In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor explores the stories about "identity" that frame both our fictions and our philosophy. In his view, modern culture is engaged in a long series of disputes between two different sets of stories about selves. There is the self as a free, disengaged subject, an autonomous, rational individual capable of knowing itself and mastering the universe without the intercession of God, a being that desires liberty above all else; and there is the "expressivist" self, committed to the truth of inward emotion and intuition, finding depth and meaning in nature and in the epiphanies produced by great art. In a complex historical account, Taylor locates the source of these two different kinds of stories in "the great intramural debate of the last two centuries, pitting the philosophy of the Enlightenment against the various forms of Romantic opposition."

These two different traditions shape not only the stories we tell about our individual identities, but also the stories we tell about collective identities: the stories that take the form of histories. Benedict Anderson, looking for the source of modern nationalism and its power over people across the globe, describes the nation as an "imagined community." A nation is a story, made technically imaginable through the material transformations that capitalism and colonialism have wrought around the globe, but receiving its emotional power from the way it brings the Enlightenment and Romantic understandings together in a compelling way. A nation is made up of bearers of individual rights who consent to come together and be represented by a government. But the modern nation that thus symbolizes liberty and consent also represents a "people," drawn together out of an immemorial past and moving into a limitless future, guided by their common destiny that is precious precisely because it is fortuitous - unwilled and unchosen but uniquely their own.