Posted by: gcarkner | January 9, 2020

Provocative Quotes on Identity from Charles Taylor

Provocative Quotes from Charles Taylor on Language, Morality and Identity


A society of self-fulfillers, whose affiliations are more tentative, revocable (without covenant) and mobile, cannot sustain a strong identification with community.

[M]y discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined 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. (Sources of the Self)

I want to defend the strong thesis that doing without moral frameworks is utterly impossible for us; otherwise put, that the horizons within which we live our lives and which make sense of them have to include these strong qualitative discriminations. Moreover, this is not meant just as a contingently true psychological fact about human beings … 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. (Sources of the Self)

Our language has lost its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us, but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist), the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our incapacity of seeing well and impacts our flourishing. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity. (A Secular Age)

We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining our identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression. (The Language Animal)

Language changes our world, introducing new meaning into our lives, open to the domain it encodes. Language doesn’t simply map our world but creates it. (The Language Animal)

We can come to see the growth of civilization, or modernity, as synonymous with the laying out of a closed immanent frame; within this civilized values develop, and a single-minded focus on the human good, aided by the fuller and fuller use of scientific reason, permits the greatest flourishing possible of human beings. … What emerges from all this is that we can either see the transcendent as a threat, a dangerous temptation, or an obstacle to our greatest good. Or we can read it as answering to our deepest craving, need, fulfilment of the good. … Both open and closed stances involve a step beyond available reason into the realm of anticipatory confidence. (A Secular Age)

Constitutive language can open new spaces for human meanings and identity: new terms, new expressions, enactments, new fields of articulacy and how to recognize and bring to expression new domains of meaning. 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.  (The Language Animal)

Language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life…. Language is the domain of right and wrong motives. (The Language Animal)

We make these meanings exist for us by enacting them, then expressing them, naming them, critically examining them, arguing about them, fighting (sometimes) about them.  (The Language Animal)

Hermeneutics (interpretation) 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 and palpable or real for us. 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 of interpretation are rooted in an overall philosophical anthropology. This process of searching for coherence within ourselves, within our moral framework, is essential to a healthy, robust identity and essential to our own integrity. Whatever meaning we attribute to the part has to make sense within the whole, whose meaning it also helps to determine. (The Language Animal)

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. (Sources of the Self)

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. (Sources of the Self)

We generally reproduce the society in which we are brought up because we have been trained in certain “habituses”, which are not at all stereotyped reactions, but flexible modes of improvisation. A habitus is basically the reembodied sensibility which makes possible structured improvisation. To take on a habitus  is to embody certain social meanings. (The Language Animal)

I want to claim that a complex of key human phenomena, norms, footings, institutions, social orders, political structures and the offices that figure in them are constituted and transformed in discourse, often in rhetorical speech acts which purport to refer to established values, or invoke existing structures, but which in fact bootstrap [such values]…. The animals were indeed there before their names were ever uttered, but the language we have to describe the political life of Athens is the precipitate of  the constitutive discourse in which this life came to be. (The Language Animal)

Stories give us an understanding of life, people, and what happens to them which is peculiar (i.e., distinct from what other forms, like works of science and philosophy, can give us), and also unsubstitutable…. It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time…. We must have a take on reality and what constitutes progress, or we entertain an identity crisis…. How I tell my story defines my identity, which is central to being a self.  Each of us has an inner biographer—linking past, present and future mental states. This kind of temporal (diachronic) mapping is essential to a healthy identity…. It is imperative that I care about my future self as much as my present self…. As we grow morally, our maturing meanings involve us in seeing better, believing better and ultimately living better. (The Language Animal)
God’s love is one active contemporary source of the good, the love of which has empowered people to do the good and exemplify the good in their character, social life and politics. Taylor suggests that to avoid nihilism, we need a transcendent turn to avoid the extremes of self-hatred, guilt and shame; or alternatively the extremity of hating morality itself—spiritual lobotomy. The transcendent turn to agape becomes vital: “The only way to escape fully the draw toward violence”, he writes, “lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence—that is, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life” (Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?, 1999, 28).
Diversity Skill Set & Wisdom for Dialogue
  • Able to pursue ideas amidst diversity and think for yourself.
  • Champion a continual search for the truth, and disagreement with lies and deception, propaganda, poor scholarship.
  • Beware: too much choice can be harmful to one’s psychological and sociological wellbeing.
  • Don’t buy into relativism or subjectivism (unfortunately, 70% of Canadians do just that). It cannot be lived well—definitely notgood for human flourishing.
  • Remember that your personal opinion might be poorly examined and ill-informed, weak empirically, bigoted or seriously biased.
  • Celebrate high values/virtues/ideals: honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, decency, respect for life, good environmental stewardship, taking responsibility for your behaviour and for others (inclusive humanism).
  • Shun dishonesty, cheating, abuse, exploitation, theft, fraud, plagiarism, things causing emotional pain and suffering to others, the not-so-good or dark side of human character.
  • Ask yourself what leads to a truly good life?
  • Learn to distinguish between good, better, best decisions. Not all theories or worldviews are of equal value. There is a hierarchy among the moral goods.
  • Think about the consequences of your actions and decisions, including the unintended ones.

