Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. By Charles Taylor. Harvard University Press, 601 pp, $37.50.

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There seems to be a connection, historical and perhaps even logical, between metaphysics and morality; that is, between views about the nature of being or knowledge and views about justice and the good. A vague sense (which is surely all that most of us have) of this connection is one thing, however; an original, rigorous, and comprehensive historical account is something else again—an immense achievement. Yet this is only one feature of Charles Taylor’s monumental book, “Sources of the Self” bears out, to some extent at least, a seemingly extravagant compliment proffered by Richard Rorty in reviewing Taylor’s “Collected Papers” (1985): “He is attempting nothing less than a synthesis of moral reflection with intellectual history, one which will do for our time what Hegel did for his.” Here is Taylor’s own statement of his aims:

“[T]o write and articulate a history of the modern identity. . . to designate the ensemble of (largely unarticulated) understandings of what it is to be a human agent: the senses of inwardness, freedom, individuality, and being embedded in nature which are at home in the modern West . . . to show how the ideals and interdicts of this identity—what it casts in relief and what it casts in shadow—shape our philosophical thought, our epistemology and our philosophy of language, largely without our awareness.”

Not quite so grand as Hegel’s, perhaps, but ambitious enough.

What is the “modern identity”? Whatever else may characterize it, at least three elements do. First, inwardness, or the understanding of our selfhood not as externally defined, by the privileges and duties of our station or our relation to the overall order of being, but as something attained through turning inward, taking a reflexive stance, exploring our inner structures, resources, or depths. Second, the belief that ordinary life—work, friendship, marriage and the family—is our proper sphere and an adequate source of meaning and fulfillment rather than the ignoble lot of those not up to the ascetic, contemplative, or military virtues of saint, sage, and warrior-aristocrat. Third, expressivism, or recourse to nature and the feelings it evokes in us as a spiritual and moral counterweight to analytic, instrumental reason.

Taylor narrates the history of philosophy (in some cases also of theology, literary theory, and modern literature) in relation to the gradual emergence of each of these elements. For example: according to Plato, correct perception of the cosmic order makes possible self-knowledge and control of the passions; reason is the source of morality and happiness. Augustine modifies Plato’s conception: rather than employing dialectic to arrive at the Idea of the Good, the soul reflects on its activities and powers and recognizes God as their source. Descartes turns inward, looking not for God but for intellectual certainty and moral dignity. In Descartes’s successors, especially Locke and Kant, this reflexivity or inward turn is further radicalized and secularized. By the end of Taylor’s account, what had seemed merely a sequence of philosophical positions now appears as a vast drama whose upshot is us.

Another example: the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism meant an increased sense of individual autonomy and dignity, of what Taylor calls “self responsible freedom.” But at the same time, the decline of belief in Divine Providence and the new scientific view of nature as inert matter, a mechanism subject to rigid laws, threatened the loss of perennial spiritual and moral resources. According to Taylor, Kant’s concept of morality as an aspect of human rational agency, a “secularized variant of agape implicit in reason itself,” and the Romantic “notion of an inner voice or impulse, the idea that we find the truth within us, and in particular in our feelings,” were both responses to this threatened loss, attempts to supply the defects of the culture’s newly forming identity. In Taylor’s tale of Western intellectual history as the evolution of an identity, in his ability to bring the most diverse cultural developments into his story line, there really is something reminiscent of Hegel. And fortunately, unlike Hegel, he writes lucid prose.

The scope, complexity, and ingenuity of Taylor’s arguments make them difficult to summarize except in drastically compressed form (like the last two paragraphs). Detailed discussions of ancient and seventeenth-century philosophy, Renaissance Neo-Platonism, Reformation spirituality, Montaigne, Kant, Deism, the Enlightenment, the German Romantics, Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Pound, among other topics and writers, are carefully woven into the narrative tapestry. And Taylor fully acknowledges that the history of ideas cannot by itself explain the large shifts in outlook he is tracking; several brief but sensible observations about historical causation dispel any misgivings on this score.

More fruitful than further summary of Taylor’s historical epic might be a look at some of his philosophical premises and moral judgments. “Sources of the Self” is a work of scrupulous but not at all detached scholarship; it is intensely purposeful. Like virtually everyone else nowadays, Taylor is worried about modernity. The core of the modern identity, the essence of modernity, is scientific rationality. The application (in Taylor’s view, the misapplication) of the axioms and methods of the natural sciences to epistemology, ethics, psychology and the social sciences—a tendency he calls “naturalism” and plausibly claims is standard procedure in those fields—has, he believes, obstructed our access to our traditions and depleted our moral resources.

