As It Happens

Philosopher Charles Taylor on a more inclusive world and winning $1M Berggruen Prize

He doesn't mind the money, but he has other things on his mind. Montreal philosopher Charles Taylor, bags a million dollar prize for helping think our way to a more tolerant understanding of this diverse age.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. (Oleksandr Makhanets/Wikipedia)
It's a pretty good payday for someone who's basically supposed to think all day.

Montreal philosopher Charles Taylor has just been awarded the first-ever, million-dollar, Berggruen Prize. The prize is meant to acknowledge a thinker whose ideas have helped shape human understanding. In naming Taylor, the committee chair praised his contribution to a more diverse understanding of Western civilization.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Taylor about his work and view of the current cultural, political and social climate. Here is part of their conversation.

Prominent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has been named the first-ever recipient of the Berggruen Prize. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Carol Off: Professor Taylor, congratulations. What does it mean to you to win the Berggruen award?

Charles Taylor: Thank you very much. It's very enheartening. The foundation is dedicated to reducing the mutual misunderstandings between the great civilizations and trying to produce a world in which we talk to each other without cross-purposes. That is a terribly important goal that I very much take to heart. It was very moving for me to be recognized as someone, who in some ways, represents this attempt, this goal, this purpose.

CO: The prize committee said they respected you for your dedication to, "political unity that respects cultural diversity." They said that your work has influence to demonstrate that, "Western civilization is not simply unitary, but like all civilizations the product of diverse influences." In concrete terms, for the world we are in right now, which is a very troubled one in many respects, what does that mean? What does that say about your work and what mattered to this committee?

CT: A lot of my work has been concerned with multiculturalism. With creating a society in which people from very different cultures can form together a body politic, a people, a democracy, and fight against all the attempts that are arising in every one of our societies to raise boundaries of exclusion against certain kinds of people — in other words, divide us. For instance, in Quebec we had the so-called "Charter of Quebec Values," which I fought very vigorously against and which we managed to avoid.

US-German billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

CT: The second point is that I've been a very strong opponent of the idea that there's something called enlightenment, reason, which is highly simple and which everybody agrees on. I see the great enlightenment in the West as a very complex movement with many different sides and some of them rather dark. You have to pick them apart. There isn't a simple thing called Western civilization. There's a very, very complex mix of mutually incompatible elements. If you think that way you're more open, I think, to looking at and understanding other civilizations in their complexity. You get over this Western civilization versus the rest. All that is very damaging and based on illusions of some kind of simple essence of the West and a simple essence of some other society.

CO: Particularly now, with the rise of nationalism and so many other conflicting forces, how do you square your ideas of liberal democracy with some of the threats that we are witnessing right now?

CT: I don't square it. I think we have to fight against them. But at the same time I think we have to understand where they are coming from because there are very deep strains in all our cultures. There's a tendency in all our cultures, in the West for instance, to look on newcomers as a threat. That somehow they are going to change us. "Ils vont nous changer" — that's what all the people said in Quebec. We have to be able to speak to those fears and offer them an alternative way of expressing themselves or assuring themselves against the dangers that they're looking at. Partly, they are also being provoked by people's feeling that their standard of living is under threat. In a certain way, economic stagnation, particularly in Europe for instance, is another cause of this kind of worry about foreigners coming here, taking our jobs. So it's not just enough to preach this is wrong but you have to have some kind of answer to the needs and the fears that are giving rise to it.

CO: What then, would you say to someone like Kellie Leitch, the Conservative politician, who says we need to define and fight for what she calls — "Canadian values?'

CT: Yes, well what are these? If these have any meaning at all they include inclusiveness, openness, being a multicultural society. When in the name of these values you produce various modes of exclusion, including fighting the niqab or talking about barbarian customs and so on, you are going against these very values. It's kind of totally self-defeating stance.

CO: Do you feel much despair as you look into the immediate future for what is happening politically in this country, this continent, Europe?

CT: Yes. I have tremendous fears. Despair is the wrong word because I don't think we need to give up. I don't think we should give up. But there's no doubt in the last couple of years even, we've had setbacks here, there, everywhere — in the progress or development of what we think is democracy. What gives me hope is that some of these attempts are going to be defeated. Don't quote me, because I may be wrong, but I think Trump will be. What gives me hope also is that in this country we didn't turn in that direction. Maybe because we were so fed up with that kind of politics under Harper that we were immune to the kind of fears that have lead to such switches in Europe. So we've had a defeat. We've rolled back a few yards, if you'd like to put it in football terms, but we still can carry the ball.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Charles Taylor.


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