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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1994
  • Online publication date: June 2012

8 - Literature: Romantic expression or strategic interaction?


Charles Taylor's philosophical anthropology has much to offer literary critics, and his most recent major study, Sources of the self: the making of the modern identity, is quite rightly receiving a good deal of attention in literary contexts. The curiosity of literary audiences is clearly piqued by the social and political philosopher's claim that literary discourse somehow helps articulate the moral sources that are constitutive of the modern identity. Taylor thus joins a select group of Anglo-American philosophers (including Stanley Cavell, Alexander Nehamas, Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty) whose distinctive voices are gradually changing the terms and direction of on-going literary debates.

The literary tribe is always flattered by the favourable attentions of outsiders, and the relevant emotion is all the more intensely felt when the recognition stems from a member of a group that typically exhibits little patience with the literati's characteristic goals and less-than-rigorous interpretive approaches. Yet the appeal of Taylor's work cannot simply be explained in terms of the dynamics of academics' interaction, and clearly has to do with the particular view of modernity being proposed. The key issue, I believe, is signalled by the term ‘philosophical anthropology’, which Taylor characterises, in the introduction to his Philosophical papers, as a certain understanding of human life and action. Questions of agency have long been central to Taylor's philosophical project, and in this sense a common focus unites his technical refutation of behaviourism, The explanation of behaviour, his study of a central philosophical figure, Hegel, and his ambitious intellectual history, Sources of the self.