Taylor, Alfred Edward (1869–1945)
TAYLOR, ALFRED EDWARD
Alfred Edward Taylor, the British philosopher, was born at Oundle, Northamptonshire, and educated at New College, Oxford. His teaching experience was unusually varied: He was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, 1891–1898; lecturer at Owens College, Manchester, 1898–1903; professor of logic and metaphysics at McGill University, Montreal, 1903–1908; professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews University, 1908–1924; and professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, 1924–1941. His interests were also varied; not only was he an authority on Greek philosophy but he also made extensive contributions to current thinking on ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. Taylor's thought was within the tradition of British neo-Hegelianism, but as his philosophy developed, other influences came in also, though he remained firmly attached to a theistic and spiritualist interpretation of reality.
In the field of Greek philosophy, Taylor is noted chiefly for his work on Plato. He gives a full-scale exposition of Plato's thought in Plato: The Man and His Work (London, 1926) and a detailed study of Plato's cosmology in A Commentary on Plato's Timaeus (Oxford, 1928). Even in these works Taylor's own philosophical interests assert themselves, notably in his attempt to minimize alleged differences between the Platonic and biblical ways of understanding creation and in his contention that the Demiurge of Plato is a creator in the full sense of the word.
Taylor's philosophy found early expression in The Problem of Conduct (London, 1901) and in Elements of Metaphysics (London, 1903). At this stage he was influenced primarily by F. H. Bradley and English idealism. Later, Platonism, Thomism, and even Bergsonism became important additional influences on his mature thought as expressed in The Faith of a Moralist (London, 1930), a work based on his Gifford Lectures of 1926–1928.
Here Taylor claims that if we take moral experience seriously, we must recognize that it points beyond itself to, and is completed in, religion and that we are thus led to theism. Moral experience does deserve to be taken seriously, for facts and values are given together and never occur in separation in our concrete experience of the world. A naturalistic philosophy that allows reality to fact but denies it to value is guilty of a false abstraction. This argument about the concreteness of experience is a necessary prolegomenon to Taylor's position as a whole, for if the values of the moral life were divorced from the facts of the world, then no argument from moral experience to the nature of reality could succeed.
Taylor's attempt to move from the facts of moral experience to a religious metaphysic turns on two main considerations. The first concerns the nature of the good at which the moral life aims. Is it a temporal good or is it an eternal good? Taylor contends that even to be able to ask this question and to be aware of the temporal dimension of our existence is to have begun to transcend the form of temporality. Further reflection shows that no merely temporal goods can satisfy the demands of man's nature. Such goods are defective in various ways; for instance, they can be attained only successively and cannot be enjoyed simultaneously. One might answer, of course, that this merely shows that human aspirations are doomed to frustration, but Taylor rejects this and claims that the facts of moral striving point to an eternal good.
The second consideration concerns the question of how such an eternal good is to be attained. Can man of himself attain to an eternal good? Taylor answers in the negative, for he sees sin and guilt as inhibiting the moral life and preventing man from reaching his goal. But again he does not accept this frustration as final. Man's unavailing endeavors to reach toward the eternal good are met by what Taylor calls the initiative of the eternal. This is the divine grace that reaches down to man and enables his moral fulfillment. Thus, the moral life finds its completion in religion; if we deny this, we are bound to say that the moral life is self-stultifying. To take its demands seriously is to believe that it makes sense, and according to Taylor, it makes sense only in the light of a theistic worldview.
The individual destined for an eternal good and enabled by divine grace to move toward that good is also assured of immortality. Hence, from consideration of the implications of the moral life alone we arrive at a kind of minimal theology, so to speak, of God, grace, and immortality. But Taylor, who was himself a devout churchman of the Anglican communion, asks whether this minimal theology does not, like morality, point beyond itself for completion. The concreteness that characterizes Taylor's starting point is apparent again in his conclusions, as he argues that a bare philosophical theism needs to be embodied in an actual historical religion. Although the philosopher does not appeal to revelation, his analysis can, Taylor believed, bring us to the point at which we see the need for a concrete revelation to complete the bare schema of philosophical theology. Philosophy makes it reasonable to expect that there would be such a revelation, and Taylor thinks that Christian revelation especially fulfills this expectation. He continued to wrestle with the problems of religion, which provide the themes for two of his last books, The Christian Hope of Immortality (London, 1938) and Does God Exist? (London, 1943).
Additional works by Taylor are Varia Socratica (Oxford: J. Parker, 1911); The Laws of Plato (London: Dent, 1934); Philosophical Studies (London: Macmillan, 1934); and Aristotle (London: T. Nelson, 1943).
W. D. Ross, "Alfred Edward Taylor, 1869–1945," in Proceedings of the British Academy 31 (1945): 407–424, contains a bibliography of Taylor's writings.
John Macquarrie (1967)