Wednesday, July 26, 2006

blue longing or yellow laziness?

I was shocked to find, in my daily reading of My Way of Life, Thomas Aquinas (albeit paraphrased) saying:

"As far as public revelation is concerned—that is, the revelation which God has entrusted to His Church to be proposed to all men for their belief—the age of prophecy ceased at the time and with the work of Christ and His Apostles. But God still sends private revelations to men as signs of His continuing love and care for them.” (431)

Put as simply as I can think of: Nein! Not that I go along with the analytics who say that that statement alone is true which can be empirically falsifiable, but I believe that human beings are too prone to phantasie for the responsible use of any private revelations. This topic is raised quite effectively in “The Code Breakers” an article by Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs in this month’s First Things (165 (Aug/Sept. 2006): 14-7) in which Jacobs is all about the attraction and absurdity of “code breaking,” meaning the discovery of secret knowledge about the future, past, or present. He writes:

There’s a wonderful passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace where one of the main characters, Pierre Bezukhov, discovers that if you assign a number to each letter of the alphabet, the words L’Empereur Napoleon add up to 666—the number of the Antichrist. Then Pierre, because he imagines himself as Napoleon’s great antagonist, starts trying to write his own name in such a way that it also adds up to 666 and finds that he cannot, even after he changes the spelling in several different ways. But finally, he decides not only to alter his name’s spelling but also to indicate his nationality, and finally to abandon correct French usage: “L’russe Bsuhof,” astonishingly, yields 666. “This discovery excited him,” Tolstoy notes with the straightest of faces. “How, or by what means, he was connected with the great event foretold in the Apocalypse he did not know, but he did not doubt the connection for a moment.” (14)

If you begin by supposing something to be true that there is simply no reason even to suspect is true and then look for any evidence that might be construed as supportive of that supposal while resolutely ignoring any evidence that might be construed as refuting that supposal [“code breakers have an interest in eliding them and in rushing quickly past inconveniently slippery information”]—well, then, you’re quite likely to find yourself in the position of Pierre Bezukhov, amazed by how a scarily intricate story holds together.

Mathematicians—striving, often unsuccessfully, to remain calm-voiced and to soothe the frenzied thumping of their temples—reply than an elementary knowledge of probability will reveal that such correspondences aren’t surprising at all. Logicians reply that not only have these code breakers cooked the books by manipulating the data but they have also overlooked hundreds of far more likely correspondences. Skilled literary critics reply that if you define a character or a thing or an event in a story vaguely enough, it can become a symbol of almost anything. (15)

All dismissals aside, I was caught up by some of the reasons why Jacobs thinks code breakers do what they do. They do it to be special, seeing what others do not. They do it for the rush. They do it “to become part of what C. S. Lewis called an Inner Ring—the Ring whose goose-bumps-inducing catchphrase is always ‘We few’.” And they do it in order to discover meaning, whether to fix oneself into place within a comfortable matrix of private meaning or to find one’s actions writ into “a vast world historical event, into pure meaning.”

Of course, Jacob's analysis reflects some of the discussion that has been going on here with Charles Taylor's book, and especially Taylor's investigation of the loss of the sacred and the quest for authenticity. Taylor is an optimist to the code-breaker's pessimism; and confident where they have only self-doubt.

“We can never return to the days before these self-centered modes could tempt and solicit people.” He says confidently, where "the days" are days before individual identity was always daily up for grabs.

“Like all forms of individualism and freedom, authenticity opens an age of responsibilization, if I can use this term. By the very fact that this culture develops, people are made more self-responsible. Authenticity points us towards a more self-responsible form of life. It allows us to live (potentially) a fuller and more differentiated life, because more fully appropriated as our own . . . a richer mode of existence. It is in the nature of this kind of increase of freedom that people can sink lower, as well as rise higher. Nothing will ever ensure a systematic and irreversible move to the heights." (The Malaise of Modernity 74, 77)

Still, despite his confidence, Taylor is also honest. Taking up the yoke of one’s own authentic becoming is no picnic. Aspiring to the ideal and the ethic of authenticity is a good thing, but it does require a great deal of effort. Modernity’s gift—the individual—is a gift given the way the world gives, with strings attached: the heavy burden of being, of feeling held out over the Abyss (das Nicht). It is easy to see why some may wish to escape![2]

Phantasie offers an easier out, and one that at least feels richer than the other way of authentic becoming. “The sense of suddenly being plugged into a vast world-historical event, into pure meaning, remains enormously appealing—especially when it’s a meaning others cannot see” (Jacobs 15; emphasis mine).[3]

Jacobs calls such romantic escapsism laziness.

"I think these fanciful tales appeal to what I can only call our plain laziness. The interpretation of literary texts is actually hard work. You have to know a great deal about the history of a culture and about the various forms and genres and techniques of literary writing to have a shot at really figuring out a major work of literary art.

Likewise, the understanding of paintings—especially paintings made centuries ago by people who thought very differently than we think, who lived in a very different social world, whose ideas of what paintings represent and how they represent it are often quite alien to what we take for granted—is achievable only after years, even decades, of scrupulous attentiveness to work after work after work. And the deepest wisdom about the productions of culture will always acknowledge the possibility of error, will always see that subtle alterations in how we think of this detail or that theme can result in quite dramatically different pictures of the work as a whole.” (16-17)

But I think I see something more than just laziness behind it. Something offered by Jacobs himself.

It should be remembered that Alan Jacobs is the author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. He is familiar, then, with Lewis’s doctrine of Joy (Sehnsucht) and the blue flower (Blaue Blume, a central symbol of Romanticism “it stands for desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable” [Wikipedia]) Jacobs explains:

“[Lewis] is thinking of Novalis - the pen name of the German Romantic writer Friedrich von Hardenberg, who died in 1801 at the age of twenty-nine. The protagonist of Novalis's unfinished allegorical novel Heinrich Von Ofterdingen becomes obsessed by a vision of a blue flower, which he first encounters in a stranger's tales and then in dreams:

There is no greed in my heart; but I yearn to get a glimpse of the blue flower [aber die blaue Blume sehn' ich mich zu erblicken]. It is perpetually in my mind, and I can write or think of nothing else . . .Often I feel so rapturously happy; and only when I do not have the flower clearly before my mind's eye does a deep inner turmoil seize me. This cannot and will not be understood by anyone. I would think I were mad if I did not see and think so clearly. Indeed since then everything is much clearer to me.

He "yearns" or "longs" (sehn) for the flower - and yet nothing that he can grasp seems so desirable as that longing itself. This is the paradox of Sehnsucht: that though it could in one sense be described as a negative experience, in that it focuses on something one cannot possess and cannot reach, it is nevertheless intensely seductive. One cannot say it is exactly pleasurable - there is a kind of ache, of unattainable longing—and yet, as Lewis puts it, the quality of the experience "is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." (40; copied nearly in whole from a now-lost blogpost entitled "The Blue Flower of Joy and Yearning.")

Perhaps there is a value behind code breaking. Instead of dismissing the phantasists as lazy, I wonder whether or not they aren't staging a protest for something else. Modernity requires one to quest for authenticity, and doesn't this quest assume emotional as well as political dimensions? And so I say that Jacobs' lazy code breaking, like Taylor’s narcissistic anthropocentrism, is but a deviant form of a greater value, which Lewis called joy.[4]

[1] I have discussed this phenomenon in other posts, examining it according to Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s popular understanding of myth; as well as its cultic religiosity, including its affinity for modern forms of Spinozism, so-called spirituality, and even investigating it as a form of divination, of which I see modern neo-paganism as the community gathered around the pursuit of this kind of experience, either for personal development or to have or be subject to power, whether this be sadistic, masochistic, or something more benign.

[2] Emile Cioran’s work explores the existential difficulty of living with the burden of an un-meaning’d self untethered in a sea of absolute freedom. I also like sculptor Samuel Nigro’s more direct description of this same experience.

[3] Evangelicals are particularly (and popularly) enamored with this in a way analogous to the neo-pagans. I have discussed this in a post entitled, “You Are Removing God From the Everyday!”

[4] I scratched at the eschatological possibilities in a discussion of an abstract by Freddie Rodem, and especially the categories anxiety and nostalgia as potential responses to the eschatological situation.

; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

a quick meditation on free will

The pervasiveness of "freedom of choice"--who can see its many influences and arrangements? Who can follow it as far down as it goes and sketch its fundamentum? It is the manure which multiplies our every assumption. It flows under the bark of our very selves; tear at us, and we bleed it like resin. And yet, which of us is his own creator? Who of us willed themselves into being? Who chose her native language, or the history, the morays and folkways, of his fatherland? We believe we have chosen, only to look back later in life and see that our choices were largely dictated by the demands of history, culture, and family expectation. This panic to be original, the moral demand of the authentic--what of it? We don't realize that underneath any free choice (according to our usual definition) there must be a universe of pure chance. All is meaningless in such a world, but we at least know how to be meaningless (and how to lie about it.) Theology disagrees. It suggests a different trope: God first. First God and then us. God's action, our reaction. God's promise, our faithful response. And don't think that in our response we actually see and quantify every edge of God's action. Chances are, we'll spend our whole lives sorting it out, only to come to an admission of happy futility, of resignation, and the freedom that comes with childlike trust at the very end.

On the other hand, we can't very well abandon all effort and become bubbles, floating along on the surface of the warm back of pure providence. Whereas unsupported action, the pursuit of the authentic and original self, most popularly manifested by existentialism, is in error, so is its opposite: limp passivity that goes by the name of "the surrendered life", "abiding", and that rude colloquiallism: Let Go and Let God. Where the one, like the atheist, shuts God from history, the other, like the platonist, denies history of God. All the natural and, indeed, supernatural gifts God has given to human beings for the purpose of getting on with things go unused "until God tells me." But don't you already have it, then? Now get on with it! Creation is affirmed by God, even as God supports creation; neither should be forgotten by the other, and especially by human beings, whose second Adam himself was born of flesh, born of a woman and, with the creed, "crucified under Pontius Pilate."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Taylor on Art and History

Art and History are on Charles Taylor's mind. History primarily to explain in more systemic detail why individualism appeared and has continued to strengthen its ideological base, ultimately encouraging deviant narcissism. Art because of the close relationship between artistic creation and self discovery. Taylor is interested in explaining why the ideal of authenticity is always sliding into one or the other of its "deviant" forms (narcissim, or, Taylor's new and better adjective: anthropocentrism); modernity by definition atomizes society. I'm not as interested in replicating the bones of his debate as pulling this quote on on the historical development behind the ideal itself, and examining the correlation between authenticity and the aesthetic.

Individualist ideas developed in the thought and sensibility, particularly of educated Europeans, during the seventeenth century. These seem to have facilitated the growth of new political forms that challenged the ancient hierarchies, and of new modes of economic life, which gave greater place to the market and to entrepreneurial enterprise" (58). . . . From its very inception, this kind of society has involved mobility, at first of peasants off the land and to cities, and then across oceans and continents to new countries, and finally, today, from city to city following employment opportunities. Mobility is in a sense forced on us. Old ties are broken down. At some time, city dwelling is transformed by the immense concentrations of population of the modern metropolis. By its very nature, this involves much more impersonal and causal contact, in place of the more intense, face-to-face relations in earlier times" (59). . . . Our technocratic, bureaucratic society gives more and more importance to instrumental reason. This cannot but fortify atomism, because it induces us to see our communities, like so much else, in an instrumental perspective. But it also breeds anthropocentrism, in making us take an instrumental stance to all facets of our life and surroundings: to the past, to nature, as well as to our social arrangements. (Ibid.)

Poesis and the Artists as the Paradigmatic Modern

The ethic of authenticity demands of its devotees the cultivation of self-expression as a means to self discovery and definition. "The notion that each one of us has an original way of being human entails that each of us has to discover what it means to be ourselves." Now, before this culture arose, when individuals and things found their places within an established status quo, art was imitation, mimesis. But now, when we must discover ourselves through expression, our art, too, is poesis, making, and the artist becomes the paradigmatic human being.

Simultaneously, self-definition requires a break with morality. "The very idea of originality [being authentic], and the associated notion that the enemy of authenticity can be social conformity, forces on us the idea that authenticity will have to struggle against some externally imposed rules. . . there is a notional difference between truth to self and those of intersubjective justice. . . . Authenticity involves originality, it demands a revolt against convention" (63).

Recalling his earlier treatment of the ideal of self-determining freedom, we see here again the need for a freedom to be against and to be for. "Authenticity is itself an idea of freedom; it involves my finding the design of my life myself, against the demands of external conformity" (67-68). Of course, this can easily tip into the deviant. Taylor thinks this is exactly what has happened in postmodernism. Following a doorway drawn in the wall of bourgeois social morays by "Marinetti and the Futurists, Antoine Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty, and Georges Bataille" (66), Taylor finds:

"The Nietzschean critique of all "Values" as created cannot but exalt and entrench anthropocentrism. In the end, it leaves the agent, even with all his or her doubts about the category of the "self," with a sense of untrammelled power and freedom before a world that imposes no standards, ready to enjoy "free play," [Derrida] or to indulge in an aesthetics of the self [Foucault]" (60-61).

At any rate, Taylor is quite clear that developments in art and the development of authenticity run on parallel tracks. The eighteenth century, he says, in the turn to the subject ceased to define art and beauty "in terms of the reality or its manner of depiction." Instead defining them by "the kinds of feeling they arouse in us, a feeling of its own special kind, different from the moral and other kinds of pleasure" (64). The line goes through Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and finds its forumula in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement. Beauty--like authenticity--is its own fulfillment and its own goal. The gravity has shifted. "Self-truth and self-wholeness are seen more and more not as means to be moral, as independently defined, but as something valuable for their own sake." Quoting Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Tayor describes a wholeness communicated by the enjoyment of beauty made from the union between self-wholeness and the aesthetic, the experience of which is higher "because it engages us totally in a way that morality cannot" (65). Such ecstasis becomes for Schiller the highest form of telos, "its own form of goodness and satisfaction" (Ibid.).

The Matrix of Authenticity

So we find that Taylor's understanding of the ideal or ethic of authenticity is "full of tension . . . living in an ideal that is not fully comprehended and which properly understood would challenge many of its practices" (56). And he is quite helpful in this chapter to provide a dialectical schema of authenticity, so that authenticity

  • (A) involves

    • (i) creation and construction

    • (ii) discovery

    • (iii) opposition to the rules of society & (potentially) morality

  • (B) requires

    • (i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that can save it from insignificance)

    • (ii) a self-definition in dialogue (with that which is Other)

Deviance is discovered where A is embraced and B ignored or vice versa. I find this schema helpful, because, in the end, Taylor is trying to give his hearer insight into how to fight for authenticity. He sees this ideal and ethic as a real good, as something that enriches human life--and yet which requires responsible administration in order to keep it from sliding off into one deviant form or another. I think, for example, of this same kind of process at work in the law/gospel dynamic of Martin Luther and in subsequent reformed theology, where hypervigilance need be kept against either a hardening scholasticism or a lusty, self-indulgent embrace of the heresy of the free spirit.

Previous entries in this series are:
Sorting Some of this Out.

; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; .

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sorting some of this out

There is a need to restate the problem, or at least one of the problems, which Charles Taylor is dealing with in The Malaise of Modernity.

His primary bogey so far has been the cultural slide into soft relativism, a personal and political narcissism which erodes all motivation for personal and political involvement and leads potentially to soft despotism. Why, if self-fulfillment is my goal, should I stay in long term relationships after they have ceased to be fun? Why should I learn the art of political involvement, the give and take of promotion and compromise? Why shouldn't the circle of responsibility be drawn skin-tight around my own changing desires and choices? Aren't I pursuing the authentic life? Isn't the best life that in which I come to realize and maximize myself?

The religious and the secular can make different but parallel arguments. For the secular, I offer Baruch Spinoza: "To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life." And here is Carl Jung, "Fidelity to the law of your own being is an act of high courage flung in the face of life." Is there any need to raise the specter of Emerson: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," "what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men," or Thoreau or Whitman? Here’s John Stuart Mill:

If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode” (Three Essays. Oxford University Press, 1975), 83.)

The religious have their own anecdotes as well. A prioress at a Benedictine convent describes her philosophy of life this way, "I try to live my life in such a way that when I die and my Maker asks, 'Did you live the life I gave you?' I can honestly answer yes." Add to this the usual reading of Jesus's parable of the talents.

Wherever you go in the West, the impulse to excavate and assume a larger self, or to release or augment the self and its experiences by means of commerce, is all pervasive--and this is as true in religious literature as secular. We are all caught up in it, e pluribus unum.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The slide into soft relativism by those who value individualism needn't occur. Taylor says that soft relativism is simply the product of a shallow understanding, and he argues for a better one: the ethic or ideal of authenticity.

A major pillar of his argument rests in the importance of a background of intelligibility which he calls "horizons of significance." The argument, see, is between what is valued. Soft relativism values anything it perceives as contributing to self realization, but its basis for argument is in the power of choice. Choice, personal or cultural, bestows value. It is a commercial statement, forever subject to fetishism according to the invisible hand of--we aren't quite sure, are we? I suppose we may have discovered the Powers themselves. At any rate, I want to see explicitly how his argument for these horizons of significance goes, because, again, it is part of the backbone of his argument.

(1) Authenticity requires definition over-and-against, it requires contextual field of differences that matter

"However one feels about it," he writes, "the making and sustaining of our identity, in the absence of a heroic effort to break out of ordinary existence, remains dialogical throughout our lives." (35) Taylor asserts that the creation of identity does not occur in monologue, but in dialogue, in agreement or struggle. Difference is a big part of this. "Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others." (36) But what are real and meaningful differences, and what are not? Is being taller a better goal than, say, carrying on a tribal tradition? How do we know.

We know, says Taylor, because every option comes to us against a background (horizon) of significance. Taylor is pretty pragmatic here, he doesn't say how this horizon came to be, simply that it is, and that it is determined largely by what is sacred. He also says we can't just ignore this horizon.

Soft relativists want to do just that. They argue that choice is what makes an option significant. Again reflecting an instrumental, or commercial, free-market sensibility, choice is the arbiter of all horizons; whether a choice is arrived on the basis of reason or feeling doesn't matter. Any other horizon is dismissed.

The problem with this is that choice alone is cheap. If gold grew on every tree, it would lose its value. That's what choice does. By removing any common horizon and making significance absolutely subjective, everything and every option or possibility becomes as easily obtained and easily discarded as any other. If the goal was to become more authentic by choice, then every option can get one nowhere.

Indeed, by exalting choice, soft relativists undermine their own position. "Unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence." (38) There is no longer a way of telling what is more or less good. The value of an option has to come from without, independent of my will, and that applies even to the value of choice: "Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues (I have also called the options, potentials, variables, etc.) are more significant than others." (Ibid.)

The choices required for authenticity require options that have real substance against a horizon of significance.

"The ideal of self-choice supposes that there are other issues of significance beyond self-choice. . . . It requires a horizon of issues of importance which help define the respects in which self-making is significant. The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. [Therefore, unlike soft relativism,] authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands" (39-41).

(2) Authenticity requires a way of recognizing differences without flattening them

The above argument means that simply making the choice to value others, simply asserting that a multicultural society is a good thing, does not proscribe value. The ability for those statements to have meaning requires that some common horizon be found for differences which make them valuable. "Mere difference can't itself be the ground of equal value." (51) "There must be some substantitive agreement on value, or else the formal principle of equality will be empty and a sham." Taylor turns to politics.

A political definition will not do it. Definitions of themselves exclude some differences even as they draw a wall of commonality around other differences. This is nothing but choice put in the hands of the polis, and the argument goes the same way as it did for individual choice as a ground for meaning. So what horizon of value does make sense?

Taylor doesn't answer the question definitively. Rather, he encourages his reader to begin to find "commonalities of value," and labels the most crucial of these "sharing a participatory political life." It is a necessary point on the way. Taylor has certainly gone further than narcissism, but it isn't enough in my opinion. What a commonality of value is, Taylor doesn't say. His result is shallow. Offering a political becoming--finding the answer in the process--though culturally a winner, is, in my mind, unsatisfactory.

Taylor's plea not to notice that man behind the curtain suggests a way for theology to provide a better answer. There is more to Taylor than soft relativism, but he does not arrive at a true and satisfactory Truth which would, by its very assertion, provide a touchstone, a north star, a schema of meaning in relation to all other suggested values. Interesting, too, that Taylor suggests a fundamental anthropology during his argument, writing, "There is a picture here of what human beings are like." He may not be sure what this anthropology is--perhaps it is a topic that will come up later in his book--but it is certain that the matrix formed between the relationship of God and humankind is a horizon of value that theology has long understood.

Previous entries in this series are:
The Need for Recognition.

; ; ; .

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Need for Recognition

With the introduction of modernity, well-understood hierarchies of honor collapsed. Where the pecking order of society had been fixed, with differences properly arranged among the classes and functions of human life, now all were equalized. This was sure to effect the discovery and development of personal identity.

The loss of the honor system made identity a commodity. Personal identity had been fixed by society. "What the person recognized as important was to a great extent determined by his or her place in society and whatever roles or activities attached to this." (47) With the emergence of the changes that have been tracked so far in this book, with the emergence of a new ideal of authenticity, individuals were required to discover their own "original way of being" which "cannot be socially derived but must be inwardly generated." (Herder) One witnesses, therefore, the creation of a new and important human need: recognition.

In the previous chapter, Taylor noted that identity is discovered not in monologue but in dialog. This means that others are not only important, they are necessary! "The development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new and crucial importance to recognition. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others." (emphasis mine) Recognition is brick-and-mortar in the house of self-identity.

Now when the established matrix of recognition, the social order, collapsed, the supply and demand of recognition needed systemic renegotiation. There was no longer any social guarantee of supply. Failure or loss were real possibilities. This effected social life on both a micro- and macro-scale.

Given the importance of dialogical relationships, it is no surprise that "the culture of authenticity" makes love relationships the "key loci of self-discovery and self-confirmation." Love relationships are the "crucibles of inwardly generated identity." There is a cultural emphasis, too, on the importance of ordinary life, "the life of production and the family, of work and love."

The importance of dialogical relationships--and especially the essential nature of recognition--effected the social plane as well. A politics of equal recognition is the order of the day. Indeed, the refusal to provide equal recognition "can inflect damage on those who are denied it," according to a widespread modern view.

The projecting of an inferior or demeaning image on another can equally distort and oppress, to the extent that it is interiorized. Not only contemporary feminism but also race relations and discussions of multiculturalism are undergirded by the premise that denied recognition can be a form of oppression" (49-50).

What matters now is fairness. Equal recognition is a political given, demanding "the equal status of cultures and genders." Everyone should have an equal playing field upon which to develop their identity.

"Everyone should have the right and capacity to be themselves. This is what underlies soft relativism as a moral principle: no one has a right to criticize another's values. This inclines those imbued with this culture toward conceptions of procedural justice: the limit on anyone's self-fulfillment must be the safeguarding of an equal chance at this fulfillment for others" (45).

Here's where the critics come in. They say that the individualism which makes love relationships primary and make equality a political must are no good on either count. Narcissistic individualism, they say, makes love relationships only as good as self-fulfillment requires, tossed aside when they are no longer useful. And, they continue, this soft relativism weakens the fortitude necessary for political action in a democratic state. Soft relativism removes all difference. Everyone is absolutely equal, and so judgments of value are impossible and political debate absurd. So does the ideal of authenticity require this? Taylor says no.

His is a careful argument. On one hand, you have to have equality, but the reality is that a political community is made of men and women from various religions, races, and cultures. The differences have to be acknowledged, while at the same resisting favoritism. Each way of being needs a way of being equally valued. How do we do this?

What is needed is a bridge between equality and difference, some property, common or complementary, which is valued along a larger horizon than simple choice (referring to the argument made in the previous chapter.)

"To come together on a mutual recognition of difference--that is, of the equal value of different identities--requires that we share more than a belief in this principle; we have to share some standard of value on which the identities concerned check out as equal. There must be some substantive agreement on value, or else the formal principle of equality will be empty and a sham. We won't really share an understanding of equality unless we share something more. Recognizing difference, like self-choosing, requires a horizon of significance, in this case a shared one. [Thus] developing and nursing the commonalities of value between us become important, and one of the crucial ways we do this is sharing a participatory political life" (52).

And what about personal relationships? Does a desire for authenticity make our relationships just a means to self-fulfillment? Well, not if identity is properly understood. To develop personal identity is a life-long process, and so the recognizing give-and-take of my dialogical relationships will need to track this process. Identity-forming relationships, by definition, can't be any less tentative than personal identity itself. Indeed, "if my self-exploration takes the form of such serial and in principle temporary relationships, then it is not my identity that I am exploring, but some modality of enjoyment." (53) Instrumental relationships aren't a good support for personal identity. "The notion that one can pursue one's fulfillment in this way seems illusory, in somewhat the same way as the idea that one can choose oneself without recognizing a horizon of significance beyond choice." (Ibid.)

To be honest, I'm not sure I understand exactly where he is going with his arguments about authentic political relationships requiring a larger horizon of value. Taylor calls this a denial of procedural justice and the liberalism of neutrality and an embrace of a politics of identity-recognition. Perhaps when I'm done, this will make more sense.

Previous entries in this series are:
Two together—two apart.

; ; ; .

Monday, July 10, 2006

Two together—two apart

Narcissistic modes of contemporary culture which desire self-fulfillment without regard to social obligation are self-defeating. They undermine the conditions necessary for realizing authenticity itself. That is the thesis Charles Taylor has before him as he begins his argument in chapter five: The Need for Recognition. But before an analysis, a few concepts require clarification.

First, I have noticed (and perhaps it has occurred earlier in this book) that Taylor always treats the individual as a participant in two interlocking social spheres. The first and most intimate sphere is the sphere of direct association, each person in relation to their spouse, children, friends, coworkers, etc. The second sphere is meta-social. It is society at large—and especially political citizenship. Taylor always treats both together, consistently demonstrating how a particular argument or state of affairs effects each one.

The second point of clarification is individualism. According to Taylor’s first chapter, individualism is one of the three nodes around which the malaise of modernity rotates. On one hand there are the cultural idolizers who cry “freedom!” and on the other the cultural despisers, who point at narcissism and an absolute subjectivity of self-fulfillment. This ideal Taylor is arguing for, the ideal (or ethic) of authenticity “is a facet of modern individualism.” But I note that Taylor takes up a line from de Tocqueville on page 125, note 17:

Individualism has in fact been used in two quite different senses. In one it is a moral ideal, one facet of which I have been discussing. In another, it is an amoral phenomenon, something like what we mean by egoism. The rise of individualism in this sense is usually a phenomenon of breakdown, where the loss of a traditional horizon leaves mere anomie in its wake, and everybody fends for themselves—e.g., in some demoralized, crime-ridden slums formed by newly urbanized peasants . . . It is, of course, catastrophic to confuse these two kinds of individualism, which have utterly different causes and consequences. Which is why Tocqueville carefully distinguishes “individualism” from “egoism.”

Taylor, of course, believes that the naysayers of individualism, Bloom for example, are doing just that. A mainstay of The Milieu of Modernity is a running argument for self-centered individualism as a faux form of authenticity. Bloom and the naysayers criticize such individualism because (among other things) it brings every human relation under the gavel of instrumental reason, and ultimately erodes effective political participation (mirroring the second and third points made in chapter one.) Taylor agrees, but not without saying, “there is another definition of individualism!” To understand this individualism properly; to understand its ethic of authenticity, is to see that every assertion of individuality is also a statement about the social order. “The individualism of anomie has no social ethic attached to it; but individualism as a moral principle or ideal must offer some view on how the individual should live with others.” And there are the two interlocking rings of social relationships that I talked about above. Now, on to the chapter itself!

Previous entries in this series are:
Gotta have those transcendent horizons.

; ; ; .

Friday, July 07, 2006

Gotta have those transcendent horizons

You can argue reasonably about ideals and about the conformity of practices to those ideals—that is the second part of the tripartite argument Charles Taylor is making in this middle portion of The Malaise of Modernity.

The foundation of his argument rests in three moves. First, the goal is reason, and reason requires an interlocutor. Second, the sort of interlocutor with whom Taylor is making his argument accepts the ideal of authenticity, “they are trying to shape their lives in the light of this ideal.” (Ah! A common ground of discourse!) Third, and this is most important, Taylor argues that human life is fundamentally dialogical.

Identity is no monologue. “However one feels about it,” he writes, “the making and sustaining of our identity remains dialogical throughout our lives.” (35) Again, “we become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves and hence of defining an identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression.” (33) We learn language—any meaningful gesture: art, love, dance—from and with others who matter to us. And it isn’t that we pick this up and then go off alone to further develop ourselves. No, “the contribution of significant others continues throughout life.”

I find it interesting that Taylor talks about pleasure. Authentic identity requires others, he says. Solitude ignores “how our understanding of the good things in life can be transformed by our enjoying them in common with people we love, how some goods become accessible to us only through such common enjoyment.” (34) The good life—he hasn’t said this but he may as well have—the good life (for which the ideal or ethic of authenticity is a necessary part), requires an Other, some addressee, be it parents, friends, spouse, an audience, God. Self fulfillment, because its horizon is only the immediate self and no other, pales in comparison . . . and that’s exactly where Taylor is going!

Now comes a thesis statement:

I want to show that modes that opt for self-fulfillment without regard (a) to the demands of our ties with others, or (b) to demands of any kind emanating from something more or other than human desires or aspirations are self-defeating, that they destroy the conditions for realizing authenticity itself” (35).

Taylor begins with point (b), that the ethic of authenticity demands something more or other than human desires. His proof (more of a sketch) is sublime.

“When we come to understand what it is to define ourselves, to determine in what our originality consists, we see that we have to take as a background some sense of what is significant. Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others" (35). If we ourselves define what is significant—who cares! In order for something to be significant, it must . . . well . . . be significant. But who determines significance?

