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Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity [Paperback]

by Charles Taylor
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 1, 1992 0674824261 978-0674824263 Reprint

In this extensive inquiry into the sources of modern selfhood, Charles Taylor demonstrates just how rich and precious those resources are. The modern turn to subjectivity, with its attendant rejection of an objective order of reason, has led--it seems to many--to mere subjectivism at the mildest and to sheer nihilism at the worst. Many critics believe that the modern order has no moral backbone and has proved corrosive to all that might foster human good. Taylor rejects this view. He argues that, properly understood, our modern notion of the self provides a framework that more than compensates for the abandonment of substantive notions of rationality.

The major insight of Sources of the Self is that modern subjectivity, in all its epistemological, aesthetic, and political ramifications, has its roots in ideas of human good. After first arguing that contemporary philosophers have ignored how self and good connect, the author defines the modern identity by describing its genesis. His effort to uncover and map our moral sources leads to novel interpretations of most of the figures and movements in the modern tradition. Taylor shows that the modern turn inward is not disastrous but is in fact the result of our long efforts to define and reach the good. At the heart of this definition he 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 wealth. In telling the story of a revolution whose proponents have been Augustine, Montaigne, Luther, and a host of others, Taylor's goal is in part to make sure we do not lose sight of their goal and endanger all that has been achieved. Sources of the Self provides a decisive defense of the modern order and a sharp rebuff to its critics.

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This book is primarily a historical account of the modernist protest against the disengaged and instrumental modes of thought and action that arose when theistically grounded morality crumbled, but that themselves focused too little upon our inner life, i.e., our powers of creative imagination and the substantive goods of ordinary life, which Taylor alleges give meaning to human life. Associating each ideology with a particular conception of our identity as selves, he defends the modern view, keeping in mind that self-realization must recognize that some things are important beyond the self. Taylor rambles somewhat and often talks about " the good," as though human beings were fungible in their capacities for appreciation and action; but the wealth of illustrative material and frequent insights are thought-provoking. For scholarly collections.
- Robert Hoffman, York Coll., CUNY
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674824261
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674824263
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 3.6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,573 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
128 of 134 people found the following review helpful
Taylor took two years to write this book; it took me nearly as long to read it! It is a five-part tome of 525 pages of text and 71 pages of footnotes. In this entire collection I cannot remember a single section that could be read without my complete concentration. Quiet and solitude are minimal prerequisites before tackling this book - a good grasp of the history of philosophy wouldn't hurt either.
The sources to which Taylor refers are the moral ideals, ideas, and understandings that have dominated in various historical eras. Taylor's basic premise is rather simple, "we are only our selves insofar as we move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good (p. 34)." His purpose is not to specify the good, that is, he does not seek to set normative definitions or qualifications. His purpose is to show that self-definition requires a framework in which to be understood.
The historical course of his narrative begins with the classical perspective. In this view, self was dependent on a vision of the True or the Ideal. The hierarchical nature of reality presupposed in classical thought meant that self-definition was subservient to the whole. Traditional Christian thought embraced the classical perspective and the preference for self-definition by externals.
Obviously, this short sketch of classical thought seems to be absurdly irrelevant in our contemporary world. Self is definitely not defined in relation to externals, but by an extreme interiority, complete rejection of hierarchical schemes, and the assumption that reality is defined empirically rather than conceptually.
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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A True Classic! March 28, 2005
Sources of the Self is an exceptional piece of scholarship. In SOS, Taylor engages in a course of philosophical anthropology to demonstrate that our understanding of the self as interior is by no means universal. For Taylor, understandings of the self are inextricably linked to our understandings of the good. Thus, self-understanding is directed by evolving conceptions of the source and location of the good. This idea has been lost, according to Taylor, because of the narrow conception of the good in our modern world and the naturalist suppression of moral ontology.

Taylor defends this argument in two ways. First, he provides a strong argument that the self exists within inescapable moral frameworks. "To know who you are" Taylor argues, "is to be oriented in moral space." These frameworks are composed of hierarchical moral distinctions (i.e., some things are viewed as better than, or more important than others -- for instance, in our time, the notion of respect for persons). Second, Taylor argues that previous goods have been victim to historical suppression.

The bulk of the text is aimed at re-articulating historically suppressed goods. This illustration provides a fascinating romp through the history of ideas from Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau and MANY others, as well an interesting pieces about cultural history (e.g., the Puritans, art theory, etc).

