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1According to Charles Taylor, the Enlightenment is the source of modern identity and of the two paths that lie open to it, which are, respectively, the instrumental and the expressive. In the chapter of Sources of the Self devoted to the fragmented moral horizons of modernity, the philosopher distinguishes between two constellations of ideas stemming from the Enlightenment: one attaches “disengaged” reason to an instrumental interpretation of nature; the other anchors the imagination in a feeling conceived as an inner moral source. He argues that “the tension between them is one of the dominant features of modern culture.” [1] Taylor first traces the genesis of the first constellation, that is, the transformation by which the thought of the radical atheistic Enlightenment replaces English deism in the work of materialist or utilitarian authors such as Holbach, Helvétius, or Bentham. But this is not the only tendency that can be observed at this time: modernity also contains another genealogy of the moral subject. All of Taylor’s efforts are aimed precisely at exhuming it and demonstrating its importance: the idea of “nature as source” opens a productive path, of which Romanticism, following in the wake of Rousseau, will be one of the principal expressions.

2This contribution will highlight the issues at stake in this contrasting interpretation of the Enlightenment—a concept that Taylor uses despite the methodological difficulties to which it gives rise. [2] Why are deism and materialism perceived by Taylor as philosophical dead ends of modernity? Why does he consider that the Enlightenment misunderstood the way in which the subject should found its moral and political aspirations? Why does he contribute to the countless indictments of the Enlightenment (Strauss, Adorno, Horkheimer, Foucault, MacIntyre, and others)? [3]

3We shall see that the “radical” Enlightenment, in Taylor’s view, produces an incoherent morality and politics: this philosophy postulates that social harmony proceeds from well-understood self-interest thanks to legislative and educational engineering; but it does not explain why the ideal of a harmonious society is worth pursuing. The author of Sources of the Self endorses the widespread idea of an incoherence in the work of materialist philosophers: according to Taylor, their hedonistic and egoistic psychology is incompatible with their ethics, which aims at the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The Enlightenment is thus held responsible for a contradictory vision of morality and an impoverished vision of subjectivity. From this point on, hope can reside only in the Romantic reaction against the rationalist and disengaged self: thanks to the creative imagination, expressivism therefore dedicates itself to revitalizing nature and to presenting a meaningful world to the moral self. Our modernity should therefore pursue this path, rather than that of the “radical” Enlightenment, whose perverse effects became apparent during the Terror, and even in instances of totalitarianism.

The contradictions of the radical Enlightenment

4The genealogy of the Enlightenment outlined by Charles Taylor portrays deist philosophy and theories of “moral sense” as a moment of rupture with ancient theories of the “cosmic good,” as well as with the Cartesian vision of morality. According to the grand narrative of Sources of the Self, this philosophy is not without danger: by basing moral judgments on raw data (feelings), Shaftesbury and Hutcheson raise a new possibility: that moral feelings can be considered as mere projections of the mind. Their theories open the way to relativism (God could have created us with other senses) and to naturalism, if we do not need God or Providence to “guarantee” moral sense. The modern internalization of the sources of morality is inseparable from this creation of a theoretical vulnerability: the criticism of rationalism and moral objectivism is accompanied by a risk, that of “projectivism” and, ultimately, of subjectivist relativism.

5But the worst is yet to come. In the fourth part of Sources of the Self, Taylor sets out to define his real adversary: the radical Enlightenment, assimilated to a “naturalist” and “utilitarian” philosophy. The radical Aufklärer actually carry out the transformation of deism or theism into atheism. Having rejected any idea of Providence, they justify a purely immanent vision of morality. If our judgments on good and evil are not grounded upon the ancient hierarchical order associated with the cosmos, nor upon the modern order of providential finality, they can pertain only to the consequences of our acts. According to the Enlightenment philosophers, using the causal relations discovered in nature should allow us to produce the greatest social utility or the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Those whom Taylor calls “utilitarians” reject the “constitutive good” of deism, but they retain the three ideals that the deistic order had underpinned: the ideal of autonomous reason and freedom from any authority; the decisive importance of ordinary life (family, work); and the ideal of universal, impartial, and disinterested benevolence.

