The Achievement of Charles Taylor

Laura Nelson
17 min readAug 21, 2019


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The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age, based on his 1999 Gifford Lectures, is the capstone of a career that can be viewed as a variation on the theme of naturalism — or, more accurately, one particular construal of it, which might better be understood as scientism, reductive physicalism, or mechanistic materialism. A snapshot of this position is provided by Alex Rosenberg in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality:

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.

Rosenberg’s question-and-answer session borders on self-parody, but let that pass. More sophisticated and credible versions of the same kind of naturalism can be found in David Lewis’s claim that science alone gives us a “non-gerrymandered” picture of reality, or W.V.O. Quine’s parallel claim that science alone “limns the true and ultimate structure of reality.” Taylor’s problem with this world-picture is, I think, twofold. First, it ignores the fact that these naturalistic methodological, indeed metaphysical, understandings of reality have a history, a moment where they came into being as a response to human self-understandings, and which therefore can be either viewed as an optional or at best partial understandings of what it means to “be.” And second, it removes from the background context of human practices and skills that make reductive naturalism, as a theory, an intelligible possibility. A Secular Age tries to understand this naturalist “immanent frame” and its correlative “exclusive humanism” in against this background context, as historically constituted by a number of factors — not just the advance of natural science as a description of “the nature of reality” as “what physics says it is.”


Taylor’s writings from the 1960s and 1970s — The Explanation of Behavior and the essays collected in two volumes of Philosophical Papers, are a direct confrontation with deterministic naturalism in psychology, the philosophy of action, and the social sciences. While an undergraduate at Oxford, he studied with Elizabeth Anscombe, Wittgenstein’s pupil, and developed and extended her ideas, especially those expressed in Intention. There, Anscombe argued that an action could be explained as an event described in mechanistic, causal terms, yet at the same time understood in terms of the reasons guiding that action. For example, if someone were to ask, “Explain the murder of your boss”, it would not be wrong to reply: “because electrochemical activity in my cerebral cortex stimulated a chain of neurons to fire, resulting in the contraction of my right index finger, which pulled the trigger on the gun, which caused an explosion launching the lead projectile bullet into my boss’ heart, which killed him.” However it does not explain the event as an intentional action. Were I to reply “Because I hated the sonofabitch for not promoting me!” I have given reasons — however bad and loathsome — for my action qua action. And this is what we are searching for when we wish to explain matters in the human world.

What Taylor adds to Anscombe’s account of intention is a worked-out philosophical anthropology. For Taylor, understanding human action and psychological intentionality requires understanding more obviously than it requires the kind of explanation proper to the natural sciences (i.e., law-like generalizations that sustain counterfactual conditionals). Understanding persons involves assessing the desires and reasons for persons acting the way they do, and this in turn involves a grasp of their interpretations of the world and their self-interpretations. Human science is not nomological, it is hermeneutic, and complicated by the fact that determining what human beings involves not only their self-interpretations, but the fact that self-interpretations can change given time and new circumstances. Human sciences like Sociobiology (remember that?), behaviorism, and the kind of eliminative materialist psychology advanced by Quine and the Churchlands, is sterile — they aim at the wrong object of study, which is a shared human world of interpretations and self-interpretations, none of which involves strict deterministic causality.


Taylor describes this shared human world as “the background”, a non-formalizable ground for explicit beliefs, a ground of practices and skills and world-engagements that makes explicit representations, or objects of theory, possible. In this regard, Taylor’s chief interlocutors are Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. (Taylor, after receiving his degree, concluded that the Oxford philosophical tradition did not afford him adequate resources for his hermeneutic anthropology, and he turned to Kantian and post-Kantian currents in continental philosophy for help.).

Wittgenstein, contrary to many popular (mis)understandings, did not ground sound linguistic practice in the collective adoption of arbitrary grammatical rules. If language was “rules all the way down”, one could not understand how to apply rules, requiring rules and exceptions for applying rules — this generates a vicious infinite regress. There must be a background of shared skills, habits, and “agreement in judgment/form of life” to be able to properly apply a rule or its exception. How might this background itself be understood?

