Despite his extensive and diverse philosophical oeuvre, Taylor famously calls himself a "monomaniac", concerned with only one fundamental aspiration: to develop a convincing philosophical anthropology.
In his essay "To Follow a Rule", Taylor explores why people can fail to follow rules, and what kind of knowledge it is that allows a person to successfully follow a rule, such as the arrow on a sign. The intellectualist tradition presupposes that to follow directions, we must know a set of propositions and premises about how to follow directions.
Taylor argues that Wittgenstein's solution is that all interpretation of rules draws upon a tacit background. This background is not more rules or premises, but what Wittgenstein calls "forms of life". More specifically, Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations that "Obeying a rule is a practice." Taylor situates the interpretation of rules within the practices that are incorporated into our bodies in the form of habits, dispositions, and tendencies.
Following Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michael Polanyi, and Wittgenstein, Taylor argues that it is mistaken to presuppose that our understanding of the world is primarily mediated by representations. It is only against an unarticulated background that representations can make sense to us. On occasion we do follow rules by explicitly representing them to ourselves, but Taylor reminds us that rules do not contain the principles of their own application: application requires that we draw on an unarticulated understanding or "sense of things"—the background.
Taylor's critique of naturalism
Taylor defines naturalism as a family of various, often quite diverse theories that all hold "the ambition to model the study of man on the natural sciences". Philosophically, naturalism was largely popularized and defended by the unity of science movement that was advanced by logical positivist philosophy. In many ways, Taylor's early philosophy springs from a critical reaction against the logical positivism and naturalism that was ascendant in Oxford while he was a student.
Initially, much of Taylor's philosophical work consisted of careful conceptual critiques of various naturalist research programs. This began with his 1964 dissertation The Explanation of Behaviour, which was a detailed and systematic criticism of the behaviourist psychology of B. F. Skinner that was highly influential at mid-century.
From there, Taylor also spread his critique to other disciplines. The essay "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man" was published in 1972 as a critique of the political science of the behavioural revolution advanced by giants of the field like David Easton, Robert Dahl, Gabriel Almond, and Sydney Verba. In an essay entitled "The Significance of Significance: The Case for Cognitive Psychology", Taylor criticized the naturalism he saw distorting the major research program that had replaced B. F. Skinner's behaviourism.
But Taylor also detected naturalism in fields where it was not immediately apparent. For example, in 1978's "Language and Human Nature" he found naturalist distortions in various modern "designative" theories of language, while in Sources of the Self (1989) he found both naturalist error and the deep moral, motivational sources for this outlook in various individualist and utilitarian conceptions of selfhood.
Taylor and hermeneutics
Taylor in 2012
Concurrent to Taylor's critique of naturalism was his development of an alternative. Indeed, Taylor's mature philosophy begins when as a doctoral student at Oxford he turned away, disappointed, from analytic philosophy in search of other philosophical resources which he found in French and German modern hermeneutics and phenomenology.
The hermeneutic tradition develops a view of human understanding and cognition as centred on the decipherment of meanings (as opposed to, say, foundational theories of brute verification or an apodictic rationalism). Taylor's own philosophical outlook can broadly and fairly be characterized as hermeneutic and has been called engaged hermeneutics. This is clear in his championing of the works of major figures within the hermeneutic tradition such as Wilhelm Dilthey, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Gadamer. It is also evident in his own original contributions to hermeneutic and interpretive theory.
In his 1991 Massey LectureThe Malaise of Modernity, Taylor argued that political theorists—from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin—have neglected the way in which individuals arise within the context supplied by societies. A more realistic understanding of the "self" recognizes the social background against which life choices gain importance and meaning.
Taylor's later work has turned to the philosophy of religion, as evident in several pieces, including the lecture "A Catholic Modernity" and the short monograph "Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited".
Taylor's most significant contribution in this field to date is his book A Secular Age which argues against the secularization thesis of Max Weber, Steve Bruce, and others. In rough form, the secularization thesis holds that as modernity (a bundle of phenomena including science, technology, and rational forms of authority) progresses, religion gradually diminishes in influence. Taylor begins from the fact that the modern world has not seen the disappearance of religion but rather its diversification and in many places its growth. He then develops a complex alternative notion of what secularization actually means given that the secularization thesis has not been borne out. In the process, Taylor also greatly deepens his account of moral, political, and spiritual modernity that he had begun in Sources of the Self.
In his 2020 book Reconstructing Democracy he, together with Patrizia Nanz and Madeleine Beaubien Taylor, uses local examples to describe how democracies in transformations might be revitalized by involving citizenship.