6The meaning of Enlightenment materialism, as found in Diderot, Helvétius, and Holbach in particular, then becomes clearer: it is above all sensualistic and hedonistic. The criticism of original sin and of the Augustinian hypothesis leads to the argument that nature is innocent, and not corrupted from the time of the Fall. This innocence of nature serves to base morality on a narrow naturalism and to judge any supernatural aspiration as illusory and vain: the French Enlightenment advocates the affirmation of ordinary life by denigrating the idea of “higher” ends, or of more “noble” ideals than those suggested by nature through the search for physical pleasure itself. Against asceticism, it is necessary to recognize the rights of the body; against spiritualism, it is required to demystify the idea of moral ends that would be superior to physical ones. The radical Enlightenment thinkers who embraced atheism and materialism as the ultimate expression of autonomous reason also did so, according to Taylor, in order to be sincere in relation to the demands imposed by nature. This is the case for Holbach: his Système de la nature expresses an uncompromising monism. Here, as in Helvétius’s work, the promotion of ordinary life is metamorphosed into an “exaltation of the sensual.” [4]

7What Taylor perceives in Diderot, Helvétius, and Holbach is a radical version of “utilitarianism,” which is a form of hedonism: in the eyes of Holbach’s followers, desire is intrinsically good. We must know how to satisfy nature, which impels us to preserve and reproduce ourselves. For Diderot in particular, sexual satisfaction is set up as a supreme value in opposition to Christian faith, which is associated with a repressive morality. The civil code and the religious code are monstrous if they are in opposition to the code of nature; errors and vices come only from the fact of obstructing the naturally sound inclinations of humanity. At the same time, the authentic goal of the moral life becomes the reduction of the suffering associated with the human condition; true virtue is a universal and impartial benevolence, rather than Christian virtue, which is always suspected of perversion. This universal benevolence would henceforth be at the heart of modern morality.

8Should we conclude from this that the valorization of benevolence is only the effect of the development of scientific reason? This is precisely the hypothesis that Taylor aims to refute, directing his argument, beyond the Enlightenment, toward contemporary sociobiology. [5] Far from being scientists, the radical Aufklärer were driven by moral motives. They therefore fiercely defended the idea of a harmony of interests, which should emerge on the condition that the shackles of obscurantist religion and despotic politics be removed. According to this best known and most criticized aspect of their thought, the Enlightenment thus offered a hope of a radiant future, and of endless progress thanks to education and legislation. Like Condorcet, many Enlightenment philosophers wanted to establish a link between scientific progress and ethical progress. [6]

9Taylor wants to show that there is a pragmatic contradiction in Enlightenment naturalism. The aspirations of the radical philosophers, he argues, cannot be stated in the terms that their vision of human nature allows: their reductionism (from the moral to the physical, from the noble to the vulgar) excludes the very idea of strong evaluation, that is, the recognition that some of our ends are not mere “preferences” and are incommensurable with our other desires. This is the paradoxically naive attitude of those who wish to demystify everything. With no strong evaluation at hand, philosophers are unable to justify the moral ideal of universal benevolence: “This makes utilitarianism a very strange intellectual position.” [7] On the one hand, it is important to make the greatest number happy and to reduce suffering; on the other, no one can say anything about the real content of moral principles. On the one hand, it is necessary to demystify the false values of religion and conventional morality; on the other, one can substitute them only with a reductive ethics in which altruism struggles to justify itself. This is the source of an irreducible tension, because Diderot, Holbach, Helvétius, and Bentham need a “moral horizon” to relieve suffering, correct injustices, and fight for a “noble cause.” This gives rise to the contradictions inherent in materialism, of which the refutations of Helvétius and La Mettrie formulated by Diderot are the symptom. [8] In short, reductionist ontology is irreconcilable with the altruistic impulse. The naturalism of the Enlightenment is contradictory since disengaged reason is not sufficient to ground a moral ideal. The idea of the love of humanity remains unjustified.

