Charles Taylor: Sources of the Self

The Making of the Modern Identity

Cambridge University Press, 1989

From the Back Cover:

In his immense inquiry into the sources of modern selfhood, Charles Taylor reveals that modern subjectivity, in all its epistemological, aesthetic and political ramifications, has its roots in ideas of the human good. He shows that the modern turn inward is the result of our long efforts to define and reach the good, and rejects the view of many that subjectivity leads to mere subjectivism or even nihilism. At the heart of the definition of the good, Taylor finds what he calls the affirmation of ordinary life, a value which has decisively if not completely replaced an older conception of reason as connected to a hierarchy based on birth and death. He tells the story of a revolution whose proponents have ranged from Augustine, to Montaigne and to Luther, and his goal is in part to make sure we do not lose sight of what was their goal and endanger all that has been achieved. His Sources of the Self is a conclusive defence of the modern order and a sharp rebuff to its critics.

“If it is difficult to give a summary sense of the richness of Taylor’s arguments, doing justice to the 400 pages of historical articulation that follow is impossible. Taylor’s historical discussions are clear and economical, and based on remarkable scholarship. On Plato, on Locke, on the rise of the modern novel, on modernist poetry and painting, Sources of the Self concisely says original and penetrating things. It is rare to find this sourt of philosophical history written so lucidly, without vanity or jargon.”  Martha Nussbaum

“…a remarkable study which will substantially enrich moral philosophy.”  Jonathan Glover

Amazon Book Description (from the back cover of the second edition?):

Most of us are still groping for answers about what makes life worth living, or what confers meaning on individual lives’, writes Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self. ‘This is an essentially modern predicament.’ Charles Taylor’s latest book sets out to define the modern identity by tracing its genesis, analysing the writings of such thinkers as Augustine, Descartes, Montaigne, Luther, and many others. This then serves as a starting point for a renewed understanding of modernity. Taylor argues that modern subjectivity has its roots in ideas of human good, and is in fact the result of our long efforts to define and attain the good. The modern turn inwards is far from being a disastrous rejection of rationality, as its critics contend, but has at its heart what Taylor calls the affirmation of ordinary life. He concludes that the modern identity, and its attendant rejection of an objective order of reason, is far richer in moral sources that its detractors allow. Sources of the Self provides a conclusive defence of the modern order and a sharp rebuff to its critics.
“Taylor has taken on the most delicate and exacting of philosophical questions, the question of who we are and how we should live…and he has made this an adventure of self-discovery for his reader. To have accomplished so much is an important philosophical achievement.”  New Republic
“Sources of the Self is in every sense a large book: in length and in the range of what it covers, but above all in the generosity and breadth of its sympathies and its interest in humanity…Few books on such large subjects are so engaging.”  Bernard Williams, New York Review of Books
“A magnificent account, full, fair, well read, well written, complicated and high spirited…a credit, one might say, to the modern self that is capable of plumbing the depths of its own heritage in such a generous way.”  Jeremy Waldron, Times Literary Supplement
“Surely one of the most important philosophical works of the last quarter of a century.”  Jerome Bruner
“For sociologists, there is no more important philosopher writing in the world today than Charles Taylor.”  Alan Wolfe, Contemporary Sociology 

“Undoubtedly one of the most significant works in moral philosophy and the history of ideas to appear in recent decades.”  Frances S. Adeney, Theology Today

About the Author:
JOB’s Comment:
Unfortunately, the back cover and the book description highlight not only the book’s strengths but also its weaknesses. The “affirmation of ordinary life” and the defence of the rejection of an objective order of “reason” must of course be problematized in central respects; the book is certainly not a conclusive defence of “the” modern order.

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All original writing and photography © Jan Olof Bengtsson

"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi