What is identity? What is a self? How has selfhood changed over time?

Those are the questions that Charles Taylor, a philosopher with a historical method, sets out to answer in Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989). His book is an investigation of how the modern sense of what it means to be a person came into being through the influences of philosophers and popular thought. To that end, he first lays a philosophical foundation, then offers a history of selfhood that is somewhere between straightfoward intellectual history and a history of mentalités.

Taylor’s basic argument is that the concept of the self in linked to morality. Morality means not simply a set of claims about what one ought to do or not do to be moral; rather, it means what one ought to be or not be. Morality is related to the self by what Taylor calls a framework. How one thinks about oneself depends (1) on what one considers to be the Good and (2) how one relates to that Good. If this all sounds very philosophical, it is. But the insight is rather simple, though profound: you can only think of yourself as you think of yourself in relation to what is most important.

Taylor’s insight that selfhood is dependent on the Good and on one’s relation to it permits him to ask how those conceptions of self have changed over time, as people held to different goods and related to them differently. The bulk of the book is spent on a sweeping exposition of the changes in the self, running from Plato to Augustine to Descartes to Locke to Montaigne to Protestant Christianity to the Victorians to the present. In brief, the transition the Taylor describes is from an external sense of the self to an interior sense of the self. It is also a transition from finding meaning in extraordinary deeds to one that finds meaning in everyday actions.

I am fairly averse to using theory in the practice of history, but I find Taylor’s work to be extraordinarily useful. At the minimum, it provides a set of questions of interest to the historian of religion. How did people conceive of who they were, and how did their religion influence their conceptions? His work also provides a way of thinking about the question of religion and the self. Taylor argues that the self is undefinable apart from the Good, so it follows that religion, which defines the Good and how to relate to it for many people, is a powerful key to understanding people’s sense of self. This is a way to use religion as a lens to another topic, yet without treating religion as something merely epiphenomenal. Then too, Taylor provides a fairly compelling narrative of the differences in the self over time. I suppose that for myself, it is also appealing that Charles Taylor is himself a Catholic, and so is working to some degree within the Christian philosophical tradition.

I hope in time to make all this philosophizing here a bit more concrete in my own work on conversion. Conversion, after all, is a fundamental change in the self, usually taking the form of new relationship to God, the world, and the community. To take just two examples, what is the difference between a seventeenth-century Puritan in New England undergoing the anguish of conversion and a twentieth-century Cuban Catholic in Miami venerating Our Lady of Charity? The difference is one of ritual and creed and community, to be sure, but also of conceptions of the self.