For this, Taylor turns to Heidegger, in particular the Heidegger of Being and Time division 1, for a phenomenological picture of the background to understanding. In Being and Time Heidegger’s fundamental ontology of Dasein discloses not a self-contained Cartesian subject causally involved in an inert world of present-at-hand objects. Rather, Dasein and its world are inseparable from each other, and better understood as a nexus of involvements: what Dasein is at any given moment is implicated in its world of ready-to-hand beings defined as a totality of significances, what Dasein’s world is can be understood as a field in which it is thrown and pursues its projects. For Heidegger, the subject/object dichotomy is derives from this more fundamental field-of-involvements: we understand the world as a collection of objects, and ourselves as self-determining subjects, only on the basis of this prior Being-in-the-world.

Finally, Merleau-Ponty is a key source for Taylor insofar as he emphasizes the embodied nature of human subjectivity. While Heidegger neglects embodiment in his fundamental ontology of Dasein, Merleau-Ponty applies the corrective: our grasp of the world is that of a body located, temporally and spatially, in it, and our comportment toward beings in the world is that of a body moving through its field of involvements, constituting things just as things shape us. A Cartesian res cogitans cannot accomplish this feat. It is cut off from the world of things, which it takes to be inert extended matter, and its only contact is with representations of it, not things in the world themselves.


If humans are first and foremost related to reality through “engaged skillful coping”, then the “epistemological construal” of the mind-world relationship is flawed from the start. When one is coping in “an environment which is both stable and precarious” in John Dewey’s words, our access to that world is not that of an inner mental theater whose representations mediate our knowledge of the world beyond the Cartesian theater’s outer walls. The problematic of philosophy throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, whether rationalist or empiricist, can never account for the sense in which our representations — ideas, sense-data, neural events — represent (or fail to represent) the physical extended beings that populate the outer world. Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty explode that problematic. We are not, in the first instance, representors of the world: we are involved in it, approach it as expressive beings with distinct interests, and allow beings to show themselves accordingly. Reality is what we come in contact with first, and represent in explicit theories of present-at-hand entities only in a later phase.

I think that Taylor can be included in the group of contemporary post-analytic/post-critical philosophers, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Bernstein, Jeffrey Stout, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell, who wish to re-assess and revise the “Realism” vs. “Idealism/Anti-Realism” dilemma, if not dismiss it altogether. The representative realist — e.g., Descartes, Locke — needs to detect and define the way in which our internal representations of the external world conform, or correspond, or picture respond to that world. But to determine what that correspondence actually is must be a non-started, since one would have to be able to extricate ourselves from our representations to determine the nature of the true relation between the two relata, subjective idea and objective world. This leads to the temptation of subjective idealism, a la Berkeley and, in a way, Leibniz, which falls prey to Hume’s global skepticism, or a kind of deep cognitive anti-realism, where mind creates the world by imposing structural articulations on it, a la Fichte. None of these epistemological alternatives are satisfactory, and therefore their metaphysical assumptions need to be critiqued as well.

Taylor sees, in Kant’s transcendental arguments in the Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, ways out of the Rationalist/Empiricist morass. Kant explodes the Cartesian theatre metaphor of the mind in his Transcendental Deduction of the categories: one cannot make sense of the mind-world relationship without presupposing the conditions for the possibility of experience, conditions that ensure the contact between mind/subject and world/object in a common world governed by categories of substance, accident, causality, and so on, all of which likewise take place in a sensorium structured by space and time. We are not charged with the task of figuring out how we pass from an inner mental world of experience to an outer non-mental world of natural objects: mind and world are both elements in reality as it is experiences, reality as it appears to us, and which must exhibit certain structural consistencies (the categories, space and time).

