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Sources of the Self [Paperback]

Charles Taylor
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

20 July 1992
'Most of us are still groping for answers about what makes life worth living, or what confers meaning on individual lives', writes Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self. 'This is an essentially modern predicament.' Charles Taylor's latest book sets out to define the modern identity by tracing its genesis, analysing the writings of such thinkers as Augustine, Descartes, Montaigne, Luther, and many others. This then serves as a starting point for a renewed understanding of modernity. Taylor argues that modern subjectivity has its roots in ideas of human good, and is in fact the result of our long efforts to define and attain the good. The modern turn inwards is far from being a disastrous rejection of rationality, as its critics contend, but has at its heart what Taylor calls the affirmation of ordinary life. He concludes that the modern identity, and its attendant rejection of an objective order of reason, is far richer in moral sources that its detractors allow. Sources of the Self provides a decisive defence of the modern order and a sharp rebuff to its critics.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (20 July 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674824261
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674824263
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16.1 x 3.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 22,223 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Self-understanding as a guide to moral thought 23 Dec 2006
Format:Paperback
Sources of the Self is a work of moral philosophy which reaches beyond practical considerations concerning right and wrong. Charles Taylor is here in search of a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a human being, holding that only such an understanding as this can give moral philosophy the grounding it needs to operate persuasively and coherently. Furthermore, Taylor argues that this self-understanding can only be grasped non-anthropocentrically, i.e. by our recognising - against the age - that moral philosophy is unavoidably theological.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first section, Taylor discusses contemporary Western moral thought. He highlights the emphasis it places on affirming the value of human life, and argues that this ideal can only be rendered intelligible and sustainable if philosophers cease to affirm reductivist accounts of the self and moral agency; e.g. naturalistic theories which cannot distinguish between goods that make life meaningful and goods which are merely instrumental to an immediate end. Taylor wants thinkers to recognise the ancient (often religious) moral sources implicitly referenced in their theories - sources which lie outside of the human subject and define its moral horizon more fully than possible for human beings alone.

This theme is explored further in the second and larger section of the book: A rich and expansive historical narrative on how Western moral thought has developed in relation to changing modes of self-understanding over the past two millennia.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard going but enlightening 18 Feb 2004
Format:Paperback
I bought this book not as an academic, but as someone interested in the more profound questions of life; this book however, is probably more aimed at the academic student as it assumes a knowledge of esoteric words and terms that may have you reaching for a dictionary whilst reading.
That aside, this is certainly a book that will give you some answers. The source material starts with the earliest thinkers whose works speak of the identity (whatever terms or reference points are used), such as St. Augustine. It moves at a rather slow but methodical pace through all the great thinkers, analysing their works and commenting throughout on the various schools of thought that have come about due to the influence of these people.
The arguments are sometimes hard to grasp, but there is an open-mindedness about Taylor's approach that makes the read very rewarding.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self 29 Mar 2010
By Robin Friedman TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written two extended studies of what many people describe as modernity. The more recent of these books, "A Secular Age" (2007) A Secular Age examines the ways in which modern life became increasingly secularized or "disenchanted". Taylor in that book offered a long historical and analytical discussion of how people had, over centuries, tended to move away from a religious, transcendental outlook on life. Taylor received the Templeton Prize for this impressive study.

Nearly 20 years earlier, Taylor wrote the book I am reviewing here, "Sources of the Self" (1989). This book is, if anything, more difficult to read than its successor. The book addresses the same complex of questions as does "The Secular Age", but from the other end. Rather than focusing on God and secularization, the book describes "the making of the modern identity" -- concepts of human selfhood and human personality that have helped made modern life what it is.

Both books show a great deal of erudition and take an approach both analytical and historical. As Taylor says, in order to know where we are, we have to know where we have been. In "The Secular Age", Taylor identifies himself at the outset as a practicing, believing Catholic. In the earlier book, he keeps his hand somewhat more hidden. His own commitments might even be missed under a casual reading of an extraordinarily dense book.

