for a doctorate in which I intended to work out a philosophical position which would refute and replace the empiricism I had been taught at Oxford. I cast about for possible sources, and came on the work of Merleau-Ponty, La Phénoménologie de la Perception, which I read with growing enthusiasm. My way out of the empiricist impasse was clear; it was through phenomenology. (My dissertation was published as The Explanation of Behaviour).

Q2 – Since then (1964), it seems that the dominant philosophy in the English world (i.e., the analytic) has went through some noticeable changes. For example, “the political turn” with works of such philosophers as John Rowels, and it seems more concerned with issues that, to a large extent, were neglected in the early history of analytic philosophy (e.g., ethics and morality, the philosophy of “good life”, etc.). How do you evaluate such changes? And what do you still see as a fundamental problem in this tradition?  

You’re right, there was an important “political turn” in analytic philosophy, mainly promoted by the extremely influential book by John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (I hope I’ve remembered the title correctly). But I wasn’t as excited by this as my analytic colleagues were. It showed some of the same kind of unreflected assumption as analytic epistemology had. In epistemology what was taken for granted was the Cartesian-Lockean epistemology I referred to in my first answer. In political theory, there was a focus on the individual, with no real attempt to understand the (historically varied) types of social bond, and the inner dynamics of the different kinds of society which result. It was political theory without the politics.

Q3- What is your position on the freedom of religion and its public practice in Canada? What are the philosophical (or social or political) foundations on which you base your position on the freedom of Muslim women to wear the veil in Canada?

Yes I agree very much with the generally held position concerning religious freedom in Canada. The exception is the legislation in Quebec closing certain careers to people wearing “religious signs”, which bear particularly on women who wear the hijab, and as a result are denied employment as teachers in public schools. I opposed this from the very beginning. I was co-chair of a public commission which was proposed when such restrictions were first mooted, and our report strongly recommended against such restrictions.

Q4 – In your works about secularism, you talked about various cases of secularism, cases that differ temporally and geographically. How do you define secularism, and can it coexist with religion, at least in Western countries? How do you read the relationship between secularism and Muslim-majority countries?

The reason is that we supported a conception of a secular society, one in which there a separation of Church and State, which is based on the Universal Declaration of human rights.

There are in fact three conceptions on which such separation can be based, three basic forms of secularism in this sense (in French “Laîcité”):

  1. Is meant to defend religion against invasions by government.
  2. Aims to defend the state against domination by a particular religion.
  3. Is founded on universal human rights, and proposes a neutral state, neutral between religions, and also between religion and non-religion; which at the same time defends freedom of conscience, and guarantees the free exercise of religion, within certain obvious boundaries (e.g., that the practice of one religion doesn’t render impossible the practice of others).

The first (1) was the situation at the time of the foundation of the American republic in 1787; the second aim underlay the French legislation of 1904-5 (at that time where was a powerful movement of Catholic monarchism which wanted to abolish the Republic). But only the third is adequate to our context in which there is no dominant religion, but rather a wide variety of different religious and metaphysical convictions among the citizens.

It is clear to me that (3) is the only defensible form of secularism in a diverse society like Canada, and legislation like the present law 21 in Quebec constitutes a clear violation of the rights of certain citizens, and is moreover gratuitously cruel to certain women who for the most part are recent immigrants, and therefore vulnerable to such discrimination (they don’t have the support system which people long established in our country tend to enjoy).

I am therefore utterly opposed to this legislation and won’t rest until it is abrogated. Until then, I will feel shame as a Quebecer.

Q5- Should we restricted this third conception of secularism to western societies? Do you think other cultures need to understand themselves without referring to secularism (in the third conception you just mentioned)?

No, I don’t think this is a question simply for Western societies. It concerns all societies which are religiously diverse (which category includes societies with only one historical religion, but with citizens who don’t adhere to that religion, for whatever reason, including atheists and non-religious people. So India is an example of a Republic which under the Gandhi-Nehru constitution was secular in my sense 3.

There is a very unfortunate attempt by the BJP government to reverse this, and the make Muslims second-class citizens, even to persecute them. I very much hope that this doesn’t succeed.

Q6- In your book “The Ethics of Authenticity”, you have a critical view of individualism in western societies. How, in your opinion, is it possible for a contemporary individual to live their subjectivity without indulging in selfish individualism, especially nowadays where the current pandemic is spreading and leading people more than ever to feel the need to stand together and tighten the bonds with each other?

There are many sources of solidarity in a modern democracy. These are usually animated by a sense of what we might call their political identity: a sense that we come together in a project of creating a common political structure which will ensure the common good and the flourishing of all members of society, giving each their say in what this common good consists in. The sense of a common project is what usually motivates a sense of belonging we can speak of as patriotism, and a pride in being members of this community (which is why I feel shame when we fail to live up to our goal of defending the well-being of all members).

