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Fr. 510

April 18, 2014

Strand and source:

A considerable part of Taylor’s Sources of the Self concerns just these titular moral sources. In showing how larger theoretical approaches draw on these sources, Taylor hopes to inflect our understanding of the relation between diverse contemporary strands of thought. Specifically, he aims to demonstrate the various ways in which such strands of thought can stand in relation to their moral sources, be this in avowed approval, avowed tension, unavowed approval or unavowed tension, amongst others.

One instance of unavowed tension between strand and source is undoubtedly that of Enlightenment humanism. As Taylor makes clear midway through Sources of the Self:

“Of course, an issue arises whether the specific background of Enlightenment humanism just sketched is ultimately compatible with materialism, and if so of what sort – whether this background doesn’t require some richer ontology of the human person and nature, if we are to make sense of it. But that is a different issue. Even if this materialist humanism turns out to be inconsistent, this still doesn’t establish that some other position, say Sade’s, is right. But it does raise the question of whether and how this humanism can make sense of the moral horizon it relies on, how it can give a sense to the universal value of ordinary human fulfilment and to the requirement of beneficence; more specifically, can it conciliate whatever does make sense of this horizon with the reductive thrust of its attack on religion and metaphysics?” (p. 336).

For us, the essential question is not one of whether Enlightenment humanism is compatible both with those strands of thought to which it is attached (e.g. materialism) and the moral horizon or source from which it flows. Our question is rather that of whether, as Taylor suggest, a given strand can make sense, on one hand, of itself in relation to its source and, on the other, of the source itself. More simply, what secures an account its viability is precisely this being able to make sense of itself, of being able to give an account for itself. Regardless of the accuracy of this assertion, it remains to be seen just why this is.

As we see it, there are two possible motivations for this assertion. The first owes to the general striving towards internal consistency and coherence in argumentation at large. This typically manifests itself in the call for a logical progression at the level of argumentation in which the conclusions follow from the established premises without the introduction or mediation of ungrounded claims alien to the progression. Yet this also comes out in a more pertinent form in Taylor’s “best available account”. Beyond the general standard of internal coherence described above, the best available account is precisely that explanation of self which provides the most thorough, satisfying, plausible and logically consistent explanation currently available without its pretending to absolute truth, unquestioned universality or immunity to future revision. More simply, this account is merely the account that provides the most satisfying (self-)interpretation of the self.

The second motivation for asserting that the viability of an account coincides with its ability to make sense of itself can be found in other contemporary approaches which also place a heavy premium on self-interpretation (or, perhaps better, self-exploration) and a system’s own self-interpretation. To mention only a few, proponents of narrativity such as Alasdair MacIntyre certainly fall into this category insofar as it is reorient diverse phenomena in terms of some narrative framework or another (this being in MacIntyre’s a tradition). Jeffrey Stout’s reflection on piety also meets these criteria: the self is naturally brought to consider the proper ways of showing gratitude for the sources of its existence, private, public and otherwise. This trend is also notable in “continental” thinkers. Foucault elaborates a vision of archeology and genealogy of subjectivity as a means of identifying how the subject arrived at this stage in its development with an eye towards effecting changes at a local level to alter certain elements or effects of subjective processes. At the level of interpreting our doings as thinkers, we could also point to the work of Deleuze or even Gadamer.

In short, what these examples and Taylor’s call for “making sense of oneself/itself” all share an element of self-interpretation in order to determine consistency with some horizon or other, in the broadest sense of the word. Even the grammar of identity that we hope to elaborate in time falls into a category of this kind insofar as the process of identifying relevant sources of the self qua subject and individual entails a work of self-exploration at the level of upbringing, family, community, nation, inner impulse, language, etc.. All of this assumes, in Taylor’s terms, that there are some kind of inner depths proper to us qua self. And these are so many ways of relating strand to source and source to strand.

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