Our Pasts, Ourselves
CHARLES TAYLOR (1989), Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
When we borrow the language of philosophy and social theory to talk about ourselves, we often talk in an impoverished way. Trying to say what we care about, what makes sense of ourselves and our lives, we find ourselves using large abstract terms, such as “the good,” “the right,” “utility.” The relation of these terms to the actual fabric of our lives, to our strivings and our commitments, is puzzling. Sometimes the terms seem too vague to connect with anything that really matters when we make judgments in ordinary life. This lofty vagueness has been among the standing targets of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, as in J. L. Austin’s remark, “If only we could forget for a while about the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.” (Even within the analytic tradition, though, this call to concreteness has not always been heeded.) And sometimes the discrepancy lies deeper: not just in an abstractness that might be fleshed out, but in a deliberately reductive strategy, in a style of thinking that seeks to deny or to repudiate the diversity of the goods that people recognize in their lives, and the specific quality of their commitments to those goods.
Such reductive strategies play a part in many areas of social thought. They take a variety of forms, but common to most of them is the claim to have provided a more “scientific” view of the human being than is available in what is sometimes pejoratively called “folk psychology.” One common strategy is naturalistic: the observer assumes a detached perspective and attempts to describe the human being as just one more part of the physical world of nature, using no language that would not be used to explain the behavior of other physical objects. Some such enterprises involve the reduction of all psychological and mental language to physiological language. Others continue to use psychological language, but in a mechanistic way, treating the human subject as a thing that is activated by stimuli in specifiable ways. In both cases, the view that human subjects have of