Monday, February 22, 2010

Charles Taylor - some background

wise old Charles Taylor?

Canto: Charles Taylor won the Templeton Prize in 2007. It was the first I'd heard of him in many years. As a sometime extramural student of philosophy in the eighties I discovered Taylor's writings on the continentals, from Hegel to Foucault, and was somewhat won over. Here was a lucid, self-effacing, typically Anglo-American philosopher [at least style-wise] analysing, elucidating and critically appraising all those daunting, obscurantist and  more than faintly irritating Franco-Germanic neologists, from a perspective I took to be broadly similar to my own. One recent critic described his style as beguiling, and I can concur with that. You find yourself so swept along that you're tempted to give your critical faculties a rest. Still, I admired the guy and always meant to get back to him. So imagine my surprise when he was awarded the Templeton. The Templeton Prize, given for 'researches or discoveries about spiritual realities', is as you can imagine, highly controversial, not least because of the obvious assumptions contained within its very purpose. Another thing that makes it controversial is the $1.5 million prize-money - the largest annual monetary award given to an individual. Given that many thinkers would consider the kinds of researches and discoveries rewarded by this prize to be entirely bogus, and given the endless scramble for funding for real research, it's hardly surprising that many are miffed by the whole business.
Jacinta: And you've discovered, through this award, that Taylor was a practicing Roman Catholic. That must have surprised you.
Canto: You could've knocked me down with a feather. There was nothing in the writing of Taylor that I'd read which would have led me to believe he was religious in any sense, let alone a Roman Catholic. I was most alarmed. You see, Roman Catholicism is one form of Christianity - supposing it is a Christian organisation - that goes against the grain with me. It's authoritarian, patriarchal, hierarchical and dogmatic. The only thing about it that I admire is that its rigidity naturally creates opposing forces within itself - renegade priests, defiant nuns, egalitarian monks and so forth.
Jacinta: Yes, the question of its Christian bonafides is an interesting one. The character Jesus, though largely a construction I think, and a contradictory one, is at least consistent in always tearing into the pharisees [see, for example, Mark 12:38-40], with their airs and ceremonies and fine clothes, their pretence of power and importance. The similarities with the current Catholic hierarchy are striking. Consider too how comparatively powerless the modern Catholic church is [the pharisees, under the Roman occupation, were essentially Roman stooges]. In any case, anyone closely reading the gospels would surely have to admit that the character described therein would have no truck with Roman Catholicism - either now or in the fourth century CE.
Canto: So, now I've been wanting to revisit Charles Taylor's work for entirely different reasons. Apparently he has written a book called a A Secular Age, a near-900 page opus which presumably sets out the woes of the modern world. I intend to read it [woe is me], but in the meantime I've been catching the odd talk and interview with the revered gentleman.
Jacinta: Yes, and we'll discuss his interview in the magazine Philosophy Now next time.

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