Argumentation And Religious Identity: A Critical Study Of Charles Taylor

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Argumentation and Religious Identity: A Critical Study of Charles Taylor

Argumentation and Religious Identity: A Critical Study of Charles Taylor


A century ago, as Durkheim set out to institutionalize academic sociology, he made the development of a sociology of morality central to his intellectual mission. He intended to rescue moral discourse by displacing the individual. Morality turned, he argued, not on individuals' variant faculties, nor on moral choice as an exercise of free will, but on social processes more basic than individuals. The effect of a moral order was produced directly by social causes. (Jurgen 1984 42)

For the most part, sociologists have not carried forward Durkheim's task of creating a sociology of morality. We have tried to sever normative from empirical discourse even more sharply than he did. We have lost sight of the philosophical problems Durkheim thought sociology could solve. And as a discipline we have become "unmusical" in matters of moral discourse. Yet we remain true to the Durkheimian heritage in our avoidance of strong accounts of human subjects.' Even symbolic interactionists have largely abandoned Mead's focus on the self, and those sociologists who have turned recently to address (or rehabilitate) the role of "agency" in human affairs have largely tried to do so withe at focusing on individual subjects, either stressing instead the more anonymous workings of a decentered collective agency, or sticking to general statements about the importance of agency rather than specific analyses of its historical forms and variations. Conversely, explicitly individualistic sociologies (like the rational choice theory of Coleman 1990) take the individual largely for granted, treating the person as a naturally given entity rather than as a problematic or historically constructed category. (Nancy 1985 97-132)

Statement of Problem

In this context, Taylor's Sources of the Self (1989a; hereinafter cited without date) ought to have a major and very salutary impact. It is a book of enormous wisdom, deceptively clear and straightforward in its writing style (if rather casual and meandering), but subtle and profound in its argument. Sources of the Self continues a line of thought that Taylor has developed in numerous essays focused on human agency, language, and politics (see especially 1985a, 1985b).2 The theory he seeks to develop is at once normative, critical, and explanatory. Unfortunately, Taylor's vision is not very sociological. He presents us with a history of the transformations producing the modern self written almost entirely through "great men"; he gives little attention to how or in what degree this process influenced, reflected, or was in tension with the lives and thought of women or other men, how it may have varied systematically by social context or position, or how it was shaped by broader patterns of social change. Sociology could have much to offer Taylor's account if sociologists would orient their work to these major issues. (Coleman 1990 102)

Why is Taylor worth studying?

Taylor, however, does offer extremely valuable guidelines and first steps to this potential sociological ...
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