10By a singular irony of fate, Sade reveals, in contrast, the moral horizon of philosophers, their illusory humanism. As in the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, or Foucault, [9] Sade allows us, according to Taylor, to identify the authentic meaning of the Enlightenment:


What Sade’s views bring out, as a foil, is the usually invisible background of Enlightenment humanism, what I have called above the moral horizon of their thought. Just embracing some form of materialism is not sufficient to engender the full ethic of utilitarian benevolence. One needs some background understanding about what is worthy of strong evaluation: in this case, it concerns the moral significance of ordinary happiness and the demand of universal beneficence. Then one has reason to respond to the supposed facts about human desire and happiness in the classical fashion of Enlightenment universalism. By itself materialism gives us no more reason to go in this direction than to embrace Sadian egoism, as the counter-Enlightenment has erroneously claimed. Just to be a materialist is to have an underdetermined ethical position. [10]

12Enlightenment humanism demands a “richer ontology of the human person and nature.” [11] In order to justify self-sacrifice for a higher cause, it is impossible to rely on the hope for a future harmony of interests. The just society represents an ideal that commands the present allegiance of everyone, whereas the scientific argument cannot pass from is to ought: reason is incapable of giving meaning to this evaluation. The author of Sources of the Self concludes that strong evaluation is indispensable.

13The genealogy of the radical Enlightenment outlined by Taylor thus differs deeply from that of Leo Strauss, who perceived in the last two waves of modernity the advent of historicism and nihilism; [12] it differs just as much from that proposed by Jonathan Israël, who praised the emancipatory principles of the radical Enlightenment. [13] If materialism gives no more reason to move toward humanism than toward sadism, the radical Enlightenment can only be “parasitic”: it “is parasitic on its adversaries for the expression of its own moral sources.” [14] The parasite gets its moral ideals from its enemies; it draws its theoretical resources from the moral culture that they have best explained. The “utilitarian Enlightenment,” “shot through with contradiction,” only makes sense because of the abuses of its enemy, the “infamy it proposed to crush.” [15] The seduction of the radical Enlightenment is supported above all by the horrors of religious persecution and Christian fanaticism. This explains why this body of thought revealed its narrow and threatening character once it had reached the height of its power during the French Revolution. Narrow, since it must define goods in a positive way, which the revolutionary Enlightenment does not really manage to do; threatening, since the use of instrumental efficiency alone in the search for happiness can lead to catastrophic results: the destruction of old customs, leveling, the shameless elimination of all opposition. Taylor here takes up the classical critique of the Terror. Since moral goodness cannot be established by the radical Enlightenment, the risk is that “the inarticulable [that ill-founded good] remains half-repressed,” which then gives the negative a decisive power: “At the end of the road the Enlightenment impulse can turn into a mere cynical unmasking; the revolutionary impulse is defined above all by the aspiration to destroy the established order.” [16]

Nature as source

14Nevertheless, there is still a way out in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which is to be found in the criticism of materialism: Taylor makes Rousseau the origin of another path taken by the development of modern identity. In the first place, Rousseau’s thought plays a crucial role in the development of the moral ideal of authenticity. Taylor is convinced that this ideal, whose contemporary perversions (relativism, narcissism, hedonism) are often condemned, has a real moral force. Rousseau is one of the first to have given it its due: beyond the affirmation that human nature is naturally good, Rousseau invokes the conscience as the source of an infallible judgment on good and evil. The voice of the conscience is the voice of nature expressing itself in man. Henceforth, morality is no longer dependent on transcendent norms, derived either from God or from a tradition external to humanity: morality consists in following the voice of nature which is within us. If this voice is often stifled by the passions induced by our dependence on others (the foremost passion being that of self-love), moral salvation proceeds from the possibility of finding an authentic link to oneself. As much as the conscience, which Rousseau defines in the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar as a moral instinct, an infallible judge of good and evil, Taylor invokes the “feeling of existence,” which in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, testifies to this intimate contact with oneself as a source of plenitude. [17]

