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Fr. 521

June 9, 2014

Additional textual considerations from Sources of the Self further underline the ethical faultline inherent to the notion of proposing the resources necessary for the modification of elements of our identity. Taylor is keen to highlight a certain impossibility of dividing person from identity with which the person or interlocutor must reckon. He begins with the more general claim that the human being cannot do without some form of moral framework:

“Rather the claim is that living within such strongly qualified horizons is constitutive of human agency, that stepping outside these limits would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as integral, that is, undamaged human personhood” (p. 27).

Yet this way of reckoning with this imperative remains in the abstract, and so Taylor ties moral framework and undamaged personhood to the question of identity in order to lend the imperative a somewhat more familiar wording:


“Perhaps the best way to see this is to focus on the issue that we usually describe today as the question of identity. We speak of it in these terms because the question is often spontaneously phrased by people in the form: Who am I? But this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand” (p. 27).

This passage does more than simply reinforce the moral framework-identity equivalence on which we have drawn and which permitted us to draw the link between Taylor’s moral framework and Stout’s individual. More importantly, it sets the stage for Taylor to show just how tight are the bonds between our identity and our personhood. Without identity, there is no personhood.

Having established this link, Taylor returns to the concrete examples that he has set out elsewhere in order to suggest, if not spell out, an essential moral consideration:

“People may see their identity as defined partly by some moral or spiritual commitment, say as a Catholic or an anarchist. Or they may define it in part by the nation or tradition they belong to, as an Armenian, say, or a Québecois. What they are saying by this is not just that they are strongly attached to this spiritual view or background; rather it is that this provides the frame within which they can determine where they stand on questions of what is good, or worthwhile, or admirable, or of value. Put counterfactually, they are saying that were they to lose this commitment or identification, they would be at sea, as it were; they wouldn’t know anymore, for an important range of questions, what the significance of things was for them” (p. 27).

When we challenge ourselves or another person to modify some element of identity, we also thereby challenge indirectly their personhood, and this is how the challenge is often experienced. We should therefore not be surprised when this challenge meets with some resistance. For, for ourselves or others, we seek to provoke an epistemological crisis. Taylor lends this phenomenon a slightly different cast:

“And this situation does, of course, arise for some people. It’s what we call an ‘identity crisis’, an acute form of disorientation, which people often express in terms of not knowing who they are, but which can also be seen as a radical uncertainty of where they stand. They lack a frame or horizon within which things can take on a stable significance, within which some life possibilities can be seen as good or meaningful, others as bad or trivial. The meaning of all these possibilities is unfixed, labile, or underdetermined. This is a painful and frightening experience. What this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space […]” (pp. 27-28)

It should perhaps be noted at this time that Taylor’s goal in elaborating this line of thought diverges somewhat from our own. Taylor’s primary goal in these early chapters is to show, to the humanist-scientistic-utilitarian perspective, that it is impossible to divorce human beings from identities with which strong forms of evaluation are bound up. This is, after all, an integral part of their personhood. Yet this point carries with it a secondary point, in line with that which we are highlighting here. Although identities are contingent formations, identity itself is not. Accordingly, it is important to know the ways in which particular instantiations of identity come apart from the formal(-pragmatic) elements proper to identity in general so that we might be able to approach more reasonably the prospect of identity modification or transformation. Such transformation is likely to be small scale rather than wholesale.

Here, our point rejoins Taylor’s to an extent. For those holding dogmatically to a humanist-scientistic-utilitarian approach, it is not a simple matter to ask a person to abandon religious views or identity. Indeed, it suffices to consider what it would take to cast off this background completely and to adopt an entirely new way of thinking. While not impossible, it would certainly involve a moment at which the religious person no longer feels him or herself to be a person in any meaningful sense of the word.  For this identity is not simply how they think but, in some sense, what they are. As per Taylor’s argument, to lose that part of themselves (at least entirely) would prove equivalent to a stripping away of their humanity. For this reason, as concerns modifications of identity, we should be careful, in addition to avoiding hidden normative charges, to prompt ourselves and others to nuance, broaden, expand, etc. rather than give up entirely. In sum, the work is one of local transformations, but this all hinges on knowing how beliefs hang together in the first place, for which an endeavor like ours seems an important groundwork.

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