Although the book wanders and lacks strong focus, Taylor's primary interest lies in showing what gives meaning to life. In the opening Part of this five-part book, Taylor explores the relationship between views of personal identity and views of the good.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Sources of the Self 29 May 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I chose to appy this level of rating because of the excellent service and the condition of the book when unwrapped.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
131 of 137 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tapestry of philosophies with flashes of brilliance 2 July 2002
By Peter A. Kindle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Taylor took two years to write this book; it took me nearly as long to read it! It is a five-part tome of 525 pages of text and 71 pages of footnotes. In this entire collection I cannot remember a single section that could be read without my complete concentration. Quiet and solitude are minimal prerequisites before tackling this book - a good grasp of the history of philosophy wouldn't hurt either.
The sources to which Taylor refers are the moral ideals, ideas, and understandings that have dominated in various historical eras. Taylor's basic premise is rather simple, "we are only our selves insofar as we move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good (p. 34)." His purpose is not to specify the good, that is, he does not seek to set normative definitions or qualifications. His purpose is to show that self-definition requires a framework in which to be understood.
The historical course of his narrative begins with the classical perspective. In this view, self was dependent on a vision of the True or the Ideal. The hierarchical nature of reality presupposed in classical thought meant that self-definition was subservient to the whole. Traditional Christian thought embraced the classical perspective and the preference for self-definition by externals.
Obviously, this short sketch of classical thought seems to be absurdly irrelevant in our contemporary world. Self is definitely not defined in relation to externals, but by an extreme interiority, complete rejection of hierarchical schemes, and the assumption that reality is defined empirically rather than conceptually. This book traces the transformation of the classical perspective through history in each of these areas: the movement toward inwardness, the affirmation of ordinary life, and the voice of nature.
I found Taylor's historical analysis of more value than his contemporary application; however, I have to admit that the latter was quite difficult for me to follow due to my lack of exposure to the material. In essence he claims that the near universal adoption of benevolence and justice as our predominant ethical values have insufficient foundation. Radical subjectivity, radical equality, and radical acceptance of nature do not provide a horizon capable of defending contemporary values.
Even though Taylor stops short of offering an external standard, his thorough critique of contemporary inconsistencies is excellent. I cannot really recommend this book to everyone because it is clearly written to a graduate audience. If you are not well-read in philosophy, theology, or psychology, it may not be worth your time.
46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A True Classic! 29 Mar 2005
By Secret Squirrel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Sources of the Self is an exceptional piece of scholarship. In SOS, Taylor engages in a course of philosophical anthropology to demonstrate that our understanding of the self as interior is by no means universal. For Taylor, understandings of the self are inextricably linked to our understandings of the good. Thus, self-understanding is directed by evolving conceptions of the source and location of the good. This idea has been lost, according to Taylor, because of the narrow conception of the good in our modern world and the naturalist suppression of moral ontology.

Taylor defends this argument in two ways. First, he provides a strong argument that the self exists within inescapable moral frameworks. "To know who you are" Taylor argues, "is to be oriented in moral space." These frameworks are composed of hierarchical moral distinctions (i.e., some things are viewed as better than, or more important than others -- for instance, in our time, the notion of respect for persons). Second, Taylor argues that previous goods have been victim to historical suppression.

The bulk of the text is aimed at re-articulating historically suppressed goods. This illustration provides a fascinating romp through the history of ideas from Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau and MANY others, as well an interesting pieces about cultural history (e.g., the Puritans, art theory, etc).

One caution -- this is NOT an easy read. The argument itself is in the first few chapters, the remander is illustration. But keep the argument in mind the whole way. You will have to work to get through it - but it is well worth it! You will never see the self the same way again.
77 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An articulate philosophy of man 1 Oct 2000
By Carool Kersten - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
With 'Sources of the Self' Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written a seminal work along the lines of Ernst Cassirer's classic 'An Essay on Man'.
Deploring the minimal ethics of modernity and dissatisfied with post-modern nihilism, Taylor positions his moral theory in the Aristotelean tradition of 'ethos'. But Taylor does not embrace a pre-defined, teleological destiny. Rather, his premise is that in articulating 'the self' we will discover who we are, what we are supposed to do and where we are going.
Taylor's quest into what made man into what he is, is traced back to classic Greek thought and Augustinian theology. Subsequently the author takes us to early modernity: from Locke, via Neoplatonists like Shaftesbury, to the period of Romanticism. Eventually this odyssee of the mind is germinating into present-day man as a self-expressing creature.
The richness of Taylor's argumentation is often dazzling; here speaks a man of wide and deep erudition, an authoritative voice of intellectual history, seemingly equally at home in science, history and the arts.
In the post-modern wilderness of de-construction, Taylor's articulate and subtle history of mentality is an intellectual joy.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self 15 July 2009
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written two extended studies of what many people describe as modernity. The more recent of these books, "A Secular Age" (2007) examines the ways in which modern life became increasingly secularized or "disenchanted". Taylor in that book offered a long historical and analytical discussion of how people had, over centuries, tended to move away from a religious, transcendental outlook on life. Taylor received the Templeton Prize for this impressive study.