Patriotism is a strong motive for solidarity, but this can also be supported by our universal ethical or religious commitments.

These are not negligeable; but they are often de facto neglected. This is very often the case where there is sharp division around the issue of how to define the political identity: the kind of thing we now experience in many democracies: some propose that only some citizens should enjoy the full panoply of rights and privileges – men, for instance, as against women; or white Europeans, as against those of African or indigenous origin; Hindus, as against Muslims (lie the present government of India). Prejudices of this kind justify discriminations which are indefensible, and they narrow the bounds of solidarity. They also set off struggles in which the passionately held senses of our political identity divide us, rather than uniting us.

Q7- Canada is known for its multiracial and multicultural population that coexist without any significant problems. How do you see the future of “multiculturalism” in the global village in which we live? Is the world’s current population obliged to coexist in a multicultural society?

Yes, it is a consequence of all the various developments which make up what we call “globalisation”, economic, cultural, and those resulting from mass migration, that we will all be living among neighbours from many different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, etc. These can be experienced in two ways: populations can either become more and more uneasy as “foreigners” become more numerous (see the reactions in many European countries towards refugees fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere); or else “native” populations can have a sense that their lives have been enriched by people with different outlooks, skill sets, cultural practices, arts, dance, etc. This more positive kind of reaction is what lends support to what we call “multiculturalism” in Canada.

I don’t mean to imply that we are all virtuous in Canada. On the contrary, there are both positive and negative reactions in our country to the presence of immigrants (see the support for Law 21 in Quebec). It is partly luck, partly that our country was built through immigration, which lends support to multiculturalism here.

But nevertheless: the only alternative to hostility and mutual suspicion in a world which is more and more mixed, is the adoption of a “multi-cultural” mind set, in which diversity is seen as enrichment rather than threat. What can ultimately ensure that multiculturalism survives is the actual experience, particularly of young people, who find that their lives have become richer and deeper, and more infused with a sense of humanity, through meeting and befriending people of many different origins and religions and cultures.

(Autobiographically, this has been my experience: for instance, some Muslims I have met, as well as read about, have helped shape my identity: the wave of Islamophobia now sweeping the West seems to me not only evil, but thoroughly absurd and counter-factual)

Q8- In your opinion, what is the role of language in building culture and defining identity? Do you believe that multilingualism leads to multiculturalism and multi-identities? In your view, does monolingualism, as seen in the Arab region, reflect the unity of culture and identity?

Language is crucial to building culture and identity; and that’s why multi-lingualism is so important today, in a globalized world, where different cultures live side by side. It furthers mutual understanding and undermines mutual demonization.

Q9- we have two related questions about the concept of democracy:

  1. Can the democracy that the West inherited from the ancient Greek and practiced in multiple contexts and throughout a long history, coexist with other political systems? Can it accept their existence?
  2. Most of the contemporary world (especially the Western world) lives in a “democratic” atmosphere. But you’ve said on many occasions that democracy suffers from weakness and decadence. Do we have to change and improve democracy, or invent a new political and social system?

1: Of course, those who live in democracies consider this to allow for a better way of life, through the freedoms offered, guaranteed by the rule of law, and the opportunity it opens to participate in the formation of law and policy. That is, when the democracy really functions as it is meant to, and not in countries like Russia, with no guaranteed rule of law, and elections which are partly sham. But democracy can’t be thrust on a people from outside. So have to co-exist.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t welcome democratization wherever it occurs, and that we may not welcome economic measures, e.g.,boycotts, which might undermine undemocratic regimes, particularly those violating human rights.

2: We certainly have to work constantly to improve democracies, and above all to prevent them sliding backwards, for instance, in the ways we are now observing: there are deep divisions concerning our democratic political identities, as I observed above (Q6).

The crisis in these cases partly stems from the inequalities which have been built-in to historic political identities: men over women, white over blacks and indigenous, discrimination against homosexuals. We are living in an era where consciousness is growing about the indefensible nature of these discriminations, and demands are put forward that they be overcome. This has produced a backlash, and the ensuing struggle has generated deep divisions, and radical disagreements on the nature of our political identities. The hope is that rising generations will be better able to endorse and celebrate equality than older people like myself.

Q10- You are known to be a philosopher. But you have strong positions on various life aspects, such as politics, society, education, and others. Do you think that the role of philosophy nowadays is limited to thinking about people’s daily lives? Or is there another essential role that philosophy must play to understand our contemporary lives? Also, do you think that philosophy has lost its previous role and must rebuild itself according to the development of the contemporary individual?

