Taylor, Charles (1931–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD089-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 21, 2020, from

4. Strong evaluation and the self

In a similar fashion, Taylor argues that human agents necessarily engage in different orders of cognition and evaluation. We engage in practical reason always against a background of ‘strong evaluations’. These are simultaneously intellectual and moral commitments that constitute us as knowers and judgers, and that make possible our more specific and immediate knowledge and judgments. Such commitments may vary, but are necessary to the constitution of the self.

Modern moral philosophy has tended to focus on what it is right to do rather than on what it is good to be, and on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life. In this, it reflects the reliance on the notion of a disembodied, decontextualized and disengaged subject pioneered by post-seventeenth-century science and the epistemology to which it helped give rise. Accordingly, it is a philosophical priority to reconstruct both the dominant modern understandings of the self and alternative interpretations of human agents. Taylor takes on this task in Sources of the Self (1989). A key feature of human agency, he shows, is that it is constituted only within frameworks of strong evaluation – whether these are traditional notions of the primacy of honour, Platonic accounts of the virtues of reason and self-mastery, modern understandings of the expressive power of inner selves or the virtues of counting everyone’s interests equally. The historical story of the changing character of the modern self is thus inextricably an account of the transformation of more capacities, because these are rooted in changing constructions of agency. Changes in the idea of self, moreover, were often driven directly by attempts to resolve moral or religious problems, though their long-term results were sometimes to undermine the theological or other commitments that give rise to the new conceptions. A crucial moment in this process was the transformation in evaluation of ordinary life, the movement of the world of work and family from the margins of morality to the centre of the modern agent’s moral commitments. This helped to make possible new positive understandings of the self as a physical, including sexual being, and contributed both to utilitarianism, with its reckonings of all manner of satisfactions without reference to the hierarchy that had previously denigrated those of ordinary life, and to Romanticism, with its understanding of the primacy of individual expression (see Subject, postmodern critique of the §1).

Citing this article:
Calhoun, Craig. Strong evaluation and the self. Taylor, Charles (1931–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD089-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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