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Charles Taylor: Sources of the Self:
the making of modern identity
(Cambridge University Press: 1989)


“This book...is an attempt to articulate and write a history of the modern identity. With this term, I want to designate the ensemble of (largely unarticulated) understandings of what it is to be a human agent: the sense of inwardness, freedom, individuality, and being embedded in nature which are at home in the modern West. But I also wanted to show how the ideals and interdicts of this identity - what it casts into relief and what it casts in shadow - shape our philosophical thought, our epistemology, and our philosophy of language, largely without our awareness. Doctrines which are supposedly derived from the sober examination of some domain into which the self doesn’t and shouldn’t obtrude actually reflect much more than we realize of the ideals that have helped constitute this identity of ours.... In addition, this portrait of our identity is meant to serve as the starting point for a renewed understanding of modernity...[as] we cannot understand ourselves without coming to grips with this history. But I find myself dissatisfied with the views on this subject which are now current. Some are upbeat, and see us as having climbed to a higher plateau; others show a picture of decline, of loss, of forgetfulness. Neither sort seems to me right; both ignore massively important features of our situation. We have yet to capture, I think, the unique combination of greatness and danger, of grandeur et misere, which characterizes the modern age. To see the full complexity and richness of the modern identity is to see, first, how much we are all caught up in it, for all our attempts to repudiate it; and second, how shallow and partial are the one-sided judgements we bandy around about it. But I don’t think we can grasp this richness and complexity unless we see how the modern understanding of the self developed out of earlier pictures of human identity, [so] this book attempts to define the modern identity in terms of its genesis. I focus on three major facets of this identity: first, modern inwardness, the sense of ourselves as beings with inner depths, and the connected notion that we are ‘selves’; second, the affirmation of ordinary life which develops from the early modern period; third, the expressivist notion of nature as an inner moral source.... Modernity urgently needs to be saved from its most unconditional supporters - a predicament perhaps not without precedent in the history of culture. Understanding modernity aright is an exercise in retrieval.”
(Taylor, pp.ix-xi)

Having never had much time for philosophy as such, I find myself now strongly recommending a six hundred page work by one of the leading philosophers of our time. Why? Well...philosophy/theology was the egg from which key contemporary disciplines hatched, science itself being known as “natural philosophy” for longer than it has worn its current label, and so the history of such matters is invariably worthwhile. But, more importantly, whilst most of the former subject matter of philosophy is now much better dealt with by empirically-based disciplines, there is one glaring exception to this rule...moral philosophy, broadly conceived, which - as we shall see - has been badly served by what has passed for naturalistic analyses. And that is this subject of this book.

Moreover, Western philosophy in recent times has been strongly divided between the heirs of empiricism - mostly in the Anglophone world - and what Oxbridge quaintly refers to as the “Continentals”...who have retained their broader metaphysical thrust, and concern for the qualitative...albeit usually hampered both by a baroque vocabulary and a poor understanding of science. And there are very few willing to seriously consider the arguments - and demerits - of both, let alone attempt this in clear prose. The foremost of these is Charles Taylor...and, this is his key work.


“Much contemporary moral philosophy, particularly but not only in the English-speaking world, has...tended to focus on what is right to do rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life; and it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance or, as Iris Murdoch portrayed it in her work, as the privileged focus of attention or will.... [Therefore,] what I want to bring out and examine are the richer background languages in which we set the basis and point of the moral obligations we acknowledge. More broadly, I want to explore the background picture of our spiritual nature and predicament which lies behind some of the moral and spiritual intuitions of our contemporaries...and make clearer just what a background picture is, and what role it plays in our lives.... The whole way in which we think, reason, argue, and question ourselves about morality supposes that our moral reactions have...two sides: that they are not only ‘gut’ feelings but also implicit acknowledgements of claims concerning their objects.... The temptations to deny this, which arise from modern epistemology, are strengthened by the widespread acceptance of a deeply wrong model of practical reasoning, one based on an illegitimate extrapolation from reasoning in the natural sciences.... [For] it seems natural to assume that we would have to establish...ontological predicates, in ways analogous to our supporting physical explanations: starting from the facts identified independently of our reactions to them, we would try to show that one underlying explanation was better than others. But, once we do this, we have lost from view what we’re arguing about. Ontological accounts have the status of articulations of our moral instincts. They articulate the claims implicit in our reactions. We can no longer argue about them at all once we assume a neutral stance and try to describe the facts as they are independent of these reactions, as we have done in natural science since the seventeenth century.... [since] no argument can take someone from a neutral stance...into moral ontology. But it doesn’t follow from this that moral ontology is a pure fiction, as naturalists often assume. Rather, we should treat our deepest moral instincts, our ineradicable sense that human life is to be respected, as our mode of access to the world in which ontological claims are discernible and can be rationally argued about and sifted.”
(Taylor, pp.3-8)

“Frameworks provide the background, explicit or implicit, for our moral judgements, intuitions, or reactions in any of the three dimensions [of moral space]. To articulate a framework is to explicate what makes sense of our moral responses. That is, when we try to spell out what it is that we presuppose when we judge that a certain form of life is truly worthwhile, or place our dignity in a certain achievement or status, or define our moral obligations in a certain manner, we find ourselves articulating inter alia what I have been calling here ‘frameworks’. In a sense, this might be thought to offer a sufficient answer to the naturalist attempt to sideline frameworks. We might just reply...with the ad hominem point that they also make judgements...and so on, and that they cannot simply reject the preconditions of those beliefs and attitudes making sense. But the ad hominem argument doesn’t seem to go deep enough.... I want to defend the strong thesis that doing without frameworks is utterly impossible for us; otherwise put, that the horizons within which we live our lives and which make sense of them have to include these strong qualitative discriminations. Moreover...the claim is that stepping outside these limits would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as an integral, that is, undamaged human personhood. Perhaps the best way to see this is to focus on the issue that we usually describe today as the question of identity. We speak of it in these terms because the question is often spontaneously phrased by people in the form: Who am I? But this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand....[and] the space in question is one which must be mapped by strong evaluations or qualitative distinctions...[for] it only plays the role of orienting us, of providing the frame within which things have meaning for us, by virtue of the qualitative distinctions it incorporates.... To ask what a person is, in abstraction from his or her own self-interpretations, is to ask a fundamentally misguided question, one to which there couldn’t in principle be an answer.”
(Taylor, pp.26-34)

“So, one crucial fact about a self or person that emerges from all this is that it is not like an object in the usually understood sense. We are not selves in the way that we are organisms, or we don’t have selves in the way we have hearts and livers. We are living beings with these organs quite independently of our self-understandings or -interpretations, or the meanings things have for us. But we are only selves insofar as we move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good.... [Moreover,] one cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now essential to my continuing grasp of languages of self-understanding - and, of course, these classes may overlap. A self exists only within what I call ‘webs of interlocution’.”
(Taylor, pp.34-6)