15In Sources of the Self, Taylor therefore includes Rousseau among the naturalist sources of morality that flourish from the eighteenth century onward. Likewise, the author of the Social Contract and Émile appears, in politics as in morals, as a philosopher of freedom. He participates in the modern invention of autonomy:


Rousseau is at the origin point of a great deal of contemporary culture, of the philosophies of self-exploration, as well as of the creeds which make self-determining freedom the key to virtue. He is the starting point of a transformation in modern culture towards a deeper inwardness and a radical autonomy. The strands all lead from him. [18]

17Finally, Taylor turns to two extensions of Rousseauist thought: Kantian moral formalism and Herderian expressivism. These two reactions to the inadequacies of Enlightenment naturalism converge on at least one point: the Kantian and Romantic observation of the “superficiality” of the Enlightenment. Both reactions are internalizations; both react to the absence of a specific moral dimension in classical deism and naturalism. Both of them rebel against an impoverished and “one-dimensional” vision of man. [19]

A Hegelian reading of the Enlightenment

18One may rightly wonder about the philosophical meaning of such a criticism. What is the benefit in putting the materialist Enlightenment on trial? Charles Taylor’s indictment differs substantially from that undertaken by Horkheimer and Adorno in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), but also from the critique of Enlightenment humanism found in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975). [20] Taylor draws to a certain extent on his reading of Isaiah Berlin, who was Taylor’s mentor at Oxford in his early years. We can therefore specify this ambivalent reading of the Enlightenment, which aims to maintain the great ideals of the Enlightenment (autonomy, equal dignity, authenticity) while criticizing its atheistic naturalism.

19Taylor takes as his starting point the Hegelian critique of the Enlightenment, which argues that the Enlightenment defends a utilitarian vision of morality and an instrumental conception of the social. [21] In particular, he inherits Hegel’s criticism of Rameau’s Nephew as a symbol of the French Enlightenment. Following Goethe and Schiller, Hegel had defended Diderot’s work against the Romantic reaction associated with German nationalism. In his eyes, Rameau’s Nephew presents to the philosopher a model of Enlightenment thought, practicing reflective criticism and driving out prejudice and superstitions. [22] By highlighting the role of subjectivity in the creation of values, the narrator (“I”) addressing the philosopher undermines his confidence in the objectivity of norms. He produces confusion in the common consciousness that understands values as abstract universals. The “vile conscience” provokes the “noble conscience” by mimicking the human comedy, which is corrupted by worldly flattery and the domination of money. But Rameau’s Nephew also embodies the limits, for Hegel, of the French Enlightenment: the Nephew fails to follow through on its critical spirit. The question is to know what to do, once understanding is emancipated from its tutelage: Rameau’s Nephew reveals the perverse effects of a formal reason wrapped up in its own destructive power, incapable of reconstructing a substantial world where the mind can find itself “at home.”

20Taylor is also inspired by the Hegelian will to restore a Sittlichkeit that would be more adapted to the new customs that have appeared since the era of the Revolutions. Associated with the moment of understanding, the narrow instrumentalism of the Enlightenment must be overcome:


[U]tilitarian in its ethical outlook, atomistic in its social philosophy[, the Enlightenment] looked on nature and society as having only instrumental significance; they were seen as potential means to the satisfaction of human desire and nothing more. And its hope was to bring men happiness through perfect mutual adjustment by reorganizing man and society according to the principles of a scientific social engineering. [23]

22At a time when the beautiful totality of the ancient city appears to our modern eyes as a thing of the past, the issue at stake is indeed one of rediscovering a form of social ethics or “post-industrial Sittlichkeit” [24] that allows for the new freedom of subjectivity without succumbing to individualism or the reign of instrumental reason. [25] This is why Hegel remains the unavoidable reference: his philosophy allows us to avoid both the illusions of the utilitarian tradition and the Romantic counter-illusions that constantly follow them.

