(Versión en castellano aquí)
It would be an understatement to introduce Charles Taylor (Montreal, 1931) just as a philosopher. And that’s because this Canadian thinker has moved like a fish swimming in a stream between History, Philosophy, Politics and even Psychology, and in all these fields has made relevant contributions.
Taylor declares himself a supporter of Quebec’s own identity within a cohabitation between nations and in his different works about Modernity or secularism shows this conciliatory disposition while trying to build bridges between confronted positions like faith and reason. We seize the opportunity of his visit to Barcelona’s CCCB to talk about nationalism, the role of religions in modern society, conception of the self, or our natural tendency towards conflict and reconciliation.
A graduate in History, becoming a PhD in Philosophy, with a thesis about behavioral psychology, and being professor of political science. When did you have a clear idea about what you were going to do in your life?
Well, I’m getting close to it… [Laughter]. No, it happened as a series of accidents. I did a degree in History and then I got a scholarship with Oxford. So I thought that maybe I would go sideways and do Philosophy, politics and economics. And then I got very dissatisfied with the Philosophy, so I wanted to go on and do Philosophy. Then I was very influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French phenomenologist. He was a companion of Sartre. Right after the war they were in Temps modernes, the magazine. Then they fell out for a variety of reasons. But I think he’s one of the really important seminal philosophers of the 20th century. He put together phenomenological philosophy with a study of the scientific literature. For instance, on the brain to develop an understanding of what human agency is. So phenomenology of perception is his big one. I read that when I was at Oxford. And I wanted to pursue it. So then I sort of pursued it and I did something Merleau-Ponty’ian. I had a discussion of the explanation of behavior, but in connection with a certain so-called scientific field of behaviorist-psychology, which I thought was a complete dead-end. But I wanted to show that it was a dead-end, so I did a sort of Merleau-Ponty’ian book and that became my thesis. And from then on I got interested in politics, so I joined a political science department. I was in the borderline between philosophy and the human sciences. And that, you know, led to whole lot of things: led to reading a lot of political science, a lot of Anthropology… and never lost interest in History [Laughs]. I gradually brought them down and I situated myself in this interspace between philosophy, sort of science and History.
And related to phenomenology, I’ve read that at some point you got disappointed with analytical philosophy and turned it to hermeneutics and phenomenology. Why this change?
Because it didn’t seem to be that analytical philosophy was capable of dealing with a lot of questions I wanted to deal with. Questions to do with… what motivates human beings to act? Or questions to do with ethics, what is right, what is really important in life. And these are connected subjects because you can only understand why people do what they do if you know what people think is important in life, what they feel is important in life. So I found a great deal of analytical philosophy incredibly narrow because they weren’t capable of taking the hermeneutical leap. Hermeneutics is an attempt to understand human life by grasping the terms and understandings which people have and which people live their lives. The language for that is never razor sharp. It’s always an approximation, which tries to give you a sense of it. And then you can criticize that and rectify it, and criticize that and rectify it again. You never get a final definitive description of people’s ethical views, people’s sense of what’s beautiful… And unless you are willing to introduce that into your philosophy, you just debar yourself from discussing these really important issues. So you can get what looks like very tight exactitudes by sticking to logical relations between propositions, which are themselves unproblematic. You either get that or you don’t understand what you want to understand. Exactly what I felt about behavioral psychology. You get what looks like a very exact, clear methodology, but it doesn’t deal with the actual subject. There is a famous joke about the drunk who is walking around under the streetlamp, looking at the ground and somebody asks him, “What are you doing?”
[And he says,] “I’m looking for my keys. I dropped my keys. “
“Where did you drop your keys?”
“I dropped them over there.”
“Well, what are you doing here?”
“Well that’s where the light is.”
So if you are terribly clear about something, but it’s irrelevant to what you really want, why waste your time?
In 1973, you did an introductory study to Hegel’s philosophy. Was that really the moment when you got interested in modernity?