The opening section of Sources of the Self makes a clear - and very strong - case for the necessity of a broader approach to understanding morality than is “allowed” by conventional scientific methodology, thus helping explain the conceptual poverty we have seen in scientific approaches to such questions. It also makes clear the inextricably interwoven character of our sense of selfhood with such questions...similarly helping to explain the weakness of far too much scientific psychology when confronted by the broader issues of selfhood. But, this is merely the beginning of Taylor’s work:


“Practical reasoning...is a reasoning in transitions. It aims to establish, not that some position is correct absolutely, but rather that some position is superior to some other. It is concerned, covertly or openly, implicitly or explicitly, with comparative propositions. We show one of these comparative claims to be well founded when we can show that the move from A to B constitutes a gain epistemically. This is something we do when we show, for instance, that we get from A to B by identifying and resolving a contradiction in A, or a confusion which A relied on, or by acknowledging the importance of some factor which A screened out, or something of the sort. The argument fixes on the nature of the transition from A to B...[and] this sort of argument has its source in biographical narrative. We are convinced that a certain view is superior because we have lived a transition which we understand as error-reducing and hence as epistemic gain...[and so,] genealogy goes to the heart of the logic of practical reasoning.... The bad model of practical reasoning, rooted in the epistemological tradition, constantly nudges us towards a mistrust of transition arguments. It wants wants us to look for ‘criteria’ to decide the issue, i.e., some considerations which could be established even outside the perspectives in dispute and which nevertheless could be decisive. But there cannot be such considerations. My perspective is defined by the moral intuitions I have, by what I am morally moved by. If I abstract from this, I am incapable of understanding any moral argument at all. You will only convince me by changing my reading of my moral experience.... The predicament of practical reason resembles the most primitive context in which I acquire factual knowledge, that of perception. My confidence in my awareness of my perceptual surroundings rests in large part on the quite inarticulate sense I have of enjoying a sure perceptual purchase on things, a sense which enframes all my particular perceivings. A typical response when we encounter something surprising, unsettling, or seemingly wrong is to stop, shake our heads, concentrate, set ourselves to command a good view, and look again.... The idea that we ought to prescind altogether from this background confidence of purchase is as unjustified as the corresponding demand in the moral field that we step outside moral intuitions. This would mean checking the trustworthiness of this confidence against something else. But this something else would have to be quite outside the perceivable, and thus gives us an impossible task.... In neither case can I do anything with the suggestion that it might all be illusion, and that I ought to defend myself against this possibility by stepping altogether outside any reliance either on intuition or sense of purchase. This demand is by nature impossible. The most reliable moral view is not one that would be grounded quite outside our intuitions, but one that is grounded on our strongest intuitions, where these have successfully met the challenge of proposed transitions away from them.”
(Taylor, pp.72-5)

“We can readily see why some people distrust articulation as a source of delusion or fear it as a profanation.... It is not mainly because there are so many dead formulations, so many trite imitations.... What is worse is that the whole thing may be counterfeited. This is not to say that words of power themselves may be counterfeit. But that the act by which their pronouncing releases force can be rhetorically imitated, either to feed our self-conceit or for even more sinister purposes, such as the defense of a discreditable status quo. Trite formulae may combine with historical sham to weave a cocoon of moral assurance around us which actually insulates us from the energy of true moral sources. And there is worse: the release of power can be hideously caricatured to enhance the energy of evil, as at Nuremberg. As for the narrative constructions of our lives, there is no need to speak at length about the possibilities of delusion which attend us here. There are good reasons to keep silent. But, they cannot be valid across the board. Without any articulation at all, we would lose all contact with the good, however conceived. We would cease to be human. The severest injunctions to silence can only be directed to certain classes of articulation, and must spare others. The issue is to define which ones. Our question then returns to articulations in descriptive prose of our sense of qualitative distinctions...which modern moral philosophy tends to suppress. Should we try to recover them for moral thought, or are they best left in implicit limbo? ...I am very aware of the dangers; at least, I aspire to be. In another situation, they might provide good reasons for silence. But I think the silence of modern philosophy is unhealthy. It is powered...partly by metaphysical and epistemological reasons which I believe invalid, and largely by moral or spiritual reasons: the affirmation of ordinary life, and the modern conception of freedom, which indeed I want to endorse under some version, but cannot under this one.  The reason is that this one is deeply confused. It reads the affirmation of life and freedom as a repudiation of qualitative distinctions, a repudiation of constitutive goods as such, while these are themselves reflections of qualitative distinctions and presuppose some notion of qualitative goods.... The existence of this cast of thought and its importance in our culture create an overwhelming case for the articulation of the good. It suppresses so many questions and hides so many confusions that one cannot but experience it as intellectually asphyxiating, once one has escaped, even partially from its spell.”
(Taylor, pp.97-8)

One thing I am always on the lookout for is what might be termed the “deceptively simple analytic approach” - something which I tend to consider a marker of genuinely first class work. Unfortunately, there is little attempt to highlight these in the intellectual world as a whole...thus making the disciplinary equivalents of the spanners and screwdrivers of manual skills much less “ready to hand”, and obscuring the fact that much intellectual work is considerably less difficult than it looks at first sight.

Such are best presented as heuristics - rather than necessarily “true” divisions - and thus not in competition with other divisions of the same area. As usual, Taylor does not disappoint on this score, and his approach interestingly complements Jane Jacobs practice-based division of the moral world, being centred on the locus of individual concern, rather than the public world and its conflicting lifeways.


“In general, one might try to single out three axes of what can be called, in the most general sense, moral thinking. [For,] as well as...our sense of respect for and obligations to others, and our understandings of what makes a full life, there is also the range of notions concerned with dignity. By this I mean the characteristics by which we think of ourselves as commanding (or failing to command) the respect of those around us.... (Let’s call this kind ‘attitudinal’.) ...The issue of what one’s dignity consists in is no more avoidable than those of why we ought to respect others’ rights, or what makes a full life, however much a naturalist philosophy might mislead us into thinking of this as another domain of mere ‘gut’ reactions, similar to those of baboons establishing their hierarchy. And in this case, its unavoidability ought to be the more obvious in that our dignity is so much woven into our very comportment. The very way we walk, move, gesture, speak is shaped from the earliest moments by our awareness that we appear before others, that we stand in public space, and that this space is potentially one of respect or contempt, of pride or shame.... Some people flit through public space as though avoiding it, others rush through as though hoping to sidestep the issue of how they appear in it by the very serious purpose with which they transit through it; others again saunter through with assurance, savouring their moments within it; still others swagger, confident of how their presence marks it.... Just what do we see our dignity consisting in? It can be our power, our sense of dominating public space; or our invulnerability to power; or our self-sufficiency, our life having its own centre; or our being liked and looked to by others, a centre of attraction. But very often the sense of dignity can ground in [our sense of what makes for a full life].”
(Taylor, p.15)