Taylor calls Kant a “hinge” figure, one who discovered a way out of the inner/outer representationalist impasse, but who could not quite find his own way through it. For Kant, phenomena — the beings in reality-as-it-appears-to-us — are indeed described as representations, just as they are in Descartes and Locke. But while for both Descartes and Locke, the representations were mental ideas and the represented physical bodies, Kant includes both characterizes subjective mental events on the one hand and objective physical events as phenomena, as beings-as-they-appear. What could they represent, then? Kant’s answer — the noumenal world, beings-as-they-are-in-themselves as opposed to how they appear to us. It is hard to see, however, how an unknowable noumenon could be “represented” as a phenomenon: there is in principle no way to parse the representative relation between them if the noumenon is by necessity the unknowable ground of what is knowable. Kant closed the gap separating Subject and Object but only by opening up an even more forbidding one, that between the noumenon and the phenomenon, the world as it is in-itself and as-such, and the world as it appears to human understanding, with which it cannot be identified, only represented in some inarticulable way.

However Hegel — about whom Taylor has written two significant books — proposed a way to do just that: close the gap between reality-in-itself and reality-as-it-appears to us. In the Phenomenology of Sprit, Hegel follows human consciousness from its most basic expression in sense-certainty, through common-sense perception and scientific understanding, to the rational realization that in knowing the world the knower knows both world and self to be Spirit. Hegel’s Geist is a complicated and subtle notion: it is not individual subjective spirit a la Berkeley, and rather more like the Greek ideas of nous and logos as employed by Plato and Aristotle. It is the rational center of a reality-in-process, understood as the Absolute and Unconditioned Spirit projecting and manifesting itself in history as Reason-at-work, the culmination of which is the perfect alignment of knower and known, Spirit and Nature, God and the world of finite spirits and temporal things.

There is a great deal in Hegel that Taylor does not endorse, most of which can be resolved into Hegel’s post-Critical metaphysics of Spirit alienating itself in Nature and History while re-integrating the latter back into the Absolute, eschatologically. But Hegel’s other accomplishments are invaluable for Taylor. Here are three:

1. For Hegel and Taylor, as opposed to Kant, reason and understanding are fundamentally social enterprises. We acquire empirical concepts, learn to perceive things, and learn to employ understanding and speculative reasoning in a particular social context. We are not locked into these contexts: they can and do develop dialectically over time. But we cannot escape them either. All our cognitive efforts take place in a context and against a background of beliefs and practices which are taken for granted: change and progress take place from this shared complex of “givens.”

2. Hegel, in the “Lordship and Bondage” section of the Phenomenology views human freedom — Kant’s rational self-determination — as an accomplishment of conscience rather than a given, a power of a noumenal self. The “master-slave” dialectic of this section demonstrates how self-consciousness dialectically evolves by the ways in which one consciousness comes to know itself by encountering another consciousness, and is made determinate by the manner and style of this relation. Atomic individualism, affirmed in one way by Descartes and Locke, and in another way by Kant, is, for Hegel, unthinkable. There are autonomous, self-determining rational agents, but paradoxical as it may sound, one cannot become autonomous all by oneself.

3. The standard dichotomy of “realism vs. idealism/anti-realism” is undercut by Hegel, despite the fact he regarded himself as working within the idealist tradition of Fichte and Schelling. For Hegel, there is no ontological gap between spirit and nature, so the conundrum of metaphysical realism — that is, how one can make the leap from one’s subjective representations to an accurate account of the objects they represent — never gets off the ground. The ultimate nature of reality — the Absolute — can only be understood as spirit. But “spirit” is not to be identified with an individual’s subjectivity, as in Berkeley, or an objective spirit that does not unfold dialectically as in Fichte. Spirit projects itself into nature and history, and has a telos of the reconciliation of its manifestations in a finite, temporal world with its “concept”; Spirit externalizes itself and its manifestations, as they historically develop, demonstrate the ultimate rationality of the system of reality as a whole. But it is important to realize that the Absolute actually does externalize itself in finite spirits and finite nature and history, so that when we know something we are discovering things about a world that, to paraphrase Peirce, is independent of whatever we think about it, but not independent of thought-as-such (which, for Hegel if not Peirce, is understood as Absolute Spirit). So Hegel’s brand of idealism is consistent with a kind of realism about the objects of our finite understanding and knowledge, a “piecemeal” or “everyday” realism about both ourselves and the dialectically evolving world.

