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Vol. 17, No. 1, 2018
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interview of philosopher



Nigel DeSouza teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He and Anik Waldow edited Herder: Philosophy and Anthropology (Oxford University Press, 2017).

NIGEL DESOUZA: Let’s begin at the beginning, and with Herder, a thinker who has been important to your own work on philosophical anthropology. How did you first discover him?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Herder has indeed been a thinker who resonated with me, but how I got into him was in a way by pure accident. There was a series that Penguin put out on the philosophers in those days, and I was asked by Freddie [A. J.] Ayer to do the book on Hegel. So I took up the task and began by looking into the whole background. What I found myself getting into was the German cultural thinking, philosophical thinking, of the 1790s. I naturally came across a series of other figures, including Herder, because the obsession of this particular generation was an anti-dualist thrust, but of a very interesting kind. In other words, they were deeply resistant to the way that European rationalism had developed, in which reason and emotion are in entirely different baskets, in which reason has to somehow control, take over. And they had this passion for reuniting the human being, for recovering the integrity of the human person in which reason and emotion were somehow both working together.

A very good expression of this is of course Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, the idea that there is always this distinction and potential tension between the form drive and the content drive (Stofftrieb) and yet you could somehow bring them together. And along with that goes this strange, spiral theory of history in which we started off with the Greeks, for whom there was great admiration, who had that kind of unity between reason and feeling, and then it was broken apart, and we gained a great deal from that split through the development of reason. But this was developing in a self-alienating way, and now the moment had come in which they could come together. And this was partly inspired by the French Revolution, and partly by the whole development of philosophy, but in any case reuniting reason and feeling was the passion of that generation. So they thought that we had gained something very important in this period of alienation, particularly, we had gained an understanding of freedom, of radical freedom, but now this had to be complemented with a return to and a reabsorption or reunification of the human person, body and spirit, reason and emotion, nature outside as well as nature inside ourselves. Now the way I tried to define it for the Hegelian oeuvre, the task was to reunite Spinoza and Kant, or Goethe and Fichte, in other words the most radical views of human freedom with the most profound views of the unity of the human being, and the human being with the whole of nature. Spinoza was read as the great philosopher of the Whole, although not entirely correctly, by that generation.

So, right away, one of the figures that strikes me in that whole background is Herder, and clearly there is this strong anti-dualist understanding in Herder, which I try to articulate with the term expressivism. The idea was this—and this is central to Hegel—that we know what we are about, what our important goals are, what we are striving for, because we start striving, we start acting and our action is an expression of this, and then we come to a more refned understanding of this, being able to put it into words, and being able ultimately to put it into philosophical language. You know Hegel’s idea that all these great expressions of the goals of humanity come out first of all in art, and then in religion, which is still concerned with narrative and picture-thinking, and then fnally, in philosophy, which is purely conceptual. So the idea is that the relationship of pure thinking to impulse is not that one separates itself and controls the other, but that rather impulses are clari?ed in a slow development and this development leads to a fulfilment in which they are harmonious with each other or that theories of ourselves and our impulses are perfectly harmonious. Now I think that Herder was one of the great, maybe the best, articulator of that particular facet of this general ambition of unifying the human person, and it was clear to me that without Herder, Hegel wouldn’t have taken off in exactly this direction.

So in that way, Herder stands between Kant and Hegel. Herder was very critical of Kant’s rationalism; Kant was very dismissive of what he thought was Herder’s muddled philosophy; and Hegel, there was some part of him that would agree with both of them, but it is clear that he wanted to go beyond Kant but only in this very rigorous medium which is philosophy. Now this resonated with me because I had already had my own sort of philosophical rebellion against the background philosophy of the Anglo-Saxon world of that day, which was really sparked by Merleau-Ponty. I recognized right away that Merleau-Ponty was a sort of distant descendant from Herder via Hegel via Marx and so on, and so that created a kind of bond. But my whole view of Herder was developed in the process of trying to explain what the cultural surroundings were in which Hegel operated and why he took up these goals.