23Finally, on another level, Taylor shares the “communitarian” critique of political liberalism, which in his eyes is synonymous with atomism. [26] From a Hegelian perspective once again, he assimilates the contractualism that stems from Hobbes and Locke to a theory that instrumentalizes the state for the benefit of individuals in civil society. Taylor targets the liberal ideal of autonomy given as the only legitimate purpose of institutions and the valorization of “freedom-rights,” which are rather rights to egoistic withdrawal. The human rights resulting from the Enlightenment are therefore those of a man “without qualities”; such an ideal is empty and morally destructive. In this spirit, Taylor reiterates the Hegelian critique of Kantian formalism: autonomy cannot be conceived without a sense of belonging. [27] Like Alasdair MacIntyre, although in a non-reactionary sense, Taylor criticizes the individualistic liberalism that emerged from the Enlightenment. [28] Marked by the intellectual heritage of Isaiah Berlin, he distinguishes between the “values” of the Enlightenment (freedom, reason, the primacy of rational discourse over violence) and their “Project,” which, as the tragic history of the twentieth century attests, can turn into its opposite. Isaiah Berlin perfectly understood that it was necessary to approach the Enlightenment through the Counter-Enlightenment, and to start from the paradoxical “reversal” of the desire for freedom into the reality of oppression. [29]

24The lessons of history must therefore be learned: the “unruffled boosters of the Enlightenment” have ignored the fact that a value may need its antithesis in order not to become dangerous. The “Panglossian” vision, which is overly optimistic, [30] overlooks the fact that the goods we value can be in irreducible conflict. Neglecting this truth can lead to historical tragedies, when reality is forced to correspond to our ambitions and ideals. Even though Taylor distances himself from Berlin’s liberalism by defending a renewed vision of positive freedom, [31] he endorses its main thesis: the danger of modern rationalism lies in its moral reductionism, while the plurality of values remains irreducible.

A spiritualist reading of politics

25However, can we dismiss in this way a whole part of the “Enlightenment Project”? [32] Does this reading do justice to the major concepts of Enlightenment philosophy in the field of political philosophy? Is it not burdened in its own way by a teleological vision that projects the tragic end of history into the origin? Does it not hide its purpose, namely the will to spiritualize politics and the philosophy of history?

26In the 2001 article already cited, entitled “The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment,” Taylor characterizes the Enlightenment by the denial of transcendence: this “something” that is superior to human life is considered in the philosophy of the Enlightenment to be a dangerous illusion, which threatens to bring about disastrous social consequences. The denial of any transcendence gives rise to an exclusive humanism, based on the idea of “human flourishing”; this recognizes no legitimate end beyond that of the happiness of humanity. [33] As Quentin Skinner and others have pointed out, the religious vision of modernity feeds the critique of the Enlightenment. [34] Taylor aims to undermine the ethical naturalism of the Enlightenment in order to better reaffirm that theism is the only true foundation of morality—something that the Enlightenment philosophers, with the exception of Rousseau, had precisely excluded. In A Catholic Modernity? Taylor praises the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who wanted to convert China to Christianity; for Taylor, we should conceive, for our own time, a new “Ricci Project.” [35]

27Of course, Taylor denies that his criticism of a secularized morality conceals a desire to refound morality on a theological basis. His ambition is rather to clarify what is contained in the idea of the “ends” of the moral life, and to give individuals the motivation to follow them thanks to the knowledge of the constitutive good that is their source: “My complaints about the more reductive strains of the Enlightenment when they shy away from constitutive good is not that they are thereby failing to “ground” their moral stands, but [...] that they are not coming clean about their own sources.” [36] In this respect, the reference to Sade is not used to show that Enlightenment humanism is unfounded, but simply to emphasize that the one who espouses it (including Taylor himself, he says, to a large extent) lives their moral life in virtue of goods that cannot exist in their own ontology: “My plea is that we all finally put our ontologies where our (rhetorical) mouths are.” [37]

28But according to the Princeton philosopher Ronald de Sousa, Taylor’s argument gives rise to a more fragile position than the one he attacks: “For while nature is indeed not a deductively sound basis for morality, everything that does provide such a deductively sound basis is entirely arbitrary.” [38] Even if one were to accept the difference between founding morality and clarifying its sources, the fact would remain that the alternative to the naturalist foundation proposed by the radical Enlightenment can only be conventional.

