Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity by Charles Taylor (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – Readers who desire to deepen their understanding of how the identify of modern people formed through the shifts in philosophy over the last few centuries.

What is the Big Takeaway – The ancient world bequeathed to the West the idea of the good as objectively out there beyond us. Slowly over the course of the development of modern philosophy, though really rooted in the Reformation and even earlier Christian thought, there was a turn to looking for this good within. At the same time, the idea of one “the good” is questioned though such a good is necessary for the moral order to make sense.

And a Quote – “So why worry that we disagree on the reasons, as long as we’re united around the norms? It’s not the disagreement which is the problem. Rather the issue is what sources can support our far-reaching moral commitments to benevolence and justice. . . High standards need strong sources” (525-526)

I feel so inadequate in even attempting to review a book like this, though a brief perusal of other reviews on here (Goodreads) demonstrates I am not the only one. Honestly, just writing “what is the big takeaway” above took a good bit of time and stress. What if I got something wrong? How do I boil down a 500+ page tome the covers so much ground into one paragraph?

Let me start with this: this book is a feast. I had read Taylor’s A Secular Age probably about a decade ago and I want to read it again, just on the assumption that I am a bit wiser and more well-read and can appreciate it even more. Before going back to that, I wanted to read this, considered Taylor’s other masterpiece. I was not disappointed. Its a fat book that is not necessarily easy to follow and a basic understanding of history of philosophy is certainly helpful. When I say its hard to follow, I mean there is so much going on and Taylor does not hold your hand. He brings up numerous points, meanders through his reasoning, or refers to points from earlier in the book in such a way that demand you pay attention. There are no helpful headings to easily subdivide the argument for you! Its not a popular level book, its an academic work. And it is a feast – as you immerse yourself in the story Taylor is telling you see so much even if you miss one or two things along the way.

Along those lines, it is a story. In laying out the plan of the book, Taylor says those who enjoy history might want to skip part one and those who prefer philosophy may only want to read part one. I read both, but I certainly enjoyed the history part better. Part one is about the possibility of articulating moral goods. Beginning in part two, Taylor tells the story of how western culture shifted in understanding the good, what it means to be human, how to discover the good, and much more. And again, its a feast of a story filled with detail. Its a challenge, but worth it if you press on through.

These last two paragraphs almost feel like an apologetic and encouragement – you ought to read the book and you can! I said, I feel inadequate to review this book. I am writing for people mostly like me. I’m not a professional philosopher or historian. Instead, I work in Christian ministry and enjoy reading history and philosophy. I am interested in the ways our culture has changed in the last 500 years. Taylor is one of the best to read on this and I think, as challenging as his work may seem, it is greatly beneficial for pastors and others to read.

This book was published in 1989 and as I read I saw, or honestly maybe just imagined, echoes of some of those early Christian apologetics books I read in my college years. I suspect those apologists had read Taylor and were delighted to find such an intellectual on their side. Yet those apologetic books often sacrificed nuance to make their arguments appear more cut-and-dried. Perhaps we can forgive them, because distilling the arguments of a book like this to a popular level 200 page book would be a challenge (though James KA Smith did it well with A Secular Age). My point here is simply that the Christian church may be better off if more pastors wrestled with the depth and nuance of Taylor.

I say that because as critical as Taylor may be of the twists and turns of modernity, specifically pointing out how we need some conception of higher good in order to articulate a moral system, he also recognizes the goods and the benefits of the philosophers of modernity. This was my big takeaway from the book, as mentioned above – over the course of time the place of the good shifted inward. Rather than finding it out there somewhere in God or the realm of ideas, we learned to look inward. We even, as time went on, questioned whether there was a good. But we need some conception of the good (which, btw, reminds me of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre), we need to be able to articulate it to make sense of it.

Beyond that, there is so much more here. Part of me wants to page through all 500 pages. I know I underlined a lot and added all sorts of stars, arrows and other notes so I can return to this book. Taylor talks about the elevation of ordinary life, Enlightenment use of disengaged reason and Romanticism’s return to engaging with nature. All I’ll say is if you want a feast of a book, if you want to learn a whole lot about how we got to our conception of who we are today, give it a try.

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