Thursday, December 2, 2010

Asad on Charles Taylor

SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

Talal Asad

Distinguished professor of anthropology, City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center

When did you first meet Charles Taylor, and what were your impressions of the man and his work?
I first met Charles Taylor when I was a student at Oxford and I attended a seminar he directed at All Souls College (where he was a fellow) on the philosophy of the social sciences. This was either in 1959-60 or 1960-61 -- I can't recall for sure, but it was before he had received his doctorate. This was for me a landmark: Taylor's seminar helped me to overcome my infatuation with positivism. I'm sure he doesn't remember me being there at the time. In any case, I was very shy and said very little. But I was struck then by his enormously subtle and wide-ranging mind, and very happy to find that he counted himself a man of the Left. Together with a number of other brilliant young scholars, he was associated with (perhaps he was an editor of, I'm not sure) the Universities and Left Review, a journal that many of us of similar leanings read eagerly. It was at once highly sophisticated and politically committed (it later dissolved into the New Left Review, which was a more pedantic organ, at least in its early years). Since those Oxford days, I tried to read as much of Taylor's work as possible, learning, without surprise, that he has become one of the most important academics of the English-speaking world.

Which are your favorite works of his and how have they informed your thinking?
The writings that I've read -- from Sources of the Self to the debate on multiculturalism to the more recent works on religion and secularism -- all contain valuable insights and deal suggestively with the most important questions of our time. They have certainly prompted me to think more carefully about these questions.

Looking at Taylor's oeuvre, what is the most impressive feature?
If I had to sum up the features of Taylor's work that have most impressed me over time I would say they are (1) the ease with which he carries his enormous learning and (2) his unusual intellectual generosity. By "intellectual generosity," I mean his striking lack of ego in dealing with the work of others and his ability to take seriously and treat challengingly the ideas of those he clearly thinks are profoundly mistaken.


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