29The genealogy of modern subjectivity proposed by Taylor has another flaw: its grounding is moral rather than political; the Just remains here closely associated with the Good. To define modern identity in an exclusively moral way seems, however, reductive and “one-dimensional”—and we will allow ourselves here to turn against Taylor the argument he himself uses against the hedonism of the Enlightenment. In her review of Sources of the Self, Judith Shklar emphasizes not only the religious orientation and the elitist vision of culture proposed by its author, but also the political deficit to which his work testifies. [39] Such a critique deserves to be extended: when Taylor considers the “radical” Enlightenment contradictory or incapable of ensuring its own normative foundations, he seems to neglect the fact that Enlightenment politics is often conceived outside of any moral horizon. Thus, politics conceived in favor of the people or of the “greater good of the greater number” does not necessarily rest on the moral justification of an orientation in favor of the most deprived. The improvement of the lot of the worst off is the very purpose of Rousseau’s political philosophy, founded on the principle of the original equality and freedom of individuals, which takes into account the fact that, as Rousseau points out, we only need to be able to count to realize that humanity is above all composed of common people: “It is the people who compose humankind. What is not the people is so slight a thing as not to be worth counting. Man is the same in all stations. If that is so, the stations having the most members merit the most respect.” [40]


31Finally, Taylor’s argumentative strategy consists in detecting what is inadmissible in the radical Enlightenment from its own point of view: the contradiction is demonstrated starting from the opponent’s premises. But as far as the Enlightenment is concerned, this strategy can only be efficient if a double reduction of the philosophy of the Enlightenment is carried out beforehand: reduction of Enlightenment naturalism to its materialist, radical, or “utilitarian” dimension, considered as emblematic; reduction of political philosophy to moral philosophy.

32Yet Taylor’s central argument does not hold in the political field: the political philosophy of the Enlightenment before Herder or Kant does not postulate, in a general way, that it is necessary to motivate the sacrifice of the particular interest to the common interest. On the contrary, the most influential philosopher of the century, whom Taylor knows well and often cites [41]—Montesquieu—starts from the diametrically opposite presupposition: modern politics cannot demand anything sacrificial from individuals; it must mourn the loss of a politics of virtue. This is why the dominant motives of the moderns are no longer associated with patriotism but with the love of freedom and the desire for recognition (what Montesquieu called honor and Rousseau called self-love [amour-propre]). Isaiah Berlin himself had conducted a nuanced analysis of Montesquieu, excepting him from many of the criticisms he addressed to Enlightenment rationalism, and recognizing his influence on Herder. [42] By accusing a large part of Enlightenment philosophy (especially French) of ingenuousness or complicity with the Terror, Charles Taylor thus obscures everything in pre-Herderian or pre-Kantian political philosophy that is not based on either self-interest stricto sensu or virtue. In the same way, Sources of the Self underestimates the richness of the analyses of political economy or of the sociological analysis of law and morals—two paths whose posterity would be remarkable. His vision of contemporary liberalism, supposedly born of the Enlightenment, suffers from this oversight. Taylor’s critical position in opposition to economism and sociologism is not immaterial here: in his desire to denounce the mirages of proceduralism, the ravages of individualism, and the inescapable disappointments associated with instrumental reason, Taylor obscures the fecundity of what, in the philosophy of the French, Italian, or Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, initiates the genealogy of the human sciences and the critique of political economy.


