Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Book Selection of the Month: "Sources of the Self" by Charles Taylor

ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (June 2008): Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor

Not to be confused with the authoritarian former president of Liberia recently put on trial, this Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher sometimes considered a communitarian who, five years after Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (which was one of my Book Selections last year), addressed similar themes of modern moral fragmentation and the search for shared standards of the Good, in the 1989 tome Sources of the Self (which I read at the suggestion of Richard Ryan, to whom I in turn recommended last month’s Book Selection, Final Crisis, which some may see as a less substantial work, but Richard shares my excitement about it). Taylor also wrote last year’s A Secular Age (a skeptical review of which is noted by Taylor’s fellow McGill professor Jacob Levy here — Jacob was present the first time I ever heard of Taylor, nearly two decades ago, from a very skeptical Tom Palmer, a libertarian who sees Taylor as hellbent on forcing us all to abandon our individual lives in favor of Athenian-style collective participation).

Since Taylor has run for office as a social democrat in Canada, I expected this book to be more political than it was: I assumed his long description of Western civilization’s trek from communal and spiritual life to individualistic and materialistic/inward-looking life would end in a lament that only socialist/democratic participatory politics can save us from atomization — a view largely the opposite of my own, but still one for which I have some small modicum of sympathy, since I think communal and traditional bonds are perfectly natural and can indeed be forgotten in the hectic flurry of modern capitalism — I just don’t think government should have any role in addressing that problem, nor indeed that government should exist.

The Amish are not “individualists,” but they are certainly not pro-government totalitarians or socialists as a result. And the same might be said of some old-fashioned left-anarchists, I might add. Why not simply take a determinist rather than free-will-individualist view of character formation but see government as more brutally deforming than, say, advertising or whatever comparatively mild complaint the left currently has?

But that’s not what Taylor’s book is about, really. It’s a description of how (ironically) even as Westerners have increasingly mastered the natural world and structured life around instrumental rationality instead of the divine cosmic order, our culture and philosophy have increasingly focused on psychological interiority (not just since the Romantics or since Freud but even, with increasing force, throughout the longer and older development of theology). I was just about ready to write off this mix of ancient-Greek and modern-Continental philosophy as a 500-page historical descent from lofty metaphysical speculations to the harsh, barren ground of twentieth-century philosophizing about language, spectatorship, and other things that get very fuzzy in a mostly-unproductive way if looked at too closely, when Taylor surprised me by bringing it all together in the final pages with a moral-political warning after my own heart.


On those rare, quiet occasions when I have time to explain myself fully instead of just sounding like one more partisan warrior, my real meta-political concern is that in a world of political factions each deeply invested in its own assumptions and founding myths — and having built vast edifices upon them — we have very little hope of coming up with some commonly agreed-upon means of settling big political disputes or compromising about them (where we should), since compromising just isn’t what we’ve been training our ideologues to do for the past few centuries.

That, in more high-faluting terms than usual, is why I’m fascinated by political and cultural hybrids of one sort or another and why I think the most sophisticated political philosophies are usually the ones that contain some awareness of their own limitations and strive to be not just sets of right answers but formulas for brokering truces, as it were. Fancy and sophisticated as we humans sometimes get, let it never be forgotten that we live in a world where plenty of people’s first impulse upon encountering irreconcilable differences is to herd the enemy into death camps, get out the machetes, declare jihad, or at least invoke imagery from the Book of Revelation (or Earth in the Balance) and demonize the enemy.

There has to be a better way, as your average-yet-civilized, non-ideological Joe senses, which is why people who sound like bridge-building hybrids of some sort sometimes find themselves with political clout, as in the cases of Obama and McCain, for all their underlying flaws and important differences. If we must be ruled, we’d rather not be ruled by people who seem too one-sided. Of course, to most people unfamiliar with libertarianism, that probably seems like a narrow, extremist creed, but it can be thought of as the ultimate moderate compromise: Everyone take your hands off the weapon that is the state and back away from it simultaneously, never to wield it against your political foes ever again. (Though putting it in that pacifistic way sounds, on a mere rhetorical level, very unlike the aggressive tone of Rand, more like the flexible tone of a Hayek or Nozick — but I shouldn’t make Rand sound too harsh: odd as it may seem, Rand’s writings and Martha Nussbaum’s lectures simultaneously contributed to making me a bit more Aristotelian/pragmatic and a bit less Platonic/absolutist in college.)



(a) how inhuman and obscurantist the writings of people like the deconstructionists are,

(b) how simply godawful and fanatical the writings of Marx himself are,

and (c) how angry and alienating the whole protestor-leftist, smash-everything type of books you see in specialty leftist bookstores (and college campuses) is,

it’s sometimes surprising to me how familiar and approachable leftist, socialist, or communitarian-inclined writers like Richard Sennett and MacIntyre and Taylor sound — even the Frankfurt School Marxists at times. That’s partly because they’re drawing on conservative, traditional sources like Aristotle and religion, so they talk about weighty things like character development and heroism and finding purpose in life in a way that plenty of modern liberals would find uncomfortable but nonetheless jibes neatly with the way most ordinary people talk about life’s tensions and their own psychology.

That in no way vindicates their statist policy prescriptions, mind you, but it makes the possibility of dialogue with them seem more real. I feel I could talk to Charles Taylor about the pursuit of happiness — for all his condemnations of utilitarianism and “everyday life” — in a way that I could not hope to talk to Michel Foucault, for example (not to mention Karl Marx, who would no doubt quickly peg me — quite rightly — as bourgeois in my hopes for a happy, prosperous, secure human race).

