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

Framing (some) self in the Platonic dialogues
Mary Margaret McCabe, King’s College London

Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self offers an ambitious genealogy of modern conceptions of the self, beginning with Plato. . On Taylor’s account, as on that of many others, Plato addresses the structures of goodness and the nature of the self by an extreme idealism, advocating the philosopher’s escape from the cave away from the banalities of ‘ordinary life’. Both Plato and Taylor describe this journey in terms of the turning of the soul to a reality outside; but Taylor draws the conclusion on Plato’s behalf that this gives him a strictly externalist account, with no attention paid to the ‘interiority’ of the first-person standpoint. I shall offer three brief considerations against this view and I shall suggest an explanation of it, namely a particularly narrow way of reading Plato. First, a consideration from metaphysics: the framing of the dialogues in the banalities of ordinary life corresponds to a running question about persons which is not merely couched in terms of counting persons or selves, but in terms of their persistence and development, notably focussed on personal pronouns. Second, a consideration from epistemology: while it is true that Plato’s epistemology is not driven by hyperbolical doubt, his account of vision and the turning of the soul is much more complex than Taylor suggests, embedding the standpoint of the viewer into a response-dependent account of vision (and relying on the written context of the dialogues). Third, a consideration of virtue: Plato’s account of virtue is answerable both to ordinary life and to the self who leads it. The question ‘who will you become?’ (asked in the Protagoras and followed through in Republic and Euthydemus) is both more interesting and more challenging to Taylor’s conception of modernity than he can allow.

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