Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor; drawing by David Levine

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.

The discussion in the different parts varies a good deal in ambition, and also in success. The treatment of Protestantism is admirable: sympathetic and discriminating, it draws on some splendid writing, especially from Puritan sources, such as a passage from Joseph Hall from which Taylor quotes for the title of a chapter:

The homeliest service that we doe in an honest calling, though it be but to plow, or digge, if done in obedience, and conscience of God’s Commandement, is crowned with an ample reward; whereas the best workes for their kinde (preaching, praying, offering Evangelicall sacrifices) if without respect of God’s injunction and glory, are loaded with curses. God loveth adverbs; and cares not how good, but how well.

Elsewhere, however, Taylor seems less intensely engaged with the writers he deals with, and on some topics—the English Romantic poets are one example, and Impressionist painting another—he presents a dutiful or breathless survey that might recall introductory courses in the “humanities.” Even when he is more engaged, as he clearly is with some modernist works, there is a question about the style of his readings, the spirit in which he is speaking to us.

He is too good a reader, and also too good a historian of ideas, to try to use literary texts merely as illustrations of intellectual themes, in the flattening style familiar a generation ago from volumes devoted to the “intellectual background” of various centuries. He needs some critical position toward the texts, some way of reading them that will give them a place in his historical story. But it is not clear to me what he takes his position to be: how much he is doing for our understanding of Prufrock, for instance, when he says about its opening lines that “we triangulate to the meaning through the images.” The few words given to the “refusal of depth” in D.H. Lawrence, supported by a short quotation from Kangaroo, left me asking for either more or less: there is not enough weight in this commentary to make Lawrence into a distinctive presence, or to move any pieces in the account of modernism.

The discussions of literature (those of painting are much fewer, and fainter) can of course be read in the friendly light shed by the whole book, simply as remarks on interesting books made by someone one wants to listen to. Taylor’s unpretentiousness and lack of critical jargon, his gift for striking quotation, and his sharp observations do much to earn him that response, but there are several reasons why the response cannot disperse all doubts. One is that Taylor simply cannot dispense with some critical position if we are to relate his readings to his philosophical account in any clear way; another is the contrasting intensity that Taylor himself displays elsewhere.

In using these literary texts and his other more philosophical sources, Taylor is not trying to give us the causes of our modern outlook. In a sensitive chapter on historical explanation, he makes it clear that he does not suppose that our ideas will have been caused just by ideas. But any causal account will have to make sense of those ideas while explaining them, and relate them intelligibly to the ideas of the past: Taylor quotes approvingly Max Weber’s view that an explanation in sociology has to be “adequate as to meaning”:

All historiography (and social science as well) relies on a (largely implicit) understanding of human motivation: how people respond, what they generally aspire to, the relative importance of given ends and the like.

Making sense of our ideas, and relating them to our past, is what he intends his historical story to do: this is the way in which it will contribute to a causal story.

The most characteristic feature of the modern outlook, as Taylor expresses it, is that we “feel particularly strongly the demand for universal justice and beneficence, are particularly sensitive to the claims of equality, feel the demands to freedom and self-rule as axiomatically justified, and put a very high priority on the avoidance of death and suffering.” He is well aware that these ideals are not universally respected, let alone observed; but he is surely right to say that liberalism of this kind is typical of modern attitudes. These are the moral claims we need to understand, and, according to Taylor’s account of how they came to be so, they have three sources. One “centers on a naturalism of disengaged reason,” and makes use of the conception that people should, if rational, seek to understand the world and themselves as objectively as possible; this line of thought in our day often uses language that sounds characteristic of science, but it is not essentially tied to programs of modern science.

The second formative set of views finds its sources in the Romantic tradition, in notions, for example, of personal self-expression, expression of national and cultural identity, and of human self-discovery through art. Some of these notions, such as the formalistic and classicizing tendencies in modernism, arise precisely through an opposition to typically Romantic views. And the third source—in Taylor’s order of exposition, the first—is none other than the Judeo-Christian tradition, “the original theistic grounding for these standards.” Or, as Taylor also puts it, what we rather have is “a space in which one can move in three directions. There are the two independent frontiers and the original theistic foundation.” The two modern directions, disengaged reason and expressivism, are called “frontiers” because they are inherently open to question and contestable. They not only conflict with each other, but it can be constantly asked how they are related to our moral life, and in what ways.

The question is whether, even granted we fully recognize the dignity of disengaged reason, or the goodness of nature, this is in fact enough to justify the importance we put upon it, the moral store we set by it, the ideals we erect on it.

With these conceptions, then, though certainly they sustain our sense of value, there is always a question of whether they should do so, and of how much they can provide.

So what about the “original theistic foundation” itself? Here we meet a basic assumption of Taylor’s: that theism is, from this point of view, in a different situation from any secular outlook, at least of a modern kind.

Theism is, of course, contested as to its truth. Opponents may judge it harshly and think that it would be degrading and unfortunate for humans if it were true. But no one doubts that those who embrace it will find a fully adequate moral source in it. [my emphasis]

But in this remark there is a crucial ambiguity, which winds its way through much of Taylor’s argument. The remark may mean merely that, as we all understand, each person who has a theistic belief can find in that belief some account that will justify valuing the things he or she most deeply values. I doubt that even this is unqualifiedly true: some people who have had such a belief seem to have felt there was a discrepancy between it and their values. But it is quite reasonable to say that we expect religious people to make some connection between their values and their religious beliefs. It is quite a different claim, however, and a much less reasonable one, to say that someone—in particular, a religious skeptic—who is trying to understand those values historically must simply accept the religious belief as their ultimate source, and agree that no further explanation is necessary or possible. To suppose that an unbeliever should think in these terms about religious values runs against a simple and powerful principle, which we might call “Feuerbach’s axiom”: if religion is false, it ultimately explains nothing, and it itself needs to be explained.

Of course, the unbeliever accepts that religious institutions and religious power, indeed religious ideas, can explain a lot. But if God does not exist, he has no control over anything, and what happens in his name must have a naturalistic explanation, because there is no other. This is not just an abstract and general principle. If religious beliefs are fantasies, how likely is it that they will determine to a very high degree the social or ethical developments that happen in their name? Sometimes they do so, but more generally it is quite obvious that religious beliefs themselves are modified by other forces such as political and economic interests or popular superstitions and mores. It is not merely that, as a matter of principle, a false religion cannot explain its own existence; more concretely, it cannot explain all that much.

Taylor tells a story according to which important elements of the modern liberal outlook were formed in the Christian consciousness. He tells less of a story about the ways in which such developments have been resisted by the Christian consciousness. That story is there to be told, as Taylor well knows, but he has no reason, for his purposes, to tell it. He should keep it in mind, however, as a reflective believer who is trying to give an account of the moral sources of liberalism: in particular, an account that does not presuppose (and he is very insistent that it does not) the truth of theism. Does he have that point firmly enough in mind when he says “the original root of the demand that we seek universal justice and well-being is of course our Judaeo-Christian religious tradition. In broad terms, this is obvious…”?

The only obvious thing is that, as he shows us, those demands developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition and were often expressed in Judeo-Christian terms. But we need more than that if we are to speak, as Taylor does, of a source, or a root, or a foundation. A source or root does not have to be the cause of a change, but it needs to provide more than a way of describing changes when they happen. A good example is provided by one of the earlier manifestations of a movement in the direction of universal justice, the disappearance of ancient slavery. It has been known for a long time that Christianity, though it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, played no distinctive or early part in this development. Such facts (it has many modern counterparts) must surely have some bearing on the claim that Taylor finds obvious. To the naturalistic and skeptical eye, they have a rather direct bearing: they make the claim seem either not obvious at all, or else so weak that it does not offer much to the self-understanding of modern liberalism.

The outcome of Taylor’s inquiry, that theism turns out to play a large (and itself unexplained) role in our moral consciousness, is interestingly prefigured in the way he introduces that consciousness and its demands in the philosophical section at the very beginning of the book. There he argues that we can make no sense of our moral world, cannot situate ourselves in it, unless we make “strong evaluations” of “right and wrong, better or worse, higher or lower”: we must regard some of our preferences as not just stronger, but as more worthwhile, more important, more admirable than others. Such evaluations tie in with our aspirations for ourselves, and embody an image of a person we would wish to be; in this way, they serve to give a structure, not only to a field of preferences, but to a field of obligations as well.

