Charles TaylorA few years ago, I mentioned to an older friend that I was thinking of pursuing philosophy as a "career". "That's interesting", he said, "but don't you want to be able to support a family?" His impression was that there was no money in philosophy, that a career in philosophy was like a vocation to the Jesuits — a worthy enterprise, but a materially impoverished one! But things are beginning to change and the work of philosophers is beginning to be noticed beyond the Ivory Tower. You'll notice that the latest movie starring Eric Bana (aka "The Hulk"), Romulus My Father, is the work of Australia's own Raymond Gaita, a moral philosopher at the Australian Catholic University and King's College London. But perhaps most surprising is the award of the Templeton Prize to Charles Taylor, an eminent Canadian philosopher and public intellectual. The prize, valued at US$1.5m, is the world's largest prize awarded to an individual, even bigger than the Nobel Prize. The official ceremony takes place today at Buckingham Palace in London. Suddenly, philosophy is beginning to look like a profitable career path!

The size of the purse shouldn't distract us from the fact that the Templeton Prize is also a highly prestigious award. Typically awarded to those working within the field of scientific research, the prize acknowledges individuals who have made a contribution to understanding the mysteries of faith in their professional research. As somebody who has not only contributed to the world intellectually through his work on modernity and communitarianism, but who has also sought to put his reflections into practice in his native Quebec, Charles Taylor could not be a more appropriate recipient.

An ardent supporter of the separate identity of French-speaking Quebec, he ran for Parliament several times early in his career. Despite his English-sounding name, he is a proud Quebecois. His ideas on multiculturalism have been enormously influential, as other countries wrestle with the problems of integrating minorities into the mainstream. However, it is Taylor's writings on the history of modernity and its relation to contemporary moral theory which earned him the Templeton Prize, which recognises progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities. In his response to his prize, Taylor focused on the modern gap between faith and reason:

"I believe that the goal Sir John Templeton has chosen is one of the greatest contemporary importance and relevance: we have somehow to break down the barriers between our contemporary culture of science and disciplined academic study… on one hand, and the domain of spirit, on the other. This has been one of the driving goals of my own intellectual work, and to have it recognised as such fills me with an unstable mixture of joy and humility".

Taylor is currently professor of law and philosophy at Northwestern University and professor emeritus at the philosophy department of McGill University in Montreal. He has established himself as a leading critic of what he has described as the "atomistic individualism" of Western modes of thought and society. Through the course of his many books and articles (in particular Sources of the Self, Hegel, and The Ethics of Authenticity) he has been a vigilant critic of the methodological individualism which has dominated the social sciences since the beginning of the 20th century.

The isolated Enlightenment man

It is difficult to condense 300 years of philosophy into a few sentences. But since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the social sciences have focused almost exclusively on "the individual" as the bearer of truth and dignity. In turn, this has lead to the identification of truth with an abstract domain of objective reason in opposition to history and tradition. As a consequence, moral principles have been recast as a social contract between rationally consenting individuals in a situation of idealised deliberation.

Hence, the ideal Enlightenment man is an isolated individual. He stands sceptically aloof from his church, community, and ancestry. By the same token, state and society are merely service-providers who protect his liberties and rights, manage conflict and competition, and provide various options for individual self-definition and atomistic consumption.

In the past, justice involved a shared conception of the moral good. Today, however, justice is a function of society's ability to provide for the material needs of citizens and safeguard their freedoms. The big questions of religion and the meaning of life have are dismissed as issues in which the state has no interest. The consequence of this excessive individualism, Taylor persistently argues, is that philosophers and social scientists have lost sight of the social and historical dimensions of truth and human personality.

He complains that contemporary moral theories are abstract and bloodless. They divorce the truth of moral principles from a proper understanding of what constitutes a good life for us human beings. Hence, they forget how central for us all is the question of meaning. What is the purpose of existence? From where have we come? Where will we go? What does it mean to live a good life? These are often dismissed as non-issues by contemporary philosophers.