Yes, probably. I mean I think that I wouldn’t be able to say it at the time, but probably in hindsight it looks this way. I sort of knew I wanted to do something like philosophy understood in the terms of history, in terms of the narrative of its development. And that’s the kind of thing I’ve written since: Sources of the Self, A Secular Age… And Hegel really tried to understand human life in terms of its development through History. So I felt I had to come to terms with that. [Benedetto] Croce, the Italian philosopher, has this great book Ciò che è vivo e ciò che è morto della filosofia di Hegel [What is Living and What is Dead of the Philosophy of Hegel]. So my deal was that you have got to decide. If you want to do this kind of thing, decide what’s living and what’s dead. What’s acceptable and what isn’t. So I did that book on Hegel and it became -not that I accepted, quite the contrary but- my avenue to doing a similar kind of thing.
You try to build bridges among confronted currents. With your experience of all these years, do you think we have a bigger tendency towards conflict or towards reconciliation?
I think it goes back and forth…I think that we can, and certainly some people have, increased the possibility of reconciliation by really doing good hermeneutic work, understanding the position of others: their religious position, their cultural position, their moral position, etc. But at the same time the contemporary world has seen exacerbation of politics. And in a sense, this exacerbation seems to be, in the short term, hard; because people are mobile. Globalization brings people much more into contact, they are much more aware of how they are being affected by the whole of the developments outside. So there’s a sense of resentment in the less developed part of the world. And that can be played out by a set of mobilizations, which really are mobilizations against. The whole of this Islamism, in all its forms, is really a mobilization against. Not entirely, but a lot of it is drawn from the Wahhabi branch of Islam, the one which has been dominant in Saudi Arabia. And it is very narrow and very austere. But it’s totally intra-Islamic. And it’s very critical of other Muslims. But that has been, as it were, put in a new register in order to canalize this sense of resentment, particularly in the Arab world, against the great powers, the Western powers, the United States. And it’s interesting that that resentment preceded that because it first expressed itself in Arab nationalism under Nasser, and the parties were really Arab Nationalist parties; and with the failure of that the Islamist tendency takes over. So you get this already narrow notion of Islam and this very Salaffist orientation,and it becomes the way that they mobilize against what seems to be a very nasty external enemy. And so here you get the formula for credible conflict, lots of people in that part of the world get to spend their time hating the West. Now the mobilization around that is very, very powerful. So what do you do? Well, back to the drawing board. It’s only further understanding that can undercut this. As long as the West don’t have the sense of the diversity of Islam, don’t have a sense of who their allies are in the Islamic world, have another view of Islam, can’t reach out and connect with them. As long as they just have this global condemnation of Islam they feed that reaction. You need to have much more understanding of the other in order to undercut it. But it’s hard because when you are attacked, it’s more natural to say, “Okay, everybody get back.” But the idea of “Calm down, maybe we can undercut the will of the enemy to attack us by reaching out to kinds of people who can talk in a way that will deflate that” is a much less dramatic and much less attractive way.
Is it going to get better or worse?
Well, it can’t get worse. [Laughter] We always say it can’t get really worse. I think it has some chances at getting better. I think that… well, ask me one day and I think it’s going to be worse…
Depends on recent events, right?
In Sources of the Self, you explore the origins of the autonomous self in Western culture. What do you think of the recent researches in Neuroscience regarding to the self?
Well, I’m not necessarily up on these recent researches but I think that in one way they confirm that a purely reductive account in terms of just the patterns of neurons firing won’t work because it seems that the kind of wiring that begins to occur in the brain of the young child can be seen to be dependent upon the success of the child. So, plainly, there is an element here in which the purpose involved is absolutely key. There are other kinds of connections that neuroscience discovers between parts of the brain that are mainly related to emotions and parts of the brain that are related to planning and so on. But these don’t really… these tell us that there is another reason to think that there is a very close connection but they don’t tell us the kind of ways that those connections get set up and the purposes that they serve human life. And I think that there is always going to be that kind of lack of real explanatory power. We have to have a more sophisticated understanding.
Do you think there is a need to do more multidisciplinary work in this field?
