book recommendation: Charles Taylor’s “Sources of the Self”

Here’s a review I offered up for J.P.Holding to use. Thought I’d post it here as well.

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Thanks to the work of the Context Group (and for myself, to JPH for making their ideas accessible), we have been confronted with the fact that our Western experience of self-hood is not a given of human nature. Even the term ‘self-hood’ is one which should be used with qualification when applied to other cultures to avoid anachronism and ethnocentrism. This revelation (or retrieval) opens up a field of questions. How can human beings express and genuinely experience such radical differences in their sense of agency? What are the benefits or costs, psychologically, socially, or ethically, in these different modes of being? Is there an expression of self-hood which is really the true one? These questions also fuel those of more direct apologetic significance; is there a Biblically prescribed view of identity? If there is, is it accessible to us or have we gone beyond the possibility of taking it up?

This tome by Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, explores what makes a self, and particularly, what has made the modern self. It is a book of both history and philosophy, or perhaps it should be described as history read through a certain philosophically attuned lens. It is a philosophical anthropology, perhaps. This theoretical bent might suggest a certain flimsiness in the account and certainly Taylor’s reading of modernity’s roots is contestable, but it’s nonetheless cogent enough (down right persuasive I’d say) that no-one who touts a simplistic view of our cultural situation can justifiably do so while this narrative stands.

The first one hundred pages are dedicated to explicating the philosophical insights which serve as Taylor’s hermeneutic key to his historical interest. Within it he confronts the error of thinking that humans beings have “selves the way we have hearts and livers, as an interpretation-free given,” and the motives in contemporary thought that sustain it. Self-hood, Taylor argues, is fundamentally linked with notions of the Good, which modern moral philosophy, with its emphasis on merely defining the content of obligation, blinds us to. Indeed he argues that one cannot even be a self without having some orientation to a perceived Good; to lack a strong evaluative basis is to not know where one stands, to not know where one is coming from, to be lost – it is what constitutes an “identity crisis.” And indeed, as different ideas of the Good come into vogue so do different ideas of what human agents are (and vice versa); to see individual freedom as the Good is to see human beings as monads, to see rational self-control as the Good is to see human beings as agents concerned with maximising utility. In a myriad of ways Taylor spells out a link between identity and the Good.

With this legwork done he sifts through the writings of significant voices throughout Western history in a staggering display of learning, highlighting the Goods that captivated them and moulded new visions of human agency. From Descartes’ love of instrumental rationality construing a subject radically disengaged, to the Romantics’ notion of nature’s voice within, stirring our sentiments and fuelling our sense of inner depths, Taylor chronicles the fateful moves that have lead to where we are today. He is aware, of course, that too much is missed out for his account to be one of sufficient historical causation. Much of the sociological factors that would feature in a fuller story is omitted; his project centres on the articulators, the voices that sensed change in its infancy and gave it voice, which in turn empowered and propelled it.

Any decent account of origins will bring clarity to the thing explained and Taylor’s work certainly helps to bring modernity into focus, shedding light on its motives and struggles. The book should no doubt be sought for a deeper understanding of our times and of the issues that underlay the questions posed above. It will absolutely not, however, accommodate a quick and easy apologetic for the Bible, though Taylor is a committed Catholic himself (a fact I didn’t know approaching the book, and which is gently confessed but not made much of throughout it). The only views that this work swiftly rebuts are simplistic ones; he aligns himself neither with whole-hearted repudiations of modernity and its individualism, nor equally strong affirmations. Modernity is neither unambiguously good or bad, and there may be certain Goods that can’t be recovered without forfeiting those we already value. We exist in a field of dilemmas and tensions. It is material for the thoughtful reader to reflect on and build on; there are no easy answers here.

More straight-forwardly, it does provide powerful resources for challenging those skeptics (and Christians too) who are incredulous over the very idea of such disparity between ancients and moderns. Taylor’s narrative, by showing the progressive change, necessarily makes the gap more traversable. Additionally, by providing an analysis of the transcendental conditions of self-hood, he shows the human nature that unites us with the ancients, combating our instinct to recoil at how alien their world sounds. On a more basic point, the sympathy with which Taylor writes will help carry those open but overly cautious of the idea through its counter-intuitive barriers and on to the other side.

The book probably takes some background in philosophy to appreciate, though general readers should be encouraged that it is neither as technical as analytic philosophy, nor as impenetrable as continental philosophy. The space between conceptual clarity and beauty of prose is sought and exploited – Taylor is an excellent writer. My only reservations are that, by the end, it feels a little too drawn out. It’s also not entirely clear whether Taylor’s moral realism really is moral realism, and one also gets the sense that he is unjustifiably dismissive of natural theology. But those are asides, the main thrust of the work is not burdened by these minor gripes. Anyone concerned with seriously thinking through modernity and individualism owe this work a study.

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