A common enough theme, to which Taylor brings uncommon philosophical skills. His earlier writings, particularly “Hegel” (1975) showed him in command of both the Anglo-American and Continental traditions—among academic philosophers, Taylor is considered a “bridge” figure. In the two volumes of “Collected Papers” and the first hundred pages of “Sources of the Self” he draws on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein to construct a critique of and alternative to naturalism.

What is, or is supposed to be, the “scientific” attitude toward morality? Most fundamentally, perhaps, that values are not “real,” that judgments about good and bad are not “objective”; they are preferences, which can be explained or interpreted, adjusted if one was mistaken about relevant facts or modified in response to new feelings and experiences, but not justified, not proved true or false. From this follows a conception of moral philosophy as neutral and procedural: its purpose is not to expound the nature of the Good or of virtue but to work out social and interpersonal rules, institutions, decision-procedures that will seem fair and just to most people, whatever their values or their vision of the good life. Both utilitarianism and rights-based liberalism, probably the most common varieties of political philosophy in the English-speaking world, presuppose this value neutrality.

In the social sciences, naturalism prescribes striving for intersubjective validity. Data that only the subject can testify to, that can’t be recorded by and read off some instrument, and theories that require informal, unspecifiable qualities of imagination or judgment to apply—these don’t count.

Taylor objects that naturalism’s methodological restrictions have impoverished philosophy and social theory, and thereby public life. Neutralism about values inevitably slides over into subjectivism, the glib dismissal of all values as “fictitious,” or relativism, the equally mindless acceptance of all values as equally valid and beyond rational adjudication. Individualism slides into atomism, the denial that some common good, over and above the goals of individuals or aggregates, may rightly command a person’s loyalty, even obedience.

On the contrary, Taylor argues, moral theory can’t be neutral, because a person’s identity cannot be specified without reference to her or his commitments, stance, values. The proof of this gets a little technical, but is roughly: we are what we say about ourselves to our language community, what we answer to the question, “Who am I?” This always involves saying what we most deeply care about or aspire to. What matters most to us is what matters most about us.

Politically, too, the individual is constituted in and through a community. The rights and desires of liberal and utilitarian theory are only intelligible, can only be exercised, in communities of a certain sort. Since the survival and flourishing of such communities is a precondition of our fulfilling, or even having, those rights and desires, a commitment to the former takes precedence over asserting the latter.

Once again, I’ve offered a highly compressed rendering of an enormously complex argument. At this point, however, instead of adding qualifications, I’d like to simplify—to get down and dirty. Something about Taylor’s tremendously impressive effort rubs me the wrong way. It’s not Taylor himself; his is a dignified but friendly, on the whole quite likable, authorial voice. And while others may find fault with his treatment of Platonism, Puritanism, Romanticism, or modernism, I cannot. Perhaps it’s just impossible not to resent a forceful challenge to some of one’s most cherished beliefs. Taylor manages to shake my faith without quite converting me—yes, I admit it: I’m a naturalist.

Not, of course, a fundamentalist or even an orthodox one. I don’t believe that science can, or ever will, explain all human behavior, or that all values are illusory. I’m comfortable with entities and explanations above the molecular level. I’m not, that is, a flaming positivist or a roaring reductionist. But I do think that where a naturalistic (neurochemical, sociobiological, psychoanalytic, economic) explanation for someone’s belief or behavior seems adequate, it may well be adequate; and that while “community” is an indispensable political metaphor (and communitarianism has something going for it), it is, in the end, only a metaphor. For a pragmatic naturalist. Usually, in fact, I just say “pragmatist,” but Taylor’s harsh strictures elicited a stubborn residual allegiance to the old, outworn creed.

For one thing, there is his too-sweeping disparagement of naturalistic social science. Not that I have much use for present-day quantitative academic social science: on the contrary. Still, I feel Taylor ought, just by virtue of being so astute and influential a critic, to disavow the sentimental tosh frequently talked about the uniqueness and ineffability of human beings and the preposterousness, even perversity, of behaviorism. Behaviorism works, after all: in prisons, police states, marketing strategies, and electoral campaigns, just to name some of the main institutions and modes of social control in modern societies. True, it could not work in “Walden Two”, because there Skinner proposed a subtler, nobler goal than eliciting or suppressing discrete, overt behaviors over a limited span. But if this latter aim is all you want a “science of behavior” for, then a perfectly adequate one is available to you, notwithstanding the ineffable depth and complexity of human beings when they are treated like human beings. As always, what counts as truth depends on our purposes.

