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Republican and Galilean

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

by Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 601 pp., $37.50

Charles Taylor is concerned with the ways in which we can and should think of ourselves as people who have—or lack—a sense of what is important to us, of what we most care about, and of what is valuable. This sense of our moral identity, for most of us, is not fully explicit, and does not consist of a set of formulated beliefs. It may look sometimes as though our sense of what is valuable is described by a set of beliefs, when a system of moral philosophy or a political creed seems to sum up our outlook; but as Taylor brilliantly shows in several different connections, it is typical of such formulations that they fail to explain their own appeal.

Take, for instance, the general idea that it is a better world in which as many people as possible, whoever they may be, are happy rather than not. Utilitarian philosophies find in this idea, the idea of impartial benevolence, the basis of all value. And the same idea has a hold on our sentiments so firm that it may seem odd even to challenge it. But what is the appeal of impartiality and benevolence themselves? Where does that appeal—we might ask—come from? Again, the idea of modern man, lonely and unsupported by metaphysical comforts, braving an infinite and unfriendly universe, has played a large part in the rhetoric of secularism; but how do we account for the value of the qualities of heroism and solitude to which that rhetoric appeals? It is because he had no answer to that question, and barely saw the need to ask it, that some of Bertrand Russell’s writings evoking the heroism of the lonely modern, such as A Free Man’s Worship, are so disastrously sentimental.

If we ask where the appeal of such values, their pull on us, “comes from,” we are likely to be met with familiar philosophical questions. What does “come from” mean? If it is a matter of philosophical explanation, showing how some values depend on others, then perhaps there is no value more basic than impartial benevolence; but (it will be said) why should there be a more basic value than that? In the well-tried phrase, we have to stop somewhere. If, on the other hand, we are concerned with psychological or historical explanations, these will not give any further insight into the value of anything, but merely tell us how our values came about. Taylor exposes and rejects the assumptions that sustain this kind of defensive analysis, in particular its uncritical trust in a distinction between fact and value.

What we value is, unsurprisingly, connected with what we believe about human beings and the world. If we have a faith in the value of impartial benevolence, for instance, this implies some pictures rather than others of what human beings are. Such a faith may go with a secular picture of human beings craving satisfaction, or, again, with certain religious images of God’s equal concern for his creatures. There are other accounts of human nature, however, both secular and religious, that cannot encourage the belief in impartial benevolence as the supreme value. One of Taylor’s aims is to look behind our values for the images of humanity that naturally support or encourage them.

These images, moreover, change over time, and the attitudes we think of as typical of modern life have a history: to trace their sources is also to trace their history. Most of Taylor’s book consists of history: the history of philosophy, of ideas, of literature and, to a lesser extent, of other arts in the West, and their various contributions to modern ways of thinking. The history starts with Plato and ends with Derrida, but large tracts of time are left out: in particular, thinkers and artists of later antiquity and the Middle Ages fail to appear altogether, except for Augustine. This gap is standard for secular courses on the history of Western philosophy, and comes naturally to those of us who, however much we may be rightly told about the medieval origins of Renaissance and early modern ideas, still determinedly think of the Middle Ages as resembling a historical parenthesis. But it is odd for Taylor to proceed in this way, for he is a Catholic, and his book is, to a significant degree, a Catholic tale: indeed, it is a more distinctively Catholic tale, I am going to suggest, than Taylor wants it to be.

Sources of the Self is in every sense a large book: in length and in the range of what it covers, but above all in the generosity and breadth of its sympathies and its interest in humanity. In taking modern moral identity as its subject, it also considers the familiar suggestion that there is no such thing; and Taylor has a certain amount to say, particularly in the opening chapters, about alienation, rootlessness, a loss of the sense of self in the emptiness of modernity, and so forth. But temperamentally—one might say, ethically—Sources of the Self is a world away from the denunciations of modern thought and of the calamitous effects of liberal Enlightenment that are familiar from neo-Hegelians, right-wing Wittgensteinians, left-wing cultural critics, followers of Leo Strauss, and other reactionaries. Taylor, it is true, strongly attacks the standard modern approaches to self-understanding, such as those offered by Kantian or utilitarian theory, but his aim throughout is to suggest that we have more moral resources than we have thought, and to help us to understand how we have come by them, and hence—by implication—how we might better make use of them.

