[lit-ideas] Re: Honor? Charles Taylor anyone?

  • From: Eric Yost <eyost1132@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 15 May 2006 13:48:28 -0400

Some background via a review:


Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity By Charles Taylor Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989. 608 pp. $37.50.

Charles Taylor's latest work is undoubtedly one of the most significant works in moral philosophy and the history of ideas to appear in recent decades. In this ambitious and insightful work, he moves the conversation about the relationship between identity and the good ahead in at least four ways. He presents a historical narrative of the development of modern identity in its relation to moral goods and their sources. He articulates a modern ethic of benevolence and universal justice that is gaining increasing acceptance in the West. He describes the increasing separation of that modern ethic from the theistic and Enlightenment sources that spawned it. Finally, Taylor suggests three sources for a metaethic that can undergird our modern moral stance, two of which are uniquely modem and arise from the development of the modern self.

Taylor comes at this task with a profound and far-reaching knowledge of Anglo/European philosophical thought and its epistemological and methodological dilemmas. Drawing on Heidegger's notion of the historicity of being, he unabashedly claims the historical narrative itself as the locus of meaning. Rejecting both ideational and cause/ effect theories of explanation, he presumes a situated human freedom and uses adequacy as his criterion of correct interpretation. Taylor's method keeps his claims modest, his descriptions concrete, and his direction clear.

For more than a decade, Taylor has debated the nature of the human sciences, asserting that the naturalistic world-view is “wildly implausible.” In 1985, he hinted that he was working on a history of the modern self that would “explain plausibly the spiritual roots of naturalism” and show how “the very nature of modern identity has tended to make us reluctant to acknowledge this moral dimension” (Human Agency and Language).

In the present volume, Taylor masterfully outlines a history of ideas that shows strong connections between a sense of identity and one's notion of the good. He describes how morals became separated from their moral sources as procedural reason and an Enlightenment view of nature gained sway over substantive reason and theistic moral sources. In the process, he debunks reductive approaches to defining the self without reference to moral goods that orient one's sense of place and purpose in the world. He shows the paradoxical concealment of moral sources that such views inevitably undergo. But Taylor goes farther, describing the development of uniquely modern moral sources in a self-empowering notion of human dignity and a sense of inwardness as a locus of moral depth. He sees possibilities of steadying modern moral commitments not only in traditional theistic sources but also in those modern sources of constitutive goods.

Taylor's rather opaque title makes it appropriate to state what his project is not. He uses the terms self and identity, each of which has been defined in multiple ways by sociologists, psychologists, and theologians, as well as by philosophers. But his book is not a sociological or psychological analysis of the self, tasks which would involve entirely different literatures and definitions of the self. Other terms, such as sources of the self and the making of modern identity, might imply that Taylor is offering a causal explanation of the development of modern self-identity though his history of ideas. Although Taylor tends to slip in this direction, it is most avowedly not his intent. Finally, this is not an account of the development of the modern self in the North American setting with its diversity and distinct philosophical emphases, although a deeper appreciation of those traditions may have helped Taylor see moral sources that he doesn't articulate.

Taylor organizes his work in three parts. He begins by outlining his philosophical-moral framework. This framework puts moral evaluation at the center of human identity. Persons understand who they are in large measure by the “strong evaluations” they make about what is good, and how that understanding will direct their lives. He ends the book with an assessment of the modern situation: (1) a consensus on morals such as universal human rights, the demand to reduce suffering, the ideals of freedom, equality, and self-determination; and (2) a lack of moral sources or agreed upon constitutive goods to undergird that consensus. Taylor devotes the bulk of the book to a historical development of three themes that influence the modern identity: a radical turn inward, the affirmation of ordinary life, and a view of nature as a source for moral evaluation and self-identity.

Through exploring those themes, Taylor shows how the notion of self changes through Western history. In the modern era, identity and the good still intertwine. But major developments change the character of both. The substantive reason that related strong evaluations to the world shifted to an idea of reason as a proper procedure of thought, unrelated to a world of order that could be counted on. Reason itself was divided, practical reason becoming subject to one's personal “gods and demons,” as Max Weber so poignantly put it. In the modern era, the ontic logos so necessary to earlier theistic views of the self can no longer be assumed but must be related to one's inward journey.

When he brings us to the modern era, Taylor describes a consensus on morals but a poverty of moral sources. His cogent articulation of that consensus challenges Alasdair Maclntyre's analogy of modern moral discourse as an attempt to make sense of a blown-up laboratory. One notes also the consensus on a modern Western ethic of freedom, individuality, justice, and benevolence that appears in works as disparate as Jurgen Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action, Talcott Parsons' Evolution of Societies, and John Finnis' Natural Law and Natural Rights.

Unfortunately, the moral sources of those views are no longer apparent. Having jettisoned traditional theism as a moral source, moderns are left with disengaged reason or expressivisma as arenas in which to search for a metaethic. Taylor outlines three options for developing moral sources for the modern ethic: (1) a no longer assumable theistic basis, (2) the power and dignity of the human person, and (3) expressivistic resonances within the self. (Taylor defines these resonances neither in correspondence to an assumed reality nor in entire subjectivism.) He encourages the search for moral sources especially in the expressivist area, combining deep personal insight with visions of the good that may connect with outside sources, for examples, nature as an inner voice or stream of life. While we lack a public consensus on moral sources, moral sources indexed to a deep personal vision could be convincing. At the same time, Taylor wonders if modern moral sources can be sustained without a vision of hope or a religious dimension, “a love of that which is incomparably higher than ourselves.”

