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Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

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A book by Charles Taylor

This book is primarily a historical account of the modernist protest against the disengaged and instrumental modes of thought and action that arose when theistically grounded morality crumbled, but that themselves focused too little upon our inner life, … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Charles Taylor
Publisher: Harvard University Press
1 review about Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern...

An essential book for anyone interested in following up the Socratic maxim: "Know thyself!"

  • Mar 3, 2008
Charles Taylor is among the most learned of contemporary philosophers, and has the gift of taking a familiar story or idea from the history of philosophy and giving it new life, allowing it to reveal insights that are both unfamiliar but become obvious once stated. Reading "The Sources of the Self" is like a re-education into the significance for us and our sense of self and of what is of ultimate importance of the shifts that took place away from the ancient world to the modern. At its most basic, the shift is from a conception (and corresponding practices) of reality itself as having a normative structure to which our actions and ideas must conform toward a conception of reality as in itself neutral and only invested with value by our projects and goals. Taylor traces meticulously some of the motivations behind this seismic shift, while emphasizing that his project is primarily interpretive rather than explanatory. The question, ultimately, is one of who we are and how we define ourselves and whether such self definitions can be ultimately satisfactory.

There are some brilliant insights along the way. In fact, it is the kind of book where there are so many intriguing insights that you want to follow up, you could easily get lost along the way and never get to the end. The solution, of course, is to read it through once and then go back, as I plan to do a few times.

The book opens with a thorough and convincing (to me) critique of naturalism as applied to ethics. Values can't be explained naturally because they are presupposed by selfhood. To be a self is not merely to be capable of experiencing, but is to have concerns, which means to encounter what there is in terms of what matters to oneself. The neutrality that is presupposed by science, and built into naturalism, is an achievement and not a starting point. The broader concern with which Taylor opens the book and returns to several times is that technical philosophy has defined the scope of ethics far too narrowly upon the question of permissible and impermissible courses of action -- what we really need is an ethics of everyday life, and ethics of self-definition. It is not just a question of what we can and cannot do but of what we should aspire to, of how we should define ourselves and live our lives, of what really matters.

Another intriguing set of insights comes with Taylor's careful reinvestigation of the processes involved in "secularization" (the subject of his newest book, nearly as long as this one). Secularization can't be explained as the natural result of progress, as if faith must of necessity fail in the face of science. In fact, he argues, enlightenment is not so much a radical departure from, but is closely connected with and anticipated by developments in Christian thought and practice in the modern period. At the same time, secularization does not result from a rejection of traditional morality in favor of a more rationalist outlook. The real motivation towards secularization is the growing awareness of alternative moral motivations besides a transcendent God: in nature and beauty, on the one hand, and in the dignity of the autonomous self, on the other. Taylor shows how our modern sense of self has been born out of the recognition of competing moral sources: the traditional one of a transcendent God, the Romantic conception of nature and artistic self expression, and the humanistic conception of the sacred character of the individual human being. These strands can be interwoven and varied, and lead to ambiguous sets of values in terms of which we moderns define ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Taylor's book is an important contribution towards sorting out some of the ambiguities that move us in contradictory and confusing ways, and is to be highly recommended for anyone who wants to figure out who we really are and why we are so confused about ourselves.

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