  • [1]
    Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 319.
  • [2]
    Charles Taylor, “The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment,” in Canadian Political Philosophy: Contemporary Reflections, ed. Ronald Beiner and Wayne Norman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 368–400.
  • [3]
    On this trial of Enlightenment thinkers, see the recent analyses by Antoine Lilti, L’Héritage des Lumières: Ambivalences de la modernité (Paris: Seuil, 2019); Stéphanie Roza, La Gauche contre les Lumières? (Paris: Fayard, 2020).
  • [4]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 328. For a more general presentation of Taylor’s approach, see Ruth Abbey, Charles Taylor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). See also Céline Spector, “Charles Taylor, philosophe de la culture,” La Vie des idées, April 8, 2014, accessed April 16, 2021,
  • [5]
    See, for example, E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975); On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).
  • [6]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 331.
  • [7]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 332.
  • [8]
    Denis Diderot, Réfutation d’Helvétius, in Œuvres complètes de Diderot, ed. Jules Assézat and Maurice Tourneux (Paris: Garnier, 1876), 2: 245–56.
  • [9]
    See Philippe Sabot, “Foucault, Sade et les Lumières,” Lumières 8 (2006): 141–55.
  • [10]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 336.
  • [11]
  • [12]
    Léo Strauss, “The Three Waves of Modernity,” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Ten Essays by Léo Strauss, edited by Hilail Gildin, 81–98 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975). See Corine Pelluchon, Leo Strauss: Une autre raison, d’autres Lumières: Essai sur la crise de la rationalité contemporaine (Paris: Vrin, 2005).
  • [13]
    Jonathan Israël praises this trend which, in his view, made it possible, on the basis of Spinozist sources, to conceive the emancipation of men, women, and slaves; A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  • [14]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 339.
  • [15]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 339–40. See the recent work by Bertrand Binoche, “Écrasez l’infâme!”: Philosopher à l’âge des Lumières (Paris: La Fabrique, 2018).
  • [16]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 343.
  • [17]
    Charles Taylor, “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 159–82.
  • [18]
    Taylor, Sources of the Self, 362–63. On this point, on which we cannot further elaborate here, see Céline. Spector, “De Rousseau à Charles Taylor: Autonomie, authenticité, reconnaissance,” in Philosophie de Rousseau, ed. Bruno Bernardi, Florent Guénard, Blaise Bachofen, and André Charrak (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014), 349–61.
  • [19]
    Source of the Self, 355.
  • [20]
    Taylor criticizes Foucauldian Nietzscheanism, which proceeds from a critique of Enlightenment thinkers while overlooking its debt to them in terms of immanentism; Taylor, “The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment,” 399.
  • [21]
    Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 137–50. See Jacques D’Hondt, ed. Hegel et le siècle des Lumières (Paris, PUF, 1974); Jean-François Kervégan and Bernard Mabille, eds., with the collaboration of Élodie Djordjevic, Hegel au présent: Une relève de la métaphysique? (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012).
  • [22]
    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2019 [1807]). See Isabelle Garo, “Le Neveu de Hegel. Le Neveu de Rameau dans la Phénoménologie de l’Esprit: Littérature, droit et philosophie,” Europe 882 (2002): 242–54; Claude Thérien, “Les Lumières et la dialectique: De Hegel à Adorno et Horkheimer,” Revue philosophique de Louvain 101, no. 4 (2003): 568–92.
  • [23]
    Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 67.
  • [24]
    Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 121.
  • [25]
    Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 129.
  • [26]
    Charles Taylor, “Atomism,” in Powers, Possessions and Freedom: Essays in Honour of C.B. Macpherson, ed. Alkis Kontos (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 39–62.
  • [27]
    Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, 47.
  • [28]
    See Émile Perreau-Saussine, “Une spiritualité libérale? Charles Taylor et Alasdair MacIntyre en conversation,” Revue française de science politique 55, no. 2 (2005): 299–315; Dennis C Rasmussen, “Contemporary Political Theory as an Anti-Enlightenment Project,” in Rethinking the Enlightenment: Between History, Philosophy, and Politics, ed. Geoff Boucher and Henry Martyn Lloyd (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020), 39–60.
  • [29]
    “Tribute by Charles Taylor,” accessed April 16, 2021,
  • [30]
    For a recent example, see Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin Books, 2018).
  • [31]
    See Charles Taylor, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?” in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  • [32]
    Robert Wokler, “Projecting the Enlightenment,” in After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre, ed. John Horton and Susan Mendus (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1994).
  • [33]
    Taylor, “The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment,” 387.
  • [34]
    Quentin Skinner, “Modernity and Disenchantment: Some Historical Reflections,” in Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The Philosophy of Charles Taylor in Question, ed. James Tully (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 37–48.
  • [35]
    Charles Taylor, A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor’s Marianist Award Lecture, with Responses by W. M. Shea, R. Luling Haughton, G. Marsden, and J. Bethke Elshtain, ed. James L. Heft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • [36]
    Charles Taylor, “Reply to Braybrooke and de Sousa,” Canadian Philosophical Review 33, no. 1 (1994): 125–31 (130).
  • [37]
    Taylor, “Reply to Braybrooke and de Sousa,” 131.
  • [38]
    Ronald de Sousa, “Bashing the Enlightenment: A Discussion of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self,” Canadian Philosophical Review 33, no. 1 (1994): 109–23 (120).
  • [39]
    Judith Shklar, “Review of Sources of the Self,” Political Theory 19, no. 1 (1991): 105.
  • [40]
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, Or, On Education, ed. Allan Bloom, Christopher Kelly, and Roger Masters, trans. Allan Bloom and Christopher Kelly (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010), 377.
  • [41]
    For example, see Charles Taylor, “Civil Society in the Western Tradition,” in The Notion of Tolerance and Human Rights, ed. Ethel Groffier and Michael Paradis (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1991), 117–36.
  • [42]
    Isaiah Berlin, “Montesquieu,” in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 164–203.