Taylor believes that Hegel’s metaphysics (of Absolute Spirit projecting and manifesting itself in nature and history according to a rational telos) is no longer credible. But he does retain Hegel’s basically social account of rationality and its historicity. He also thinks that Hegel’s social model of human existence has political ramifications for liberal republican democracy, which, unlike many of those classified as “communitarians”, he wishes to defend, a topic to which I shall return in section 5.


From Taylor’s perspective, Rosenberg’s rejection of history as so much bunkum cannot avoid being arbitrary. It emanates from a set of background assumptions that Rosenberg, Quine, et. al. never question: i.e. reductive physicalism and naturalism. Taylor does not wish to dismiss these assumptions as a priori wrong, but he does wish to show that they too have a history, that they arose as a result of certain contingent events that could have been otherwise, and that therefore they are options that can be modified or displaced by new contingencies. The Hegelian resonance of this approach is clear: our basic frameworks for understanding reality are guided as well as ruptured by contingencies. Taylor dubs these frameworks “social imaginaries”, and the sort of framework championed by Rosenberg is an “immanent frame”, or an “exclusive humanism” that rejects any appeal to any form of transcendence.

A Secular Age thus begins with the question: how did the “immanent frame” become possible? Less than 500 years ago it would be nearly impossible to find an atheist along the lines of Rosenberg. What shifts in the Western social imaginary made atheism, agnosticism, secularism, and so on possible to begin with? What taken-for-granted assumptions, social skills, social practices, and cultural customs made “exclusive humanism” available as an option, and transformed theistic religious conviction from an unquestionable given to just one option among many? How can this drastic change in social imaginary be narrated?

One narrative line that Taylor rejects is “the subtraction theory of secularization”. It is epitomized by Rosenberg in the Q&A list above, and has been reiterated ad infinitum by the “new atheist” clique: that secularization is the inevitable result of the progress of natural science which, as it explains how nature works without reference to divinity or spiritual powers, drives them out of culture. It is the background to convictions like as “Darwin refuted the Bible”, or “science makes religion obsolete.” In this view, as science advances religion recedes: the history of secularization is a narrative of the disappearance of faith and the hegemony of reason.

Taylor’s confronts this “subtraction theory” by affirming, as he usually does, that things are far more complicated — and not just because “faith” is fading out (as it clearly is not, particularly in the United States and the “developing world”). The “subtraction thesis” neglects the background practices and the social imaginary that gave rise, slowly but inexorably, to a secularized world where unbelief, alongside belief, is a real possibility for human beings in the West.

Taylor’s narrative begins in the European Middle Ages, where Christian belief was as taken-for-granted and transparent as water is for fish. The social imaginary of Medieval Europeans was one of living in an “enchanted world”, where supernatural forces and presences — spirits, demons, miracles, sacraments, relics — were real powers and presences interwoven in daily life and cosmic events. Time and temporality was understood in two ways: worldly time and “God’s time”, the Augustinian idea of all being an “eternal present” to God, not Platonic atemporality but a “gathered time” present in the Divine fullness, a fullness in which humans share but do not possess themselves. The secular order participates in and reflects the sacred, but while it is permeated by it, secularity is not identical to it. The lives of the religious orders — monks and nuns — are uniquely governed by the sacred sphere and its order, while the bulk of the “secular” populace, living “ordinary” lives, and are structured by the needs and requirements of living a “worldly” life.

