TA106 (Müller)

Commentary 16


[ The review which is reproduced below fits well into the topic of recent discussions of TA106   -   HFJM ]



by Robert A Segal

in Times Literary Supplement 28 March 2008


Review of


MELANCHOLIC  FREEDOM, Agency and the spirit of politics.

by David Kyuman Kim

Oxford Univ Press, 2007

  The philosopher Sidney Hook once said to the theologian Paul Tillich that Christians used to convert by the sword but nowadays convert by the defini­tion. For Tillich, whoever possessed what he termed an "ultimate concern" was religious, whether or not specifically Christian.  Few persons were thereby excluded.  More com­mon today is the appeal to a definition of "human being" as the criterion of religiosity, and David Kyuman Kim enlists Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self  (1989) to make the case that humans are inherently religious.

  Apart from philosophers of religion, Taylor, together with Alasdair Maclntyre, is the most prominent Anglo-American philosopher to take religion seriously.  But where Maclntyre advocates a return to the pre-modern, Taylor denies the possibility of going backwards.  Instead, he advocates the "retrieval" of the overlooked sources of modernity to forge a more appropriate but still modern conception of the self.  Unlike some philosophers, Taylor uses the terms "self, "person" and "subject" almost synonymously, and he stresses that while agency is necessary for selfhood, it is not sufficient.  To be an agent is to have purposes, which animals possess no less than humans.  To be a self, something of which humans alone are capable, is to recognize oneself as an agent.  Furthermore, Taylor makes an essential link between selfhood and morality.  To be a self is to act morally.  But morality, for Taylor, is emphatically more than the practice of virtues.  It is commitment to a "conception of the good".


Taylor devotes most of Sources of the Self to tracing the changing views of the nature of the self.  The distinctiveness of the modern understanding of the self is threefold.  First is the stress on inwardness, which harks all the way back to Augustine but which, thanks to Descartes, stresses self-control and - thanks to Montaigne - self-exploration.  Second is the "affirmation of ordinary life", which, stemming from the Reformation, means devotion to work and family rather than to a "higher" calling like monasticism.  Third is the idea, stemming from Romanticism, of an "inner voice of nature", heeding which involves turning to the external world to discover what in us responds to it.


Overall, Taylor asserts that the modern notion of an individual, autonomous self is unattainable.  Selfhood requires community.  Modernity narrows selfhood to mere agency.  Because so much of modernity comes in fact from Christianity, the corrective lies in the retrieval of this source of modernity itself.  Despite appearances, modernity is thus really as much religious as secular.  What must, then, be retrieved is a religious conception of the good.


Kim breaks with Taylor in striving to go forward to a conception of selfhood suited to our late modern or postmodern age.  Where Taylor rejects postmodernism on the grounds that it dissolves a unified self into endless racial, ethnic and sexual factions, Kim appeals to the views of the feminist philosopher Judith Butler to argue that there can still be a unified self.  Butler holds that a unified concept of self is still possible in spite of her famous rejection of any "essentialist" concept of woman or of gender.  Her point is that the self is continually created through action - an idea she expresses by means of J. L. Austin's term "performative" - rather than being fixed for all time.


Kim claims to be reconciling the vehemently anti-postmodernist Taylor with the unremittingly postmodernist Butler.  As he reads them, both seek to find a place for selfhood and morality in the contemporary world.  Kim also claims to show that contemporary selfhood, and indeed selfhood per se, is ineluctably religious.  He informs us that 'the great movements of the recent past, those of civil rights and of "gender equality", are over.  But instead of naming new ends to which one can commit oneself, he proposes sheer striving as the way to "regenerate agency" :  "the religious and spiritual qualities of Taylor's and Butler's projects of regenerating agency" are "not to be found in the specific ends and aims of their respective projects but rather in the qualities of aspiration and striving they identify with melancholic freedom".  To strive is to strive to "transcend" oneself, which, punning on the meaning of "transcend", is thereby religious.  Just as, for Tillich, whoever has an ultimate concern is religious, so for Kim anyone who 'aspires’ to anything is religious.  The emphasis is back on agency, on what one does.


Even if one rejects Taylor's prescription for the ills of modernity, one can still admire the extraordinary intellectual history that he offers.  Kim, though, offers no intellectual history and no conception of the good.  On the basis of his purported reconciliation of Taylor with Butler, who herself is not religious, he claims to have proved that religiosity has not disappeared.  Where sociologists provide data about religion, and philosophers arguments, Kim provides a mere definition of religion, and one so vague as to apply to almost anything.  His book is theological'' babble.




David Kyuman Kim.   Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Connecticut College  Interim Department Chair 2007-08.

     e-mail <dkkim (at) conncoll.edu>

Robert A Segal.   Professor of Religious Studies,   University of Aberdeen

     e-mail <r.segal (at) abdn.ac.uk>