Charles Taylor and the Modern Quest for Identity: 

Dialogue on a Great Mind

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner &  Dr. Marvin McDonald

4:00 pm, Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Henry Angus Room 241, UBC


Charles Taylor’s Moral Ontology of Frameworks:  Taylor’s Moral Ontology.current

Posted by: gcarkner | December 16, 2019

Advent Reflections 2019

 Everything is New in 2020 in Light of the Incarnation

He Comes, God is Coming, Can’t You Feel It?

God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, trust is forged between word spoken and the reality of which it speaks, between the words we speak and transcendent realities to which we point. The Word became flesh … a human life … a work of art … shaping a new humanism … a new community … a new social imaginary. Integrity is his name. God with us is the hope of a new creation, a new covenant, new purpose, abundant new life.

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi (1609-1629) Photo: Wikimedia Commons


At just the right time, it was kairos time, richer, deeper, more meaningful than any chronological time. He comes to dwell among us in incarnate human flesh: pulsating corpuscles, arms and legs running to greet us, face filled with compassion, hands breaking bread to feed the masses, words that give life and vision, fuel the imagination about justice, righteousness and passion. Here lies the great invitation to counter nihilism, violence, lies, will to power.

The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before…. What is possible is to not see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes past you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed, like Moses in the cleft of the rock, watching God’s [back] fade in the distance. So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon. (Jan L. Richardson, Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas)

It is high time to slow down and search the deeper things of life, reach higher than ever before for a transcendent I-Thou encounter with divine Otherness. It is time to ponder the big questions of meaning, purpose and identity as the profound light from heaven dispels darkness and confronts evil. Indeed, there is more here than meets the eye, and there is plenty of wonder that captivates. Where are our best philosophers, historians and scholars, poets and scientists? What say they about the dramatic Christ event? There are clues to a great turn in history: both fulfilment and promise. What kind of thunderous inbreaking is this? What’s the meaning of this virgin birth, this epiphany of grace, these angelic visitations? Advent is a sign of good things to come for Mary, for the Jewish people, for the whole world. It speaks of infinite hope.

We have touched him with our hands, rubbed shoulders, gone for long walks, felt his robust embrace, dined and broken bread together, heard wisdom from his lips that set our minds and hearts on fire. We have been embraced by his care and inclusion. We have captured a mission that drove us to reach the world. It was a compelling message of dikaiosune justice, caritas grace and agape love, one that drills down deep into human culture. Deep calls to deep. We saw him die and rise again, ascend through the heavens. He has inaugurated an economy of grace and goodness, humility and compassion.

Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | December 5, 2019

Epiphanic Encounters


Mary Encounters the Wholly Other

Luke 1: 26-56

Epiphanies are suggestive of transcendence. Michael Morgan (1994, pp. 56f)) points out that Charles Taylor sees a parallel between the epiphanies of art and poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the I-Thou epiphany of religious encounter with the divine. Taylor elaborates the idea of epiphanies (1989, pp. 419f, especially 490-93). He sees Post-Romantic and modernist art as oriented to epiphanies, episodes of realization, revelation, or disclosure. Epiphanies and epiphanic art are about a kind of transcendence, about the self coming in touch with that which lies beyond it, a ground or qualitative pre-eminence. One might call it a gift of the imagination or a re-enchantment of reality.

