Posted by: gcarkner | May 5, 2019

Charles Taylor and the Challenges of the Late Modern Identity

Charles Taylor and the Late Modern Search for Identity

University students today are obsessed with finding, copying or creating an identity. Their lives are in major transition, with the responsibilities of adulthood looming on the horizon. One’s identity can feel quite fragile and cross-pressured, especially under the strain of final exams or thesis defence. Students swim in a sea of multiple declared identities, and this can be deeply challenging. One might indeed ask, Who am I?  For students in the humanities, social sciences and education, identity politics is a ubiquitous concern. Cynicism about the whole prospect of shaping one’s identity is not really an option for the flourishing, whole individual, the examined life. How do I give account of myself amidst a vast universe and a complex global situation, with its intense competition? How do I insert myself into the larger scheme of things?

Pre-eminent McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor is an iconic figure in this field of defining what exactly constitutes identity. He can introduce us to new language and new concepts that build substance into our story. This super scholar has written three weighty tomes on the subject: Sources of the Self, 1989; A Secular Age, 2007; and The Language Animal, 2016. We have the highest respect for his work and his ability to analyze the depth and breadth of forces and ideas that have shaped the West, with its multiple identities and many social imaginaries. Much scholarship has branched off from his work, including the various human flourishing projects (for example, Miraslov Volf at Yale), and his brilliant insights concerning rethinking the secular. Perhaps our grande penseé can help us grapple with this important aspect of development, lest we feel totally out of our depth. The current existential identity crisis among Millennials is impacting so many, so we have good reason to pursue the inquiry.

Identities are constituted from moral sources, claims Taylor, sources that nurture the inner person (aka the soul). Identity, morality and spirituality are inescapably interwoven in our lives, our experience and our consciousness, if we take time to think about it. We intuitively grasp this. Central to an account of human existence is the moral sources which appear within one’s moral framework (aka moral horizon). These moral frameworks are often invisible to people, pre-articulate realities that we nevertheless depend upon, and interact with, daily.  Our education is partly to blame, rendering us illiterate or confused on the most important identity categories and questions. For Taylor, these categories and the reality they represent are absolutely vital to our sanity and wellbeing. Our relationship to our moral framework has deep significance. If we are not careful, our negligence can also handicap or even cripple us. For example, if we do not grapple with the framework of others, dialogue and mutual understanding can be very difficult to accomplish, leading to conflict and alienation. We are out of sync with a very important aspect of life.

Taylor notes that there exists a hierarchy of moral goods within each framework, and it is up to the individual to order these goods in priority.  As a key aspect of one’s identity, there must be qualitative distinctions between the value of each of these goods. The highest, controlling good within a framework Taylor calls the hypergood–also seen as a person’s core passion. We have a deep personal and emotional connection to our hypergood–it orders the other goods in priority within the hierarchy of the moral frame. Identity is the understanding of oneself as a person within family, a story, a religion, a profession, a country, in fact all one’s significant relationships. Sometimes these goods come into conflict with one another (work and family, for example) and need to be negotiated, but these qualitative distinctions are intrinsic to the way we conduct our lives. Critically, they inform our orientation towards the world, help us set our goals, and plan our future. The best account of human experience has to make sense of these moral sources which, at the end of the day, become sources of meaning and identity.

Three axes of moral frameworks: these are not properly defined by natural laws of science

  1. Beliefs about the value of human life, the respect that is due to others, and what this will cost us, demand from us.
  2. Beliefs about what kind of life is worth living. This permeates all our choices and actions.
  3. The dignity we afford ourselves and others based on how we understand our role and usefulness to society, and our place or calling within the larger scheme of things.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

What exactly is a moral good in Taylor’s definition?