You are pretty critic with the position that thinks that naturalism is the ambition to study the model of man on the natural science. Is it because it’s an over-simplification?
Well, it’s looking in the wrong place, like the drunk looking in the light. We can trace certain connections with the methods of natural science in which these kind of firings occur, but we don’t really get to a level where we can understand it in terms of purpose, or epiphenomenal, connections that appear understandable in terms of the electric currents and the firing of neurons. Only if they were purely epiphenomenal would that give us the real, ultimate insight. So it seems to me that they are not epiphenomenal. So, what you have is that we’re looking in what’s largely the wrong place. It can have some influence against a kind of some light. But it will fail to understand really what is going on, what the ultimate motivations are. So it’s looking in the wrong place.
To which extent does our natural egotism prevail over the common good?
There is always a struggle going on between the two, but I think that if you look to the whole history there is a progress in aspiration. If you go back very far to the earliest small societies, you have a world in which the members of the tribe consider themselves to be all that mattered. And even in early tribes the name they have for themselves is their name for human being. The Inuit are an example, with the word “Inuktitut.” Or the Greeks, who spoke about Barbarians. They don’t really speak, they go “bar, bar, bar”, they make noise. In the Slavic languages the word for German is very close to the word for mute. And so on. Very early on there is no sense of human beings as universal. Then you get these great axial turns like Buddha, Confucius, the Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets and so on. And they bring in different ways this universal consciousness, this sense of human beings as such. A sense of a good that is a human good as such in which everybody can have access. The sense that we owe something to others. It gradually grows and grows. What’s interesting is that it does grow and it becomes irreversible. Having that aspiration to universal growth seems to be something we can’t really turn our backs on. There are cases like nazism, with a completely supposedly consistent intellectual position, where everything is a struggle between peoples and you just got on top. And that ends with a universal repugnance, including the Germans themselves. So there is something irreversible happening here. And that’s the good side -you can end up reconciling with your former enemy, so there is something very powerful here. But then, get this… you just look at that and you think “Wow we’re getting somewhere”, and then Nazism breaks out here and Islamic State breaks out there and so on. It’s as though there are steps forward but also horrifying steps backward. It’s very confusing. What’s certainly true is that the liberal dream that we’re gradually getting more democratic… not true, obviously not true. But, “Everything’s going to hell, we’re going too!”… Also not true. The reality is very confusing, very confusing. People have to be motivated to do the changes they can in their political lives and their personal lives without the crutch of knowing “this is the direction of history.” [Laughter]
But this is a hard thing to do. The easiest one is to follow your instinct.
Yes. It’s a hard thing to do, but you have to have a kind of motivation. It’s worth it.
You have said that nationalism can give cohesion to a society, but at the same time it can be very exclusionary with individuals or societies as a way to define its limits. What is your opinion on Quebec nationalism as québécois yourself? Which are the main differences from other nationalisms like the Catalan?
It’s very similar. I think condemning nationalism itself is a terrible idea because nationalism gives a very strong sense of belonging, it’s what makes it possible to have a democratic society, people willing to share and so. But I think also that nations have to live with each other and that the most civilized formula is if nations can live with each other within the bounds of the same stage. So I’m very much a federal myself, more than independentist in the context of Quebec. On the other hand, there is a big difference in our context from your context, in that we have made the basic decision to normalize this question. Okay, if a majority wants, we are going. The question is how much a majority is, but anyway. Same in the UK, with Scotland. I think that’s a very healthy thing and I would even say that while a majority of people in Catalonia would want a referendum, not necessarily the same majority would want to vote “Yes” if there is a referendum. I think probably a lot of resentment exists because Spain is saying: “No, shut up, you have no right to vote!” And that offends your sense of “We are people”. And that would be the wisdom of the Canadian case: that was recognized.
You supported the independence of Quebec. Quebec and Scottish ambitions failed when asked to citizens. Knowing these precedents, why do you think that unionists in Spain are those who oppose a referendum if it would be a slap on their backs if it fails?