Taylor reviews various ways of articulating epiphany in Sources of the Self (1989, pp. 419-93). He articulates how God, inserted into this idea of epiphany, fits as a moral source (Sources of the Self, pp. 449-52). Epiphanies can be a way of connecting with spiritual and moral sources through the exercise of the creative imagination: sources may be divine (Taylor), or in the world or nature (Romantics like Thoreau), or in the powers of the imaginative, expressive self (Michel Foucault).

These epiphanies are a paradigm case of what Taylor calls recovering contact with moral sources. A special case of this renewal of relationship between the self and the moral source is religion and the relation to God, which he sees in the work of Dostoyevski. The relationship to art parallels the relationship to religion. The self is oriented in the presence of the inaccessible or sublime, that which captures one’s amazement or awe, for example, when one’s eyes are riveted to a certain painting like Monet’s Lillies, and one’s inner emotions are deeply moved by a poem. One is taken beyond oneself, in an experience of transcendence; the experience involves both elements of encounter and revelation. It can come in a discovery such as finding out the chemicals in our bodies were once part of the death of a star; we are stardust, embedded in creation itself; we owe the stars our very life.

When Mary hears from an angel that she is to become the vessel of a most profound turn of events in history, she is in awe, overwhelmed. It is truly an epiphany, an I-Thou encounter with radical alterity. Heaven and earth reach out to each other at this juncture and something dramatic occurs. This news changes everything. Time stands still in this kairos moment. She allows transcendence and immanence to intermingle within her body, her life. Mary’s story is punctuated by the incursion of the eternal into the temporal, informed by the descent of transcendence into a historical teenager’s life. We know it as the incarnation. D. Steven Long writes in Speaking of God (309): “The purpose of the church is to recognize and acknowledge those conditions by which we can, like Mary, say yes to God and in so doing make Jesus present to the world. Those conditions are the way of holiness and that assumes the transcendentals—truth, goodness and beauty.”

Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | November 28, 2019

Christmas Reading Suggestions


The God Who Plays by Brian Edgar

The True Story of Canadian Human Trafficking by Paul Boge

Postcards from the Middle East by Chris Naylor

All the Light We Do Not See by Anthony Doerr

Christ the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams

On the Road With Saint Augustine by James K.A. Smith

The Runes of Evolution: How the Universe Became Self-Aware by Simon Conway Morris

The Psalms as Christmas Praise by Bruce Waltke & James Houston

The New Testament in its World by N.T. Wight and Michael Bird

This Day: Sabbath Poems 1979-2013 by Wendell Berry

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Margaret R. Ellsberg editor)

Czeslow Milosz: Selected and Last Poems 1931-2004.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World  by Tom Holland 

On the Future Prospects for Humanity by Martin Rees

The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral by David Brooks

The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith by Sy Garte, Alister McGrath

Ernan McMullin and Critical Realism in the Science-Theology Dialogue by Paul Allen

Blowout by Rachel Maddow

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

Science and the Good: the Tragic Quest for Foundations of Morality by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism by Jens Zimmermann  Dr. Anders Kraal, UBC Lecturer in Philosophy on “Philosophy’s Struggle with God”


Christmas on the Edge by Malcolm Guite

Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of  turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge a galaxy itself light years
From some unguessed at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.

And from this day our  world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed,
The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.

Posted by: gcarkner | November 16, 2019

June Francis Speaks on Our Narrative of Diversity

Recording of June Francis Talk on Diversity November 20 at UBC


Posted by: gcarkner | November 6, 2019

Climate Change: a Christian Response

A Christian Response to Anthropogenically Generated Climate Change

Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of British Columbia

Summary statement: “the really inconvenient truth about climate change is that it’s not about carbon–it’s about greed”.

Since 1990 the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change process has demonstrated with ever increasing precision the correlation between carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at Hawaii’s Geophysical Observatory and the average temperature in the northern hemisphere. And the focus of the discussion has been the rising temperature, hence the expression “global warming”. But climate is about much more than temperature: it includes incidence of flooding, aridity, glacier melt, permafrost thawing and much else. And the driving force is much more than just carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. It is no less than the cumulative behavior of society, especially our neo-liberal consumer society. The driving force behind our society is quite simply greed and the irresponsible, unsustainable way in which we use our resources.

