Sources of the Self

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* Book: Sources of the Self. The making of modern identity. By Charles Taylor.



From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2005:

Chapter One

Taylor starts off by linking the evolution of the self, to the notion of the moral good. One cannot understand the former without reference to the latter.

Examining the unique moral intuitions of the West, he finds the following:

- the stress on autonomy and subjective rights, which are more important even than the law

- the minimization of suffering

- the affirmation of the value of ordinary life, previously seen as only an infrastructure for the 'true, good life", of the elite

He distinguishes 3 axes of moral thinking:

- 1. our sense of respect and obligation to others

- 2. our understanding of what makes a full life

- 3. our attitudinal 'respect', or dignity, the sense that everyone should command a certain respect

Taylor reminds us of the historical evolution of such ethics, distinguishing:

   - the ethics of fame and honour, characteristic of the warrior caste
   - the ethics of self-control, choosing reason over desire, originating with the Greek philosophical tradition, today expressed in the value given to the instrumental self
   - the transformation of human will to a higher purpose, to God or to othrs (altruism), i.e. the religious ethic and its modern secular variants
   -  the ethics of creation, expression and invention, from the Romantic tradition

Today, Taylor argues, we have lost a unifying framework, such as the ethical systems described just above. Whereas a premodern like Luther still feared divine 'condemnation', we fear 'meaninglessness' above all. Follows a long argument against what he calls 'naturalistic reduction', i.e. that we can operate without framings of any kind. This Taylor denies, stating that we all have an orientation in a moral space. This moral space 'always already' exists, outside of the individual, it is not mere dressing of instinctive likes and dislikes. A person that would lack any such framework would have a strong 'identity crisis'.

Chapter Two

In chapter two, he stresses how our self is always a 'self-with-others', as it only arises in 'webs of interlocution'. We can change them, but we cannot be without them. Taylor stresses that a person is a wholistic unity, a combination, in a narrative, of how I became what I am in the present with a project, related to a future.

Taylor distinguishes 3 types of moral goods (in moral theory):

   - as only a guide to action, 'good to do'
   - as an indication of the good life in its totality, 'good to be'
   - as an indication of the highest goods to be loved , 'good to love'

"Hypergoods" are principles that are used to rank all other goods, and they are generally constituted through historical struggles that superceded earlier hypergoods. A 'trans-valuation' of values' has occurred, often inherently conflictual since it rejects earlier forms, sometimes radically [ f.e. monotheism rejects 'idolatry', Plato overcomes the honour ethic, 'respect' overcomes the family hierarchy, etc ...]

Taylor rejects naturalism, i.e. the claim that our values are mere projections on a neutral universe. The main reason is that leaving out moral terms, could simply not explicate the human universe better, than those already used by the protagonists themselves. Hypergoods have been challenged, especially since Nietzsche, as inherently repressive/regressive, and he therefore challenged morality as such, to be replaced by a full affirmation of all that we really are.

Taylor also disagrees with:

   - the empiricist position, which sees moral theory as a projection
   - Habermas, because of the wall he erects between the ethical on the one hand, and the considerations of the good life on the other
   - the neo-Nietzschean "Foucauldian" position, that all regimes of truth are an imposition on reality 'by the fist', and that one cannot chose any of them as 'more true'.
   - Taylor also briefly mentions Romanticism as a 2-cy long struggle against the Enlightenment

For Taylor the point of view from which me may conclude that 'all orders are equal" is not available to us humans. Having a moral orientation is a condition of being a functional self and NOT a metaphysical view we can cast off or on.

Taylor then distinguishes the collection of life goods from the one constitutive good which is the moral source of them all, such as for example the Idea of the Good for Plato.

For humanists, it is no longer external to humanity, so for Kant, it is rational agency itself, which is the constitutive good, the love of which empowers us to be and do good. For those even more 'modern', it is the capacity to stand disengaged in a disenchanted world, without any illusion, but with courage, which may function as this ultimate moral source. The key problem is to see that for moderns, these moral goods are hidden from view, inarticulated. What he sets out to do then, is to articulate them, through a genealogy of their historical becoming.

In part 2, he will trace the linkages between the four terms:

   - notions of the good
   - our understanding of self
   - the kinds of narrative used to make sense of life
   - conceptions of human society, i.e. what it means to be a human agent amongst others