Beginning with humans and the way they experience morality, he claims that the most plausible explanation of morality is one that takes seriously humans’ perception of the independence of goods. He does not want to substitute a philosophical abstraction for how people live and think. To begin, he argues for the ubiquity of moral intuitions and judgments in human experience at a phenomenological level. These intuitions transcend basic human desires for survival, sex, or self-realization. They are also referred to as second-order desires, strong evaluations or qualitative discriminations. We notice the importance of the quality of the will. This concept of second-order desires appeals to the ancient idea of the good, one which although interwoven with the self, transcends the self in significant ways. We actually build a relationship with the good. Taylor follows in the tradition of his mentor Iris Murdoch at Oxford. Ethics is interwoven with morality for him.

Taylor recognizes the existence of a plurality of moral positions and constructions/frameworks, but he has a conviction that some features of the self are universal regarding moral self-constitution. He contends that there are certain features of the moral self and its world that are endemic or common to all healthy, sane persons. He recognizes plurality in the shape of human moralities, but does not follow the tradition of pluralism, ethical relativism, or strict constructivism. He argues for these features (dimensions of the self) according to the phenomena of reflective human experience, evident from the phenomena of human experience.

Ruth Abbey (2000, 29), a Taylor scholar, comments: “He does not suggest that in trying to explain morality we imagine a moral world devoid of humans and attempt to separate its subject-dependent properties from its objective or real properties.” He begins by claiming that all humans have certain moral intuitions, and all make moral judgments, including judgments about the behaviour of others. They all have a qualitative sense of their moral choices and deliberations; moral agency is not reducible to choice alone. For example, he points out that respect for human life is one of the deepest and most universally held moral instincts across cultures (1989, pp. 8, 11-12), which includes a concern for the other; it is not merely a characteristic of self-survival. For example,  “Human beings command respect in all societies; the West articulates this in the language of rights” (Taylor, 1989, p. 11). All societies condemn murder and lesser forms of abuse. When this respect is not shown to someone, it is judged negatively; there is moral conviction, an intuition about such behaviour. One exercises a moral or qualitative evaluation of the situation, appealing to some moral standard or moral good which transcends at some level the situation at hand and the parties involved.

Taylor further claims that these strong evaluations are humanly inescapable.

Our moral reactions have two facets … On the one side, they are almost like instincts, comparable to our love of sweet things, or our aversion to nauseous substances … on the other, they seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings. From the second side, a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of a given ontology of the human … The whole way in which we think, reason, argue, and question ourselves about morality supposes that our moral reactions have these two sides: that they are not only “gut” feelings but also implicit acknowledgments of claims concerning the objects. (1989,  pp. 5 & 7)

Taylor’s form of realism means that the emphasis includes both objective and subjective aspects (poles) of self and morality, a givenness that is both subjective and objective. Humans do not just act, but regularly evaluate, praise and condemn other’s actions and motives, and their own speech and conduct, always appealing to certain objective standards. According to Taylor, humans are strong evaluators by nature; strong evaluation is an essential feature of identity and a permanent feature of moral life (1989, pp. 3-4, 14, 15). He sees this capacity for evaluating or judging desires to be a distinctively and universally human one. He believes that human beings experience the goods that command their respect in a non-anthropocentric way, that is, as not deriving solely from human will or choice, nor depending only on the fact of individual affirmation of their value. He challenges the projectivist hypothesis (Taylor, 1989, 342). Hermeneutics or human interpretation is involved (moral convictions are human convictions), but there is also an objective element in this evaluation process that Taylor wants to make explicit and clear.

The term strong evaluation comes from Harry Frankfurt’s (1971, pp. 5-20) argument about second-order desires, that is, desires one has about one’s desires, evaluative desires (such as respect, or justice) that transcend other ‘biological’ desires (sex, safety, food and survival). Thus, they are meta-biological. These are “standards by which basic desires and choices are judged” (Taylor, 1989, p. 20). Humans experience a range of desires, but do not view them all equally; some are seen as higher, more admirable than others. Delayed gratification offers an example of this dynamic. There is a hierarchy and contrast in human desires (Taylor, 1989, pp. 4, 20, 47); individuals do not see all their values or desires as being of equal worth. Strong values imply an inherently contrastive and hierarchical situation; there is a higher and a lower. This articulation appeals to certain goods that are independent of the self and human choice (Taylor, 1989, pp. 58, 68, 74). These goods, however, are always related to the human moral situation, not merely abstract categories. Abbey (2000) captures the nuance of Taylor’s view.