NIGEL DESOUZA: How do you conceive of Herder’s philosophical anthropology and what it has to say to us today?

CHARLES TAYLOR: The first point is that he’s not a dualist at all, he sees soul and body as interpenetrating, not separable. But there’s something that is very import- ant that is an entailment of that in a way which not everyone who is against soul-body dualism recognizes. It’s what Isaiah Berlin calls his expressionism, and I changed the word to expressivism because I didn’t want to get mixed up with the German word [for the aesthetic movement] and that is that it’s not just that we have thoughts, that we have feelings, and that we somehow articulate them and tell them to others, but something much more non-dualistic and inseparable: that a lot of what we think, we feel— the ideas, the attitudes, the sense of morality that we experience—only get properly defined through expression. So it’s not only meaning: that we don’t exactly know what we want to say in many departments before we actually say it, but something even more fundamental than this, because it’s not just a matter of linguistic expression, it’s a matter also of bodily expression. Now the way this comes out in the twentieth century, in the 21st century, is that there are a certain number of areas of life where we have stances that we want to take, e.g., “This is really ideal for me, this moral ideal” or “This is really moving” and so on, as against “The metre reads 5.3” or “That’s a red house” etc., where it’s a perfectly adequate expression—there is no gap between the linguistic expression and the idea. But here, it not only begins to get clearer—what we really have as an ideal about, for instance, morality, when we start to make it clearer in our verbal expressions, e.g., our sense of the universality of the respect owed to humans comes out in a doctrine of human rights—not only that, but we don’t really get a hold on what an ethic is really about until we see it, very often, enacted, to borrow a term from Evan Thompson. So take something like Socrates, the Buddha, Christ, to take very famous cases. Let’s take Socrates. If you just said, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living,” you wonder, “What do you mean?” What is meant is what happens in those dialogues.

So we wouldn’t have a very good idea of what the examined life is without this recounting of the enactment. So these thoughts, ideas, stances, moral commitments, or whatever, a lot of these aren’t really fully clarified outside of not just verbal expression but very often enactment, which means something else immediately: that they’re never totally clarified, that is, whenever we try to get grip on what it is to hold these ideas, aspirations, and so on, we’re always tacking back and forth between exemplars and attempts to capture the ideal in verbal expressions. We’re always tacking back and forth and this never reaches a final point where somebody can say, “Well that’s it! There’s no further refinement of action, of the characterization in words, which can give us a better grip on this.”

Here we are at the very heart of what people talk about when they talk about hermeneutics, the necessity of hermeneutics. You can see Ricoeur, Gadamer, and so on, they’re operating out of this insight of Herder through several interposed stages and with the idea that there are certain subjects that can only be hermeneutically treated, and one important feature of this is, you never really arrive at the final, definitive, description. Now you can do that in certain departments of life, e.g., “The house is painted exactly this shade of red,” there’s nothing further to be said here, nothing further to make it better, clearer, and so on. But in these other cases, particularly as you progress morally, for instance, your way of acting it out is going to be different and the attempts to characterize this can also be corrected, objected to, and so on in various ways. So we get these different areas of human thought, feeling, and so on, where expressivism comes out in the sort of foundation charter justifying the fact that in certain areas of human life there’s something irremediably hermeneutic.

Now these turn out to be very important areas of human life and here we get to anthropology in the current sense of ethnography—and that’s another thing that comes from Herder—it’s plain that we’re never dealing here with just human beings as such universally or with human morality as such universally or with human culture as such universally. The extraordinary thing about human beings is that they begin to develop along somewhat different lines, so that we don’t immediately know, just from knowing about human beings, what the Germans are going to be like, what the Slavs are going to be like, and so on, and that is where the theory of language comes in, that to be able to speak French properly, to be able to speak German properly, to be able to speak Latvian, and Slavic languages properly, you have to get on to a whole sense of what the meaning of the world, the meaning of human life, is for these people and, remarkably, there’s a totally unhierarchical stance to this that Herder takes.

