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.
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.