Taylor’s first big book was on Hegel, but he has never been a Hegelian. He has not accepted that history has a purpose, that the dreadfulness of the past can be redeemed, or that categories can be drawn from the philosophical sciences that will serve to describe everything. But he does believe with Hegel that we can understand human affairs only according to their history, and history only according to our best understanding of human affairs. He also agrees with Hegel that hectoring the world has not much to do with either changing it or understanding it: if some idea or practice or attitude has come to be part of human life and helps to keep it going, then it cannot simply be a mistake; there must be something to be learned from it more interesting than that human beings are foolish or wicked. While his book contains many moral perceptions, and finds many things not to like about the world, and expresses distinct ethical assumptions, it is wonderfully unpreachy. Its religious themes are not sanctimonious, and its considerable ambitions are very unpretentious. Few large books on such large subjects are so engaging.

Deconstructive critics will have a hard time eliminating the author from these pages, an author who is a distinctive and a trustworthy human being. The sense of an unassuming presence is even enhanced, up to a point, by the book’s rather improvisatory air. It seems to have missed some stage of editing, as though the manuscript had been put into shoe boxes and sent to the printer. Some of this is merely tiresome, such as the festoons of misprints: the odds are fifty-fifty, for instance, whether both the “o”s in “philosophical” will appear.1 The formalities and informalities of the lecture room combine awkwardly: we seem to be getting both the notes and a recording. Some lists of points are desultorily numbered, while metaphors get amiably mixed and the prose wanders in and out of the chatty, for instance in the exposition of Locke:

The ideal would be a much higher and better and ultimately even more advantageous way to be. But we can’t somehow get it together. This is where God comes in.

Yet the air of informality and disorder has some rewards—even its own authority. As a stiffly presented treatise, the book would have had not merely less appeal, but less force. It has demanding things to say, but it is itself in the best sense undemanding. By avoiding the cute obscurities of one kind of philosophical writing, and the coercive argumentativeness of another, it speaks in a voice appropriate to what it is trying to say.

The historical part of the book is divided into four sections. The first concerns “inwardness,” and discusses a traditionally Hegelian topic, the ways in which during the modern period people acquired a new and more deeply subjective sense of themselves. Modernity has no definite beginning and, as Taylor’s treatment itself implies, some of its features may be traced to nineteenth-century industrialism, some to the Enlightenment, some to the Reformation, and so on. It was at the Renaissance, Taylor believes, that subjectivity took a distinctive turn. As he writes about Montaigne:

We seek self-knowledge, but this can no longer mean just impersonal lore about human nature, as it could for Plato…. We are not looking for the universal nature; we each look for our own being. Montaigne therefore inaugurates a new kind of reflection which is intensely individual, a self-explanation, the aim of which is to reach self-knowledge by coming to see through the screens of self-delusion which passion or spiritual pride have erected.

The second historical section, called “The Affirmation of Ordinary Life,” deals centrally with the Protestant trust that secular activities such as daily work or raising a family were expressive of a religious life, and considers various ways by which this Protestant outlook affected the development of a modern identity both in itself and through its offspring, not only rationalized Christianity but also Deism. The Deist view, for example, that God created the world and its natural laws and that these laws can be understood through reason, helped bring about a greater feeling for nature and a heightened awareness of personal sensibilities.

Taylor then turns to Romantic ideas of expression of various kinds, about which he shrewdly remarks that so far from being wholly opposed to scientific materialism, as many have believed (including many of the Romantics themselves), those ideas are in some ways closely allied to it, for example, in the idea that nature is the source of human understanding and fulfillment. Finally Taylor gives an account of “our Victorian contemporaries” and their belief in science and progress and in the notion of universal justice, and a survey of various styles of modernism, particularly “epiphanic” art. He considers, for example, how the conceptions of subjectivity and of experience in such modernist writers as Musil, Proust, and Joyce challenged common-sense notions of a single, unified identity in linear time.

The arrangement of the subjects treated in the historical section is rather awkwardly made to coincide with a chronological progression. The first of them, on subjectivity, gets us only as far as Locke, and this has some real costs. For example, Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau, a famous text for this question, is not considered, and more generally the arrangement seriously limits Taylor’s discussion of the very interesting and difficult question, central to his theme, of what exactly does distinguish modern conceptions of the inner life from various ideas of self-consciousness that earlier times did, after all, possess.

  1. 1

    Connoisseurs of textual criticism will enjoy the appearance on p. 66 of the Greek word for contemplation as “thewria.”

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