“Probably something like these three axes exists in every culture. But there are great differences in how they are conceived. how they relate, and in their relative importance. For the warrior and honour ethic that seems to have been dominant among the ruling strata of ancient Greece, whose deeds were celebrated by Homer, this third axis seems to have been paramount, and seems even to have incorporated the second axis without remainder.... For us, this is close to inconceivable. It seems obvious that the first axis has paramountcy, followed by the second. Connected with this, it would probably have been incomprehensible to the people of the archaic period that the first axis should be conceived in terms of an ethic of general principles, let alone one founded on reason, as against one grounded in religious prohibitions that brooked no discussion. One of the most important ways in which our age stands out from earlier ones concerns the second axis. A set of questions make sense to us which turn around the meaning of life, and which would not have been fully understandable in earlier epochs. Moderns can anxiously doubt whether life has meaning, or wonder what its meaning is. However philosophers may be inclined to attack these formulations as vague or confused, the fact remains that we all have an immediate sense of what kind of worry is being articulated in these words.... Questions along the second axis can arise for people in any culture...[but, for pre-moderns,] some framework stands unquestioned, which helps to define the demands by which they judge their lives and measure, as it were, their fulness or emptiness.... It is now a commonplace about the modern world that it has made these frameworks problematic...[and] the problem of the meaning of life is therefore on our agenda, however much me may jibe at this phrase, either in the form of a threatened loss of meaning, or because making sense of our life is the object of a quest. And those whose spiritual agenda is mainly defined in this way are in a fundamentally different existential predicament from that which dominated most previous cultures, and still defines the lives of other people today. That alternative is a predicament in which an unchallengable framework makes imperious demands which we fear being unable to meet...[and] the existential predicament in which one fears condemnation is quite different from the one where one fears, above all, meaninglessness.”
(Taylor, pp.16-18)

But all of this, so far, is merely the groundwork for the core of Taylor’s work here - a history of ideas that both fleshes out the arguments presented so far, and immeasurably enriches our understandings of both intellectual history, and our sense of ourselves and what this entails. Now, I do have some caveats here - about absences & such - as might be expected with regard to a work of such scope, but one thing that most impresses here is that Taylor’s weaknesses are never ones of substance...for, what is dealt with is invariably insightful. Nonetheless, I should mention the total absence here of what Havelock termed the “liberal” tradition in ancient Greek ethical/political thinking, the eliding of medieval thought (one would have thought Thomism, in particular, deserved at least a few pages), and of the approach most similar to that of Taylor himself, perhaps, in according proper weight to both scientific and humanistic evidence - that of Bakhtin & Vygotsky (albeit he has since done rare justice to Bakhtin’s work, in making it a key part of his approach).

However, these lacuna are easily corrected with some additional reading...whilst you will not find a better guide to the importance of the “big” names of Western philosophy to our self-understandings - or one better attuned to the near-intractable complexities of the history of ideas, properly conceived.... For Taylor is insistent that he is not building causal arguments here - or dealing with the full range of factors - but, rather, simply attempting to follow how our understandings of the self and moral goods have changed over time...and, in particular, upon what they have based their appeal. Nor does he consider that the “big” names have necessarily led such changes - rather than crystallizing emergent trends - or that ideas have led materialist change...and so, any accusations of this being an elitist and idealist project are singularly inappropriate. Instead, it is the essential counterpart to our more usual historical understandings, given that these are fundamentally materialist today...


“In our languages of self-understanding, the opposition ‘inside-outside’ plays an important role. We think of our thoughts, ideas, or feelings as being ‘within’ us, while the objects in the world which these mental states bear on are ‘without’. Or else we think of our capacities or potentialities as ‘inner’, awaiting the development which will manifest them or realise them in the public world. The unconscious is for us within, and we think of the depths of the unsaid, the unsayable, the powerful inchoate feelings and affinities and fears which dispute with us the control of our lives, as inner. We are creatures with inner depths.... But strong as this partitioning of the world seems to us, as solid as this localization may seem, and anchored in the very nature of the human agent, it is in large part...a function of a historically-limited mode of self-expression.... But [this] is nevertheless hard to believe for the ordinary layperson that lives in all of us. The reason this is so is that the localization is bound up with our sense of the self, and thus also with our sense of moral sources. It is not that these do not also change in history. On the contrary, the story I want to tell is of such a change. But when a given constellation of self, moral sources, and localization is ours, that means it is the one from within which we experience and deliberate about our moral situation. It cannot but come to feel fixed and unchallengable, whatever our knowledge of history and cultural variation.... But isn’t there some truth in the idea that people are always selves, that they distinguish inside from outside in all cultures? In one sense, there no doubt is. The really difficult thing is distinguishing the human universals from the historical constellations and not eliding the second into the first, so that our particular way seems somehow inescapable for humans, as we are always tempted to do.... It is probable that in every language there are resources for self-reference.... But this is not at all the same as making ‘self’ into a noun, preceded by a definite or indefinite article, speaking of ‘the’ self, or ‘a’ self. This reflects something important which is peculiar to our modern sense of agency.”
(Taylor, pp.111-13)

Understanding what Taylor is getting at here is difficult since, as he says, our stance re such questions feels entirely natural...because it is from within this that we experience life. So, asking thinking about such issues is rather like trying to see the back of your own head - without a mirror. Still, we are much more used to cultural difference today - when anthropology and history make for popular television - and, so, the task isn’t quite as difficult as all that. But, thankfully, Taylor keeps the philosophical jargon to a bare minimum, and insistently examines the key issues from all angles, so as to make clear exactly what is at stake. But we are fooling ourselves if we assume that we can easily think our way into Plato’s shoes - even if he’s still a highly influential thinker in our tradition - while the thought of Homer is even more profoundly alien. But we must try, else we will never understand much of human history, as well as the varieties of human nature it conceals...


“Plato’s view, just because it privileges a condition of self-collected awareness and designates this as the state of maximum unity with oneself, requires some conception of the mind as a unitary space. [Conversely,] the temptation to place certain thoughts and feelings in a special locus comes from the special nature of those thoughts and feelings. They are different from, perhaps even incompatible with, what we ordinarily feel.... And today, we are still tempted by talk of special localization, but of another character: we speak of a person being ‘carried away’, or ‘beside herself’, swept off as it were to someplace outside.... For a view of the moral life which finds the highest sources in these special states, as in a condition of the highest inspiration, the description of experience in terms of special locales will seem the deepest and most revealing.... But if, in contrast, the highest condition for us [as for Plato] is one in which we are reflective and self-collected, then to be in a special state, discontinuous with the others, is a kind of loss of centring, a falling off, something which has to be overcome.... But...the centring or unification of the moral self was a precondition of the transformation which I will describe as internalization, but the centring is not this internalization itself.... In fact, Plato does not [rely upon] the inside/outside dichotomy...[and] the oppositions which are crucial to [him] are those of the soul as against the body, of the immaterial as against the bodily, and of the eternal as against the changing...[since] for Plato, the key issue is what the soul is directed towards...the possible directions of our awareness and desire. Not only is the inner/outer dichotomy not useful to this purpose, but it actually tends to obscure the fact that the crucial issue is what objects the soul attends to and feeds on. The soul as immaterial and eternal ought to turn to what is immaterial and eternal.”
(Taylor, pp.119-24)

