Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker:
Two weeks ago—when the election of Donald Trump was still, to many people, an almost comedic idea—Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, visited the Social Science Research Council, in Brooklyn, to talk about the fate of democracy with some graduate students. He had just won the Berggruen Prize, which is awarded, along with a million dollars, to a philosopher “whose ideas are intellectually profound but also able to inform practical and public life.” Taylor’s books tell the story of how some sources of value (love, art, individuality) have grown in relevance, while others (God, king, tradition) have declined. When we met, Taylor’s newest work was a lecture called “Some Crises of Democracy.” Citizens in Western democracies, he argued, used to find personal fulfillment in political participation; now, they were coming to feel that the democratic process was a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and that democratic politicians were con artists. Their desperation and cynicism seemed capable of turning these beliefs into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Taylor, who is eighty-five, is tall and handsome, with athletic shoulders and a thinker’s high, domed forehead. He radiates kindliness and thoughtful equanimity. Leaning back in his chair, he spoke softly, pausing frequently to cough—he had a cold—or to chuckle, in self-deprecation, at his own philosophical eloquence. (A typical laugh line: “How people understand democracy is different from epoch to epoch—that’s what the term ‘social imaginary’ is meant to capture!”) Economists, psychologists, political theorists, and some philosophers share a view of personhood: they think of people as “rational actors” who make decisions by “maximizing utility”—in other words, by looking out for themselves. Taylor, by contrast, understands human behavior in terms of the search for meaning.