Sources of the Self

For some light Sunday reading I read an article in the Atlantic about how Jane Eyre ‘invented the modern self’.  It was very light.  I mean, the article was thoughtful and meandering, but at least in my opinion left much to be desired.  The article pays lip service to philosophy and the cultural force of enlightenment, which was happening hundreds of years before Charlotte Brontë wrote the book, but fails to draw any deep or interesting connections that would add much needed context to the article.  Instead we are left with a vague notion that somehow Brontë invented the modern self by geniusing it almost from nothing and that prior to that the average person had no similar ideas.  What is a good a novel if not a mirror?  In my opinion, this article does a bit of a disservice to the true genius of a writer like Brontë who can channel hundreds of years of Western thought into a defining novel in such a way that it could act as a mirror.  Maybe for some readers this might be their first encounter with these heady philosophical ideas and in that way this article can make a gentle, if unnecessarily so, introduction.  But I do wonder if the focus on genius and a single author plus disregarding the slow historical advances of philosophy, law and governance, and psychology might give a very narrow perspective for newcomers.  For an excellent philosophical/historical treatise on the modern conception of the self I recommend reading Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.

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