Canadian philosopher Taylor reaps more honours

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  • July 29, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - For the second time in just over a year, Montreal-born philosophy professor Charles Taylor is being honoured for a lifetime of thinking about modern life, multiculturalism and morality. Along with University of Toronto molecular biologist Anthony Pawson and University of California computer scientist Richard Karp, Taylor has been tapped for this year's Kyoto Prize, worth $460,000.

Last year Taylor, 76, was granted the $2-million Templeton Prize for Progress or Discoveries in Spiritual Realities. The Kyoto Prize is awarded by the Inamori Foundation for significant contributions to science, culture and the spiritual development of humanity.

Few philosophy professors make headlines, but Taylor gets more ink than many Canadian politicians. As one of the world's leading thinkers about multiculturalism, Taylor was asked, along with sociologist Gerard Bouchard, to spend last fall investigating "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities for Quebec's government. The result was a national debate in Quebec that took ordinary citizens to the cutting edge of political philosophy.

"We made real headway in Quebec through that debate," Taylor, a practising Catholic, told The Catholic Register in late July. "Because the degree (maybe I shouldn't be using this word) but the edge of hysteria that really was put behind us."

It wasn't a polite, classroom debate. While chairing the hearings Taylor and Bouchard frequently had to control outbursts from outright bigots demanding the immigrants go back where they came from. But, as the commission daily made front pages in Quebec's French and English newspapers, the debate deepened.

"It was something like a whole societal debate. You could feel over those months the atmosphere changing," Taylor said.

Taylor is used to being both lionized and reviled as the philosophical godfather of multiculturalism. But both points of view are based on a mistaken idea of multiculturalism as an ideology of cultural relativism which would fracture nations into the splinters and shards of linguistic, religious and cultural ghettos. He insists that multiculturalism isn't an ideology or political program, but a reality on the ground.

"All our Western societies are diversifying. From that point of view it's just a fact," he said. "Multiculturalism can describe the policies that people adopt to face the fact."

As a political philosopher, Taylor is fascinated by how democracies adapt themselves to the shifting sands created by constant inundations of new and different cultures — each of which subtly remakes the nation's identity.

"The fact is that there have to be policies to deal with multiculturalism," said Taylor. "Some work better than others."

{amazon id='0674026764' align='right'}Author of a dozen very serious books (Sources of the Self, The Malaise of Modernity, Varieties of Religion Today, Modern Social Imaginaries and A Secular Age have all been influential), a student of Isaiah Berlin at Oxford's Balliol College, the former Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford and professor of political science and philosophy at McGill University, Taylor could have been an ivory tower academic. It's not in his nature. He ran four times for the New Democratic Party in Quebec, where the left-labour party has never won a seat. He has served on various commissions in service of Canada and is a Companion of the Order of Canada and Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec.

As a Roman Catholic, Taylor who thought about the role of religion in the lives of individuals and nations throughout his career, culminating with his 2007 book, A Secular Age.

"In his philosophical writing, he doesn't pretend religion doesn't exist," notes University of Toronto philosophy professor Joe Boyle. "Religion for him is an important and real part of human life."

Boyle finds Taylor an essential author when he introduces undergraduates to contemporary philosophy. The American-born Boyle has his undergraduates read one of Taylor's essays on ethics.

In the realm of ethics, Boyle sees Taylor as a bit of a maverick.

"He objects to some of the mainstream themes in modern ethics. In modern ethics you tend to be either a Kantian or utilitarian," said Boyle.

But Taylor doesn't like all-encompassing explanations for everything derived from some formula. For him, the moral imagination has to account for real diversity in human experience.

Taylor awaits the church's fuller and deeper input into questions of multiculturalism.

"We mustn't overload the expectations on the church. The new input on this comes from a new situation," he said. "Sometimes the church has been able to do this remarkably well. Other times it's been remarkably deaf dealing with a new situation."

It's not that church social teaching hasn't tackled multiculturalism. But the church has had a rocky relationship with democracy, republicanism and modernity — all contributing factors in modern multiculturalism.

With Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the church laid the ground work for Christian democracy a train of political thought that would eventually embrace cultural and religious diversity. But that movement was nearly strangled in its crib by Pope Benedict XV and Pius X, two popes who faced the near-meltdown of European civilization around the First World War and were much less interested in the intersection of democracy and Christian life.

When the church finally took an unambiguously positive view of religious and cultural diversity at the Second Vatican Council it caused Bishop Marcel Lefebvre to found the Society of St. Pius X and break with the church.

"There's a terrible negative downside to turning one's back on these problems," noted Taylor. "Things can go terribly wrong. In another sense, there's something very exciting about this on the positive side. On the positive side we really can create across what was previously considered just insurmountable barriers real understanding, sometimes friendship, certainly some kind of political enterprise. Just think from a Catholic perspective of the Orange Parade. That's now, fortunately, a thing of the distant past. And the world is a much better place for that."

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