Taylor thinks that the modern moral predicament is dangerous. He suggests that the gap between moral sources and their articulation must be closed in order to provide strong reasons for the universal benevolence ethic that abounds (at least in Taylor's audience). Part of our humanity, he argues, is denied by the modern tendency to reject and deny deep spiritual aspirations and intuitions. Without deeper moral sources, benevolence exacts a high cost, both in commitment and in a sense of guilt for not living up to its high ideals. On the other hand, linking an ethic of benevolence to religious or nationalistic ideology has led to destructiveness, not only in past centuries but in our own. Taylor insists that avoiding this problem is impossible; we must risk one danger or the other, and neither choice is without cost. On the one side we risk stifling the human spirit, and on the other we risk the potential dangers of the power of religious faith.

Taylor's task is an important one-understanding ourselves in a stream of history, seeking insights about moral goods and their relation to our sense of self. He courageously, yet modestly, tackles the project, and his enthusiasm contagiously infects the reader. He astutely follows the center of the discussion about identity and the good through its carriers in theology, philosophy, philosophy of science, literature, and the visual arts. His discussion, which ranges from Plato to Augustine,

from Descartes through Adorno, and from Kant to Nietzsche, holds the reader's interest as one listens to the story of ideas and feels the tug of each era.

Taylor is never dull. The chapters on the Victorian and modern eras are especially fascinating as Taylor traces epiphany in modern art, giving an account of the transfer of essential meaning and morals from philosophy to art as personal vision became necessary for an articulation of moral sources. Taylor also works against a sense of chaos and disintegration in modern life by finding moral threads and weaving them together. The book celebrates rather than laments modernity, offering creative insights into furthering the search for moral sources.

Taylor deplores the lack of exploration of personal resonances as a way to uncover moral sources. Yet there is much work being done here in the novels of Frederick Buechner, Madeline L'Engle, and Toni Morrison, among others. Recent emphases in theology and ethics on narrative, character, experience, and practice also reflect the deep connections between personal vision and moral sources that Taylor wants to see. He judiciously directs us toward the appeal and urgency of those tasks in the modem era. In doing so, he brings understanding and encouragement to us as Christian theologians.

Are there other moral sources that Taylor neglects? Any rendering of history is selective and gaps are pardonable in such a vast work. But the lack of anything on the medieval period leaves the reader without connecting links between Augustine's deprecation of reason and Descartes' admiration of reason in theological deliberations. Aquinas' recovery of Aristotle reconnected reason and theology severed by Augustine. This seems a crucial link to Decartes' attempt to link reason, however redefined, to theology. It is also important to a modern recovery of natural law as a moral source, exemplified by the work of John Courtney Murray and John Finnis.

Taylor limits his apprehension of moral sources in another way by tracing the history of a monological self. Although Taylor is aware that, to put it in his own terms, “the community is also constitutive of the individual” and that “common meanings are embedded in our institutions and practices,” (Human Agency and Language) he somehow in this work loses touch with the communal dimensions of moral self-interpretation. Although he refers to communities and moral practices, the modern moral sources he points to focus on a disengaged individual self.

Taylor wants to utilize personal resonances of the modern self in order to get in touch with an outside order since no public consensus on that order is possible. His hunch is that theism may be necessary for an adequate account of moral sources and this route leaves open that possibility. He stresses the individual self, although he insists that a disengaged self offers a wrong view of agency, and he agrees that the self is socially constituted.

If Taylor understands this, it is puzzling that he focuses so exclusively on modern moral sources that arise from a disengaged view of the self. I suppose the history itself moves one in this direction. Or perhaps he is trying to utilize modern self-perceptions of a disengaged self as a point from which to develop new possibilities. In either case, strong American traditions that focus on communal understandings of the self might have opened Taylor to socially-oriented moral sources. The narrative theology of African American slaves, the social realism of Charles S. Pierce and John Dewey, and the responsibility ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr are but three examples.

If the dilemma of risk is as serious as Taylor claims it is in his last chapter (and I think that it is), these additional modern moral sources must be considered seriously. An inability to articulate moral sources may result in a consensus sought through persuasion or even coercion in the absence of reasons related to moral sources.

The furor over “politically correct” values at the university reflects this dilemma of risk. When my eldest daughter, a first year student at the University of California at Santa Cruz came home for the holidays, she announced loudly, “I am NOT politically correct” and then in a more tentative voice she added, “although I agree with most of what they're saying.” A few days later the often irrational and even violent political correctness debate hit the cover of Newsweek with the headline, “Thought Police: Watch What You Say.” Jenny does agree with the values of equality, ecological and multicultural awareness, and an end to hunger and oppression in evidence in current attitudes on campus. But the pressure to be “politically correct” seems to contradict the ethic of self-chosen values and tolerance that is so much a part of her Bay Area milieu. The contradiction confuses Jenny. Somehow it feels wrong to be pressured into touting values she thinks are right.

The moral sources underlying many “politically correct” values remain hidden to many holding those values. Disparate values are linked together, conflicts among goods concealed, moral sources that could aid evaluation of those goods remain unexplored. The pressure to conform without analysis undercuts the very goods purported, thus presenting a new authoritarianism. Taylor's illumination of some of the history behind this moral predicament is a tremendous gift to those of us who would like to understand better the plurality of goods that we hold, the inevitable conflicts among those goods, and the moral sources that make them compelling.

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