The concept of the self currently plays a significant role within moral philosophy and intellectual history. That this is so is due in some measure to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor.footnote Both philosophers treat questions about the morality of actions or agents as secondary to those about the identity of the moral subject. And because it is considered vital to relate moral philosophy to the analysis of personal identity, the historical developments that have fashioned that identity become important as well. For MacIntyre and Taylor, the history of ideas offers a uniquely promising way of reanimating moral philosophy, and Taylor in particular has devoted much energy to tracing the formation of the modern self in the belief that the resulting narrative will reveal the framework within which our moral intuitions are articulated.footnote1

It is difficult to dismiss the simple but powerful insight that underlies this project. Since no one is likely to argue that morality involves acting or treating others in ways that are inappropriate to who we and they are, it does seem to suggest that, if we can only gain a full understanding of our identities, we should also start to get a sense of how we ought to live. But even if this basic premiss is accepted, it may still be argued that the project has been formulated in such a way as to prejudge the findings of any historical investigation. In this article, I suggest that Taylor’s and Macintyre’s conception of the self excludes many, perhaps even most, human subjects, and with them a sequence of texts that describe and interpret their position. These texts, it will be argued, constitute a continuous narrative about the type of self ignored by Taylor and MacIntyre, and, as such, offer the schematic outline for a history of the self that is fundamentally different from theirs. Much of what follows is an attempt to articulate the essential features of this narrative in the works of Aristotle, Hegel, and Du Bois. But before turning to this alternative history it is necessary to examine Taylor’s and Macintyre’s arguments in more detail.

MacIntyre famously remarked that a moral philosophy always presupposes a sociology.footnote2 This involves two claims: first that all moralities make some assumptions about the identity of moral agents, and, second, that there is no way to define a moral agent without reference to their social and historical context. Taylor defends both at greater length than MacIntyre himself. What differentiates moral reactions from gut reactions like nausea is, he suggests, the fact that the former are open to question, explanation, and correction in a way that the latter are not. Moral intuitions are distinguished by the fact that they have a framework within which they can be articulated and evaluated, a framework that invariably seems ‘to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings’. Moral intuition therefore presupposes what Taylor terms ‘a given ontology of the human’.footnote3

The move from ontology to sociology is effected through the consideration of what is involved in personal identity and, in particular, the kind of personal identity presupposed by moral intuition. What Taylor terms the ‘punctual self’, defined solely in terms of the continuity of its self-perception, provides an inadequate framework for the consideration of moral agency because it excludes self-interpretation. As individuals, and especially as moral individuals ‘We are selves only in that certain things matter for us. What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me’.footnote4 Self-interpretation in this sense is inescapably a linguistic activity, and as languages require linguistic communities, so self-interpretation requires a community, not just to provide a language, but to provide the social meanings of selfhood within which any self-interpretation is articulated. As Taylor puts it

One is a self only among other selves. A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it. . .I define who I am by defining where I speak from, in the family tree, in social space, in the geography of social statuses and functions.footnote5

In MacIntyre, the same conclusion is stated still more forcefully:

The story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.footnote6