One caution -- this is NOT an easy read. The argument itself is in the first few chapters, the remander is illustration. But keep the argument in mind the whole way. You will have to work to get through it - but it is well worth it! You will never see the self the same way again.
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76 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An articulate philosophy of man October 1, 2000
With 'Sources of the Self' Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written a seminal work along the lines of Ernst Cassirer's classic 'An Essay on Man'.
Deploring the minimal ethics of modernity and dissatisfied with post-modern nihilism, Taylor positions his moral theory in the Aristotelean tradition of 'ethos'. But Taylor does not embrace a pre-defined, teleological destiny. Rather, his premise is that in articulating 'the self' we will discover who we are, what we are supposed to do and where we are going.
Taylor's quest into what made man into what he is, is traced back to classic Greek thought and Augustinian theology. Subsequently the author takes us to early modernity: from Locke, via Neoplatonists like Shaftesbury, to the period of Romanticism. Eventually this odyssee of the mind is germinating into present-day man as a self-expressing creature.
The richness of Taylor's argumentation is often dazzling; here speaks a man of wide and deep erudition, an authoritative voice of intellectual history, seemingly equally at home in science, history and the arts.
In the post-modern wilderness of de-construction, Taylor's articulate and subtle history of mentality is an intellectual joy.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self July 14, 2009
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has written two extended studies of what many people describe as modernity. The more recent of these books, "A Secular Age" (2007) examines the ways in which modern life became increasingly secularized or "disenchanted". Taylor in that book offered a long historical and analytical discussion of how people had, over centuries, tended to move away from a religious, transcendental outlook on life. Taylor received the Templeton Prize for this impressive study.

Nearly 20 years earlier, Taylor wrote the book I am reviewing here, "Sources of the Self" (1989). This book is, if anything, more difficult to read than its successor. The book addresses the same complex of questions as does "The Secular Age", but from the other end. Rather than focusing on God and secularization, the book describes "the making of the modern identity" -- concepts of human selfhood and human personality that have helped made modern life what it is.

Both books show a great deal of erudition and take an approach both analytical and historical. As Taylor says, in order to know where we are, we have to know where we have been. In "The Secular Age", Taylor identifies himself at the outset as a practicing, believing Catholic. In the earlier book, he keeps his hand somewhat more hidden. His own commitments might even be missed under a casual reading of an extraordinarily dense book.

Although the book wanders and lacks strong focus, Taylor's primary interest lies in showing what gives meaning to life. In the opening Part of this five-part book, Taylor explores the relationship between views of personal identity and views of the good.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars watershed book
one of the most important books I've ever read that provided both an overview of the origins of modern western society, provides a history of philosophy, and helps one to explore... Read more
Published 16 months ago by jham
5.0 out of 5 stars Egoism Revisited
Sources of the self-identity are multifarious, as Taylor shows. The essence, I believe, of his argument is that modern man/woman has misplaced ego for soul. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Phyllis Antebi Ph.D
5.0 out of 5 stars bicycling?
This fine book was actually brought to my attention by Cycling - Philosophy For Everyone. Cycling is made up of chapters written by different authors, and the chapter that... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Just Me
5.0 out of 5 stars Sources of the Self book
The book i purchased was in wonderful condition. It arrived in a timely manner, and I had no problems. I would recommend purchasing books from this seller.
Published on April 5, 2009 by Julie A. Kress
4.0 out of 5 stars Exhausting, but enlightening!
Another reviewer wrote: "Taylor took two years to write this book; it took me nearly as long to read it! It is a five-part tome of 525 pages of text and 71 pages of footnotes. Read more
Published on October 21, 2008 by Shaytaan's Most Wanted
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential book for anyone interested in following up the Socratic...
Charles Taylor is among the most learned of contemporary philosophers, and has the gift of taking a familiar story or idea from the history of philosophy and giving it new life,... Read more
Published on March 3, 2008 by N. Andersen
3.0 out of 5 stars Great, BUT
I read this very popular, yet scholarly, and extolled book when it first was published, and found it elegant, helpful, and problematic. Read more
Published on March 17, 2006 by D. S. Heersink
5.0 out of 5 stars "immersion" course in the ideas
Someone told philosophy is simply a specific genre of European literature; I would tend to agree if permitted to add that to validate itself as "philosophy" the opus has to include... Read more
Published on February 14, 2005 by Derzila
5.0 out of 5 stars A Substantive Theory of the Good
Taylor would like to revitalize the ancients' emphasis on what he calls a substantive theory of the good. Read more
Published on February 5, 2005 by Ryan L. Lanham
5.0 out of 5 stars From community to self- and the evolution of ethics...
Taylor is an important voice in today's philosophical community- one that refuses to give in to the excesses of either postmodern relativism or extreme conservatism. Read more
Published on November 8, 2004 by Nicq MacDonald
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