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on 23 December 2006
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. As Taylor's story unfolds - more or less chronologically from Augustine through Descartes to modernism - the reader will detect in the author a pervasive, sullen sense of loss where moral philosophy becomes increasingly anthropocentric, severing theological resources. Such is this loss that modern thought now struggles to articulate the `spiritual reality behind nature' against the background of the `debased, mechanistic world' of the `Radical Enlightenment' from which we have emerged.

However, regardless of this modern predicament, Taylor also notes how (as discussed in Part 1) the affirmation of human life as valuable remains central to moral philosophy. This Taylor celebrates as healthy. His fear is that this demanding value is at risk of being lost to nihilism and destructive selfishness if we do not once again take a non-anthropocentric world-view and locate our moral sources outside of us. In the penultimate paragraph of the book Taylor writes - `There is a large element of hope. It is a hope that I see implicit in Judaeo-Christian theism...and its central promise of a divine affirmation of the human, more total than humans can ever attain unaided.'

This bald assertion of Christianity is a problematic place for Taylor to put pen to rest. Not least, it's a statement that demands to be unpacked and worked out. Yet Taylor says too that to provide a comprehensive answer to the problem he outlines is not the purpose of Sources of the Self. (That 'would take another book'). Rather, he here seeks to show that to be persuasive and coherent moral philosophy must necessarily be informed by a richer understanding of what it means to be human - essentially, a creature made in the image of God - than offered by current trends of thought. Whether or not the reader agrees with this conclusion, he or she will certainly regard the considerations that lead Taylor to make it as thorough and challenging.
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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. 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
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on 18 February 2004
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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on 5 September 2014
Extremely well argued and well written
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on 29 May 2014
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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