The best account of morality must be one that incorporates the fact that individuals experience goods as being worthy of their admiration and respect for reasons that do not depend on their choice of them. Beginning with humans and the way they experience morality, Taylor claims that the most plausible explanation of morality is one that takes seriously humans’ perception of the independence of the goods. (p. 28)

This independence of goods is a vital concept to contemporary ethical debates. Taylor sees ethics and morality as intimately connected, not independent arenas.

Furthermore, as Flanagan (1996, p. 147) notes in his commentary on Taylor, this concept of strong evaluations is both descriptive of how people are and act, and also normative regarding what is required for full personhood. Individuals operate according to these working moral assumptions, says Taylor, even if they are not conscious about relating to, evaluating, sorting and ordering goods. The process is often tacit, unconscious or intuitive. Taylor (1985a) emphasizes this essential point and this fine distinction about the existential power of the good, its draw on an individual moral agent:

I want to speak of strong evaluations when the goods putatively identified are not seen as constituted as good by the fact that we desire them, but rather are seen as normative for desire. That is, they are seen as goods which we ought to desire, even if we do not, goods such that we show ourselves up as inferior or bad by our not desiring them. (p. 120)

Moral realism for him, means that (C. Taylor, 1989, 4, 20) strongly valued goods command the respect of individuals because of their intrinsic value, not one’s choice to value them. They are experienced as making calls or demands upon individuals, rather than being freely or arbitrarily chosen by them.

Taylor takes moral experience of the good seriously and imputes ontological significance to it.  For him, it is part of a moral landscape, and a web or skein of meanings. The good is a robust, heavyweight concept. He resists the slide towards moral subjectivism, which suggests that one’s choice among the various goods can only be justified according to mere individual preferences or inclinations. He does not accept this posture as valid. These preferences, claims Taylor, can be judged objectively and rationally discussed. Taylor claims that there is an inherent quality (goodness) to the moral good that individual selves ought to recognize and be impressed by. Taylor (1989, p. 42) offers a key test of a good: “Can it be the basis of attitudes of admiration or contempt? It raises questions about ‘what kind of life is worth living … what would be a rich, meaningful life, as against an empty one?” One can easily discern the difference in the goods appealed to: between medical relief work, housing the homeless and abuses like  international prostitution or child pornography. Taylor claims that this discernment, this instinct is linked to a second order desire, or qualitative discrimination–part of who we are and what we are made of as a healthy moral agent. The former garners admiration; the latter draws contempt.

Taylor wants the moral individual to affirm this capacity for evaluating or judging desires, claiming that there is a capacity within the human self (discernment) which can be revived and can help us examine critically our own desires and behaviour. This phenomenon/capacity is self-transcendence. He resists the stance of the nihilist, where the good is demoted to subjective choice or group values–the projection thesis.

Some important qualifications are in order for these qualitative distinctions.  Individuals are not always aware of the hierarchy that is in play. It can be invisible to consciousness, held pre-articulately or tacitly as a background to moral understanding. Secondly, the language of strong speaks more about quality than force or power. Thirdly, Taylor believes that all individuals are strong evaluators, but does not believe that they all value the same things strongly–plurality of conviction is real. He does, however, believe that some goods feature in all moral codes and are strongly valued by all cultures: for example, human life, wellbeing, and the dignity of the person. For further reflection on this point, see Dennis Danielson, The Tao of Right and Wrong. Based on this objective element, there can be rational debate about the various goods and their hierarchical value within a moral framework. Vital to the whole discussion is the claim that “strong value is both logically and ontologically prior to strong evaluation” (Taylor, 1989, p. 99). Intrinsic high value calls forth our strong evaluation.