One of the most helpful books on climate change is by Mike Hulme, a Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia in the UK. The book is called “Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity” (Cambridge University Press). He uses biblical imagery to enlighten the discussion. He points out that climate change is not a physical problem looking for a solution (although in 1990 this was the way in which the problem was couched by the IPCC) but to use his phraseology, climate change has become a kind of Christmas tree onto which we all hang our favourite baubles. He highlights the way in which the issue has been appropriated by so many different groups to promote their own causes. Four ways of thinking about climate change, Hulme suggests, can be labelled: (1) Lamenting Eden; (2) Presaging Apocalypse; (3) Constructing Babel; and (4) Celebrating Jubilee. These are all biblical metaphors which imply that climate change is not a problem to be solved but an idea of the imagination that requires deep reflection.

Lamenting Eden: This perspective views climate as a symbol of a pure and pristine Nature. Climate becomes something fragile that needs to be protected or saved. This is an idea which is associated with Western Enlightenment and treats Nature as a category that is distinct from Culture (the so-called Nature/Culture binary). A suggested Christian response would be to recognize the profound interdependence of Nature and Culture and to reject the ecotheology of the deep ecology movement.

Presaging Apocalypse: This view appeals to our instinctive fear of the future. Wildly exaggerated predictions of environmental collapse is an ineffective, counterproductive way of inducing behavioural change. A suggested Christian response is to examine very closely the extent to which such disaster scenarios are consistent with the available data.

Constructing Babel:  A confident belief in the human ability to control Nature is a dominant attribute of the international diplomacy that engages climate change and geo-engineering is a dangerous instance of humanitiy’s hubris. A Christian response would be to be highly suspicious of the claims of geoengineers. The Enlightenment project objectivizes climate through standardized measurement and quantification: hence prediction, management and mastery are the foci.

Celebrating Jubilee: This critique uses the idea of justice, freedom and celebration. This way of thinking about climate change uses the language of morality and ethics. For those in social and environmental justice movements climate change is not merely a substantive material problem nor simply (as in lamenting Eden) a symbolic one. Climate change is an idea around which their concerns for social and environmental justice can be mobilized. Climate change offers humanity the chance to do the right thing.

Climate change cannot be understood by focusing only on its physicality. We need to understand the ways in which we talk about climate change. What climate change means to us lies beyond the reach of science, economics and political science. “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meanings, we will be alone, on an empty shore”. (Stoppard, 1993, Arcadia). Christians can safely change the conversation and introduce the language of faith in a loving God.

The four ways of thinking about climate change above are mirrors that reveal important truths about the human condition. Lamenting Eden tells us of our desire or even yearning for a simpler time. Presaging Apocalypse tells us of our worries about the future. Constructing Babel tells of our desire for mastery and control. Celebrating Jubilee tells us of our human urge to respond to injustice. Climate change opens up new ways of understanding the greed, willfulness and structural causes of inequality and injustice in the world, but also reveals the limits of individual moral agency.

Other Material on Creation/Environment Care

Earth-Wise by Calvin B. DeWitt (Faith Alive Christian Resources 2007, 2nd ed.)

The Care of Creation ed. RJ Berry (InterVarsity Press, 2000)

For the Beauty of the Earth: a Christian Vision for Creation Care by Steven Bouma-Prediger (Baker Academic, 2001)

Serve God Save the Planet by Mathew Sleeth, MD (Zondervan, 2006)

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community   by Wendell Berry

Blowout by Rachel Maddow

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore

Christ the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams

Posted by: gcarkner | October 30, 2019

Identity in Story: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

Narrative Identity: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

People see the world through the lens of belief; it is a search for meaning such as the good life. We need an existential (metabiological) reason for why we exist beyond the pragmatics of mere biological survival. These beliefs or social imaginaries can vary widely, from some religious or spiritual convictions to agnosticism to pure atheism or nihilism. Nihilism is a view that ironically poses a meaning of meaninglessness. Is this perhaps part of our current dilemma, our existential identity crisis? Why do we sometimes weaponize our identity? What do our best thinkers say?