This contribution examines Charles Taylor’s interpretation of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Why does he regard deism and materialism as philosophical dead ends of modernity? Why does he believe that the Enlightenment misunderstood how subjectivity could ground its moral and political aspirations? I will show that the “radical” Enlightenment, according to Taylor, produces an incoherent morality and politics: it postulates that social harmony proceeds from self-interest, due to legislative and educational engineering; but it does not explain why the ideal of a harmonious society is worth pursuing. The author of The Sources of the Self confirms the widespread idea that materialist philosophies are incoherent: their hedonistic and egoistic psychology is incompatible with their ethics, which aims for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The Enlightenment is therefore made responsible for a contradictory vision of morality and an impoverished vision of the self.


Cette contribution tentera de cerner les enjeux de l’interprétation contrastée de la philosophie des Lumières proposée par Charles Taylor. Pourquoi le déisme et le matérialisme sont-ils perçus par Taylor comme des fourvoiements de la modernité ? Pourquoi considère-t-il que les Lumières ont méconnu la manière dont la subjectivité pouvait fonder ses aspirations morales et politiques ? Nous verrons que la philosophie des Lumières « radicales », selon Taylor, produit une morale et une politique incohérentes : elle postule que l’harmonie sociale procède de l’intérêt bien compris grâce à une ingénierie législative et éducative ; mais elle n’explique pas pourquoi l’idéal d’une société harmonieuse mérite d’être poursuivi. L’auteur des Sources du moi entérine de la sorte l’idée répandue d’une incohérence des philosophes matérialistes : leur psychologie hédoniste et égoïste est incompatible avec leur éthique, qui vise le plus grand bonheur du plus grand nombre. Les Lumières sont donc rendues responsables d’une vision contradictoire de la morale et d’une vision appauvrie de la subjectivité.


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Céline Spector
Sorbonne Université-SND
Uploaded on on 24/08/2021
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