First of all, you can never be sure; and they are afraid of that. But I also think that they have, in some way, fetishized the existence of historic Spain. It’s so honorable, it’s so right, “How do you dare to challenge the existence of historic Spain?” Which is kind of ridiculous because the country was put together by Fernando and Isabel, right? It always was a separate language, a separate society. Aragoneses never had any place in the empire, the empire was still in Castilla and that’s why everyone speaks Castillian. So, this is a nonsense in Spanish history. But you can see that a lot of people are worked up.
You have actively engaged in politics with the New Democratic Party in Quebec. Is there any room for a political theorist in the day-to-day affairs of a political party?
Oh, yes, yes, we have lots of them. [Laughs] I mean, the debates we have inside are very informed with different theorists of democracy. I have been very involved in that since the beginning because I was at the founding convention of that party and I am still very involved. We have elections coming up in October, the leader is a very good friend of mine and we are always trying to work out policies in terms of understandings of political theory. Political theory is very close to them.
Let’s talk a bit about religions now. I think it’s inevitable that sometimes religions clash with each other. To what extent do you think it’s a fight for a faith and not a fight for the power over millions of people?
Well, I think that these big clashes that we have today are such a mingling of faith and power that it’s hard to separate. Let me try to account for it in the following way: modern political entities are what you would call mobilized entities. That is, they are involved in their being a common identity, like Canadians or Catalans or something… or ones that aren’t necessarily linked to a particular language like Americans. And these identities are ones that people are mobilized into. You know, so it’s not like an entity that exists because always we’ve been in this tribe. Or nor did it exist because some great nomadic horsemen conquered these whole areas like the Ottoman Empire, where people have no sense of what they belong to but just what’s above them. And this kind of mobilized identity needs what you would call a marker or common definition. And you found in many case that religion or some particular profession becomes the marker for this identity. You can see that in the European case with the liberation movements in Poland or Catholics against Protestants in Ireland. And sometimes this actually survives the decline of an active faith, so you get the breakup of Yugoslavia, you get someone like Slobodan Milošević, who was an Atheist but he was mobilizing people. What’s going on? Is that religion or is that power? They are so intimately interwoven… And that is what is really dangerous in our modern world. Because they get a lot of the drive from religion, but they get also tremendous drive from the kind of national style mobilization of “They’ve been putting us down and we’re going to fight back.” You get this tremendously powerful drive towards conflict, towards getting power. And it’s also interwoven, but interwoven with religion in a totally different way. It can be interwoven with a religion in the sense that people see themselves as very pious, or it can be interwoven with simply a historic religion where people don’t necessarily have a strong faith anymore but this is our identity so… Serbs are fighting the Croats. Same language. What’s the difference? Historically one was Orthodox and one was Catholic and a lot of the people don’t actually go to mass. It’s kind of crazy. This is one of the important phenomena in modern world. What we learn from all this is that some of these supposedly distinctions -religion, custom, culture- get very wobbly.
Everybody agrees, believers and nonbelievers, that religion has a big importance in our culture. But do you think religion should be taught in schools?
Yes. All religions, or main religions, should be taught.
All religions. We have in Quebec -it is not very successful because we haven’t got always very good teachers- what is called Religion and Ethical. This is really important because we are living in a world where more and more we are, side by side, where people are very different religiously. So it’s not just a matter of understanding people who are way out there that you are never going to meet –which is also good-, but people who are by your side. And there are American powerful think tanks who are spreading in a completely ruthless fashion. So, how are we going to protect our kids against the taking-in by those stereotypes and therefore destroying our society? Well, maybe if they have some sense early on of the complexity of something like Islam, they won’t be vulnerable. A lot of things have changed since then, but in first degree we had to take optional courses as well as the main, and I saw philosophy in comparative religions and met Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a guy who actually was one of the great experts on Islam. My mind was blown by that because, although he had no rhetorical skills, just a little bit mumbling, he had a capacity to communicate what it meant to be a Buddhist, what it meant to be a Muslim inside. This is incredibly interesting. I think you won’t get that kind of superb; this guy was really exceptional. The problem is we don’t have really good teachers enough to do this, but anything that makes them aware of what it means to be a Muslim, what it means to be Hindu, in some sense will inoculate them against this kind of hate-inspiring stereotype. And that’s something we urgently need. The idea to take religion out of schools… take confessional education, teaching the religion you’ve got to believe. But put religion back because it’s one of most important inventions in people’s life. So, how the hell are you going to understand your world?