In his articulation of moral mapping, eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor looks to narrative depth as a defining feature of the moral self, identity and agency. Narrative is consequential to the stability and continuity of the moral self over time; it comes in the shape of a personal quest. Taylor gets this notion of self involved in a narrative quest from Alasdair MacIntyre (C. Taylor, 1989, 17, 48). Narration of the quest for the good allows one to discover a unity amidst the diversity of goods that demand one’s attention. The continuity in the self is a necessary part of a life lived well in moral space. He sees narrative as a deep structure, a temporal depth in his thick concept of the self. This adds another texture or dimension to its communal richness.

The good is more than a concept outside the self, an ideal of a life lived well. It is also something embodied, carried in one’s story and the story of one’s community. Community-narrative is a way to understand and mediate the good, be empowered by the good. Taylor writes,

This sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story …. Making sense of my life as a story is not an optional extra …. There is a space of questions which only a coherent narrative can answer. (C. Taylor, 1989, 47)

The key issue is the unity and past-present-future continuity of a life, over against a strong focus of the self-as-discontinuity–a view promoted by Michel Foucault, where the quest is to get free of oneself (one’s past).

The movement for Foucault is towards the ever-new, re-invented self, a self which dislikes vulnerability, and tries to avoid being known by the Other, wedging itself loose from history and community, as seen in the last blog post. The narrative depth is not a priority for Foucault, and there is a minimum interest in continuity of the life with the past. Foucault’s is a very future-oriented self, one that desires to escape the self of oppression history, power-knowledge, the self as a normalized entity. A moral norm speaks of oppression to him.

Taylor, however, believes that one’s story, properly understood, is an essential part of what constitutes the moral self. Thus, for him it becomes relevant to ask, “What has shaped me thus far?” and again, “What direction is my life taking in terms of the good?” or “Does my life have weight and substance?” (Taylor, 1989, p. 50). Taylor suggests that a healthy self must explore questions about the larger span of one’s life, beyond the here and now. This person is not only interested in the immediate present, or an escape into a fantastic future: “My sense of the good has to be woven into my life as an unfolding story.” (Taylor, 1989, p. 47). The pressing question in this dialogue between Taylor and Foucault is this: What is the way to substantial freedom? Is it denial/deconstruction of the burdensome past? Or is it fathoming one’s narrative depth of identity and marking out the trajectory of one’s narrative quest, in order to make sense of one’s story? Taylor wants to argue for executive control over one’s story, mitigating the pressures of cultural trendiness. Tied into this is the concept of a call on one’s life.

In his The Language Animal, Taylor writes: “Stories give us an understanding of life, people, and what happens to them which is peculiar (i.e., distinct from what other forms, like works of science and philosophy, can give us), and also unsubstitutable.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 291).  A key insight here is that:  “It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 319). We must have a take on reality or we entertain an identity crisis. How I tell my story defines my identity, which is central to being a self.  We each have an inner biographer—linking past, present and future mental states. This kind of temporal (diachronic) mapping is critical to a healthy identity: Where have I come from?  Where am I going?  What time is it?  What are my challenges and opportunities? What are my goals? It is imperative that I care about my future self as much as my present self. Narrative is vital to my overall social, psychological, and spiritual health and flourishing. We need great stories to live by and make sense of what’s going on underneath our skin.

In this argument for narrative dimensions of the self, Taylor draws on French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1992, pp. 113-68) who has written extensively on the important difference between ipse and idem identity. Idem-identity refers to the objective stability of one’s identity over time (read as a succession of moments) and outside time, character traits that don’t change with time. Ipse-identity is more fluid and dynamic, as per one’s personal identity as an unfolding character in a novel. It develops in the temporal becoming of the self. It is carried through memory and anticipation, and linked with narrative temporality. Crucial to ipse-identity is the ongoing integration of past, present and future in a unified fashion, a narrative unity (C. Taylor, 1989, 50). Many a story relates the journey from childhood to adulthood, one of moral growth (bildungsroman).