Connected with these features of our moral experience is another, that we cannot coherently regard our moral outlook or principles as freely invented; the idea that moral distinctions are invented “out of whole cloth” is, as Taylor brilliantly puts it, “equivalent to the notion that we invent the questions as well as the answers,” and we cannot see our moral experience as factitious in that way—or, if we do, it is because it has ceased to have any hold on us at all.

Though there is room to disagree about the ways in which Taylor ties these various ideas together, much of what he says about the character of our moral experience seems to me, up to this point, importantly true, and any adequate account of morality must try to explain it. From this strong base in experience, however, Taylor very rapidly moves uphill, metaphysically speaking. First, he says that the character of our experience means that we have a craving for the good, and wish to be “rightly placed in relation to it”; two pages later, we have a sense of “the incomparably higher,” and this, we soon learn, we conceive of as “infinitely valuable.” By this stage, the pale Galilean, in some generic, Platonic form—or, rather the yearning for him—has definitely arrived.

Two problems press on this account of our moral consciousness. The first is that it goes a long way beyond what, in its first steps, it rightly said was necessary to any moral consciousness at all. Many people in antiquity, many people now, no doubt a few in the times in between, have lived with a sense that nothing they know of is incomparably higher than other things or infinitely valuable: they have often lived precisely with the pathos of caring for the finite and the comparable. To move as determinedly as Taylor does to the transcendental level is to freight the moral consciousness with demands that it not only can live without, but has lived without quite successfully. Furthermore, so far as these higher aspirations of morality are concerned (and this may of course be true of some of its less ambitious claims as well), a version of Feuerbach’s axiom applies again: if there is no higher condition to aspire to, then this consciousness cannot mean what it seems to mean, and it demands another kind of account altogether: one that does not suggest that these aspirations might, as they present themselves, be satisfied.

Taylor, if I understand him, believes two things about this: that the aspiration for something transcending our finite wants, needs, and attitudes is not baseless or delusive, even if God does not exist; but that if God does exist, then it is he that satisfies it. Though this is a version of a very traditional position, it is a rather unstable one. If this aspiration does have this relation to any God there may be, can it really be immune to damage if we come to believe there is no God? Nietzsche thought not, and supposed that the beliefs in God, and in a Platonic good, and in many other ideals that morality has at various times collected, demand to be understood in terms that make it clear that those beliefs could not be satisfied: that they are not and cannot be what they seem.

Taylor mentions Nietzsche quite often, and almost always with respect, but he gives a reductive and limited account of what he was trying to do. In particular, he thinks that Nietzsche is relevant to the inquiry principally because he presents the radical option of giving up on the liberal ideals altogether. But that is not his main importance, which lies rather in pressing all the way the thought that if our moral aspirations do not, cannot, mean everything that they seem to mean, then they cannot come from where they seem to come from, and another kind of inquiry will be needed to understand their hold on us.

Nietzsche indeed thought that such an inquiry would also do away with liberalism (or rather, make it clear why history was going to do away with liberalism), but that is another, and subsequent, question. The first question is the question that Taylor indeed pursues, of how we are to understand the moral hold of liberalism. One thing to be learned from Nietzsche is that Taylor’s own explanation, which depends on the theistic tradition, cannot be as neutral as he hopes, for the fundamental reason that the explanation would not go deep enough unless theism itself were true.

Some years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre published a book that said our choices lay, broadly, between Aristotle and Nietzsche.2 Taylor and MacIntyre have some things in common. Both are Catholic; both think most modern accounts of moral experience are quite inadequate; both find importance in the ethical and explanatory powers of tradition. But they also profoundly differ, since MacIntyre, very roughly speaking, thinks that liberalism and the Enlightenment are disasters, and if we can get away from them without complete catastrophe we shall be lucky. Taylor in this book expresses wonderfully well why he resists that view, and lays out in a generous, illuminating, and convincing way the human value that is to be found in these distinctively modern ideals, even if the account their defenders give of them is defective. But as one who agrees with Taylor about the Enlightenment, and disagrees both with him and with MacIntyre about God, I think that Taylor, in his search for the sources of value, seems not to have taken seriously enough Nietzsche’s thought that if there is, not only no God, but no metaphysical order of any kind, then this imposes quite new demands on our self-understanding. Though Taylor inhabits, unlike many philosophers, what is clearly and vigorously planet Earth and relishes its human history, his calculations still leave it being pulled out of orbit by an invisible Being.

This Issue

November 8, 1990