This social imaginary began to shift in the High Middle Ages, where an attempt was made to make the rigorous requirements of a faithful Christian life applicable not to just to members of the religious orders but to all of Christendom. “Reform” did not just appear with Protestantism in the 16th Century: it began as an internal reform within Catholic Christianity, with tightening requirements for the laity to participate in annual confession and communion, the elimination of “carnival” festivities when moral and religious order was temporarily overturned, and so on. As the juggernaut of internal reform continued, there was a parallel theological shift toward a nominalism that emphasized God’s power and otherness over God’s nature, and a consequent de-divinization of the natural world that preceded and made possible the mechanized vision of nature that prompted the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton. “Ordinary life” was no longer held apart from “religious life”: the Reformation held all Christians to the same doctrinal and behavioral standards as those in ministry. From there, it was a short step to Deism, the conviction that God, while real, creates the natural world according to a beneficent design, but then lets it run on its own, which in turn turns atheism, “exclusive humanism”, and “an immanent frame” into real possibilities.

Taylor is even-handed in his assessment of this modern, immanent turn. It gives ordinary existence its long-overdue due, and provides a powerful set of background beliefs and practices for understanding and explaining natural phenomena. But something is lost as well: a sense of fullness, a sense that the immanent frame rests upon a transcendence that infuses it with a value not exhausted by our own impermanent aims and flourishing. There have been many attempts in modernity to recover this, most prominently the Romantic movements that viewed nature and/or art as filing the God-sized hole left by exclusive humanism. Taylor’s own Christian sympathies are clear — while he praises Romanticism he clearly thinks it provides an inadequate sense of “fullness” — but A Secular Age is anything but a work of Christian or Catholic agitprop. His conclusion is a modest one: not dismissive of either modernity or postmodernity, but mindful of its gaps and aporiae.


Taylor’s even-handedness about modernity as a cultural phenomenon has clear political ramifications. On the one hand, he views the emergence of a politics of “ordinary life” as a solid advance over older forms of hierarchical, authoritarian politics. On the other, he notes that modern politics tends to become instrumental — a matter of managing the competing life-projects of “buffered”, atomic individuals — and drains public life of the sense of ordered community characteristic of premodern political life. He thus charts a parallel course to Hegel, who wished to integrate the sense of political unity of the Greeks with fealty to the modern constitutional state, and who sought to resolve the contradictions of modernity in a higher metaphysical synthesis.

Taylor, however, is rightly skeptical of Hegel’s historical metaphysics of Geist and its inevitable telos of Spirit re-integrating itself in Absolute Knowledge. There is nothing inevitable about history — a lesson inadequately learned by Marx and other post-Hegelians. Taylor instead makes a plea for a more communitarian form of liberal republican democracy, where Hegel’s emphasis on the mutual recognition of citizens is melded with safeguarding cultural pluralism and human rights. Taylor, unlike critics of modernity like MacIntyre and Foucault, argues for a form of communitarianism that is not only compatible with modern liberalism but integral to it, a “politics of recognition” that is also “a politics of rights”.

Taylor’s own efforts to reconcile the differences between French-speaking Quebecois and the English-speaking Canadian majority in an internally-complex form of federalism testifies to both the difficulty and the urgency of this post-Hegelian version of politics. This difficulty should not blind us to its urgency, which in our own day is keenly felt south of the Canadian border.

Taylor’s philosophical work is relevant to the U.S. predicament in two ways. First, it demonstrates that while it isn’t immediately apparent: that philosophical understandings of what it means to be human are politically relevant, insofar as they lurk in the background of a shared social imaginary. Today, at a moment where confidence in liberal democratic republican ideals and institutions is fading fast as we Americans careen towards civil disintegration, they are supremely relevant. It matters politically that we are better understood as “self-interpreting animals” as opposed to animals biologically programmed to ruthlessly pursue self-interest whatever we think we are doing. The political consequences of opting for one over the other are vast.

Second, it is important to confront the problems of modern politics — its neglect of recognition of the other, its assumption of atomic individualism, its oblivion of the social imaginary and the “fullness” that gives life meaning — not as reason to reject modernity and post-modernity (which, for Taylor, is not just a tall order but an impossible one) but as reason to reform and recast them — to use a Hegelian turn-of-phrase, to subject them to a dialectical critique-and-transcendence, to make them aufgehoben. There are many achievements of Charles Taylor, but that, in my humble opinion, is his greatest and most timely.



Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.