There are two significant implications of these two features of identity through time. One is the possibility of the future as different from the present and past, the possibility of redeeming the past, in order to make it a part of the meaning of one’s life story (C. Taylor, 1989, 51). It is to bring a fresh interpretation of, for instance, one’s suffering, failures and disappointments. Foucault wants a new future as well. But narrative does not allow for a discontinuity with the past, a refusal of past identity or origins–a strong feature in Foucault. Taylor cautions against any avoidance of wrestling with the past:

To repudiate my childhood as unredeemable in this sense is to accept a kind of mutilation as a person; it is to fail to meet the full challenge involved in making sense of my life. This is the sense in which it is not up for arbitrary determination what the temporal limits of my personhood are. (C. Taylor, 1989, 51)

The past, grappling with the meaning of the past, seeking healing from past hurts and failures, is vital to the healthy self as a narrative. Psychoanalyst Jordan Peterson agrees and through his program A Self-Authoring Suite, he has helped many Millennials to sort through the problems in their past that keep them from moving forward. In Sweden, it has reduced university student drop out rates by 20%. Taylor agrees with Foucault that it makes sense to set a future trajectory for one’s life, to project a future story, to have what MacIntyre calls ‘a quest’.  This promotes the sense that one’s life has a direction (C.Taylor, 1989, 48). He is equally open to personal creativity.

Because we cannot but orient ourselves to the good, and thus determine our place relative to it and hence the direction of our lives, we must inescapably understand our lives in narrative form, as a ‘quest’. (C. Taylor, 1989, 51, 52)

This quest requires a telos or goal, and for this, some knowledge of the good is required. Taylor believes in narrative in the strong sense—a structure inherent in human experience and action, narrative as a human given, an essential part of reflection and self-interpretative in the human moral agent. This narrative is embedded in community where one is accountable to other narratives in other interlocutors He sees these conditions as connected facets of the same reality.

For Foucault, the trajectory of the quest is definitely towards the beautiful (aesthetic self) rather than the good. In Foucault’s self-constitution, there is a strong will to escape the past, especially with his heavy emphasis on the continual reinvention of self. He does not want to leave a trail in the character of the self. It entails a very limited, abstract relationship to narrative. This is precisely where Taylor can correct or complement Foucault’s work on ethics and identity. He seems to be pressing the question as to whether I can so easily accomplish this escape from my past self, and whether this attempt is a boon or a problem for my self. There appears to be a deficit in the narrative unity and continuity of the self that is endemic to Foucault’s liberation strategy for the future. The continuity of the self is heavily in question, perhaps even broken in a harmful way.

In Taylor’s sense, Foucault is suggesting a self-articulation that attempts an escape or liberation from one’s earlier, historical self, untying/excising self from past identity. The assumption is that the earlier self is in the iron cage of power/knowledge, which prevents the future self from a positive emergence in full freedom and creativity. He believes in a horizontal transcendence of self. Foucault’s focus of concern is the becoming of the self (ipse-identity), the re-scripting of the self in the future, the self re-written. But he is very weak on the idem-identity. There is a common interest in both Taylor and Foucault, in the future of the self, but a sharp disagreement on the relationship with the past. The outcome is that there would also be a major difference in the stability and possibilities for the future self.

Taylor’s scenario maintains continuity with the past, attempting to resolve past issues and pain. Foucault’s scenario maintains a radical discontinuity with the past, seeing a need to deconstruct it, escape it, disrupt its hold on oneself, and change one’s identity in order to hide from the chains or the pain of the past (the fugitive outlook). There is difficulty here: the pursuit of a complete, discontinuous re-invention of self (which Foucault celebrates) is to court psychosis and possibly to do oneself personal damage (C. Taylor, 1989, 51). It is easy to imagine that some very extreme forms of life could emerge out of assuming such discontinuity and experimentation. Imagine a lying dictator who refuses accountability for his past actions or words. In Taylor, on the other hand, the good is interlaced with narrative and community in order to provide the self with more infrastructure, roots, accountability and depth of meaning. The quest should be to resolve the issues and problems of the past in order to maintain authenticity and integrity.