So, you would teach Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism…
Yes. The decision was made the moment when this commission recommended to cease confessional education in public schools. But the idea was “Don’t stop there, put something in which will really give people a sense of this very different options and what they mean for people to believe them.” You can’t even understand lots of our history. You walk into a museum in Florence and you see those great crucifixions and you say “What the hell is going on?” [Laughs]
In Europe, some sons of immigrants have enlisted in the ISIS, proving the failure of the host countries to integrate them. Do you think they are mainly looking for the inclusion they haven’t found in society?
Yes, I think so. I think that there are two things going on here. I think ISIS is not a phenomenon for which we have absolutely no precedent. I think that if you go back about the RAF in Germany and the Brigate Rosse, you have young people looking for a meaning in their lives, and they get it, find this big international cause which is international proletarian -although there were no real proletarians- and you can see how that got through. So they can put the meaning of their lives together by joining that cause. And the proof of what I am saying is that some of these people have converted to Islam from being something else. It’s something like the same kind of very exciting answer which depends on -just like proletarian answer depended on believing that they were exploited- “We are being despised and kicked around”. There is a symbiosis between exclusionary moves, like a lot of French legislation, and recruiters of ISIS, because the recruiters are saying “They hate you”, and the more it looks that way the easier it’s going to be. But we can’t simply think that that is all what is going on. What is going on is that people are looking for some meaning in their lives and it can be particularly hard if you are halfway between two cultures, and you don’t know exactly where you are. Your grandpa is saying this and friends in school are saying something totally different. It can be very hard to find meaning through your life. So, that’s part of the problem. It’s very, very complex.
Some days ago we interviewed Daniel Dennett and he told us that one of the reasons is that if you see that your perspectives in life are working at that shop for the next forty years maybe you’ll look for something more exciting.
That’s another way of talking about it.
“I can be a hero, I can have a more exciting life”.
Yes. It’s very seductive.
Some time ago we interviewed Marc Marginedas -a journalist who has worked in Algeria, Iraq, Tunis and Libya among other countries, and who was kidnapped in Syria for six months by yihadists- and told us that Islamic State is not a real threat, that the one to fear is still Al-Qaeda. He said that IS has the ability to create a “show” around their executions and demolition of monuments, but their real power is small. Is this “show” just a way to get more volunteers from the western countries and, this way, grow and try to be more powerful?
Yes. For sure the shows are edged to get more recruits. But I wonder if his estimate was really correct.
He says that the big guy in town is still Al-Qaeda. He says that the ISIS really looks very big because they do those videos, but it isn’t that big.
They have certainly collected a lot of money. Some from these Gulf States, some from Saudi Arabia… So they collect a lot of money and a lot of people. And they have a surprising military success.
Let’s talk about multiculturalism. What do you think about the ban of burqa and/or hijab in some countries? Is it an attack against their culture?
The ban? Crazy idea. The reason that has been offered is that Islam is somehow dangerous, so we shouldn’t have too much of it, and so it’s understood by people in that culture, as a rejection of them, and it also has a secondary effect. We saw this in Quebec when we had this Charte de la laicité which fortunately we defeated. But the case of France is clear too. There are lots of evidences that passing this law causes incidents, an increase of people insulting women in the street, «Allez-vous en chez vous», people excluding people with headscarves… And so Muslims sense raises of rejection, and that’s exactly what the recruiters want to see happening, it’s a gigantic own goal we are scoring.
