What I Read In The Summer: Charles Taylor

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. This is part of a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

The critics of modern individualism are many, and Charles Taylor is one of the more articulate ones. The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) is a slim yet powerful volume. Many of its core theses have been discussed in more bredth in Sources of Self (1989); The Ethics of Authenticity, however, remains lucid despite its more distilled form.

Taylor makes an effort to analyze, interpret and evaluate the modern search for authenticity. He supports the quest for personal authenticity while criticizing its individualist side. For Taylor, leading an authentic life is not a solo effort, but rather a form of engaging with the society.

Taylor’s critique of individualist authenticities stems from his communitarian conception of self. The identities of persons are dependent of the social and historical circumstances they are born into. Identity is defined against the background of meaningful things, such as social relationships and history. While Taylor takes authenticity to be a core moral value, to be taken seriously, he argues that it, too, is dependent on the dialogical relationship between the individual and the social sphere around them. For something to be authentic, it needs to be justifiable, a qualification which, as well, takes a dialogical relationship with surrounding “others” to be possible.

Therefore, Taylor finds fault in a Lockean view of society as a tool for self-sufficient individuals to pursue their personal goals. For Taylor, neither society nor personal relationships are never to be treated as tools, as they are not only valuable parts of the authentic ideal, with the authentic person co-operating with others in order to create societal change, but also constituents of the authentic self. For example, long relationships are seen as areas of life where self-understanding is gained.

I find much affinity between communitarian self-conceptions, such as Sandel’s and Taylor’s, and new materialist theories (such as Barad’s and Haraway’s). The former is attractive because it places significance on our relationships, affinities and social identities, and does this without unnecessarily complicated metaphysics. There is an appealing sense of sincerity and simplicity about communitarianism. Advantages of new materialism include, in addition to a critical eye on the value of the status quos of society or tradition, a more specific, universalized theoretical framework for how exactly it is that the self and its surrounding community (and other surrounding factors) interrelate. This is definitely a theme I seek to explore more, and would like to gain a larger understanding of the variety of theoretical frameworks there are for understanding how identities emerge in relation to their material, historical and social environment.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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