Charles Taylor’s 1989 book Sources of the Self is about 600 pages long, drawing on history, philosophy, poetry, music, and art to explain how the modern Western sense of self and identity came to be. Starting with Augustine, Taylor describes how people conceived of themselves from antiquity, and how a new understanding of the self started during the time of Descartes and the Enlightenment. These new selves were characterized by their inwardness, their interest in freedom, individuality, and a sense of being embedded in nature. “We have yet to capture, I think, the unique combination of greatness and danger, of grandeur and misère, which characterizes the modern age.”
We asked Taylor how he struggles with big questions, what his research process is like, and how he felt as he wrote Sources of the Self.
Chris Bloor, a former student of Taylor’s, discovered Sources of the Self while working at a soul-sucking consulting job. In this essay he explains how it changed the course of his life.