Reconsidering the Sources of the Self in the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Periods

Longer Narrative

In 1989, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor published an extraordinarily ambitious and far-reaching exploration of modern selfhood and its historical origins. He set out to express and clarify what he describes in the Preface as  “the ensemble of (largely unarticulated) understandings of what it is to be a human agent: the sense of inwardness, freedom, individuality, and being embedded in nature which are at home in the modern West”. These are topics that go to the heart of the enterprise of the humanities, and indeed are relevant to all of us.

Taylor’s analysis of the modern sense of self in Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Harvard University Press) is intimately connected to the historical analyses with which the book opens.  In particular, he explored the origins of the modern self in three distinct aspects:

• first, modern inwardness, the sense of ourselves as beings with inner depths, and the connected notion that we are “selves”;

• second, the affirmation of ordinary life which develops from the early modern period;

• third, the expressivist notion of nature as an inner moral source. (Sources of the Self, x)

The building blocks of this exploration, especially for the pre-modern periods, were an unabashed selection of “great books”: Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, Descartes’s Meditations, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and so on. The range alone of the selection, and the adventurous readings of it that Taylor essays, are part of what has made the book so influential across the academy (and also one of the few academic books that has captured the attention of the wider public).

In many ways, however, Taylor’s most significant contribution comes in the first hundred pages or so of the book. The lengthy section entitled “Identity and the Good” sets a paradigm well ahead of its time for talking about the self in the intersection of philosophical exploration and lived experience. The observations that all selves are formed in “webs of interlocution” (Sources of the Self, page 36), for example, or that “one cannot be a self on one’s own” (ibid.), are important re-framings of a longstanding tradition of defining the self in isolation from others. These observations have several equally important corollaries: that every self is situated within a—generally unarticulated—moral framework that entails constant qualitative judgements; that these judgements might be incommensurable with those of others; that part of the work of being a self, therefore, is to attempt to narrate this moral framework to others. We need to make sense of ourselves to others within moral space. Universal categories and universalizing claims may not be either necessary or justifiable in this context; likewise, one cannot make sense of the demand that we should step outside our moral intuitions to essay an “objective” view from nowhere. Particularly striking is the observation that our condition “can never be exhausted … by what we are, because we are always also changing and becoming” (Sources of the Self, 47).

It is now almost thirty years since Sources of the Self was published. In that time, although various scholars—including the PIs of this project, and several of its contributors—have made use of Taylor’s work, there has been, to our knowledge, no large-scale reappraisal. The book has not prompted the sort of wide-ranging chronological and disciplinary conversation we might have expected. This workshop and subsequent planned publication is therefore both a thirtieth-anniversary celebration and a reconsideration of Sources of the Self.

In planning the workshop, we have borne two principles particularly in mind. First, the chronological range of the workshop contributions will extend from antiquity to the early modern period, seeking in particular to fill the most significant chronological gap in Taylor’s work, the almost twelve hundred years between the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and René Descartes (1596-1650). We have also chosen to be more eclectic than Taylor in the narrative sources taken for consideration, moving well beyond writings traditionally considered part of the history of philosophy to encompass—for example—archaic Greek epic poetry, patristic treatises and sermons, canon law, and Renaissance autobiography.

Second, in our preliminary discussions of the workshop, and in our selection of participants, we have taken up particularly the first two of Taylor’s three themes quoted above: the “sense of ourselves as beings with inner depths,” and the “affirmation of ordinary life.” We are looking to move beyond Taylor’s theme of inwardness to explore the role of embodiment in concepts of the self. This will inevitably involve taking into account the role of gender in embodiment and lived experience. Indeed, in emphasizing the self as embodied, we also seek to amplify and extend the “affirmation of ordinary life.” Taylor situates the origins of this affirmation in the early modern period; with our more eclectic range of sources, we can test the notion that it in fact extends back through the middle ages and into antiquity. Furthermore, we trace a positive notion of embodiment and its relation to the self even into unexpected authors—Plotinus or Augustine, for example.

Our reconsideration of Taylor’s Sources of the Self promises both to serve as homage to a fundamental work in the history of philosophy and to do justice to its ideas by extending their field of application and, where relevant, critiquing them. Sources of the Self has yet to receive the concentrated recognition that is its due. This project will begin to amend that lack.

Taken in a wider perspective, this project reflects important developments in philosophy, and indeed within the humanities more broadly. First and foremost, there is the insistence on the self as something that can only be properly understood within a corporeal context. After a long philosophical tradition that divided the self—or, according to period of writing and discursive context, the soul or the spirit—from the body, and considered the former as far superior to the latter, the dominant trend is now to treat the self as inevitably involved with, and inconceivable apart from, the body. This trend obtains in philosophy, psychology, and (contemporary) theology. But the implications of this trend have yet to be widely appreciated in historical texts and contexts: there is much re-reading to be done. This re-reading will be well represented in the planned workshop.

A second dominant theme is the assigning of value to the everyday towards which Taylor points in his “affirmation of ordinary life.” This, again, has swept through disciplines with a contemporary focus, and has also been increasingly important in various historical disciplines. The growing popularity of micro-histories, which originates with such works as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou in the 1970s, speaks to this valorization of the everyday. Studies based in feminist or gender theory in a range of disciplines have been another way of grounding selves in lived experience. The historiography  of philosophy, however, has been slow to catch up with this embrace of the everyday. The current project will begin to rectify the situation in two ways. First, some of the contributors will situate acknowledged classics in the history of philosophy more broadly within their author’s interests and intellectual preoccupations. Second, contributors will explore how philosophical themes are exploited, both explicitly and implicitly, in texts and authors well outside the philosophical canon.

In sum, therefore, this project sets out to reevaluate and rethink the sources of the self in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. While the initial framework for our discussion is set by Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, we plan to provide a more comprehensive historical overview and to build bridges to more recent theoretical work. Some of that work (particularly the emphasis on embodiment) serves as a development of, and sometimes a corrective to, Taylor’s own emphases (e.g. his discussion of inwardness). Other aspects of recent scholarship provide new ways of extending Taylor’s insights (e.g. on the affirmation of ordinary life).


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