Charles Taylor

Charles Margrave Taylor (born November 5, 1931) is a Canadian philosopher from Montreal, Quebec best known for his contributions in political philosophy, the philosophy of social science and in the history of philosophy. He succeeded John Plamenatz as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory in the University of Oxford and Fellow of All Souls College and was for many years Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he is now professor emeritus. Taylor is now Board of Trustees Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern University in Evanston. Taylor also serves as Contributing Editor for the academic journal Public Culture, published by Duke University Press. In 1991, Taylor was appointed to the Conseil de la langue française in the province of Quebec, at which point he critiqued Quebec's notorious commercial sign laws. In 1995, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2000, he was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec. He was awarded the 2007 Templeton Prize for progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities. In 2007 he and Gérard Bouchard were appointed to head a one-year Commission of Inquiry into the "reasonable accommodation" of his home province of Quebec, Canada. In June 2008 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in the arts and philosophy category. The Kyoto Prize is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Nobel.


In order to understand Taylor it is helpful to understand his philosophical background, especially his writings on Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Taylor rejects naturalism and formalist epistemologies.

In his essay To Follow a Rule, Taylor explores why people can fail to follow rules and what kind of knowledge is it that allows a person to successfully follow a rule, such as directions to a party or the arrow on a sign. The intellectualist tradition presupposes that to follow directions we must have in consciousness a set of propositions and premises about how to follow directions. But how do we know whether or not the directions are adequate?

Taylor argues that Wittgenstein's solution is the articulation of a tacit background of understanding. This background is not more rules or premises, but what Wittgenstein often referred to as "forms of life." More specifically, Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations that "Obeying a rule is a practice." Since giving reasons for following a rule must end at some point, Taylor locates this in the practical mastery we incorporate into our bodies in the form of habits, dispositions, and tendencies.

Following Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Michael Polanyi, and Wittgenstein, Taylor argues that it is mistaken to presuppose that our understanding of the world is primarily mediated by representations. It is only against an unarticulated background that representations can make sense to us. On occasion we do follow rules, but Taylor wants us to consider that the rules do not contain the principles of their own applications. We need to understand the social and historical "forms of life" which explain our actions.