“On the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine.... [But,] in agreeing with Plato about the pivotal importance of the direction of our attention and love, Augustine alters the balance between these in what turns out to be a decisive way, [for] it is love and not attention which is the ultimately deciding factor...[and] our principle route to God is not through the object domain, but ‘in’ ourselves. This is because God is not just the transcendent object or just the principle of order of the nearer objects, which we strain to see. God is also and for us primarily the basic support and underlying principle of our knowing activity....[and so] Augustine shifts the focus from the field of objects known, to the activity itself of knowing.... In our normal dealing with things, we disregard this dimension of experience and focus on the thing experienced. But we can turn and make this our object of attention, become aware of our awareness, try to experience our experiencing, focus on the way the world is for us. That is what I call taking a stance of radical reflexivity, or adopting the first-person standpoint...[and it] is what made the language of inwardness irresistible.... The step was a fateful one, because we have certainly made a big thing of the first-person standpoint...to the point of aberration, one might think.”
(Taylor, pp.127-31)

Even the founding figures of intellectual modernity, however, are alien to us - born, as they were, into a world when a non-theistic viewpoint was profoundly unimaginable (“atheist”, in those days, meaning something else) - and before the further sea change that was Romanticism. So, in many ways, this section of Taylor’s story is even more surprising...since we expect such figures to be essentially modern in our terms...and Taylor is exceptionally clear about denying us this option - for, while he may be no historian by training, he has an extraordinary grasp of the depth of historical difference, whilst also making clear the fact that such divisions are hardly total, and that the extremes of cultural relativism are equally indefensible.


“The nature of [such] change has often been misunderstood...[for] it concerns what aspects of life are marked as significant. The difference lies not so much in the presence/absence of certain feelings as in the fact that much is made of them. It is of course true that beginning to make something of them also alters these dispositions. But this is far from saying that they didn’t exist at all before.”
(Taylor, p.292)

“Descartes is in many ways profoundly Augustinian...but Descartes gives Augustinian inwardness a radical twist and takes it in a quite new direction, which has also been epoch-making. The change might be described by saying that Descartes situates the moral sources within us.... Some change became inevitable, once the cosmic order was no longer seen as embodying the [Platonic] Ideas...[for] if we destroy this vision of the ontic logos, and substitute a very different theory of scientific explanation, the entire account of moral virtue and self-mastery has to be transformed as well. The account of scientific knowledge which ultimately emerges on the Galilean [and Cartesian] view is a representational one...and this conception comes to seem unchallengable, once an account of knowledge in terms of a self-revealing reality, like the Ideas, was abandoned.... The order of representations has to be developed in such a way as to generate certainty, through a chain of clear and distinct perceptions...[and] clarity and distinctness require that we step outside ourselves and take a disengaged perspective.... When the hegemony of reason comes to be understood as rational control, the power to objectify body, world, and passions, that is, to assume a thoroughly instrumental stance towards them, then the sources of moral strength can no longer be seen as outside us in the traditional mode.... [And] if rational control is a matter of mind dominating a disenchanted world of matter, then the sense of the superiority of the good life, and the inspiration to attain it, must come from the agent’s sense of his own dignity as a rational being....[transposing] inward something of the spirit of the honour ethic. No longer are we winning fame in public space; we act to maintain our sense of worth in our own eyes.... Strength, firmness, resolution, control, these are the crucial qualities, a subset of the warrior-aristocratic virtues, but now internalized...in the inner domination of passion by thought.... [And, while] the chain of reasoning shows that I rely on a veracious God for my knowledge of the external world...[this is very different] from the Augustinian order of dependence. The thesis is not that I gain knowledge when turned towards God in faith. Rather, the certainty of clear and distinct perception is unconditional and self-generated. What has happened is rather that God’s existence has become a stage in my progress towards science through the methodical ordering of evident insight. God’s existence is a theorem in my system of perfect science. The centre of gravity has definitely shifted.”
(Taylor, pp.143-57)

“Locke took the really uncompromising stance.... He went beyond Descartes and rejected any form of the doctrine of innate ideas. This is usually seen as an epistemologically grounded move...but here, I want to bring out another side. In rejecting innateness...Locke aligns himself against any view which sees us as naturally tending to or attuned to the truth.... The underlying notion is that our conceptions of the world are syntheses of the ideas we originally received from sensation and reflection. But under the influence of passion, custom, and education, these syntheses are made without awareness and without good grounds....[and so,] the crucial first task is therefore one of demolition.... What is radical is the extent of the disengagement he proposes...[for] its ultimate stopping place is the particulate ideas of experience, sensation and reflection. And these are to be taken as rock bottom, because they aren’t the product of activity at all [being seen as purely passive by Locke]....  This philosophy of disengagement and objectification has helped to create a picture of the human being, at its most extreme in certain forms of materialism, from which the last vestiges of subjectivity seem to have been expelled. it is a picture of the human being from a completely third-person perspective. The paradox is that this severe outlook is connected with, indeed, based on, according a central place to the first-person stance. Radical objectivity is only intelligible and accessible through radical subjectivity.... Modern naturalism can never be the same once one sees this connection.... But, for those who haven’t seen it, the problem of the ‘I’ returns, like a repressed thought, as a seemingly insoluble puzzle.”
(Taylor, pp.164-76)

From this point, arguably, the shift to both Deism and the radical Enlightenment was a relatively straightforward one...at least in this dimension. However, as Taylor goes on to argue, there was another form of this inward turn that has also proven to be crucial:


“The line of development through Augustine has also generated models of self-exploration which have crucially shaped modern culture...[although] later this turn takes on secularized forms. We go inward, but not necessarily to find God; we go to discover or impart some order, or some meaning or some justification, to our lives. In retrospect, we can see Augustine’s Confessions as the first great work in a genre which includes Rousseau’s work of the same title, Goethe’s Dichtung and Wahrheit, Wordsworth’s Prelude - except that the Bishop of Hippo antedates his followers by more than a millennium. To the extent that this form of exploration becomes central to our culture, another strand of radical reflexivity becomes of crucial importance to us, alongside that of disengagement. It is different and in some ways antithetical to disengagement [for] rather than objectifying our own nature and hence classifying it as irrelevant to our identity, it consists of exploring what we are in order to establish this identity, because the assumption behind modern self-exploration is that we don’t already know who we are. There is a turning point here whose representative figure is perhaps Montaigne, [as] there is some evidence that when he embarked on his reflections, he shared the traditional view that these should serve to recover contact with the permanent, stable, unchanging core of being in each of us. This is the virtually unanimous direction of ancient thought: beneath the changing and shifting desires in the unwise soul, out true nature, reason, provides a foundation, unwavering and constant. For someone who holds this, the modern problem of identity remains unintelligible. Our only search can be to discover within us the one universal human nature. But things didn’t work out this way for Montaigne. There is some evidence that when he sat down to write and turned to himself, he experienced a terrifying inner instability.... His response was to observe and catalogue his thoughts, feelings, responses...and from this emerged a quite different stand towards the impermanence and uncertainty of human life, an acceptance of limits, which drew from both Epicurean and Christian sources,...by identifying and coming to terms with the patterns which represent his own particular way of living in flux.... In this new sense, shorn of pretensions to universality, nature can once again be our rule.... Montaigne is [thus] at the point of origin of another kind of modern individualism...[which] proceeds by a critique of first-person self-interpretations, rather than by the proofs of impersonal reasoning.... The Cartesian quest is for an order of science, of clear and distinct knowledge in universal terms, which where possible will be the basis of instrumental control. The Montaignean aspiration is always to loosen the hold of such general categories of ‘normal’ operation, and gradually prise our self-understanding free of the monumental weight of the universal interpretations, so that the shape of our originality can come into view. Its aim is not to find an intellectual order by which things in general can be surveyed, but rather to find the modes of expression which will allow the particular not to be overlooked.”
(Taylor, pp.177-82)