NIGEL DESOUZA: To play devil’s advocate here, what about the response to this that would say, “That’s all very well, but that is not philosophy, that’s anthropology, that’s sociology, that’s literature—those are all things that Kant would have dealt with in his anthropology lectures, but that’s not philosophy.”

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well then, the question becomes, “What is philosophy?” And I think that philosophy in a certain sense doesn’t exist; I know that’s a very polemical way of putting it. But there isn’t really a clearly cordoned-off area where you can say, “That is what philosophy is all about,” as you can say, “Physics is this, chemistry is that, sociology is that, political science is that”—even though that is also not totally clear. But to the extent that you can make segregations in these other departments, you can’t do that with philosophy. We have philosophy of law, philosophy of logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of history. And we’re dealing with the philosophical issues that arise, in the departmental sense, within anthropology, sociology, political science, etc. I learnt this because for years I was in a political science department and we had these massive fights about what political science was all about. One month a very big issue came down to the place of hermeneutics; some people thought, “Well, we can do comparative politics,” where you get law-like propositions about the reasons people vote, e.g., in America, in Nigeria, and we put them together cross-culturally, so it wasn’t in a sense comparative politics, it was universal laws and I always argued, very Herderianly, “That’s nonsense, different cultures are so different that you can’t say ‘How democracy works in India is the same as how democracy works in America.’” On the contrary, there are these profoundly different cultures; democracy is rule by the people, yes, but, what is this? The Sanskrit distinction between lokniti and rajniti—the realm of the people vs. the realm of power—is totally different from our notion of governors and governed. So you have to get deeply into this. So here is the question, “Is that philosophy or is that political science?” Well, philosophy, really, is the ensemble of these really fundamental questions which, if you want to do political science, or sociology, or whatever, you have to face at some point—and that’s why we often have difficulty uniting philosophy departments. Philosophy itself is the ensemble of these issues.

NIGEL DESOUZA: So even this could be responded to by saying, “That’s all fine and well, these different departments and areas of knowledge and experience, but there is a more basic way of understanding philosophy, and that is on the level of the metaphysical and epistemological claims we implicitly make when we make knowledge claims and so philosophy is in a way the study of our conceptual framework that we, as human beings, possess.” This is along the lines of Kant’s response to Locke that the extraordinary tracing he makes in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding is nothing but a “physiology of the human understanding.” So philosophy is really about exploring this conceptual framework, and this is truly philosophical, and it’s not anthropology.

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, here you can see how Herder and Hamann, in their relation to Kant, already blew that up. Because you’ve got to assume, if you’re Kant, as your starting point, that there’s this input, intuition, and there’s a framework of concepts, so intuitions without concepts are empty— that’s how it divides up! Well is that really how it divides up? How do we get these terms? Well we get them through changing philosophical traditions where we had interacting “faculties”: sensibility, understanding, and there are all these different de?nitions of these differences. But what tells us that that’s how things divide up just naturally for everybody, as though we just need to introspect and see that there is intuition, concepts, etc.? Hamann and Herder make great play with this, they both wrote meta-critiques of Kant’s Critique arguing that Kant had simply taken a whole language off a shelf, as it were. Hamann, like Herder, says it’s all very much rooted in the body, so we’re getting something there that will come with Merleau-Ponty and others in the last century, which really puts in question fundamental concepts which are supposed to be universally applicable in epistemology, and which introduces new concepts, like motor intentionality.

So the supposed universality, the supposed rock-bottom clarity of this conceptual carve-up, is challenged as historically changing, that it’s very much related to language, in this case to philosophical language that evolves over time and that is challengeable. You can’t ignore the different issues raised about different modes of explanation, different modes of thinking; they’re imbricated in each other. So when somebody says “That’s a philosophical question, and that’s a factual question, that’s an empirical question, and so on,” I immediately think, “Well, something is being elided here, some very important set of issues is being quietly sidestepped here.”

