Study Guide

Sources of the Self

by Charles Taylor

Sources of the Self Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Charles Taylor, a professor of political science and philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, maintains that a person’s sense of self and of how that self may be related to other selves, to nature, and to God is fundamental to an understanding of what Taylor calls “hypergoods.” These are life- orienting moral goods that have captured one’s allegiance. The modern hypergoods of “justice for all” or “benevolent treatment of all” for many men and women in the twentieth century are unquestioned and unquestionable. It is with reference to these or other hypergoods that a person is able to construct a life narrative, the story that gives meaning to everyday moral choices in the context of larger human goods. Such stories differ from person to person, but all invoke what Taylor describes as “strong evaluation.”

Evaluation is part of the human enterprise; hypergoods “command our awe, respect, or admiration” because they “stand independent of our own desires, inclinations, or choices” and in fact “represent standards by which these desires and choices are judged.” They are not independent of the human person, but they are more than mere accidents of one’s personality. Thus, any exploration into the self which attempts to comprehend human moral life apart from or in denial of the significance of this strong evaluation is, at the very least, deficient. The first part ofSources of the Self takes issue with the “naturalist” temper, which seeks to reduce one’s sense of a moral hierarchy (in which some goods are seen to be incomparably higher than others) to mere emotional expression—or, as in the case of some forms of utilitarianism, to reduce all qualitative moral distinctions to quantifiable responses to pleasure or pain.

The naturalist, as Taylor uses the term, believes progress in the human sciences can come only as those sciences transcend any moral framework, frameworks that in the past—be they the honor ethic, Plato’s life of ordered reason, or the modern life of self-mastery—have compelled human beings to moral and artistic achievement but which are now seen as imperiling scientific objectivity. Qualitative distinctions among goods, and the supreme place of a hypergood in a person’s life- narrative, the naturalist takes to be elitist. What the naturalist requires is the “affirmation of ordinary life” that is both antielitist and tolerant or even supportive of the manifold ways in which people choose to structure their lives. This affirmation of the ordinary Taylor identifies as one of the strongest attractions to the modern mind, but it continues to coexist in the self with the strong sense of moral hierarchy (some exploits are more to be praised than others; some vocations are more admirable than others). Yet naturalism fails at its own project; as Taylor points out, “the affirmation of ordinary life, while necessarily denouncing certain distinctions, itself amounts to one; else it has no meaning at all.”

Taylor takes as his task the articulation of the complex interactions of ancient Greek, medieval Judeo-Christian, and eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas that are part of the modern sense of self. He finds that the moral sources of the modern self are multiple and in conflict, that hypergoods may themselves conflict or that their pursuit may end in mutilation. “Proponents of subjective fulfillment” he writes, “allow nothing to stand against ‘liberation’”; “the demands of benevolence can exact a high cost in self-love and self- fulfillment”; and the outworking of Christianity has been seen by many in the modern world as conducive to injustice visited on others and a stifling of inner freedom. “From all these examples,” says Taylor, ’’in my view, a general truth emerges, which is that the highest spiritual ideas and aspirations also threaten to lay the most crushing burdens on humankind.” This is as true of the many varieties of high-minded secularism as it is of Christianity.

The first part of the book establishes the moral framework within which Taylor’s analysis takes place. The framework is derived in part from the familiar Socratic formula that the unexamined life is not worth living; more specifically, that by clarifying by examination the nature of the particular hypergoods to which individuals give regard, those hypergoods found adequate as a basis for moral life also become the motivators of that life. The articulation of moral sources may well reveal their conflicting demands within the self, but Taylor is convinced that the revelation of the self’s moral sources will make available to the self new sources of moral energy. In turn, that energy will be needed by the self for a project of reconciling the “moral conflicts of modern culture” that “rage within each of us.” Ultimately, says Taylor, “We have to search for a way in which our strongest aspirations towards hypergoods do not exact a price of self-mutilation.”

The three central parts of Sources of the Self are narratives unpacking what Taylor sees as the main, and often antagonistic, constituents of modern self-awareness. He is careful to stress that his is not a study of cause and effect, and that there is no simple linear account possible of the effect of one philosophical idea on another. The study is not meant as an answer to “what caused the modern identity”; rather, its purpose is to provide an interpretation of what in the streams of philosophic thought—especially from the eighteenth century onward—the modern mind has found so attractive. These include what Taylor characterizes as “inwardness,” “the affirmation of ordinary life,” and “the voice of nature.”

For many moderns, Plato’s conception of a human being situated within a preexisting cosmic order, called by reason to conform to that order (thus fulfilling the highest human good in love and contemplation of that order), is unavailable as a live moral option. It has been replaced by what Taylor calls “internalization…in which the order involved in the paramountey of reason is made, not...

(The entire section is 2493 words.)