“Montaigne sought by laborious self-examination the penetrating grasp of the particular, which can arise spontaneously in a deep friendship. Montaigne had lived one such, and he was aware of the link; indeed, he attributed his undertaking the study to the loss of his friend, La Boetie, as though it were but a second best.... The self is both made and explored with words; and the best for both are the words spoken in the dialogue of friendship. In default of that, the debate with the solitary self comes limping far behind. Epicurus may have also had some insight of this range, who gave such a central place to the conversation among friends.”
(Taylor, p.183)

Arguably, it is this dimension - the particulars of the self as made in dialogue - that Taylor most neglects in this work...however, this simply reflects its neglect in the mainstreams of modern Western thought and culture, so we can hardly criticize him for this, since delineating these, rather than explicitly offering any alternative, is Taylor’s task here...


“Thus by the turn of the eighteenth century, something recognizably like the modern self is in process of constitution, at least among the social and spiritual elites of northwestern Europe and its American offshoots. It holds together, sometimes uneasily, two kinds of radical reflexivity and hence inwardness, both from the Augustinian heritage, forms of self-exploration and forms of self-control. These are the ground, respectively, of two important facets of the nascent modern individualism, that of self-responsible independence, on the one hand, and that of recognized particularity, on the other. A third facet must also be mentioned. We might describe this as the individualism of personal commitment...[in which] no way of life is truly good, no matter how much it may be in line with nature, unless it is endorsed with the whole will. The Augustinian legacy was hospitable to this outlook - Augustine identified the force of sin precisely as the inability to will fully [and] the appeal of the various purified ethical visions of Renaissance humanism, of Erasmus, for instance, or of the later neo-Stoics, was partly that they offered such an ethic of the whole will, against the more lax and minimal rules demanded by society at large. And one of the driving forces of the Protestant Reformation, as central almost as the doctrine of salvation by faith, was the idea that this total commitment must no longer be considered the duty of only an elite which embraced ‘counsels of perfection’, but was demanded of all Christians indiscriminately.... This three-sided individualism is central to the modern identity, [and] it has helped to fix that sense of self which gives off the illusion of being anchored in our very being, perennial and independent of interpretation.”
(Taylor, p.185)

The next key thread in Taylor’s story is that of the re-evaluation of ordinary life which, like the disengaged self, has unexpected theistic roots and, surprisingly, is strongly connected with the disengaged stance. As Taylor argues, it is important not to see this re-evaluation as denying any form of qualitative distinction at all for, despite its inversion of older hierarchies, it remains essential how one lives such a life, it it is to be worthy of value....


“‘Ordinary life’ is a term of art I introduce to designate those aspects of human life concerned with production and reproduction.... For Aristotle, the maintenance of these activities was to be distinguished from the pursuit of the good life. They are, of course, necessary to the good life life, but they play an infrastructural role in relation to it.... The proper life for humans builds on this...men deliberate about moral excellence, they contemplate the order of things; of supreme importance for politics, they deliberate together about the common good, and decide how to shape and apply the laws.... [And so,] the influential ideas of ethical hierarchy exalted the lives of contemplation and participation.... And in most variants, too great a striving for or possession of riches was felt to be a danger...[for] if the means of mere life bulk too big, they endanger the good life.... The transition I am talking about here is one which upsets these hierarchies, which displaces the locus of the good life from some special range of higher activities and places it within ‘life’ itself. The full human life is now defined in terms of labour and production, on one hand, and marriage and family life, on the other. At the same time, the previous ‘higher’ activities come under vigorous criticism. Under the impact of the scientific revolution, the ideal of theoria, of grasping the order of the cosmos through contemplation, came to be seen as being vain and misguided, as a presumptuous attempt to escape the hard work of detailed discovery. Francis Bacon constantly hammers home the point that the traditional sciences have aimed at discovering some satisfying overall order in things, rather than being concerned to see how things function...and the consequence has been that they have been without fruit.... To relieve the condition of man: that is the goal. Science is not a higher activity which ordinary life should subserve; on the contrary, science should benefit ordinary life. Not to make this the goal is not only a moral failing, a lack of charity, but also and inextricably an epistemological failing [and] Bacon had no doubt that the root of this momentous error is pride.... The Baconian revolution involved a transvaluation of values, which is also the reversal of a previous hierarchy. What was previously stigmatized as lower is now exalted as the standard, and the previously higher is convicted of presumption and vanity.... And indeed, an inherent bent towards social levelling is implicit in the affirmation of everyday life. The centre of the good life lies now in something which everyone can have a part in, rather than in ranges of activity which only a leisured few can do justice to.”
(Taylor, pp.211-14)

“The scope of this social reversal can be better measured if we look at the critique launched against the other main variant of the traditional hierarchical view, the honour ethic...[which] is subject to a withering critique in the seventeenth century. Its goals are denounced as vainglory and vanity, as the fruits of an almost childish presumption. The negative arguments in these writers are not new...but what eventually gives this critique its historical significance as an engine of social change is the new promotion of ordinary life. In the latter part of the century, the critique is taken up and becomes a commonplace of a new ideal of life, in which sober and disciplined production was given the central place, and the search for honour condemned as fractious and undisciplined self-indulgence, gratuitously endangering the really valuable things in life. A new model of civility emerges in the eighteenth century, in which the life of commerce and acquisition gains an unprecedentedly positive place.... To see this aright, we have to return to a theological point of origin...in Judaeo-Christian spirituality, and the particular impetus it receives in the modern era comes first of all from the Reformation...rejection of the sacred [as a separate sphere] and mediation. Together [these] led to an enhanced status for (what had formerly been described as) profane life.... What is important for my purpose is this positive side, the affirmation that the fulness of Christian existence was to be found within the activities of this life, in one’s calling and in marriage and the family. The entire modern development of the affirmation of ordinary life was, I believe, foreshadowed and initiated, in all its facets, in the spirituality of the Reformers.... [But] once this potentiality was realized, it took on a life of its own.”
(Taylor, pp.214-21)