NIGEL DESOUZA: So is the question then the relationship between philosophy as a study of concepts, on the one hand, and the genesis of our conceptual capacities, on the other, and that the genesis is crucial to it and affects what concepts are worked out?

CHARLES TAYLOR: Let’s take the point of expressivism I made earlier, that when you get this fine-grained phenomenological understanding of what it is to have a world opened for you and to be able to grasp things and so on, it breaks the simple scheme: form/conceptual filling, it breaks open that kind of clear distinction. And then theories that try to have clarity by linguistic formulations, so this is clearly a linguistic formulation of a factual statement, or a values statement, or a linguistic statement—all these get very challenged. For instance, you can’t just take for granted that the statement—unless it’s in a certain area that allows for this—that the statement cannot be further elucidated by knowing how it’s embodied, how it’s acted out, e.g., in the case of a moral view, you can’t just take it for granted that that’s an absolutely clear statement as you can in certain departments. All these errors of thinking that you don’t need phenomenology, that you don’t need hermeneutics, arise from focusing on certain areas of human inquiry, natural scienti?c areas in particular, which have been deliberately devised to allow us to get to agreed conclusions and very clear conclusions because that’s been very useful in these areas.

But can you apply this to understanding why there’s a certain view about honour in Japan and another conception of honour in Arab countries, and the question you always ask as an anthropologist in the ethnographic sense is “Is translating ‘honour’ into Arabic really just the same as translating ‘horse’?” Or, do you have to do what a lot of ethnographers do, which is keep the word in the original—taboo, manna, and so on—and then try a lot of interpretive glossing to give a feel for how that fits? All these are issues that arise between this phenomenological, hermeneutical tradition, which owes so much to Herder, on the one hand, and the tradition coming from Locke, going through hard-nosed analytic philosophy, on the other, which thinks you can bypass all these issues, such that there is such a thing as a simple, philosophical question. Now when you get something like logic or philosophy of logic—how does modus ponens work? — you can answer that question very clearly, but with languages of “thick description” you can’t do that.

A typical example is [John] Rawls’s Theory of Justice. It’s wonderful in its own kind, but it’s purely normative; it’s not political philosophy in the way de Tocqueville gives you political philosophy. Tocqueville not only has a normative dimension—he’s really in favour of the development of what he calls “democracy,” this equal society, and so on—but he’s also trying to tell how that works out in this particular, peculiar form that he finds on the west of the Atlantic in this crazy new republic. And what you need to do theory of democracy is not simply the normativity, but how that normativity works out in this very peculiar kind of institutional structure, which is a modern, democratic society with the inevitable kind of nationalism gluing it together. Also important are the very great dangers and deviations that it can produce by the very fact that it is glued together by some kind of national identity that can easily turn toxic and say, “You guys aren’t really like us” etc. The tyranny of the majority looms here.

And you have to understand how all that works if you’re going to realize this in history, but if you don’t do that, you end up saying empty things like, “Nationalism is so bad and dangerous, let’s all be cosmopolitans.” Immediately, without some kind of patriotic solidarity, democratic societies crumble, that’s the problem. “Why should I share taxes with people living in Nanaimo [British Columbia]?” “Well, we’re Canadians, that’s why!” And we wouldn’t even get off the ground as a modern democracy without this. So Rawls, [Ronald] Dworkin, and [Bruce] Ackerman, they all get in on this act, and what they are doing is very interesting: “Let’s be purely normative and let’s see where we get,” that’s fine, but it’s a very incomplete kind of political theory.

NIGEL DESOUZA: But on this particular topic, are there different levels of discourse here? One is the philosophical anthropological discourse that says, “Let’s have a rich understanding of where our languages come from, what these terms mean for us in our particular historical framework,” and that’s a certain type of philosophy that’s important. And then there’s the theoretical-practical one, which could be what Rawls’s response would be, which says, “These are the terms that we have for our particular culture and now we’re talking about these particular concepts at a certain level of abstraction to get clear on them for ourselves.” That’s important. We don’t always have to be mired in the thick language all the time, we also have to theoretically act, as it were, and operate on this level.