I would like to define philosophy as the attempt to define and critically assess our most fundamental concepts with which we talk and think about the different facets of reality. So, there are philosophical questions which arise about physics, about sociology, about politics, and so on. Philosophy has to have a place, otherwise we are flying blind, operating with modes of thought which have not been adequately examined – as the empiricist theories of knowledge that I rebelled against were guilty of. All disciplines need philosophical reflection from time to time. But inversely, philosophy can’t function as though it were a self-contained discipline. Some features of it are sufficiently general to be studied on their own – e.g., logic; but when we come to the philosophical issues underlying the human sciences: issues concerning the nature of human beings, of knowledge, of emotion, of society, etc – briefly, the issues of what we can call “philosophical anthropology” – you can’t think them through without some knowledge of human life in its various compartments: forms of society, aspects of mental and emotional life, nature of linguistic communication, etc. Philosophy here can’t be self-contained. Philosophical questions about society can’t be tackled without a great deal of knowledge about society, that is, the things we learn in studying sociology, political science, etc. Philosophy of history requires knowledge about history; etc.

In brief, philosophy can’t lose its role without a “dumbing down” of human thought in general. But at the same time, this role can generally not be exercised without reference to the specialized sciences.

Q11- In your book “The Language Animal”, you present your own concept of the role of language in shaping the human mind and the universe around it. Could you summarize your idea of language and its role in building human beings? Does it have a role in the shaping of individual and collective identity?

I agree with Aristotle that language is our defining characteristic. We are “zoon echon logon”, the “language animal”. Only I think that language has often been too narrowly defined. The empiricist tradition has treated it as a way of encoding and preserving information; but it is much more than this. In my book I try to explore some of the other roles it can play: constitutive roles in defining emotion, for instance; or in articulating our profound intuitions about ethics and religious faith; or establishing the footings we are on with each other – e.g., as equals or subordinates – when we talk.

Not to speak of poetry; or of its relation to music.

I have dealt with some of these issues in “The Language Animal”; and opened the road to others, a road I am now pursuing in a sequel to this book.

Q12- Can you give us some details about this sequel? What are the main ideas that you are trying to pursue in it?

Just as The Language Animal is a development of the theories of language which arose among the German Romantics, poets and philosophers, so the sequel is a discussion of some of the attempts to recover some connection with the cosmos on the part of Romantic and post-Romantic poets, German and other.

Q13- You co-authored with the late Hubert Dreyfus “Retrieving Realism”. We would like to discuss this book in some details in the following questions:

A- You started off the book by a quote from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, “A picture held us captive”, and it seems the whole book was an explanation to this quote. In broad strokes, what is this “picture”? how is your diagnosis and critical evaluation of our tendency to fell in the trap of this “picture” different from the criticisms against foundationalism one usually finds in epistemological texts in the analytic tradition?

B- You consider this “picture” more than just an academic discussion on an epistemological topic, but it can be seen as having serious ramifications on how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Can you please elaborate on that?

C- Richard Rorty was the present/absent interlocutor in this book. What do you see Rorty got wrong about “this picture”?

D- In the book, you seem to favor a certain strand in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, namely, Embodied Cognition. How do you understand Embodied Cognition? And can it help us escape from the grip of this picture?

In simplified form, the “picture” which held us captive in the Cartesian-Lockean epistemology was mind within a body which receives impressions from the outside world, through the senses, which purport to give a view of the “outside” world. Hence the tendency of this theory to put the skeptical question: how do we know that our inwardly constructed theory of the world corresponds to the reality “out there”?

We want to replace this picture with a more adequate one, in which the human agent’s understanding of the world arises in his ongoing attempts to deal with his environment, first of all as a bodily agent, making his/her way around, taking hold of things, navigating his/her surroundings, developing in the process, which involves induction into language, an understanding of the world. Our basic inspiration for this philosophical understanding comes from the phenomenological tradition, in particular, the work of Merleau-Ponty.

Our understanding of the world arises not just “within” the mind, but in the space of interaction between mind and world. Hence the notion of “embodied cognition”

As to Richard Rorty, he shared many of our criticisms of the analytic philosophical tradition, but ended up accepting too much (in our view) of the skeptical consequences of the mainstream epistemology, which meant putting our understanding of embodied cognition on the same footing as the historical epistemology: both were equally ungrounded in reality; you just had to choose which “conversation” to join, with its associated ungrounded assumptions.

Q14- It was a pleasure having this conversation with you Professor Taylor. We would like to conclude this conversation by asking you, besides The Language Animal sequel, what are your current intellectual projects that we might see in print in the foreseeable future؟ Is there any philosophical projects you would like to see the current generations of young philosophers work on?

My present projects include the study of post-Romantic poets, which I mentioned in the addition to Q12 above. But I am also very concerned by what is happening to contemporary democracies under the pressure of various forms of xenophobic exclusion of outsiders and cultural minorities.

I am also working on a conception of the history of human ethical growth, based on Karl Jaspers’ notion of the Axial Revolution. In my view, this growth has to be understood ecumenically, that is, not simply in terms of one religious or philosophical tradition, but has been carried forward, as it were, between, and with the help of all these traditions.

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