Yesterday brought news that the Library of Congress has awarded the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity to philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor. Describing the two as “brilliant philosophers and deeply engaged public intellectuals,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington lauded them for their “ability to address contemporary problems with a penetrating understanding of individual and social formations.”
It’s been our privilege to work with Charles Taylor for nearly three decades, a span that’s included the publication of seminal works like Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, and which continues with this year’s Retrieving Realism (co-authored with Hubert Dreyfus), and a long-gestating work on the full human linguistic capacity that we’ll publish next year.
From the LOC news release:
Born in 1931 in Montreal, Canada, Charles Taylor, like Habermas, ranks among the world’s most original and wide-ranging philosophical minds. Taylor was educated at McGill University and as a Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford University. Although Taylor has held affiliations at many major universities, his most enduring connection is with McGill where he is now Professor Emeritus. While schooled in the dominant tradition of Anglo-American linguistic analysis, his first book rejected positivist and behaviorist explanations of human action, insisting upon a purposive account as the only way to ground individual moral responsibility. As yet another example of his philosophical ecumenism, in 1975 Taylor published a major study of the German idealist, G. W. F. Hegel.
Taylor’s reading of Hegel, particularly in its insistence on the social nature of human existence, foreshadows themes that would become prominent in his most defining work, Sources of the Self (1989). In this masterful survey of moral vision, ranging from ancient Greece to the modern period, Taylor anchors a wide and deep contemporary consensus about core values: universal justice and beneficence, moral equality as a natural right, freedom and self-rule, and the avoidance of unnecessary death and suffering. More controversially, he then argues that purely humanistic, secular sources of inspiration are insufficient to secure these values. Rather, human beings require an intimate connection to something beyond, greater than the self.
As Taylor pursued these themes and their implications in later writings and countless public lectures, he continued to pursue pressing political questions from a deep philosophical perspective. Matters of multiculturalism and the management of national and ethical pluralism in the modern state have been of particular concern to him. Rejecting “clash of civilizations” rhetoric, Taylor has recognized the multiple interpretations and schools within Christian and Islamic thought, as well as within other major religious cultures.
“Charles Taylor is a philosopher of extraordinary eminence,” Billington said. “His writings reveal astonishing breadth and depth, ranging across subjects as diverse as metaphysics, modern culture, human conduct and behavior, modernization and the place of religion in a secular age. He writes with a lucidity that makes his work accessible to the non-specialist reader, ensuring that his contributions to our understanding of agency, freedom, spirituality and the relation between the natural sciences and the humanities will be of lasting import.”
The Kluge Prize was inaugurated in 2003 to recognize work in disciplines not covered by the Nobel prizes. Taylor and Habermas now join previous winners including historian John Hope Franklin and philosopher Paul Ricoeur, while the Kluge will accompany the Templeton and Kyoto Prizes on Taylor’s crowding mantle.