How does this relate to the constitutive nature of language and the hermeneutics/interpretation  of self?

Here are some thoughts from Taylor’s The Language Animal: the full shape of the human linguistic capacity. Homo sapiens is the animal with logos, writes Aristotle. Human meanings, metabiological meanings, require constitutive uses of language (compare the alternative scientific type of language as designative/instrumental–naming the object in the world). These are two very different semantic logics which Taylor wisely clarifies. He wants us to become fully aware of the whole human linguistic capacity. Language is something between people, a basis for communion, something we share in common. Dialogue is a vital human cultural phenomenon.

This zone is the site of attempts to define the shape of significance. Its expressions be they enactments or verbal articulations, in symbol or philosophical prose, all aim to sketch some contour or facet of this overall shape of meaning in the hope … of an ultimate ratification in felt intuition. This involves making sense of our struggle to realize these meanings, and/or hermeneutical reasoning about human life more generally.(C. Taylor, 2016, 253)

Connection between human meanings and hermeneutical thinking: At our birth, we are introduced to a pre-existing skein (web) of meanings (Taylor, 2016, 255-6). Meanings are a combination (a ladder) of enactments, interpretation, ratified in human intuition. They would not exist without us, and we do not flourish without meaning. They can only exist for us through linguistic or other forms of expression such as art, music, or ritual. Words are powerful at opening up new meaning. Truth is involved: we can have a skewed or faulty sense/experience of metabiological meanings. As we grow morally, meanings involve us in seeing better, believing better and living better. Our field of strong value can in fact be realigned, become more accurate. Certain moral goods can inform our feelings and give us access to new domains of life, open new gates for our identity. What are the contours of such meanings?

  1. Ethical stances or footings start in human culture as inarticulate intimations; and these have to be given some shape, some interpretation–definition and clarification. The tacit must be made explicit. Articulation is power on this count.
  2. These meanings are interpreted and articulated differently by different people within different cultures, which inevitably results in debates, disagreements and conflict. They can also result in mutual learning and collaboration from a position of difference, but one with understanding of the other, care for the other. Conflict is not inevitable where attempts are made to reach out and listen to otherness.
  3. These meanings are defined, not singly and separately, but in skeins of constellations, where meanings of individual terms are defined in terms of each other. There are various forms of visual and oral gestalt or sense of the whole: for example, the good life or a life worth living. Hermeneutics means that the parts are only fully understood in terms of the whole. “Whatever meaning we attribute to the part has to make sense within the whole, whose meaning it also helps to determine” (C. Taylor, 2016, 218). Such is the complexity of meanings.
  4. This is what distinguishes human meanings from biological (organismic/materialistic/scientific) meanings. Designative or biological meanings are reductive by nature and cannot account for the beautiful nuances and varieties of human motivation and aspiration. An example of human meaning (constitutive-expressive) is an admirable way of being, rather than one’s mere statistical census existence. The right words help enable a new shape of human experience, new goals, new developments. We need fresh language and vocabulary to negotiate life ethically and morally. Words precede experience in the constitutive semantic logic. This brilliant insight offers hope for change, for grasping afresh one’s identity and that of others.
  5. Ethical meanings involve a sense of call, one which can be either transcendent or immanent, to which someone can respond, and which brings about a counter response (guided by a sense of rightness). “Language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life….Language is the domain of right and wrong motives” (C. Taylor, 2016, 261). Meanings call us to live up to what is important, as we get it more clearly in focus, strive for a higher, fuller, truer form of human life as individuals, as societies, and as humanity in general. This invokes human excellence (arête). Then of course there is the challenge of praxis of such high views.
  6. Hermeneutics of Self helps us make sense of human actions and reactions, responses and attitudes, behavioural causes and effects. This kind of reflection makes these humanly understandable, graspable. Such interpretation of self happens against the backdrop of a whole “landscape of meaning” within which an agent operates; this includes a whole constellation of motives, norms and virtues. Such packages are rooted in an overall philosophical anthropology. This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to our identity and integrity.
  7. Moral Growth (C. Taylor, 2016, 222) is also growth in ethical insight. This involves a tweaking of our present position, “getting better through seeing better”. Articulation, reflection and self-critique are involved. A healthy hermeneutical circle is active, a back and forth between enactment and interpretation, with a view to improving and getting it right eventually. This dynamic process is essential to human freedom and healthy agency. Openness here allows us to understand others and to continually improve our own moral applications. There must be a recognition of difference that others have as their “take” on moral meaning or the good. There are three rungs in the ladder of moral meaning: a. pre-articulate enactment/embodiment/performativity (existential habits); b. verbal articulation/naming of a norm with its crucial features (for example, a code). This can also be done as a work of art, symbol, metaphor  or a novel; c. fuller hermeneutical account of its overall role in our lives (rationale for the code, Ricoeur’s discours mixte). Thus, human rationality gainfully engages human morality. A key question arises for young Millennials: ‘How can we live in the house of meaning constructed by our forebears, or create a new one of our own?’ He also calls this the ethics of authenticity. A good example is given by Taylor with the concept of integrity and all it connotes: words and actions cohere; we pursue what is really important without deviation or distraction by contrary desires; we pursue wholeness and unity of motives, not brokenness and fragmentation; we overcome dispersal and contradiction, or self-stultification.

