Moral Topology

Published on Friday May 15th, 2009

Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self:

Our modern notion of the self is related to, one might say constituted by, a certain sense (or perhaps a family of senses) of inwardness… In our language of self-understanding, the opposition ‘inside-outside’ plays an important role. We think of our thoughts, ideas or feelings as beings “within” us, while the objects in the world which these mental states bear on are “without”. Or else we think of our capacities or potentialities as “inner”, awaiting the development which will manifest them or realize them in the public world. The unconscious is for us within, and we think of the depths of the unsaid, the unsayable, the powerful inchoate feelings and affinities and fears which dispute with us the control of our lives, as inner. We are creatures with inner depths; with partly unexplored and dark interiors. We all feel the force of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But as strong as this partitioning of the world appears to us, as solid as this localization may seem, and anchored in the very nature of the human agent, it is in large part a feature of our world, the world of modern, Western people. The localization is not a universal one, which human beings recognize as a matter of course, as they do for instance that their heads are above their torsos. Rather it is a function of a historically limited mode of self-interpretation, one which has become dominant in the modern West and which may indeed spread thence to other parts of the globe, but which had a beginning in time and space and may have an end.

Of course, this view is not original. A great many historians, anthropologists, and others regard it almost a truism. But it is nevertheless hard to believe for the ordinary layperson that lives in all of us. The reason this is so is that the localization is bound up with our sense of self, and thus also with our sense of moral sources.

So we naturally come to think that we have selves the way we have heads or arms, and inner depths the way we have hearts or livers, as a matter of hard, interpretation-free fact. Distinctions of locale, like inside and outside, seem to be discovered like facts about ourselves, and not to be relative to the particular way, among other possible ways, we construe ourselves. For a given age and civilization, a particular reading seems to impose itself. Who among us can understand our thought being anywhere else but inside, ‘in the mind’? Something in the nature of our experience of ourselves seems to make the current localization almost irresistable, beyond challenge.

What we are constantly losing from sight here is that being a self is inseparable from existing in a space of moral issues, to do with identity and how one ought to be. It is being able to find one’s standpoint in this space, being able to occupy, to be a perspective in it.


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