I read this very popular, yet scholarly, and extolled book when it first was published, and found it elegant, helpful, and problematic. The title is the subject of the book: What sources have gone into making of modern identity? Obviously philosophy and theology are the dominant contributors, with psychology pulling up the rear (which is as it should be, since the latter only came to be 150 years ago).
While I agree with Taylor that philosophy, more than either theology or psychology, actually informs our sense of self, particularly the modern self, I'm not sure psychologists would agree. In today's marketplace of ideas, it's psychology that crowds bookstore shelves with a panoply of "self-help" books. Conversely, while the sense of self is implicit in earlier philosophy, not many modern philosophers address the matter at all. Ergo, the need for this book.
Taylor weaves his theory through the prism of philosophical history and the evolutionary unfolding of how the sense of the modern self has come into being. It's a compelling, perhaps unattractive, pinnacle to which we have come. The "modern" sense of self begins with the works of Rene Descartes (i.e., the thinking being), which may or may not have improved on Boethius's medieval ontology (i.e., the rational animal). Still, the sense of "self" is far more complex than either a rational animal or a thinking being alone would suggest. Perhaps either thesis is the starting point, and obviously necessary, but it's certainly not sufficient, to capture what we mean by "self" today.
To Taylor's credit, he begins to add other necessary features, and the features he adds aren't uncontroversial. Yes, phenomenology is a part of the structure; so too is language a key feature to the identity of the modern self; but where are the well-spring of the emotions? This particularly salient feature of emotions barely registers on Taylor's radar. And it's this deficit, the failure to bring our emotional features to bear, that makes this work such an enormous disappointment.
For the other facets, dimensions, and features, Taylor elegantly, eruditely, and heuristically surveys philosophical history and culls most of its ideas. But how could the emotions (e.g., love, hate, joy, grief, etc.) not figure into Taylor's conception of the "modern self." Even if Taylor relies primarily on philosophical perspectives, the philosophy of emotions is not a nil set. David Hume devoted Part II of his seminal "Treatise on Human Nature" to the passions; numerous contemporary philosophers have addressed focused on the emotions in the years immediately preceding the publication of this book. And even if Taylor had been deprived of the philosophical accounts, he certainly could not have been deprived of psychological accounts. So, the minimalist attention to this most salient of features is jarring.
Why such a fuss about this omission? Robert Solomon, whose works both precede and follow Taylor's book, insists that it is the emotions that make life itself meaningful and valuable: Not independent of the other salient features, but intrinsically integrated with them. The "passions" are what give life zest and interest and dynamic. When's the last time that looking at language's performatives brought "joy" to one? What happens when the self ratiocinates that makes it meaningful to us? Of course, the "eureka" of discovery, the pride of accomplishment, the joy of understanding, the hope of implementation, the desire to act, etc., are what make ratiocination interesting and valuable. Cogitation qua cogitation is significant, no doubt, but we cogitate in order to understand, and understand to implement, and implement to enjoy. Thus, pleasure is integral to the cogitation, for without it, it's simply cold, calculating, and indifferent ratiocination. Per Solomon, the passions (i.e., emotions) are what give life meaning.
If Solomon's thesis about emotions giving the self meaning is true, and it is, how could something so obvious and necessary have been overlooked in this magisterial tome? This singular omission marrs this otherwise fascinating and comprehensive history and analysis of what it means to have a "self." It's as if Taylor started to analyze the pictures on the wall, but ignored the elephant in the middle of the room. The emotions are what give life meaning, and any examination of "the self" that omits them may have given us the container, but has also forgotten to fill it.
Happily, despite this serious omission, Taylor provides a probing and detailed exegesis of the development and structure of the modern self. As long as one supplements this massive tome with other reading (e.g., Solomon's "The Passions," "Love," "The Philosophy of Erotic Love," etc., or Martha Nussbaum's "The Therapy of Desire," "Upheavals of Thought," etc., or Ronald de Souza's "The Rationality of Emotions"), Taylor's work provides the outline and identity of the other salient features, but having given us the wall, but missed the nucleus, of the cell, the work lacks life.