Nearly 20 years earlier, Taylor wrote the book I am reviewing here, "Sources of the Self" (1989). This book is, if anything, more difficult to read than its successor. The book addresses the same complex of questions as does "The Secular Age", but from the other end. Rather than focusing on God and secularization, the book describes "the making of the modern identity" -- concepts of human selfhood and human personality that have helped made modern life what it is.

Both books show a great deal of erudition and take an approach both analytical and historical. As Taylor says, in order to know where we are, we have to know where we have been. In "The Secular Age", Taylor identifies himself at the outset as a practicing, believing Catholic. In the earlier book, he keeps his hand somewhat more hidden. His own commitments might even be missed under a casual reading of an extraordinarily dense book.

Although the book wanders and lacks strong focus, Taylor's primary interest lies in showing what gives meaning to life. In the opening Part of this five-part book, Taylor explores the relationship between views of personal identity and views of the good. This section of the book is essential to understanding the long historical discussion that forms the remaining four Parts of the study. Taylor attacks various forms of ethical and metaphysical theories that deny the intelligibility of talking about "the good" or "the good life" for human beings. The denial frequently is based on various naturalistic or relativistic theories about the nature of the good which, Taylor claims, are in turn based upon a fractured approach to human knowing that he will describe in detail in the historical sections of the book. Human life, for Taylor, differs from other forms of life or types of things in that only human life possesses dignity. To have dignity, choices, and projects is what it is to be human and a self. By cutting the self off artificially from these sources is to narrow unduly the inquiry into self and goodness at the outset. Further, Taylor claims that thinkers who do so fequently are inconsistent and unaware of their own motivations. There goal is to cut off certain claims to transcendence or elitism as goals of life in favor of exhalting values such as ordinary life -- meaningful work, sexuality and sensuality, family, benevolence towards others, and broad equality. But, Taylor argues, their metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical commitments are insufficient to support the views of the good that these thinkers themselves tacitly hold.

Following this long opening part, Taylor seemingly changes track. He discusses various historical concepts of the self that, Taylor claims, illustrate the many strands and tensions that inform the ways people today try to understand themselves. Thus, in part 2, Taylor begins with the ancients, proceeds through Augustine, and winds up with Descartes and Locke in showing how a disengaged, inward concept of the self developed at the outset of the modern scientific age. In part 3, Taylor discusses how "ordinary life" as I summarized it above, became the source of meaning for life; and he equates this with the shift from traditional theism to deism and ultimately to secularity. Taylor then describes the development of romanticism and nature as a response to instrumentalism and disengagement. Romanticism tended to lead to "expressivism" -- the value of individual creativity and subjectivity with the threat to "objective" understanding of good and value. The final part of the book, which covers a great deal with a broad brush begins with the Victorians and proceeds to show how modern thinkers, writers and artists reacted against both instrumentalism and expressivism.

Taylor's analysis is dense, careful and difficult. The degree of learning is extraordinary, but it frequently gets in the way of understandability. It helped me to think of the book as something of a combination of Hegel and Heidegger. Very simply, the approach is Hegelian because Taylor tries to show how various concepts of the self developed historically, with each pointing out and attempting to address some perceived deficiency in an earlier approach. The approach is also Hegelian because Taylor is reluctant to reject any approach out of hand. The varying approaches he describes are not so much wrong as partial and incomplete. Taylor's goal is to take what he finds valuable in each of them and work to a synthesis rather than in advocating for one or the other approach. This seems to me to owe much to Hegel. The Heideggerian component of the book consists, I think, in Taylor's discomfort with a move towards objectification -- or separating the "self" from "nature". This truncation is, for Taylor, the result of a too narrow focus on epistemology. Taylor would begin instead with what Heidegger would call being-in-the-world and take life experience, before reduction to a scientific approach, as the source for understanding the self. This approach, Taylor suggests, would allow for the sense of the dignity of human life, and the plurality of goods that constitute a good life. Behind the carefully restrained and analytical prose, Taylor offers a strong critique of over-intellectualization. Among the many other writers that Taylor discusses, he seems also to have a great affinity for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.

This is a long, difficult, provocative,and sometimes diffuse work. Readers who have struggled with questions of meaning and value and who have a strong background in philosophy and literature will find this study, and Taylor's "The Secular Age" challenging and rewarding.

Robin Friedman
75 of 88 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great, BUT 17 Mar 2006
By D. S. Heersink - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
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