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Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
by charles taylor
harvard university press, 601 pages, $29.95 

To describe Sources of the Self as a learned book would be a little like describing Michael Jordan as a skilled basketball player: accurate, but hardly adequate to the phenomenon. And for a reviewer to attempt to capture and explicate the main lines of Charles Taylor’s argument is as difficult as it is to appreciate the nuances of a Jordan move to the basket. You have to see it to appreciate it, even as you have to read the 600-page book about which Taylor says, with no apparent irony or condescension, “All I can do is apologize in advance for the incomplete nature of this study.”

Sources is in part a work of moral philosophy, and it might also be said in certain respects to be a work of religious apologetic; to these aspects I return later. But in the first place this is a probing piece of intellectual history tracing what the book’s subtitle calls “the making of the modem identity.” Taylor is careful to say that he is not attempting to provide an historical explanation for the rise of this modem self, an account of the causes that gave rise to it; rather he seeks, by means of a long and complicated narrative, to elucidate its appeal and its “spiritual power.”

In particular, he focuses on what he believes to be three central features of the modem identity: (1) its inwardness—its emphasis on and appreciation of the free, rational inner self as a being with inherent dignity, a being disengaged from the natural world around it; (2) its affirmation of ordinary life”of the spheres of family and work as the locus of a fulfilled life and the arena in which our benevolence is to be enacted; (3) its emphasis on the individual feeling and creative imagination of the “expressivist self,” for whom personal identity is essentially a work of self-creation.

In Taylor’s narrative, Plato stands as the representative of the ancient view of the self, for which being rational meant conforming oneself to an objective order outside the self. And Descartes is the central figure in the modem emphasis on a free inner self, disengaged from nature and able through reason to control the natural world. But “on the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine,” and the turn inward begins with him. “It is hardly an exaggeration,” Taylor writes, “to say that it was Augustine who introduced the inwardness of radical reflexivity and bequeathed it to the Western tradition of thought.”

Surely there is truth in such a claim; yet one wonders whether it is sufficient to see Augustine as standing at the beginning of a conveyer belt headed toward the modem expressivist self. He seems in many ways—even when he differs from Plato—to be much closer to Plato than, say, to Rousseau. And the difference is that Augustine simply could not conceive of personal identity as a work of self-creation, which gives his inwardness its own peculiar character. God is not just the principle of order to be known, but the One who illumines our seeing and empowers our knowing. For that reason the way to God leads inward through the self. But it is always for Augustine the way to One who is outside the self and other than the self. That is the truth Augustine discovers in his exploration of the longing of the restless heart: such longing should not curve back upon itself but should find its rest in the God who is Absolutely Other.

It seems a much more decisive step in the formation of the modern identity, therefore, when Taylor suggests that in Descartes the turn inward is no longer for the sake of something outside the self. Moreover, the inner self is now thought to be creative in new ways. With ideas gotten from sense experience the mind constructs scientific knowledge. That is, “ideas” are no longer those substantial, resistant things which Plato thought existed outside the self; they are now within the mind. Something similar happens in morality. As reason should now control and master the mechanism of the natural world, so it should also control and direct the passions. God remains important, but chiefly as a link in the argument. The existence of God guarantees that, if our minds work correctly, we will gain true knowledge. “The Cartesian proof is no longer a search for an encounter with God within. It is no longer the way to an experience of everything in God. Rather what I now meet is myself. . . . ”

Taylor traces this emphasis on inwardness through several permutations in thinkers who follow Descartes. One line, running especially through Locke, accentuates the self’s disengagement from any objective, external order. The natural world is controlled when it is objectified and demystified. The real self becomes “extensionless” and can be located only “in this power to fix things as objects.” Perhaps paradoxically, then, the turn inward leads to thinking even of human lives as would an external observer. The other line, running especially through Montaigne, emphasizes self-exploration more than self-control. Here there is less tendency toward disengagement or a third-person observer stance. “Thus by the turn of the eighteenth century, something recognizably like the modern self is in process of constitution. . . . It holds together, sometimes uneasily, two kinds of radical reflexivity and hence inwardness, . . . forms of self-exploration and forms of self-control.”

