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Fr. 517

June 2, 2014

Fr. 516 concluded with an analysis of the universal/particular categories of which Charles Taylor makes use with regards to identity and moral frameworks in the early sections of Sources of the Self. From there, we established a preliminary (re)classing of these categories and included some suggestions for concrete instantiations that come to fill these categories. As we wrote there in relation to Taylor’s examples:

“Perhaps, it is possible at this time to distinguish some provisional, general elements of identity or individual on the basis of this universal/particular universal (or universal calling)/particular tripartition.

Universal: rights of the legal subject
Universal calling: proselytizing religions, political associations
Particular:  nonproselytizing religions, nation, ethnicity, language, interest groups, subcultures

How much further we can push these elements remains to be seen.”

Indeed, the question is precisely to what extent these elements can be further elaborated. As regards this question, Taylor himself recuses this question to a large degree. Recall his remarks to the effect that:

“We often declare our identity as defined by only one of these, because this is what is salient in our lives, or what is put in question. But in fact our identity is deeper and more many-sided than any of our possible articulations of it” (Sources of the Self, p. 29).

As to the first half of this statement, Taylor’s observation proves quite on the mark; everyday experience and some reflection seem to confirm the matter. Expanding somewhat on this initial observation, it seems relevant to add that not only do we declare ourselves as being defined by only one element of our identity, but that we do so relative to some context of identity with or from which we seek to identity to clarify our stance on that context and its attendant problems. Generally speaking, it is not inconceivable that a person may identity as a leftist in a political context, a Canadian in a national context, an urban explorer in a social context, etc., without the utterance of one excluding the utterance of another at a later time. Accordingly, this first statement requires some nuancing to which Taylor himself might well be open. If the formation of identity or individual is context-dependent, the affirmation of some element of identity or individual is no less context-dependent.

As concerns the second half, Taylor seems to want to acknowledge identity and individual’s manysidedness without delving further into its constitution. At this time, we can hazard two guesses as to why this is. On a more charitable reading, Taylor might consider such an exercise unnecessary as identity is in some sense inexhaustible. For any particular human being to give expression to his or her identity or individual, he or she would need to synthesize in some coherent whole the work of the numerous persons, contexts and identities as well as changes over time. As it is at least plausible that such a work would prove neverending for even that human being in possession of all relevant information and resources, the author might be right to forewarn us of the futility of such a task. After all, if the human being is liable to have changed at the moment the inventory is completed, if not before, then it seems better indeed to leave him or her with the possibility for change or transformation which might be otherwise be paralyzed by just this thoroughgoing cataloguing of identity and individual.

Yet there is also a less charitable reading. On this, we might suspect that Taylor simply labels it inexhaustible as a way to put the question to rest. There are perhaps good reasons for this, as we have already suggested in the preceding paragraph. To these reasons, we could add several others. First, the question does stand the risk of becoming overly abstract at the cost of accessibility to the non-academic. Linked to this is the understandable concern that we are not dealing with something existing objectively in the world as a thing. Taylor voices something like this concern when he notes that:

“But the very fact that what was once so solid [moral frameworks] has in many cases melted into air shows that we are dealing not with something grounded in the nature of being, but rather with changeable human interpretations” (p. 26).

Faced with these interpretations, Taylor understandably classes his own account as an interpretation, albeit a well-grounded one in leaning on the justificatory standard of the best account available. To penetrate any further into self would unsurprisingly require further interpretation of an entity without a concrete correlate.

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