This is a quibble, however, compared with the issues raised by Taylor’s moral critique. One of Taylor’s central claims in “Sources of the Self”—it is almost a leitmotif—is that a naturalistic ethic like utilitarianism or Marxism is “confused” and “deeply incoherent” (the deadliest of philosophical epithets) in this crucial respect: all such theories presuppose in practice some moral value or ideal, like universal and impartial benevolence in the case of the philosophes and Benthamites, social justice in the case of Marxists, or simply, in the most general case, to reduce suffering, while in principle denying that any such value is other than an arbitrary, subjective preference. Pressed repeatedly and persuasively, this claim made me first uncomfortable, then defiant. For suppose it is true? It may be that my moral heroes, Godwin and Bentham. Mill and Marx, Morris, Luxemburg, Orwell, and Russell, would have been somehow better off for having a proper metaphysical foundation for their aspirations. On the other hand, maybe the fact that they scraped along pretty well without one means that the question “Why care about others?” and the larger question “Why act rightly?”, which Taylor thinks can only be answered definitively by invoking some “constitutive good.” can’t be answered definitively at all, and needn’t be.

Taylor is continually saying things like:

“To see the standard Enlightenment view as one- dimensional is to see no place in it for what makes life significant. Human life seems a matter merely of desire-fulfillment, but the very basis for strong evaluation, for there being desires or goals which are intrinsically worth fulfilling, seems missing.”

It’s clear that Taylor the man and citizen admires the ultranaturalist philosophes, by and large, and considers their lives not just significant but exemplary. But for Taylor the philosopher, some “transcendental conditions” are apparently required to make a life “significant”; likewise to make desires and goals “intrinsically” worth fulfilling. It’s not that the philosophes didn’t have the right sort of desires and goals, just that they lacked an adequate “moral ontology,” hence access to the “moral sources” and “constitutive goods” that would have allowed them to articulate the significance of their lives. They denied (or ought, on their own principles, to have denied) the reality of the virtues they practiced and the values they lived for.

Well, maybe so, but this contradiction doesn’t seem to have slowed them down much. Taylor suggests this is because the philosophes, and altruistic unbelievers ever since, have drawn spiritual sustenance from religious traditions, still potent in the eighteenth century though dwindling in influence today. But, he warns, this can’t go on forever. No culture can permanently endure so basic a tension between its morality and its metaphysics (or antimetaphysics). “High standards need strong sources,” he writes in the final pages of “Sources of the Self.”

“The question which arises from all this is whether or not we are living beyond our moral means in continuing allegiance to our standards of justice and benevolence. Do we have ways of seeing-good which are still credible to us, which are powerful enough to sustain these standards? If not, it would be both more honest and more prudent to moderate them. . . . Is the naturalist seeing-good, which turns on the rejection of the calumny of religion against nature, fundamentally parasitic? This it might be in two senses: not only that it derives its affirmation through rejecting an alleged negation, but also that the original model for its universal benevolence is agape. How well could it survive the demise of the religion it Strives to abolish? With the “calumny” gone, could the affirmation continue?”

Perseverance in virtue will sometimes require self-sacrifice. And self-sacrifice seems to require some transcendental justification or motivation, of which the most common, and perhaps the most logical, is belief in the existence of God. Or so Taylor argues, circumspectly. Since modern freedom entails the rejection of transcendence, modern virtue is wholly contingent. Can we be good for long without God? Taylor’s doubts are daunting.

And there is the quick of my discomfort: the suspicion, powerfully and plausibly albeit tactfully and tentatively expressed, that the ideals I most prize are at bottom inadequate. I confess I see no alternative to living with this suspicion, perhaps permanently.

But if it’s not clear what, in the long run, best sustains commitments to justice and compassion, it’s less difficult to see what, in the short run, precludes them (and most other fine and fruitful qualities as well): deprivation, insecurity, ideological manipulation. Is it too light-minded to suggest that even if altruism gives out, curiosity—the keenest of appetites, after all—might continue to motivate efforts to eliminate these evils? Just to see what humankind turns out to be like: just to see who was right. Taylor or Nietzsche or Condorcet?


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George Scialabba