The package of morals, ethics, motivations and impediments, and its etiological story offers a palette of possible motivations, and their potential transformations. How well does this palette make sense of our experience and the ongoing narrative of human life as we see it now and in history? (C. Taylor, 2016, 216)

8. Symbol or Metaphor Explained (Epiphanies): In level b. of the meanings ladder, symbol, metaphor, music, work of art can replace word effectively as a constitutive enterprise. They open access to meaning that otherwise would perhaps remain inaccessible. Goethe says that symbol is a paradigm of constitutive expression. “It is an alternative way of offering new models to understand human life. It is a new route to regestalting, through enactment” (C. Taylor, 2016, 237). Ritual is also a form of enactment or portrayal that can provide restoration. Music offers a form of meaning, expressing a subject’s feeling and/or take on the world. These powerful works of art provide epiphanies or sources of identity, sources of the good, sources of the self: Sources refers to “the realities contemplation of which, or contact with which, strengthens our commitment to or élan [momentum] towards the good, or God, or Nature, or a force that is beyond us.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 249). Thus, the artist or poet can be impacted by her own art, which has a voice that speaks back to her, the artist. There is a feedback loop between experience and articulation. This aspect of his discourse on meaning can be quite profound.

Language can also open new spaces of human meanings: new terms, new expressions-enactments, new fields of articulacy and how to recognize and bring to expression new domains of human meaning: through metaphor, symbol, works of art. The disciplined languages of objective description suitable for science are comparatively late achievements of human culture.  “In light of all this, it is clear that the regimented , scientific zone can only be a suburb of the vast, sprawling city of language, and could never be the metropolis itself”  (C. Taylor, 2016, 263).

Thus Taylor wants to bring to our consciousness the often hidden importance of constitutive language. We will see how this plays out in various realms of human life and experience in future writing.

Abbey, R. (2000). Charles Taylor. Teddington, UK: Acumen.

Flanagan, O. (1996). Self-Expressions: Mind, morals and the meaning of life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frankfurt, H. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person. Journal of Philosophy 68 1  5-20.

Taylor, C. (1985a). What’s Wrong With Negative Freedom? In C. Taylor (Ed.), Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: the full shape of the human linguistic capacity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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