Charles Taylor: A Strong Evaluator

(published in German in the magazine Transit for Charles Taylor’s 85th birthday alongside papers by Habermas, Fraser, Joas, MacIntyre, Gutmann, Honneth, etc.)


In seminal essays such as “What is Human Agency?” and Part 1 of Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor tried to articulate a fuller notion of selfhood and personal identity than those available in the analytic tradition. He starts off by suggesting that stripped-down, Lockean conceptions of personal identity as self-awareness through time could not be the end of the story. The idea, for instance, that “identity over time just involves […] psychological connectedness and/or psychological continuity”[1] is omitting, according to Charles, a crucial feature of what it is to be a person[2].


Even Harry Frankfurt’s richer theory of personhood lacks, according to Charles, a layer. For Frankfurt, what makes us distinctively human is our capacity to have “second-order volitions”, which involves being capable of rationally evaluating our first-order desires. A person is a moral agent who can desire to have certain desires and motives, or to be free from some of them. We form second-order desires when we want to shape our first order inclinations in specific ways, and when we want our will to align with such evaluations.


Charles praises Frankfurt’s break with the Lockean-Humean tradition, but wants to make one further step[3]. This is when he introduces the concept of “strong evaluation” and suggests that a sound philosophical understanding of personal identity requires an understanding of our moral identity. The more or less structured set of values, attachments and plans that gives ethical substance to our identity is not a contingent or optional feature of personhood.  Our identity, he writes, “is defined by our fundamental evaluations. The answer to the question ‘What is my identity’ cannot be given by any list of properties of other ranges, about my physical description, provenance, background capacities, and so on. All these can figure in my identity, but only as assumed in a certain way.[4]” As strong evaluators, we have the capacity for reflective self-evaluation, but this capacity includes the more specific ability to identify the desires, motives, values and commitments that are at the core of our conception of what is a good, fulfilling life, and that we rely upon in order to orient ourselves in the moral space we inhabit.  In Charles’ view, “the notion of identity refers us to certain evaluations which are essential because they are the indispensable horizon of foundation out of which we reflect and evaluate as persons.[5]”.


Charles’ theory of personal identity carries deep normative implications. It helps us understanding, among other things, why we should value and nurture the capacity to decide, in dialogue with others and immersed in a context, what truly matters for us, what makes a life worthy and meaningful. It shows us what is the basic human interest that justifies making freedom of conscience and religion a universal human right. In our own work on secularism, it led us to the conclusion that accommodation measures are justified when they aim at correcting indirect discrimination and at enabling people to live by their deepest beliefs and commitments without harming others. It allowed us to answer the oft-raised question: Is there something unique about religious beliefs that justifies granting them special legal protection? No, there isn’t, but all (secular and religious) “meaning-giving beliefs and commitments”—those are the core of our moral identity—deserve to fall within the scope of freedom of conscience and religion[6].


I met with Charles when I was an M.A. student at the University of Victoria in 1998. I worked closely with him during the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, and then wrote a book with him. As far as I can tell, there is no sharp line between Charles’ philosophy and mode of life. I never ceased to be impressed and moved by his kindness and benevolence. Meeting him in person and having the chance to get to know him showed me in a very concrete, embodied way that one could be both one of the most formidable thinkers of our time and a considerate and humble human being. Charles writes that being a strong evaluator implies, among other things, that one can take a step back when all too human first-order emotions such as envy or vanity erupt, and assess how the kind of person we want to be would handle them. He also showed me that a passion for academic philosophy should not trump the other basic commitments that we have toward our significant others, our society and our ideals. He steadfastly stood up, be it as a committed member of the New Democratic Party, as the co-chairman of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission or as a participant in our public debates, for human rights and egalitarian politics. I will always be indebted to him.


[1] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press,  p. 216, 1984.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 49.

[3] Charles Taylor, “What is Human Agency?”, Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers 1, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[4] Ibid. p. 34.

[5] Ibid. p. 35.

[6] Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, Harvard University Press, 2011. (Laizität une Gewissensfreiheit, Suhrkamp, 2011)


Charles Taylor: A Strong Evaluator — 1 Comment

  1. One thing I’ve always felt was missing from philosophical ideas about identity was what you might call, hrm, style of thought. There seems to be a sort of underlying assumption that thinking is all the same, that logic is in some way inexorable and inevitable, so that given the same memories you would do the same things in the same ways as someone else. But I’m fairly certain that isn’t in fact true, that it would be possible to have the same memories and even the same preferences as someone else and yet draw different conclusions, gravitate to different tactics, go about satisfying the preferences in different ways.
    In the same way that philosophy of science has suggested that theory is underdetermined by facts, I would suggest optimum approaches to getting what you want are underdetermined by a human’s knowledge; we cannot know for sure just what is the perfect thing to do (no matter what certain economic theories imagine), and personality is partly about what sorts of approaches, rules of thumb, habits of thought, biases towards aggression or caution, subtlety or directness, your mind works with–somewhat independently of the actual knowledge you apply those approaches to or what desires and motives are pushing you.