What Taylor admirably dreams of doing at the end of Sources of the Self is finding some way to acknowledge that we have a checklist of priorities — utility, individual expression, adherence to tradition, respect for nature — that simply cannot all simultaneously be taken to extremes without contradicting other parts of our complex cultural/philosophical inheritance. We’ve got to find a way to talk about them all as admitted goods but perhaps incommensurable goods instead of pretending that proving one of these things to be good is license to dismiss the others completely or even label them evil (or at least obstacles). Note that I still maintain all this can be done without government, which would make me a hopelessly stubborn extremist in some people’s eyes — but then again, don’t assume you know what “moderation” and “a middle ground” has to look like. It may not require government any more than it requires, say, a king.


Taylor treats as three separate moral axes the following: (1) utility/rules, (2) rich descriptions of the good life/lives, and (3) the respect/recognition owed persons by the nature of broadly-shared self-definitions. Much like MacIntyre, who was writing just a few years earlier, Taylor denigrates the dryness and empty rationalism of #1 in favor of the more-traditional, tribal #2, though he adds his own complex plug for #3 being important as well.

I hate to sound like a dry, rational #1 guy, but it seems to me that most of #1’s shortcomings can better be overcome by simply collapsing #2 into #1, seeing rich descriptions of good ways to live as things that make the ultimate goal (the outside metric he scoffs at), utility (i.e., happiness), achievable. A world where people received no wisdom from their forbears and peers besides the vague injunction “Go be happy” would indeed be an empty and odd one, but just because we value details of life such as inherited tradition, geographic rootedness, ethnic or gendered self-definitions, etc. doesn’t mean happiness ceases to be the thing that ultimately matters. If these other things are valuable, I still contend it is precisely because they make people happy (on balance, over the long haul, usually, we think). Cultural and psychological nuances enrich and inform utilitarian and rights-based thinking but need not eliminate such thinking.

Taylor argues that moral arguments should not be about measuring life by some impersonal, ahistorical metric such as utility but rather about ongoing efforts to improve our moral perspective through shifts from position A to position B, as we reorient ourselves and our moral intuitions through argument and the experience or careful consideration of specific moral problems. I think he confuses the purposes of moral philosophy with the far, far more important purpose of morality itself, though — as one might expect a philosophy professor to do.

Humanity doesn’t desperately need moral philosophy, except when it gets moral thinking wrong (which is admittedly a frequent occurrence, but that is a contingent fact, not a fundamental aspect of moral thinking, I’d argue). What humanity does need desperately is morality itself, and the better the moral rules are by the abstract metric of utility, the more we will flourish. Reconciling our intuitions is secondary. Better a human race, in other words, that remains very confused about the basis of morals but enforces the rule “Don’t murder” than a human race that debates, argues, philosophizes, reconciles theories, and decides at the end of the day to kill someone.

Again: the purpose of morality is to prevent harm and foster happiness, not to make our thoughts jibe neatly, important though that latter function may seem to a philosophy professor (and to philosophy buffs like me). It is a sort of academic elitism to think that the grand conversation of moral philosophy is more important than the functional, practical rules that keep people from getting mugged and raped.

This point is closely related, really, to my reasons for instinctively preferring conservatism to liberalism — bizarre as that may sound, given that I’m the one defending abstract metrics and Taylor is the one defending rich cultural embeddedness. But my recurring underlying point — in political, religious, scientific, and moral arguments — is that reconciling ourselves to real-world consequences and empirical facts is more important than mastering “theory” of any sort. If you achieve some metaphysical stunt like reconciling Rawlsian models of fairness and Marxist dialectics, or achieve some religious-apologetic stunt like reconciling the existence of evil with a pantheistic reformulation of Christianity, it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is the real world, made of dirt, gas, human flesh, bullets, buildings, viruses, and plywood. Describe that world accurately — in ways that everyone could in principle verify — and give us practical rules by which the average person can navigate that world, and you’ve done a good deed. Get lost in the realm of theory — or even the self-justifying realms of legal precedent, constitutional doctrine, or other political processes — and you’ve simply handed rule of everyday life over to one or another mysterious priesthood — likely lawyers, legislators, or college professors of some sort.

Morality is not an armchair exercise for comfortable intellectuals — it is the set of rules by which we keep savages from setting your house on fire and by which we discourage the guy in the next office from taking credit for your work. Everyday life, which Taylor explicitly denigrates as a moral standard, really should trump the dreams of philosophers, the theories of liberal academics, and, yes, thank goodness, the grandiose and brutal premodern/non-utilitarian warrior creeds and so forth that helped keep humanity miserable for so long. Long live the bourgeoisie and the pragmatic rules that keep it safe and prosperous, theoretical objections notwithstanding!


Jeez, over 2,200 words and, as usual, I feel guilty for barely scratching the surface, but I’ll leave it all there for now (Taylor shares my Beckett-like anxiety about never have said enough to cover all my bases, by the way, but could use a dash more of my contrary fear, admittedly weaker, about rambling on too long).

If, after reading all that, you need a dose of anti-philosophical writing, by the way, here, from two years ago, is one of the funniest essays on political philosophy I have ever read, if you can laugh at a McCain foreign policy advisor lightheartedly explaining, as Robert Kagan does, why “I Am Not a Straussian.” And if you have strong feelings about McCain one way or the other, of course, you must attend the Debate at Lolita Bar I’m hosting tomorrow night at 8.

1 comment:

Jacob T. Levy said...

Todd urged me to comment on this post, but I’ve written plenty about Taylor in the past twelve months already. Follow the link for bits and pieces about what he’s been up to.