Hand in hand with increasing inwardness goes a newly developing affirmation of production (work) and reproduction (marriage and family). Taylor locates the genesis of this affirmation chiefly in the Protestant Reformers and, more broadly, in the Judeo-Christian understanding of the world as creation. No longer was there a higher kind of life as there had been for the ancients, a life devoted either to theoretical contemplation or to participation in the public activities of a citizen. Instead, the most ordinary realms of life—what the ancients would have regarded as realms that have “an infrastructural relation” to the good life—can now be sanctified by a God-fearing spirit. In the family and in our labor we find meaning and purpose, and we enact our benevolence toward others.

Along with this religious emphasis goes an understanding of science not as the leisured activity of a few whose ordinary life is secure, but as an activity devoted to serving ordinary life and enhancing it for everyone. As the theological matrix for this affirmation of ordinary life gradually fades”as it is seen less as a Calling”the bourgeois ethic’s relation to Deism emerges. For a thinker like Locke, we are to serve our own needs and lead productive bourgeois lives. But by God’s providence this also is a way of enacting our benevolence to others. Begin to drop a providentially active God from this picture, and we get a vision of life that makes human happiness central and sees us as beings whose dignity lies chiefly in enacting that benevolence in ordinary life. No thought any longer that some ways of life might be “higher” or more appropriate to our nature. Any such hint, which might call for “asceticism” toward the goods of ordinary life, begins to be rejected. (Taylor does not, I think, give enough attention to the way in which these first two features of the modern identity”inwardness and affirmation of ordinary life”may be in tension with each other. While reading his book, I was also reading Second Chances, by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, a study of the effects of divorce on children. That book’s grim findings suggest that the search of many unhappy spouses for personal fulfillment is at war with the needs of children. Inwardness and ordinary life are not easily reconciled.)

At this point in Taylor’s narrative we have, then, three possible “moral sources” (as he terms them): One is the traditional theistic view, out of which grew the other two”the emphasis on the free rational self, a being with dignity and fit to master nature; and the emphasis on the natural world as the realm in which our benevolence is enacted. These moral sources are the goods which, when we are drawn and committed to them, empower us to do and be good. But central in the development of the modern identity as Taylor understands it is that the two new moral sources become detached from theism. Human dignity seems free only if we do not submit to God. Wholehearted immersion in natural life seems qualified unless it is freed from the Call of God, which might, after all, ask us to sacrifice some worldly goods. Despite all this, Taylor sees “epistemic gain” in the development of these new moral sources, believing that they have enriched human life with important new possibilities. As I read him, however, he is much less positive about the third element in his picture of the modern identity: namely, the “expressivist self” for whom personal identity is a work of self-creation.

Taylor traces the development of this last feature of the modern identity not only through philosophical writings but also in literature and, especially, the arts. It leads eventually to a kind of “subject-centeredness” that he is willing at one point to term “insidious.” Moreover, this third aspect of modern identity carries within it a deep tension that has been present for several centuries. This tension is, essentially, that between the Enlightenment emphasis on disengaged reason exercising control over nature, and the Romantic emphasis on self-expression and creative imagination. Both are present in a thinker like Rousseau—who surely embodies tension if anyone ever did! One way of trying to combine both is to see them as part of a “spiral movement” within history: Human disengagement from nature was a necessary prerequisite to development of powers that would make possible reengagement at a new and higher level. Hegel offers such a view at a level of considerable philosophical abstraction; millenarian believers offer another, very different, version of such a view. But, in any case, “a modern who recognizes both these powers is constitutionally in tension.”

