Charles Taylor: The Malaise of Modernity

The first time I can remember talking to Charles Taylor was in the mid-1980's, when I interviewed him in his office at McGill about a Canadian philosopher of an earlier generation, George Grant.  Like many another celebrated Canadian intellectual - Grant comes immediately to mind, as do Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan - Charles Taylor always made time for the CBC.   A few years later, after the publication of his Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, a book whose scope is just as broad as its title suggests, I proposed to my Ideas colleagues that Taylor be asked to do our annual Massey Lectures.  They agreed; he agreed, and the result was The Malaise of Modernity, a pithy and accessible condensation of Sources of the Self in which Taylor sought, characteristically, a middle way between what he called modernity's "boosters" and its "knockers."   The five lectures were given in 1991, and I still remember my incredulity and skepticism when Taylor told me he would like to deliver them more or less extemporaneously, followed by my amazement when he proceeded to do just that.  He had already prepared a text for publication, but when he gave the lectures he stood in the studio and spoke freely, referring only occasionally to his notes. The result was coherent, orderly and quite remarkably similar to the text - a performance which remains a model of intellectual virtuosity for me to this day. 

At the time I produced Taylor's Massey Lectures, I was already a keen student of the work of Ivan Illich, and I remember being disappointed on finding, when I introduced Illich's name, that Taylor was not sympathetic to Illich's ideas.  This changed dramatically in 2,000 when I broadcast a series on Ideas called "The Corruption of Christianity: Ivan Illich on Gospel, Church and Society."  (It's available elsewhere on this site, as is the Grant series I mentioned.)  Taylor called after the broadcasts to say that he had listened and had found a remarkable convergence between what Illich had said and the direction his own thinking was taking, as he prepared his A Secular Age, published in 2007.  (A harbinger, Modern Social Imaginaries, appeared in 2003.)  His comments gave me crucial encouragement in a project in which I felt myself to be somewhat out on a limb as a result of the unusual and, I thought, somewhat explosive character of the claims Illich was making.  When I published the interviews with Illich that had gone into the Ideas series as The Rivers North of Future in 2004, Taylor contributed a preface to the book.  My vivid interest in him notwithstanding, Illich was by then a largely forgotten figure, at least in academia, and Taylor's generous endorsation, in my opinion, gave the book a much wider audience than it would otherwise have had.

After his contribution to The Rivers North of the Future, we kept in touch, and, in 2010, in the wake of the wide notice and extensive commentary occasioned by A Secular Age, I felt it was time to attempt a full-scale intellectual profile of Charles Taylor for Ideas.  He agreed, and, for several days, he and his wife Aube received me hospitably at their hilltop home in Harrington, Quebec, where we conducted twice daily interviews, punctuated by delicious lunches and a glass of wine on the patio at the end of the day.  The five programmes that follow played on Ideas in early 2011 - their title cribbed from his Massey Lectures twenty years later.