“The Puritan theology of work and ordinary life provided a hospitable environment for the scientific revolution. Indeed, much of Bacon’s outlook stems from a Puritan background...[and] there was a profound analogy in the way that proponents of both Baconian science and Puritan theology saw themselves in relation to experience and tradition.... [Furthermore,] the shift in the goal of science from contemplation to productive efficacy was based on a biblical understanding of humans as stewards in God’s creation.... Science and circumspect, productive use are intrinsically connected...[because] our aim must be to use things the way God intended, and this has to be (re)discovered in our fallen condition.... This means...the tremendous importance of the instrumental stance in modern culture is overdetermined. It represents the convergence of more than one stream. It is supported not just by the new science, and not just by the dignity attached to disengaged, rational control; it has also been central to the ethic of ordinary life from its theological origins on.... [And] making the instrumental stance central could not but transform the understanding of the cosmos from an order of signs or Forms, whose unity lies in their relation to a meaningful whole, into an order of things producing reciprocal effects in each other, whose unity in God’s plan must be that of interlocking purposes. This is in fact what we see emerging in the eighteenth century.”
(Taylor, pp.231-3)

In addition, as Taylor argues, this shift over time marginalizes the place of mystery and grace in religion, as it had already erased the divide between sacred and profane, and marginalized ritual. Furthermore, it also seemingly encourages a totally human-centred view of the good, in which the role of God eventually dwindles...as in eighteenth century Deism, where we gratitude, love and resignation define our right relationship to the Creator, to the exclusion of anything more elevated.


“With the affirmation of ordinary life, agape is integrated in a new way into an ethic of everyday existence. My work in my calling ought to be for the general good. This insistence on practical help, on doing good for people, is carried on in the various semi-secularized successor ethics, eg., with Bacon and Locke. The principle virtue in our dealing with others is now no longer just justice and temperance, but beneficence, [and] with the internalization of ethical thought, where inclinations are crucial, the motive of benevolence becomes the key to goodness.... [Furthermore,] there is a massive change in our understanding of the constitutive good. The providential design of nature, as against the hierarchical order of reason, now takes central place [and our] different notions of moral sources are relative to this: whether these lie in reason alone, or also in our feelings. Which we choose will depend on which we think gives us access to the design...and if we follow Hutcheson...it is through our sentiments that we can really come to endorse and rejoice in the design of things.... [So] sentiment is now important, because it is in a certain way the touchstone of the morally good. Not because feeling that something is good makes it so, as the projective interpretation holds; but rather because undistorted, normal feeling is my way of access into the design of things, which is the real constitutive good, determining good and bad.... Nature as norm is an inner tendency; it is ready to become the voice within, which Rousseau will make it, and to be transposed by the Romantics into a richer and deeper inwardness.”
(Taylor, pp.258-84)

Here, for the first time, we start to meet all the key aspects of our modern sense of the self, and Taylor’s discussion of these is extremely incisive. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that he is that rare theist who is undismissive of non-theistic moral reasonings. This positions him ideally re such a history, in that he can encompass the earlier modes of argumentation properly - feeling their adequacy from within, as it were - and yet make the necessary moves in relation to more modern positions without feeling the need always to be evangelizing. This is a much rarer thing than is commonly noted for, of course, when it comes to such issues, the divide between believer and nonbeliever is maintained by the incomprehension of both sides.


“I think we can, without too much oversimplification, range the [alternative moral sources which began to emerge in the eighteenth century] under two heads or, one might better say, two ‘frontiers’ of moral exploration. The first lies within the agent’s own powers, those of rational order and control initially, but later...it will be also a question of powers of expression and articulation. The second lies in the depths of nature, in the order of things, but also as it is reflected within, in what wells up from my own nature, desires, sentiments, affinities. We’ve traced these frontiers far enough to see how they could emerge as alternatives. Learning to be the disengaged subject of [our own] rational control...is accompanied, even powered by, a sense of our dignity as rational agents. We saw how with Descartes and Locke, and [with]...a new emphasis in Kant, this dignity becomes itself a moral source. In all these writers, this dignity is placed in a theistic perspective.... But insofar as the sources now lie within us, more particularly, within certain powers we possess, the basis is there for an independent, ie., non-theistic morality. Similarly, we have seen the notion of providential order develop towards the picture of nature as a vast network of interlocking beings, which works towards the conservation of each of its parts, where this age-old principle is now understood as conducing to the life and happiness of the sentient creatures which it contains. It is not only this order which marks ordinary fulfilments as significant. We have access to this fact not only through reason, but through our feelings as well. We are aware of this significance through our inner nature. In that the good to which nature conduces is now a purely natural, self-contained good, and in that the proximate moral source is now a self-subsistent order of interlocking beings, to whose principles we have access within ourselves, the stage is set for another independent ethic, in which nature itself will become the prime moral source, without its Author. In each case, the stimulus existed within Christian culture itself to generate these views which stand on the threshold. Augustinian inwardness stands behind the Cartesian turn, and the mechanistic universe was originally a demand of theology. The disengaged subject stands in a place already hollowed out for God; he takes a stance to the world which befits an image of the deity. [And] the belief in interlocking nature follows the affirmation of ordinary life, a central Judaeo-Christian idea, and extends the centrally Christian notion that God’s goodness consists of his stooping to seek the benefit of humans.”
(Taylor, pp.314-15)

“What arises in each case is a conception which stands ready for a mutation, which will carry it outside Christian faith altogether. But being ready isn’t sufficient.... The mutation became necessary when and to the extent that it seemed to people that these moral sources could only be properly acknowledged, could only thus fully empower us, in their non-theistic form. The dignity of free, rational control came to seem genuine only free of submission to God; the goodness of nature and/or our unreserved immersion in it, seemed to require its independence, and a negation of any divine vocation.... Modern moral culture is one of multiple sources; it can be schematized as a space in which one can move in three directions. There are the two independent frontiers, and the original theistic foundation. The fact that the directions are multiple contributes to our sense of uncertainty. This is part of the reason why almost everyone is tentative today.... We might say that all positions are problematized by the fact that they exist in a field of alternatives. But whereas faith is questioned as to its truth, dignity and nature are also called into question in respect of their adequacy if true. The nagging question for modern theism is simply Is there really a God? The threat at the margins of modern non-theistic humanism is: So what? This is what turns these sources into frontiers of exploration. The challenge of inadequacy calls forth continually renewed attempts [at redefinition]...but the relations between these three sources are even more complicated than I have yet suggested. [For] since the two independent modern frontiers grow out of mutations in forms of Christian spirituality, they go on being counterposed to theistic variants.... That is what the image of three dimensional space was meant to capture...[since] the three dimensions can be seen as rivals, but also as complementary...and this comes out in the mutual influence and interchange between them.”
(Taylor, pp.315-18)

