NEW YORK — As a 5-year-old in a bilingual household, Charles Taylor realized that French and English Canadians had very different understandings of the role of language.
Of course, he couldn't articulate it like that then.
"What struck me was that the two sides were talking past each other. The Anglophones were saying that language is just a tool to communicate with," he says. "The Francophones were saying, 'No, language constitutes your whole way of being.' "
The French, he says, were right. You can't look at language – or anything – simplistically.
That thought helped him become one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. Mr. Taylor argues that all aspects of human beings, including the spiritual, are necessary to understand behavior. His research has transformed academic debates across the social sciences and helped bring spiritual understanding to political discussions.
In recognition of his contributions, and in particular for his research into the importance of the consideration of the spiritual dimension in resolving conflicts, Taylor has been awarded the 2007 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.
The annual award, worth more than $1.5 million, is given by Sir John Templeton, founder of the Templeton Growth Fund and Templeton World Fund. The prize is set every year to exceed the value of the Nobel Prizes since, according to Templeton, "advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more vast than those from other worthy human endeavors." Early prizewinners included Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Recent winners have been academics whose work includes consideration of the spiritual, including theoretical cosmologist George F.R. Ellis and Nobel Prize physicist Charles H. Townes.
In an interview, Taylor contends that the failure to consider spiritual viewpoints ignores a critical dimension of people's search for meaning. That failure therefore prevents them from gaining the knowledge they need to resolve serious conflicts.
South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up in 1995 to try to bind up the wounds of apartheid, is an example of how people with a spiritual dimension can see possibilities that weren't perceptible otherwise, Taylor says.
"That was a step outside the box. If you stay inside the box, you get back at people and then back and back again. And there [in the TRC], you have a certain Christian understanding of forgiveness," he says, "It was another way of seeing how we can relate to our past by total truth, total revelation, but minimum retribution."
Now a professor of law and philosophy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and professor emeritus in philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Taylor has been researching and teaching across three continents for almost half a century. His work has helped many researchers to explain the results of their research in different ways and draw links between different fields of research.
Patricia Benner, professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the school of nursing at the University of California San Francisco, says that because of Taylor's work, she can explain nursing practices in a way that goes beyond purely medical language. "It's the language of human life," she says, "and what it means to have a strong moral notion of preventing and alleviating suffering."
Taylor helped inspire some of his students to become leading political scientists and philosophers. "We'd be teaching a course in the history of Western philosophy, and Taylor would get so wrapped up in the author he was lecturing on, he'd pick the book up and say, 'Now just listen to what the author says here.' He'd be reading it out in Russian or Greek or whatever," says Jim Tully, professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, who taught with Taylor at McGill and edited a book critiquing his work. "I think what moved the students was his intensity of engagement. It certainly moved me."
Taylor has also tried to put his theory into practice in Canadian politics. In 2000, he was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec, an honor similar to France's Legion of Honor. A four-time candidate for federal parliament in the 1960s (he lost all four races, the third one to Pierre Trudeau), Taylor was recently appointed cochair of a commission on accommodation of cultural religious differences in public life in Quebec. The commission, appointed very quickly before the last elections, will address fears of loss of national identity.
"We have to produce a report which calms some of these fears, but also gets to the heart of the identity issue [and] offers other alternatives of what a Quebec identity could be," Taylor says.
The committee will deal with Quebec's response to both immigration and global events.
"I think that Western society as a whole is in danger of sliding into a kind of mindless Islamophobia, and we are not immune, alas," he says.
With the prize money, Taylor says, he's going to continue research on the relationship of language to spirituality. He intends to write a book on the topic which, he says, will "be about several things that look disconnected, but I know they are connected, and I've got to connect them."