CHARLES TAYLOR: But then it’s kind of hanging in the air, because you’ve got something like a very attractive principle such as, “any differences of income have to be justified as being better for the worst off ” (a very simple statement of Rawls’s “difference principle”). Now, how do you actually apply this? So what is the original ground of justice as fairness?

The original, first book (A Theory of Justice), argued on completely a priori grounds; the second book (Political Liberalism) says, yes, this actually is what Westerners have come to believe, that’s very good, and there’s something attractive about these principles. But you can see that in relation to political theory done à la Tocqueville, done out of modern democratic theory, that it’s truncated because you don’t really see what the issues are of realizing them.

NIGEL DESOUZA: Whereas you see somehow that a de Tocquevillian political philosophy as presented in Democracy in America is somehow more practically realizable? I mean it’s giving us the connections, but does it somehow facilitate discursive re?ection on these issues?

CHARLES TAYLOR: I think a better way of putting it is that he’s describing democracy, which of course means two things to him, not just this rule by the people, but it means very often “equal society,” what he called a “democratic social condition,” by which he means where people have a way of relating to each other that is founded on this idea of “I’m a man like you,” that is, I’m working for you, but everyone calls each other Mister, it’s very different from Europe. What he sees is not just a set of principles, but a set of principles embodied in a certain way. And then he asks the question, “Well, it’s going to be hard to do this in France, but let’s think how you could maybe transpose it into France. And let’s think of what maybe we’ve done wrong in France, how we’ve built this monster, through the top-down, unified monarchy, and then the republic taking over and doing the same thing more.” We think of the things we’ve been doing that are obstacles to the attempt to do something analogous to America in Europe, and with that reflection, we know what to do: we know, in this case, to join the 1848 Revolution in spite of the fact that he was not all that far left as a deputy under Louis-Philippe, we know that we have to abandon our original legitimist perspective, which we know he had and we have to go over to the Orléanists after 1830, and then we have to go beyond that, etc. See it’s a very different thing. It’s not that you have this thing up here and you’re looking around for where to apply it; you actually get the idea of this democracy from a particular embodiment of it and you have to understand it on both levels—its principles and its embodiment—and then the practical issue that faces you if you’re attracted to this is, “How can we do this in France?”

NIGEL DESOUZA: How is that different from something like a distinction between Moralität and Sittlichkeit or, to jump forward, the justi?cation of values at a certain level of discourse as in Habermas and then their mere application to the lifeworld, so that what Tocqueville is doing is that he’s seeing how these norms, which are the true object of philosophy, are realized in their historical manifestations, but he is still, at some level, extracting out, at the level of Moralität maybe, the norms or values that are important here and just reinserting them into a life-world and yet being aware that we are not just creatures of pure spirit, that we are embodied, that we have culture, and all that.

CHARLES TAYLOR: Well, here we get the whole importance of hermeneutically describable differences as against those that are not. So the principle, I want to lift this house up for some reason, how are we going to do that? Well there’s one way: you can bring hundreds of levers in, as people did in Chicago in the nineteenth century. We’re thinking at this level where you get a very clear description of what has to happen: the house has to go up, you have to put something underneath it, etc. The description of what you want is unambiguously clear. But then you say, “I want an equal society,” but what is an equal society? What is part of an equal society? What Trump would call an equal society, what Lenin would call an equal society, what I as a social democrat would call an equal society? So when you’re talking there about implementing a principle, it’s something very different from implementing an instrumentally realizable goal. And that’s where all these different languages come in. So you actually find that—back in the situation of a Frenchman going to America—what it would mean to realize democracy in India is going to be something really quite different, so that just saying “equality” does not entirely capture it.





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