But we cannot ignore spiritual realities in public life, Taylor argues: "A blindness to the spiritual dimension of human life makes us incapable of exploring issues which are vital to our lives. Or to turn it around and state the positive: bringing the spiritual back in opens domains in which important and even exciting discoveries become possible."

Battling radical secularisation

Radical secularisation is a trend which Taylor wants to reverse. He contends that from the very beginning of history the desire to know the truth about themselves and the world has driven human beings, given meaning to their lives, and informed the development of culture. Socrates, one of the fathers of philosophy, spent his life trying to answer the Delphic Oracle’s call to know thyself. Our planet is littered with various civilisations’ attempts to understand the transcendental nature of human existence — whether this be in the form of cave paintings, ancient burial chambers on the foothills of the Boyne Valley in Ireland, or the great pyramids of Ancient Egypt.

But discerning the meaning of our humanity, however, is not something that we can accomplish as atomistic individuals. He writes in his short and stimulating book The Ethics of Authenticity: "Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial".

Taylor has always questioned whether the Enlightenment project of locating truth and morality in the individual could be sustained. He predicted that it would eventually lead to a loss of solidarity and social cohesion and give rise to a pervasive scepticism and moral relativism. Time has proved him right.

Thus in his books he tracked the progressive alienation of Canadians from each other as the increasing demands of work and productivity distanced people from each other and their families. They were transformed from persons in a web of relationships into workers and consumers in a chain of production and consumption.

In his reflections on multiculturalism and Quebecois nationalism, Taylor articulated a vision of the social dependency of the self where individuals’ self-esteem, dignity, and respect depend how they relate to others. "We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us," says Taylor. "Even after we outgrow some of these others – our parents, for instance – and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live."

In some ways, Taylor's analysis of multiculturalism has been prophetic. He argued that contemporary liberalism, with its focus on the abstract individual as the bearer of rights and the centre of morality, would not be able to deal effectively with the multicultural desires for recognition and solidarity because these are fundamentally about the needs of communities and groups in society. They simply do not fit into the individualist mindset of the Enlightenment project.

But despite his critique of atomistic individualism and the project of modernity, Taylor has never given up completely on the Enlightenment or on liberal democracy. His approach is positive, not negative and carping. The Enlightenment and the liberal political philosophy it fostered contain many important insights into the dignity of human freedom that we should be reluctant to jettison. Although the subsequent atomism that developed in the 20th century was misguided and harmful, this shouldn't lead us to the conclusion that personal freedom and the pursuit of critical inquiry are overrated. Instead, he argues, we need to rethink our notions of truth, dignity, and freedom so as to ground them within historical traditions of thought and moral reflection that are more substantive than the prevailing model of atomistic egoism and intellectual self-sufficiency. In this way personal liberty will be seen as an expression of our collective self-understanding rather than something abstract resulting from a hypothetical social contract between unrelated moral agents.

Taylor’s tradition-sensitive interpretation of the principles and ideals of the Enlightenment has led him to focus recently on the notion of a Catholic modernity. Here, he has sought to demonstrate how Enlightenment ideals of human dignity and personal freedom exist within the Catholic tradition with which Taylor himself strongly identifies. This work seeks to reconcile modern reason, which sometimes violently attacks the authority of religious tradition, with conservatives and fundamentalists who tend to recoil from critical inquiry.

If there is one central message that Taylor wants us to take from his work, it is that faith needs reason and reason needs faith. Without either, human experience and human potential are crippled. This is what Taylor calls spiritual thinking. His latest book, A Secular Age — to be published later this year — is devoted to this project. It will be, perhaps, the most important work in Taylor’s prestigious career. Together with the recent dialogues between Jürgen Habermas and Pope Benedict, it promises to refocus academic inquiry on the interface between religion and reason.

Michael McGann is completing a PhD thesis on the philosophy of multiculturalism at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia.