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Jules van Schaijik

Between the knockers and boosters of modern culture

Jan. 7, 2010, at 2:24pm

Some time soon I will have to make my way through Charles Taylor’s Sources of The Self, an important but long and difficult book on “The Making of the Modern Identity.” For now, however, I decided to take up his shorter and much more managable work, The Ethics of Authenticity. And I must say, based on the first thirty pages, IT IS GREAT! I keep on wanting to get up and talk to Katie about it. (Good thing she had to go to the dentist. Otherwise I would still be on page 5.)

What I especially like is the way in which Taylor elucidates and appreciates the moral ideal that underlies much of modern culture. He calls it the “ideal of authenticity.”

Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human. Each person has his or her own “measure” is his way of putting it. This idea has entered very deep into modern consciousness. It is also new. Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.

This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost, partly through the pressures toward outward conformity, but also because in taking an instrumental stance to myself, I may have lost the capacity to listen to this inner voice. And then it greatly increases the importance of this self-contact by introducing the principle of originality: each of our voices has something of its own to say. Not only should I not fit my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can only find it within.

Taylor’s sympathetic understanding of this new moral ideal, and his basic approval of it (though not of the many trivial or degraded forms it takes!), allows him to steer clear of both the “knockers” of modern culture (e.g. Harold Bloom and Christopher Lasch) and its “boosters”. He recognizes (with the knockers) all the negative things that have followed in the wake of modern man’s pursuit of authenticity: relativism, narcisism, a replacing of genuine freedom with mere free choice, a rejection of the past, a withdrawal from the demands of citizenship, and so on. But (unlike the knockers) he sees these negatives as a deviation from and betrayal of the true ideal. It is impossible to be true to oneself without a commitment to objective truth and obedience to moral norms. It is impossible to find self-fulfillment without a sincere and practical concern for others. It is impossible to achieve genuine freedom without obedience, discipline and virtue, or to maintain political freedom without civic engagement. Hence, Taylor argues, we should not try to persuade the men and women of our time to reject the ideal of authenticity, but rather help them to understand it more clearly and live up to it more faithfully. The ability to articulate the ideal of authenticity and show its connection to those other, older ideals embedded in the western tradition as a whole, is useful “not just in correcting what may be wrong views but also in making the force of an ideal that people are already living by more palpable, more vivid for them; and by making it more vivid, empowering them to live up to it in a fuller and more integral fashion.”

We here at the Personalist Project very much share Taylor’s approach (which is not to say we agree with him in all particulars). In our view, the personalism of thinkers like Dietrich von Hildebrand, John Paul II, and John Henry Newman, is the “hermeneutical key” to understanding (almost) all that is great in the modern period, and to reconciling it with the wisdom of previous ages.


Bill Drennen • Jan 8, 2010 - 2:54 pm

Wikipedia article on Taylor notes that,

“Taylor is associated with political theorists like Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel, for their communitarian critique of liberal theory’s understanding of the “self.” Communitarians emphasize the importance of social and communal arrangements and institutions to the development of individual meaning and identity.”

Does the book confirm this idea such that “authenticity” is found uniquely inside the individual while at the same time authentically recognized and or discerned in the context of community and tradition?

The Wikipedia article also associates him with the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre. Wondering if you are familiar with him?

Jules van Schaijik • Jan 9, 2010 - 10:41 am

In the book I’m reading now, Taylor does not address your question with the thoroughness it deserves. However, he is clearly critical of the liberal, individualistic notion of the self. (Who isn’t these days?) “The dark side of individualism,” he writes, “is a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.” He also thinks that the “atomism of the self-absorbed individual” militates against “a vigorous political culture in which participation is valued… The individual citizen is left alone in the face of the vast bureaucratic state and feels, correctly, powerless.”

The chapter on “The Need for Recognition” is perhaps most relevant to the issue you bring up. There Taylor explains how our identities are “formed in dialogue with others” and are “vulnerable to the recognition given or withheld by significant others.” Still, much more could and should be said on the issue.

What Taylor wants to insist on is that these exaggerated and emaciated forms of individualism are betrayals of the moral ideal of authenticity, not its fulfillment. Here is another quote to that effect:

Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.

—-
As to Alasdair MacIntyre, I don’t know him very well.  He is generally considered responsible for the renewed interest by contemporary philosophers in virtue ethics. That is to say, in the kind of ethics that focusses more on moral character than on moral rules.

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