What can one conclude from the above discussion? With Taylor’s vision as a corrective to Foucault, one can build on Foucault’s strengths in the arts of escaping domination with its strong sense of responsibility for one’s self-creativity and self-empowerment, and moderate his extremes (the most blatant is social anarchy and violence, or blatant narcissism). As we say above, Foucault seems to miss the point of the idem-identity (the continuous aspect) as an essential part of the self—the unifying aspect of character. The individual self does have a significant part to play in the process of the development of character. All selves have creative possibilities too. Both great thinkers agree that taking responsibility for one’s self-constitution is a mature strategy.

Nevertheless, the two disagree dramatically on the importance of a thoroughly situated self with a freedom that is also intimately contextualized in a relationship to the good, to community and narrative. Taylor offers insights on the contours of the self that Foucault was philosophically blind to. His approach shows a more complex dimensionality of the self, while Foucault’s self is more stripped down.  These insights seem to be important in making intelligible sense of the moral self and the meaning of one’s life, ultimately shaping one’s whole identity. It also offers a dimension of normative accountability and structure for meaning.  I can check your past actions to see whether I should trust and hire you into an important job in the present. In general, Foucault over-plays the factor of power and the aesthetic to exclusion of the good in the moral self. His moral self is very power-laden. The moral horizon is a clear additive to Foucault’s thinking and offers a helpful critique of his minimalist moral self.

~Gordon Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology

p.s. Perhaps it is time to stop asking why we are here and start praying for a vision for world impact, Dream Big:

Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago 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.

Posted by: gcarkner | October 29, 2019

Identity in Community: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

Communal Identity: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

How do we map our identity onto the communal landscape? Such a map is actually an articulation of one’s moral ontology. Taylor believes that we are vitally linked to our moral framework. How is identity formation interwoven with the constitution of the good life? How do we become a good person? A strong qualification in Taylor’s notion of the moral self is the communal or inter-subjective aspect of self-constitution. The good is not a free-floating ideal, but truly something embedded in human story and community. This aspect of his moral ontology stands in stark contrast to Foucault’s individualistic (rebellious) moral subjectivity. In Taylor’s view, the self is partly constituted by a language, one that necessarily exists and is maintained within a language community, among other selves.

There is a sense in which one cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who are essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of language of self-understanding … a self exists only within …‘webs of interlocution’. (C. Taylor, 1989, 36)

These webs of interlocution prove significant for Taylor; the Other is critical to one’s moral self-constitution. In his view, there is a necessary, ongoing conversation with significant others which is critical to one’s moral identity development. In Taylor’s terms, there is a myth in Foucault’s moral self, which says that one can define self in terms of a relationship with oneself alone, and more explicitly in relation to no communal web, that true creativity and originality demands that one should work out their own unique identity (C. Taylor, 1989, 39). For Taylor, this is not possible at a practical level. It is rather an artificial and unhealthy abstraction of what it means to be human. Thus, against the backdrop of Taylor’s convictions about the play of the good in moral ontology, the character of Foucault’s quest for freedom can lead in an unhealthy direction, towards the isolation of self, and painful loneliness. It opens a key question of what is important to moral constitution and what fuels healthy agency and subjectivity.

These two grande pensée philosophers are in fundamental disagreement on this issue of self-definition with respect to the community: Taylor’s communal self contrasts starkly with the Foucault’s radically individualistic self. Taylor (1989) contests that:

I define who I am by defining where I speak from, in the family tree, in social space, in the geography of social statuses and functions, in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also crucially in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out. (35)

The first half of my PhD dissertation outlined Foucault’s ethics of freedom and the aesthetic self. For him, moral self-constitution means that one defines oneself over against the social matrix. Taylor disagrees and sees the benefits of a self which is integrated into a social matrix, even if withdrawn temporarily for perspective. Foucault sees the need for disruption; Taylor pursues integration. Taylor notes that even from one’s earliest years, one’s language for the moral must be tested on others. Matthew Crawford agrees with this (M. Crawford, 2015, 183-85), and contends that the lack of such dialogue can lead to moral autism. Gradually through this sort of relational-moral-conversation, the individual self gains confidence in what it means and in who she/he is as moral being. This is no small thing, but quite a profound aspect of what it means to be human and to have metabiological meaning. The Other must also be granted her intrinsic integrity, voice and presence for this dialogue/interlocution to be effective.