It is crucial to see that this development moves beyond the notion that we are simply expressing or making manifest something that is within us. To think in that way would still be to countenance the possibility of a given order, discerned within, and then expressed. But there is no longer any such inner order. There is only self-expression, which is now self-creation. We turn inward not because that route offers access to something other than and beyond our personal vision. There isn’t anything to which we might get “access” in that sense. There is only the self, actualizing itself. Art comes close to replacing religion. It is no longer mimesis, imitation of nature; instead, the artist becomes the author of (a radically individual) nature. At some point, in fact, this radical turn inward comes to suggest the dissolution of the self. We have not an individual identity, but fragments of experience; not the narrative of a life that is in some sense a whole, but a decentered flow of experience. If that is what Taylor finds insidious, my only quarrel would be that perhaps he needs a still stronger adjective.

This, at any rate, is a rough summary of the story Taylor narrates in lavish detail. But his is also a work of moral philosophy, articulated in the first four chapters of the book. Taylor wants to argue for a certain kind of communitarian vision of the moral life; namely, that human beings cannot live without a moral “framework” that orients them in moral space and that is grounded in or referred to some defining community. Moral questions must be dealt with in “thick” rather than “thin” terms, understood as embedded within frameworks that give them their point. Indeed, the notion of “an agent free from all frameworks rather spells for us a person in the grip of an appalling identity crisis.” This philosophical position dovetails nicely with the larger intellectual history Taylor has written. As we have seen, that history tries to demonstrate that for the modern self there is no longer any publicly established moral order to which all can refer; rather, every view “comes indexed to a personal vision.”

At the same time, however, Taylor wants to argue in his opening chapters that this embeddedness in frameworks is an inescapable element in human identity—not just, I think, in our identity. He claims to be offering an account of “the limits of the conceivable in human life,” an account that shows the embeddedness of our moral claims in frameworks referred to communities. But, then, what is the particular location in which Taylor the philosopher stands as he provides this account of the limits of the conceivable? He calls his account, in fact, an account of the “transcendental conditions” of human life. It is refreshing in an age when Richard Rorty and his followers have told us that we cannot speak this way to hear a philosopher doing so, but, at the same time, it is hard to know what to make of such talk in the light of Taylor’s other claims.

An account of the transcendental conditions of human life looks very much like the “deliverances of unsituated reason” which Taylor elsewhere terms an “illusion.” It is, of course, a position developed within a community of discourse, and in that (to me, somewhat trivial) sense, it will no doubt always be the case that we can be a self only among other selves. But once one grants, as Taylor does, that this community of other selves may even be a community of the dead, one wonders what the point is. Taylor’s account of the transcendental conditions of human life is offered from what he hopes may be a universal, foundational standpoint”or so it seems to me.

Even if the philosophical argument does not entirely persuade, we should not therefore conclude that there is no point to Taylor’s insistence that we can be selves only by understanding ourselves in relation to some defining community. It retains a practical edge. The point that is relevant to the larger concerns of this book is that we should not try to draw our purposes, goals, and life-plans simply out of ourselves or seek only those attachments that promise to fulfill us. The true self-creator will be not simply insidious but Satanic. That is the stronger adjective Taylor might have tried.

Finally, Sources of the Self is also a work of religious apologetic. The features of modern identity described by Taylor took their rise first within a background of religious belief. It may therefore be important to ask whether they can survive and flourish in ways that are neither destructive nor self-destructive if they are removed from the soil in which they took root. These are questions of the utmost importance, and Taylor is clearly pulled in several directions. A large part of the impulse behind the writing of his book was, he says, the “intuition . . . that we tend in our culture to stifle the spirit.” We forget that morality may require of us considerable sacrifice of our personal fulfillment—and that this may be especially true of a religiously based morality, for which God relativizes all other goods. Our “highest spiritual ideals and aspirations also threaten to lay the most crushing burdens on humankind,” and Taylor therefore finds it quite understandable that the modern self might turn from such lofty aspirations to the goods of ordinary life and the satisfactions of creative self-fulfillment. For all his concern, therefore, Taylor is not simply a critic of modern life. He does not call for any simple return to a metaphysic which downplays the goods of worldly life in comparison to theoretical contemplation, religious devotion, or civic participation. In short, critics of modern individualism have, in his view, paid too little heed to those “crushing burdens” which came along with the “hypergoods” of the older order.

