Published Humanitas, Volume VI, No. 1

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, by Charles Taylor, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. xii + 601 pp. $37.50.

In Sources of the Self Charles Taylor is both guide and traveling companion on a long, rewarding journey through the history of Western philosophy. His purpose is to trace “various strands of our modern notion of what it is to be a human agent, a purpose, or a self.” To be a purposeful agent is intimately bound up in turn with our views and perceptions of the moral. The latter encompasses not only the claims of others to justice, well-being, and dignity; it is also what makes our own lives meaningful or fulfilling. Such matters deserve “the vague term ‘spiritual,’” says Taylor, because they involve “‘strong evaluation’, that is, they involve discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower, which are not rendered valid by our own desires, inclinations, or choices, but rather stand independent of these and offer standards by which they can be judged.” (3-4)

Some moral intuitions—such as the demand that we “respect the life, integrity, well-being, even flourishing, of others”—run so deep, Taylor writes, that we are tempted to think of them as instincts. Yet “this ‘instinct,’” he notes, “receives a variable shape in culture. . . . And this shape is inseparable from an account of what it is that commands our respect. The account seems to articulate the intuition.” On one side, our moral reactions are almost like instincts, similar to our love of sweet things or fear of falling. On the other, they “seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings. From this second side, a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of, a given ontology of the human.”

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