Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of the 2016 Berggruen Prize jury, delivered the following remarks at the Berggruen Prize Gala to honor the first recipient of the prize, Professor Charles Taylor:
It was a great privilege to serve as the chair of the jury for the first Berggruen prize; a jury unanimously convinced that Charles Taylor was an ideal candidate for an award that aims to honor a “thinker whose ideas are of broad significance for shaping human self-understanding and the advancement of humanity.” So here, in the tradition of my homeland, is a praisesong for the man we are honoring.
There are philosophers who trudge along already beaten paths, pausing to examine the roadside bric-a-brac. Then there are the bicyclists, whizzing past these careful pedestrians: they go much further, though they may see rather less.
Taylor is neither. He is, shall we say, shifting metaphors, the eagle, soaring into the empyrean … and yet, with its brilliant acuity, still able to detect the quivering nostrils of a mouse on those bosky grounds far, far below. He travels further, yet he also sees more.
And if you are the mouse: beware.
Philosophers, we’re told, are prone to say: this is all very well in practice, but how will it work in theory? In Taylor’s oeuvre, there is a seamlessness between those registers. In fact, the urgent intimacy of action and knowledge is one of his great themes. He invites us, in exploring the diversity of our identities, to live the examined life; and to live it together. We see this in his own biography: as the offspring of two often warring Canadian tribes, the anglophone and the francophone; as a founder of Canada’s New Democratic Party, and a vibrant candidate for federal office. A scholar and professor at Oxford and McGill, he has also been consistently active in his country’s social-democratic politics but his work is also known and has impact in every continent.
Taylor urges us to rethink longstanding notions of the self. He traces the emergence, over the past several centuries, of the “punctual self,” and a progressive detachment from the immediacy of experience. He swoops down upon the shrunken, atomistic self of secular liberalism—the quivering rodent on the forest floor—and makes a quick meal of it.
In fact, he shows us how we make our meanings, and our selves, together. And he reminds us that modernity has resources that its philosophy has scanted.
There’s little that Charles Taylor himself has scanted. Democracy. Nationalism. Recognition. Authenticity. Epistemology. Ontology. The mammoth nature of his life’s work evokes the cumulative humanism of a Tolstoy. In a work like “A Secular Age,” he elaborates on what he calls the “modern social imaginary,” a world in stark contrast with the enchanted world of, say, the 15th century, when as he says, “it was impossible not to believe in God” … and yet he identifies the lingering gravitational pull of the transcendent.
We philosophers tend to be smitten too often by the elegant reduction: our miracle is to turn wine into water. Taylor never makes that mistake. His Tolstoyan amplitude restores action to knowledge, society to self; it helps us imagine a politics that takes social identities seriously, as sources of solidarity within but also of connection without. It is a politics for human beings as we actually are, as we actually live, in our actual quest for what we judge to be good.
The result is a political philosophy that is also a philosophy of mind, of action, of identity, and, dare I say, of life. It swoops, it soars, and, in its many humane and hopeful moments, it tells us that, so long as we keep our eyes on the ground, the sky is the limit.