Nevertheless, Taylor is not fully persuaded that the moral sources of the modern identity are sufficient to sustain commitment to the notions of benevolence and dignity that have also been a part of that identity. We may, that is, be “living beyond our moral means” in trying to retain such demanding, universal standards of morality without the metaphysical and religious substance that once underlay those standards. Indeed, some of the most wistful pages of this large book—pages which show its author drawn in conflicting directions—are Taylor’s pages on Hume. He finds in Hume a thinker for whom no ontological support seems needed as warrant for the significance of our life. The natural fulfillments which life offers are significant simply on the grounds that they are ours—satisfying to beings like ourselves. Interestingly, Taylor sees Hume drawing such a view in part from classical Epicurean thought, the one school of classical thought that does not fit Taylor’s picture of the older order. This suggests, in passing, that the moral stances Taylor is delineating may be permanent possibilities of the human spirit, not quite so tightly built into particular communities of discourse at particular points of historical development. In any case, Hume is attempting to “remove the burden of impossible moral aspirations,” to seek in human life not an ideal that calls us to be more than human, but a home that is like “a garden, a grateful acceptance of a limited space, with its own irregularities and imperfections, but within which something can flower.”

We are here at the center of Taylor’s concern, and it is best expressed in religious terms. Is commitment to God finally one of those crushing burdens that, in claiming to make our life significant, actually mutilates us? Is the call to holiness, to “a life on God’s terms,” which has been part of Judeo-Christian vision, soil in which we ultimately wither or flourish? Does the one who loses his life for the sake of such religious commitment thereby find it?

Taylor makes clear that he is a believer, but he is also certain that such commitment—like any serious moral stance—brings with it pain and cost. There are many worthwhile goods in life, but commitment to the highest among them—to hypergoods, as he terms them—may exact a considerable price at the level of many of the lesser, but still genuine, goods. To continue on the road that has led to development of the modern identity may mean (a) the loss of the highest and most ultimate sources of meaning for our lives, and (b) the loss of a framework sturdy enough to sustain some of our most cherished commitments, such as universal benevolence. But to turn away from the features of the modern identity would for Taylor amount simply to trying to “invalidate” some genuine goods. In the end, he settles for “a large element of hope.” That is, for the hope he finds in the Judeo-Christian tradition’s “promise of a divine affirmation of the human, more total than humans can ever attain unaided.”

One might wish that Taylor had considered more fully a possibility that emerges only in one rather long footnote—the possibility that a distinction, though not utter separation, of the spheres of politics and ethics might go some way toward addressing the problem that concerns him. In the political realm it may be necessary to permit as many goods as possible to flourish, without seeking to articulate or develop “the good life,” one governed by a demanding hypergood. But such political judgment need not be translated into the view that there is no such thing as “the good life,” or that we are not ourselves to seek it and seek through a variety of institutional (though non-governmental) mechanisms to encourage and inculcate that moral and religious vision. Taylor grants that “there is a lot to be said for this,” and he writes that “it is quite possible to be strongly in favor of a morality based on a notion of the good but lean to some procedural formula when it comes to the principles of politics.”

The fact that he can grant this yet not give such possibility a greater place in his narrative suggests that, with respect to the question of the relation between politics and ethics at least, Taylor is not at all a modem, however much he may believe that the modem identity brings with it some genuine goods. Perhaps the choice he has made is the correct one; yet, a greater distinction between politics and ethics might go well with the hope he affirms in his concluding paragraphs. It would make clear that this hope for a “divine affirmation . . . more total than humans can ever attain unaided” is truly hope in God, and not in the historical process.

Gilbert Meilaender is the author of The Limits of Love.