book cover image Sources of the Self
book cover image Sources of the Self

"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Charles Taylor, "Sources of Self", Ruth Abbey, "Charles Taylor"

Jul 1, 2002

The Western sense of self has been under attack for some years now, especially in academe. Post-modernism, multi-culturalism, and an endless litany of tweedy "isms" have been insisting that we've got it all wrong over here. And then on September 11, the attack on the West became bloody, brutal, and frighteningly close to home. Immediately pundits and professors began telling us why "they" hate us. The chorus continues.

There may be some value in this. No doubt we in the West have been guilty of cultural narcissism, and because of the unprecedented power of the United States, American narcissism looms larger than the spontaneous narcissism of every other culture of the world. Perhaps the shock of thousands crushed to death and the radiating wave of shattered lives will give the thoughtful among us a new look at ourselves from the point of view of those who, though they may not hate us, do not like us very much.

This is all worth something, but it's not worth everything. It's not worth losing that sense of the importance of the individual self that defines who we are in the West, what our values are. How we have arrived at those values through centuries of struggle -- of advance and retreat, of hubris and doubt -- has never, in my mind, been more cogently described than in Charles Taylor's magisterial Sources of the Self. In that book Taylor sweeps Western ethical history to reveal a succession of moral visions and ideals -- from the battle fury of the Homeric warrior through the religious introspection of Augustine, to the modern dream of universal justice for all.

But more important to the individual soul in search of a philosophy of life, Taylor precedes his broad historical narrative with a richly satisfying description of morality in terms that are eminently human: morality the way it is actually lived, not just a series of arguments about how we should behave. In Taylor's view, morality is also about what sort of people we want to be, about living by visions of the good that involve one's sense of dignity and self-respect. These visions are not those universal visions that philosophers strive to formulate and impose on us. Rather, we acquire these visions as we grow up in our own particular culture, discover them in the groups we join, define them for ourselves -- or all of the above.

And just as the Western world struggled through a long history of successive moral visions, particular individuals discover themselves to be committed to successive visions, struggling into a new set of moral ideals when the old ones begin to betray their inadequacies -- never quite sure that the visions left behind are inferior to those recently embraced. Nor are they sure that they completely understand the visions and ideals they live by at any particular moment. We find ourselves morally challenged by many visions of the good, and in choosing to follow our own particular visions, we are not so much choosing good over evil as we are choosing good among an abundance of goods.

This is not moral relativism. Relativism, Taylor points out, is a delusion in the actual living of moral life, since we all make our moral choices with the sense that we are more right than wrong -- a sense that we are not willing to call purely subjective, a mere projection. No, we embrace what is right as objectively right, while not absolutely right. The objective good is not the absolute good because we remain open to the discovery of new visions and of the limitations on our current vision. We are like Malcolm X, convinced throughout most of his life of the truth preached by the Nation of Islam, but open to the overwhelming discovery of the truths of ancient Islam upon his trip to Mecca.

One of the most striking and valuable features of Taylor's moral thought is the emphasis he places on the value of articulating the moral visions that direct one's life. We may live by a tacitly accepted value system -- never even feeling the need to say what that system is. But if we engage in the struggle to define for ourselves and for others the values we live by, we deepen our understanding of those moral values by laying bare their foundations. We also heighten our awareness of the complexity of moral life. Articulating our sense of right and wrong makes rational argument possible -- something almost beyond the grasp of one's students (for those of us who teach at universities), not to mention the world at large, which would rather impose values with guns and votes than reflect on and debate the sources of those values.

The effort to articulate the values we live by can also reveal the force of hidden motivations and strengthen our commitments to the visions we can perceive. Perhaps most of all, the effort to articulate our visions opens up the possibility of discovering distortions in our moral outlook, distortions that will require us to reshape our vision or search for a new one.

The catalogue of advantages to articulating our moral vision in the paragraph above comes not directly from Taylor but from Ruth Abbey's Charles Taylor (Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 41-47). She has nicely gathered and summarized his thought under four categories:

  • Explaining Morality
  • Interpreting Selfhood
  • Theorizing Politics
  • Understanding Knowledge.

Abbey's treatment of Taylor is coherent and incisive. She includes a bibliography of Taylor's writings. Her book is an excellent introduction for those who have not read Taylor and a fine retrospective for those who have been following his thought over the years. Taylor's approach to philosophy is scholarly and humane. It is immensely thought-provoking. He revives one's faith in philosophy. And Ruth Abbey helps us to see him whole.

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