But if I play the dumb, what can you tell someone who tells you: I can’t walk into a bank wearing a helmet because it covers my face, why can she wear a burqa on? If the reason is security…
If you have real reasons of security, there are ways around us. You can have somebody, a woman, if she has to identify herself. We have cases where they want to go to vote, for instance. They are very rare, but okay, we have to make sure that this is not some other person, so “Come into the room, madam, and there is a woman here and take the burka off and we can see your picture”. There are always ways around us in which context it is legitimate to ask them… if you really want to accommodate this. I mean, imagine if somebody had some terrible disease and just couldn’t face people, they’d had to do the same thing, you are very delicate and no one else could see you.
I don’t know what the situation is like in Canada but in the United States they wish «Happy holidays», instead of «Merry Christmas». Do you think it makes sense?
I think it’s overreacting and the fact is that a lot of people of non-Christian religions are not really asking for that. What you have is people that are very secular who are asking for that. There is a very important possible change which is represented by India. India is a very interesting case. They have Muslim and Hindu holidays, and they have Christmas for the Christians. I mean, they have really a constellation of holidays which covers the needs of every religion, so that’s what they understand by secular society and that’s really quite admirable.
We know that resources are not endless. But what are the moral grounds to deny someone the possibility to enter a country where he could survive whereas, if he stayed in his home country, he would surely die because of hunger?
Well, the moral problem there is that maybe the number of people in the world that fit that description is so immense. We have a terrible moral dilemma. Some of them are so desperate that they put themselves in the hands of these traffickers who put them in those boats that are sinking. So you get them both coming towards Europe and coming towards Australia. And also coming to Indonesia, where they are absolutely denying their entrance. It really is… I don’t quite know how to solve this. I mean people in Burma are being treated terribly, the Burma state even denied them citizenship, so if they do go out to the sea and try to come back, they will be told that they don’t belong there anymore. So, it’s an appalling situation. But there are so many… there’s no easy solution.
Will these problems with immigration disappear if as you say, democracy wasn’t only some laws but a coexistence project? It is possible to reach this goal in our current society? Maybe if we were thinking globally, immigration problems will disappear.
If you were thinking in global terms, how do you manage the entrance of a huge number of people in a very short space of time? At a certain point we should be much more open than we are, but the potential is way beyond the resources to cope with. That is one of the terrible dilemmas.
In most of western democracies, civic participation gets reduced to a vote every four years. You support associationism as a way to avoid the tendency of political power to become tyrant. I can see the effect of this associationism on a community level, but do you think there are ways in which citizens can take part in their countries decisions?
Well, I think that they can, yes. A lot of things, a lot of policies are not being engaged because the potential voters are young voters. In the United States, the republicans realized that young people, students, African Americans and Hispanics are going to pull democrat so they put up obstacles to be very complicated to vote. But very often happens that the same people without any obstacles being put in their way are so discouraged by the system that they don’t vote. So, really, the mobilization of those people would change things. How do you mobilize? You have to put associations together, and that’s going to be essential to democratic renewal.
Daniel Dennett told us that the religious leaders who encourage hate should be made responsible for their followers’ crimes. Do you agree with that?
What does exactly mean legally? They surely are morally responsible for that, but how legally?
He says that same as in the States, for example, when someone is drunk-driving and causes an accident they hold responsible the bartender because he gave him drinks when he knew he was drunk and he knew he was going to drive, so he told us that when there are clashes between religions and the religious leaders encourage them they should be held responsible.
But it goes against the first amendment, the rights to speak out. We have laws against hate speech. So, if I say «Muslims are horrible people, we should mobilize, and get rid of them» I could be indicted.
But maybe you don’t need to say “We have to mobilize”, if you are a leader and there are millions of people following you. Just saying: “Muslims are horrible people, I don’t like them”.
Then you get big, big problems. I don’t think Daniel Dennett has really thought that out. You are interfering with expression and opinions. Why only the religious leaders? How about the Ku Klux Klan in the States? How about some people who are so full of hatred against religion, like some of Dennett’s friends? So this is a very difficult area: protecting the right to speak out and give an opinion or indicting someone because he did so.
Photography: Alberto Gamazo
Documentation: Loreto Igrexas
Intern: Muriel Campistol and Paula Gil