“It may be that things would be wonderfully harmonious in the perfectly engineered society, but why should I work for its distant realization today, even at the cost of my life and well-being? Perhaps humans are generally moved by sympathy, but what if right now, relative to these adversaries, I am not? The underlying claim on which [utilitarian] arguments confusedly rely is that they have somehow shown the moral superiority of what they describe. The harmonious society is not only nicer for those lucky enough to inhabit it (if ever there are such); it is an ideal, something higher which commands the allegiance of all of us. It is an object of strong evaluation....[and] the moral argument relies on the stronger claim. But the metaphysical or ‘scientific’ argument only established the weaker, de facto one and, indeed, trumpets the inability of reason to establish anything stronger. Here resides the confusion and tension.... [So,] how can utilitarians have access to their moral sources? What are the words of power they can pronounce? Plainly, these are the passages in which the goods are invoked without being recognized...[and] mainly consist of polemical passages in which error, superstition, fraud, and religion are denounced. This becomes a recognizable feature of the whole class of modern positions which descends from the radical Enlightenment. Because their moral sources are unavowable, they are mainly evoked in polemic. Their principal words of power are denunciatory. Much of what they live by has to be inferred from the rage with which their enemies are attacked and refuted. Marxism is an excellent case in point.”
(Taylor, pp.336-9)

Whilst I am most unlikely to be persuaded to theism, any honest non-theist would have to admit the force of Taylor’s critiques here: “our” moralities have a much greater difficulty in establishing their force than we like to admit, much of the argumentation surrounding them is specious, and scientistic claims relating to morality basically change the subject rather than coming to grips with the real issues. However, Taylor is hardly aiming to demolish secular morality here...merely attempting to make us confront the very real problems w/theories such as utilitarianism, and work towards a richer and more viable framework for our moral intuitions. For the old orders are no longer alive for us, and therefore we need to rely more on both subjectivity and the various means we use to transcend that, in our labours in this area...


“In this relation, nature or the world surrounding us can no longer be seen as the embodiment of that order in relation to which we define what constitutes us as rational beings. This is the kind of relation to which Plato gives paradigm expression...[and] continues powerful throughout the whole premodern period, in a host of forms.... But in the feeling for nature which we see emerging in the eighteenth century and since, this is fundamentally broken, and then forgotten. A quite different sense of human identity is operative here [for the] nature that can move us and awaken our feelings is no longer tied to us by a notion of substantive reason. It is no longer seen as the order which defines our rationality. Rather, we are defined by purposes and capabilities which we discover within ourselves. What nature can now do is awaken these: it can awaken us to feeling against the too pressing regulative control of an analytic, disengaging, order-imposing reason, now understood as a subjective, procedural power. In other words, this modern feeling for nature, which starts in the eighteenth century, presupposes the triumph of the new identity of disengaged reason...[and] our own nature is no longer defined by a substantive rational ordering of purposes, but by our own inner impulses, and our place in the interlocking whole. This is why our sentiments can have a value which earlier philosophy couldn’t allow them. And the primacy of disengaging reason can explain why it could seem important to emphasize this value: precisely in order to rescue our sentiments from ethical marginalization.”
(Taylor, pp.300-1)

“There is...a clear distinction between writers such as Schelling, Novalis, Baudelaire, on the one hand, and the great thinkers of Renaissance neo-Platonism and magical thought, like Bruno, on the other, despite all the debt.... Bruno and Paracelsus, for instance, though they may have thought of their knowledge as esoteric, saw themselves as grasping the unmediated spiritual order of things. It may take secret and not widely available lore to uncover it, but it doesn’t have to be revealed through an articulation of what is in us. It is in this sense a public order that is available, unmediated by our powers of creative articulation. It is this kind of public order, a tableau of the spiritual significance of things, which is no longer possible for us. [And] it is not only the rise of science and of disengaged reason which has taken it beyond reach. It is also our understanding of the role of the creative imagination. Moderns certainly can conceive of a spiritual order of correspondences: Baudelaire did, and Yeats did, and millions have read them and been moved by their poetry. But what we cannot conceive is such an order which we wouldn’t have to accede to through an epiphany wrought by the creative imagination; which would be somehow available unrefracted through the medium of someone’s creative imagination. But an order which can only be attained thus refracted is a fundamentally different thing.... It made sense to raise issues about what plants or animals really bore the signature of the planet Saturn [and] if Bruno and Paracelsus disagreed, at least one of them had to be wrong. But with the orders refracted in the imagination, these questions have no place....Whatever is true of our scientific theories, the visions of our poets have to be understood in a post-Kantean fashion. They give us reality in a medium which can’t be separated from them. That is the nature of epiphany. This is not to say we can’t discriminate. Plainly we think some deeper, more revealing, truer than others. Just what these judgements are based on is very hard to say. But it plainly isn’t correspondence to a reality unmediated by exactly the forms which are at issue. The moral or spiritual order of things must come to us indexed to a personal vision...[which] means that a certain subjectivism is inseparable from modern epiphanies. We can try to take our distance from the Romantic...but what we can’t escape is the mediation through the imagination.”
(Taylor, pp.427-8)

“Objectification of time has...changed our notion of the subject: the disengaged, particular self, whose identity is constituted in memory. Like any other human being, at any time, he can only find an identity in self-narration. Life has to be lived as a story.... But now, it becomes harder to take over the story ready-made from the canonical models and archetypes. The story has to be drawn from the particular events and circumstances of this life; and this in two interwoven senses. First, as a chain of happenings in world time, the life at any moment is the causal consequence of what has transpired earlier. But second, since the life to be lived also has to be told, its meaning is seen as something that unfolds through the events [and] these two perspectives are not easy to combine.... For the first seems to make the shape of a life simply the result of the happenings as they accumulate; whereas the second seems to see this shape as something already latent.... This mode of life-narration, where the story is drawn from the events in this double sense, as against traditional models, archetypes, or prefigurations, is the quintessentially modern one, that which fits the disengaged, particular self.”
(Taylor, pp.288-9)

Ihave spent so much time on this book - the longest review by far in this series - because I am sure that it not only offers the richest and most realistic approach to the complexities of  morality and selfhood that I have encountered, but also because it raises crucial questions throughout, in a whole variety of areas, which make very real sense within the pluralist framework I have been sketching for a revitalized Humanities. For Taylor is more than just a critic of scientism and historian of ideas, he is that very rare thing...a genuine philosopher of what I have called the “great bastard traditions” (a term of art, if you will), to rank with Mikhail Bakhtin and Eric Havelock, in clarifying our thinking about those areas which are most difficult to get our heads around, without losing the plot. Such figures are all too rare...