One is moved, even transformed, by the lives, the wisdom and the deeper understanding of the Other. Taking his picture of moral ontology a step further, Taylor argues for self as socially embedded in its moral constitution. One relates to the good, not only as an individual self, but within a communal context, where the community also relates to and incarnates some good or goods, some ideals. Some today would use the language of values or moral convictions. This stands in contrast to the distinct lack of we (communal) language in Foucault’s grammar of the moral self. He instead promotes a more decontextualized, aesthetic self, which embraces an agonisme with respect to the social sphere of life. He is especially sceptical of social constructions of the good. The communal and narrative dimensions of self are not on Foucault’s map. He makes a move to return to agency, and yet lacks a full, robust version of healthy subjectivity. Here’s telling quote from William Connolly:

Foucault … cannot endorse this quest for attunement and self-realization. He proceeds at the second level, as a genealogist, deploying rhetorical devices to incite the experience of discord or discrepancy between the social construction of self, truth, and rationality and that which does not fit neatly. And the recurrent experience of discord eventually shakes the self loose from the quest for a world of harmonization, a world in which institutional possibilities for personal identity harmonize with a unified set of potentialities in the self, and the realization of unity in the self harmonizes with the common good realized in the social order. This quest for identity through institutional identification becomes redefined as the dangerous extension of “disciplinary society” into new corners of modern life. Genealogy exercises a claim upon the self that unsettles the urge to give hegemony to the will to truth. (W. Connolly, 1985, 365)

Community in Taylor does not necessarily entail uniformity, or a dull conformity and conventionalism, but rather can be a dynamic, growing economy of being-with-others. Community occurs even where there is disagreement between interlocutors. He opens this theme up beautifully and profoundly in his The Language Animal, chapters 6-8 (C. Taylor, 2016). But one cannot have community without some sort of normativity, some common commitment to the good. There is no value-neutral inter-subjective state of affairs. There should be no surprise that there is a notable link between Foucault’s avoidance of community and his transgressive attitude towards normativity.


Genuine, authentic community cannot exist without the normative–there must be a good or goods, virtues or values that we hold in common. This element is essential to trust and mutual respect. The interpretation of self in terms of its relation to the good can only proceed in recognition of self’s interdependence with other selves. Taylor (1989, 37) presses Foucault here: “The drive to original vision will be hampered, will ultimately be lost in inner confusion, unless it can be placed in some way in relation to the language and vision of others.” Foucault’s thin version of self is abstracted out of community, and out of narrative continuity, because of a concern to avoid domination, and a need to resist power relations. This is a classic overplay of his power relations and truth games. It is overreach.

~Gordon Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology.  James K. A. Smith @ Regent College on Augustine and Late Modernity

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

Connolly, W.  (1985) Michel Foucault: An Exchange: Taylor, Foucault, and Otherness. Political Theory 13 3 Aug.  365-76.

Crawford, M. (2015). The World Beyond Your Head: one becoming an individual in an age of distraction. New York, NY: Allen Lane Press.

Part II is on Narrative Identity

Some Reflections on How WE Got to Where We Are as a Society in the West: Dr. Anders Kraal, Philosophy, UBC

Posted by: gcarkner | October 11, 2019

2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Goodenough


The Award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to John Goodenough is noteworthy

He is aged 97 and still active in research!

His autobiography describes his fascinating scientific and spiritual journey.


Canadian Climate Scientist Katherine Hayhoe wins Prestigious UN Award

2019 Champions of the Earth Award


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Nobel Peace Winner Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian PM, also a Christian

Posted by: gcarkner | September 22, 2019

Special Lecture This Week September 26, 2019

Audio Recording of LectureL

Other Scholars Interested in Technology and Culture

Quentin Schultze

George Grant

Albert Borgmann

Jacques Ellul

Sherry Turkle

Bob Doede

From the beginning, machine technology was developed to function automatically…. designed and deployed  to function independently of unauthorized human interference and unimpeded by human frailties, inconsistencies, and irrationalities…. Modern technological development has as a result been moving away from ordinary embodied human existence for some time…. From within the technological worldview, human embodiment is simply not a particularly high priority. This, I want to suggest, betrays serious confusion about the nature of the created order as well as confusion about the human place and task within the created order.

~Craig Gay

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