The Malaise of Modernity. Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi Press. 1991.[b]
Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition". Edited by Gutmann, Amy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1992.[c]
Rapprocher les solitudes: écrits sur le fédéralisme et le nationalisme au Canada [Reconciling the Solitudes: Writings on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism] (in French). Edited by Laforest, Guy. Sainte-Foy, Quebec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval. 1992.
English translation: Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism. Edited by Laforest, Guy. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. 1993.
Road to Democracy: Human Rights and Human Development in Thailand. With Muntarbhorn, Vitit. Montreal: International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. 1994.
Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1995.
Identitet, Frihet och Gemenskap: Politisk-Filosofiska Texter (in Swedish). Edited by Grimen, Harald. Gothenburg, Sweden: Daidalos. 1995.
De politieke Cultuur van de Moderniteit (in Dutch). The Hague, Netherlands: Kok Agora. 1996.
La liberté des modernes (in French). Translated by de Lara, Philippe. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 1997.
A Catholic Modernity? Edited by Heft, James L. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999.
Prizivanje gradjanskog drustva [Invoking Civil Society] (in Serbo-Croatian). Edited by Savic, Obrad.
Wieviel Gemeinschaft braucht die Demokratie? Aufsätze zur politische Philosophie (in German). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. 2002.
Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2002.
Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. 2004.
A Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2007.
Laïcité et liberté de conscience (in French). With Maclure, Jocelyn. Montreal: Boréal. 2010.
English translation: Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. With Maclure, Jocelyn. Translated by Todd, Jane Marie. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2011.
Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2011.
——— (2004). "Introduction: Timely Medications in an Untimely Mode – The Thought of Charles Taylor". In Abbey, Ruth (ed.). Charles Taylor. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–28. ISBN978-0-511-16423-1.
——— (2016). "Taylor, Charles (1931–)". In Shook, John R. (ed.). The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America: From 1600 to the Present. London: Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 958ff. ISBN978-1-4725-7056-7.
——— (2017). "Taylor, Charles (1931– )". Dictionnaire de la Philosophie politique (in French). Encyclopædia Universalis. ISBN978-2-341-00704-7.
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Muntarbhorn, Vitit; Taylor, Charles (1994). Road to Democracy: Human Rights and Human Development in Thailand. Montreal: International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.
Palma, Anthony Joseph (2014). Recognition of Diversity: Charles Taylor's Educational Thought (PhD thesis). Toronto: University of Toronto. hdl:1807/65711.
Rodowick, D. N. (2015). Philosophy's Artful Conversation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN978-0-674-41667-3.
Semko, Jesse Joseph Paul (2004). Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor on Johann Gottfried Herder: A Comparative Study (MA thesis). Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: University of Saskatchewan. hdl:10388/etd-09152004-154002.
Smith, Nicholas H. (2002). Charles Taylor: Meaning, Morals and Modernity. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN978-0-7456-6859-8.
——— (2004). "Taylor and the Hermeneutic Tradition". In Abbey, Ruth (ed.). Charles Taylor. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 29–51. ISBN978-0-511-16423-1.
Taylor, Charles (1964). The Explanation of Behaviour. International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
——— (1983). "The Significance of Significance: The Case for Cognitive Psychology". In Mitchell, Sollace; Rosen, Michael (eds.). The Need for Interpretation: Contemporary Conceptions of the Philosopher's Task. New Jersey: Humanities Press. pp. 141–169. ISBN978-0-391-02825-8.
——— (1985a) . "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man". In Taylor, Charles (ed.). Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Philosophical Papers. 2. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 15–57.
——— (1985b). "Introduction". In Taylor, Charles (ed.). Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers. 1. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–12. ISBN978-0-521-31750-4.
——— (1985c) . "Language and Human Nature". In Taylor, Charles (ed.). Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers. 1. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 215–247. ISBN978-0-521-31750-4.
——— (1985d). "Self-Interpreting Animals". In Taylor, Charles (ed.). Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers. 1. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 45–76. ISBN978-0-521-31750-4.
——— (2016). The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN978-0-674-97027-4.
Taylor, Charles; Nanz, Patrizia; Beaubien Taylor, Madeleine (2020). Reconstructing Democracy: How Citizens Are Building from the Ground Up. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN978-0-674-24462-7.
Barrie, John A. (1996). "Probing Modernity". Quadrant. Vol. 40 no. 5. pp. 82–83. ISSN0033-5002.
Blakely, Jason (2016). Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism: Reunifying Political Theory and Social Science. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN978-0-268-10064-3.