Paul C. Taylor’s first exposure to philosophy was on Vanderbilt’s campus as a rising high school senior. “I attended a program in 1984 called Summer Challenge, taking classes taught by Michael Hodges, John Lachs and other renowned faculty,” said Taylor, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy. “That experience really opened my eyes to the possibility of an academic career.”
Taylor grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a medical doctor. His plans changed, though.
“My dad expressed some concerns about changes on the business side of medicine,” Taylor said. “And then during my sophomore year at Morehouse College, I lost interest in being a biology major. I was interested in different questions—wider questions—and philosophy was a better fit for me.”
After graduating cum laude with a bachelor of arts, Taylor enrolled at Rutgers University, where he earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1997. He taught at several schools, including Temple and Penn State. However, his interest in the workings of social institutions propelled him to become a student again. He enrolled at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and earned a master of public administration in 2014.
“Irrespective of one’s political leanings, there are opportunities to raise concerns about corruption across the board in government, and that is one of the areas that I plan to focus on,” Taylor said. The University of Chicago Press will publish his forthcoming book, Facing Ferguson, which engages issues raised by the police-involved killing of African American teenager Michael Brown.
This fall Taylor is teaching a graduate seminar on black aesthetics, focusing on the issues raised in his 2016 book Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, which received the 2017 American Society for Aesthetics Outstanding Monograph Prize.
“There is a thriving area of research and discussion at the intersection of African American philosophy and aesthetics,” Taylor said. “Often enough when we think of black life, artists come to mind—musicians like Duke Ellington and writers like Zora Neale Hurston.
“One explanation is that during the heyday of white supremacy, there were fewer incentives to keep black folks out of the arts than out of business and politics,” he said. “It was, in some ways, a predictable outlet for stunted energies that couldn’t go in other directions. So I try to think productively about the philosophical issues that arise from putting aesthetic practices at the center of black life.”