“What emerges from the picture of of the modern identity as it develops over time is not only the central place of constitutive goods in moral life....but also the diversity of goods for which a valid claim can be made. The goods may be in conflict, but for all that they don’t refute each other.... Close and patient articulation of the goods which underpin different spiritual families in our time tends, I believe, to make their claims more palpable. The trouble with most of the views that I consider inadequate, and that I want to define mine in contrast to here, is that their sympathies are too narrow. They find their way through the dilemmas of modernity by invalidating some of the crucial goods in contest. This is aggravated by the bad meta-ethic I discussed [earlier], which wants to do without the good altogether, and hence makes this kind of selective denial easier. Worse, by putting forward a procedural conception of the right, whereby what we ought to do can be generated by some canonical procedure, it accredits the idea that what leads to a wrong answer must be a false principle.... What it loses from sight is that there may be genuine dilemmas here, that following one good to the end may be catastrophic, not because it isn’t a good, but because there are others which can’t be sacrificed without evil. Moreover, now that I’m allowing myself the license of bald statement, I want to make an even stronger claim. Not only are these one-sided views invalid, but many of them are not and cannot be fully, seriously, and unambivalently held by those who propound them. I cannot claim to have proved this, but what I hope emerges from this lengthy account of the growth of modern identity is how all-pervasive it is, how much it envelops us, and how deeply we are implicated in it: in a sense of self defined by the powers of disengaged reason as well as of the creative imagination, in the characteristically modern understandings of freedom and dignity and rights, in the ideals of self-fulfilment and expression, and in the demands of universal benevolence and justice. This should perhaps be a banal truism, but it isn’t.”
(Taylor, pp.502-3)

“Narrow proponents of disengaged reason point to the irrational and anti-scientific facets of Romanticism and dismiss it out of hand, blithely unaware of how much they draw on a post-Romantic interpretation of life, as they seek ‘fulfilment’ and ‘expression’ in their emotional and cultural lives. On the other hand, those who condemn the fruits of disengaged reason in technological society or political atomism...conveniently occlude the complex connections...between disengagement and self-responsible freedom and individual rights, or those between instrumental reason and the affirmation of ordinary life. Those who  flaunt the most radical denials and repudiations of selective facets of the modern identity generally go on living by variants of what they deny. There is a large component of delusion in their outlook. Thus, to take other examples, defenders of the most antiseptic procedural ethic are unavowedly inspired by visions of the good, and neo-Nietzscheans make semi-surreptitious appeal to a universal freedom from domination.... I think it is important to make this point, because these various repudiations and denials are not just intellectual errors. They are modes of self-stultification.... [Moreover,] although they are narrow in different ways, and they dismiss different goods, one class seems to be the especially unlucky target of all of them, and that is what I called the exploration of order through personal resonance. It falls through all the grids.... This is a major gap. It is not just the epiphanic art of the last two centuries which fails to get its due by this dismissal. We are now in an age when a publicly accessible cosmic order of meanings is an impossibility, [so] the only way we can explore the order in which we are set with an aim to defining moral sources is through this part of personal resonance.... [And] we delude ourselves if we think that philosophical or critical language for these matters is somehow more hard-edged and more free from personal index than that of poets or novelists. The subject doesn’t permit language which escapes personal resonance.... [But] it is not that the basic moral standards of modernity, concerning rights, justice, benevolence, depend on this exploration; they depend rather on goods to which we don’t have access through personal sensibility. But there are other important issues of life  which we can only resolve through this kind of insight; for instance, why it matters and what it means to have a more deeply resonant human environment and, even more, to have affiliations with some depth in time and commitment. These are questions which we can only clarify by exploring the human predicament, the way we are set in nature and among others, as a locus of moral sources. As our public traditions of family, ecology, even polis are undermined or swept away, we need new languages of personal resonance to make crucial human goods alive for us again.”
(Taylor, pp.503-13)

Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self is a tour de force of historical and philosophical reasoning, offering us the (currently) neglected counterpart re our ideals and self-understandings to the materialist histories which dominate today, and - in another way - also the key humanist companion volume to Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis, which explored some of the same terrain. However, said terrain is so complex, and our understandings of it so deeply embedded in our unquestioned assumptions, that both perspectives are undoubtedly needed...although, if one was to be accorded priority, it should be Taylor’s. This is because the religious metaphysics/moralities he so lucidly explores in his historical account predate their more modern descendants, and yet to properly understand the latter we genuinely need to fully grasp their theistic roots, and their deeply interconnected history.

And Taylor is right about the illusions fostered by our ‘radical’ critiques - from both scientistic and postmodern sides - which unwittingly stand upon the branches they are so busily chopping off. Our worlds are much more complex than they can afford to acknowledge, and our selves are composed of such an alloy of epistemological and moral stances that simplistic critiques invariably miss the point...no matter how obscure the language they are protectively cast in. Taylor, in treating their concerns within a much broader frame, and in clear language, makes this point so well that we simply have no excuse for obfuscating on these issues any further - even if most will undoubtedly be too wedded to their prejudices to admit it.

That perhaps the best philosophical critic of the excesses of scientism should also prove to be a marvellous historian of ideas and an insightful historian of modern aesthetics to boot may be hardly fair on the rest of us, in our more "aspirational" moments. But books like this do save us all the trouble of being polymaths ourselves, and so we ought to be grateful for them. I certainly am...


“There is no doubt lots of pride and illusion in our self-image. But it is still true that the civilization which grew out of western Europe in modern times (certain aspects of which now extend well beyond Europe) has given an exceptional value to equality, rights, freedom, and the relief of suffering. We have somehow saddled ourselves with very high demands of universal justice and benevolence. Public opinion, concentrating on some popular or fashionable ‘causes’ and neglecting other equally crying needs and injustices, may apply these standards very selectively. Those defending the unconscionable always try to point this out, as though the existence of other blackguards somehow excuses them.... [But] the premiss of all this special pleading is that our commitment really is to universal justice and well-being.... Nor does the recognition of this commitment have to involve the chauvinism we frequently see in doctrines of historical exceptionalism. These have generally been insufferably ethnocentric in two respects: first, because they attributed to us a very high score on the standards which our civilization has made central; they breathed a serene self-satisfaction about how democratic or free or equal or universally benevolent we are. And second, because they couldn’t recognize that there could be other goods which other civilizations had more fully recognized and more intensely sought than we have. One can correct for both these errors, however, and still recognize that the civilization that grew out of western Europe has defined goods which others have not, and recognize as well that these if taken seriously make rather extreme demands. We can take a jaundiced or cynical view of these demands, look on them as a bit of hypocrisy which is built into our way of life, a posture of self-congratulation about which we’re not really serious. Or we can look on them in a Nietzschean way, as seriously enough meant, but in fact motivated by envy and self-hatred. Or we can, while approving them, neutralize them as a distant ideal, an idea of reason never to be integrally realized in this world. Some degree of this latter is probably necessary to keep our balance.... [But] there is no established procedure which can meet the demand for universal concern.... [So,] what can enable us to transcend in this way the limits we normally observe to human moral action? These limits are obvious enough. They include our restricted sympathies, our understandable self-preoccupation, and the common human tendency to define one’s identity in opposition to some adversary or out group. I think this is one of the most important questions we have to ask ourselves today...[and] we must at least assume that there is some answer, if we are to take the demands seriously.”
(Taylor, pp.397-8)


John Henry Calvinist