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. …