Personal choice alone does not bestow significance—but that’s what soft relativism says: significance is bestowed by our free choice. Recall Rousseau’s doctrine of self-determining freedom mentioned in the last chapter. If choice did give meaning, dismissing any pre-existing horizon of significance, then choice would at the same time take it away. Since it equalizes all results, nothing comes to mean more than anything else. Difference is meaningless. “Soft relativism self destructs.”

Now, the ideal of authenticity does value self-choice—one chooses an authentic, and thus, meaningful/significant life—but it is the disparate values of chosen outcomes that make choice significant, not the other way round. Significance must be derived from horizons of value existing outside the self which make differences meaningful.

Unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence is incoherent. Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues are more significant than others. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization. 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” (39-40).

Taylor’s argument has a major flaw: he doesn’t suggest any criteria for sorting out which “self-transcending issues” should be preferred. His critique contains no telos. Nevertheless, he moves on to part (a) of his thesis: he wants to show “whether there is something self-defeating in a mode of fulfillment that denies our ties to others.” (41) That argument is the substance of the next chapter.

Previous entries in this series are:
Sources of Authenticity.

; ; ; ; ; .

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Sources of Authenticity

Charles Taylor thinks authenticity needs to be taken more seriously as a moral ideal. Its caricatures, such as subjective relativism, shouldn't be allowed to determine the debate, whether one celebrates or denigrates them. Instead, Taylor is out to retrieve a via media, the moral force of authenticity, and in order to do that, he asks three things of his reader: (1) that they believe authenticity is a valid ideal; (2) that they agree that one can make reasonable, evaluative arguments about ideals and their moral ramifications; (3) that they understand such arguments to be meaningful; they make a difference. "I hope to be able to make some of this plausible," he writes. "Let me start with the ideal." (23)

The Sources of Authenticity

Born from Renee Descartes' disengaged rationality, "where the demand is that each person think self-responsibly for him- or herself, and the political individualism of John Locke, where "the person and his or her will [is considered] prior to social obligation," (a kind of atomism which ignores altogether the ties of community), the ideal or ethic of authenticity grew up in the Romantic period of the eighteenth century. There was a notion in the culture that being in touch with one's inner, moral sense was a most ethical and good thing to do. People believed that knowing right from wrong was a matter of intuitive knowing rather than a lockstep product of formal obeisance to religious commands. Authenticity took this one step further.

Instead of an ethic where one seeks to know what is good and evil for the sake of one's neighbor (acting rightly), authenticity becomes "something we have to attain to be true and full human beings," (being rightly). "The source we have to connect with is deep in us," writes Taylor. "This is part of the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths." (26) Taylor sees a progression from Augustine, to the pantheists and deists of the salons, and finally to Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose great popularity "comes in part from his articulating something that was already happening in the culture."

Jean Jacques Rousseau urged his audience to obtain an intimate understanding of themselves, which he called "le sentiment de l'existence." A discovery, or recovery, of this authentic knowing is morally salvific, he said. Indeed, it is more fundamental than morals, and gives joy and contentment to living.

Interesting enough, Taylor sees a parallel development in Rousseau which is often confused with authenticity. This is Rousseau's doctrine of self-determining freedom. This doctrine is "the idea that I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influence. It demands that I break the hold of all external impositions and decide for myself alone." It is a doctrine with pervasive political influence, taking on the form of a "contract state founded on a general will," (and because it is generally held, it tolerates no dissonance--a seed of what becomes modern totalitarianism. Immanuel Kant revises this doctrine in a purely moral key, but Hegel and Marx return it to the political.)

Herder, says Taylor, makes our ideal of authenticity from Rousseau's moral inwardness. It is no longer a way to connect with God or a source of social good, but, instead, becomes the way each of us is originally human (and here I will quote at length from Taylor):

"There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else's. 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 moral 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 of 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 find it only within. Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own" (29).

Previous entries in this series are:
Authenticity Overlooked.

; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; .

Monday, July 03, 2006

Authenticity Overlooked

In chapter two of The Malaise of Modernity--The Inarticulate Debate--Charles Taylor paints a picture of an ideal under assault from forces within and without. The ideal is the ideal of authenticity, which Taylor says has a moral force behind it. Authenticity suggests there is a higher and even better mode of living; there is a life we ought to desire. But this ideal is lost amid the fog of war.

Coming from the outside are naysayers like Allan Bloom. Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind calls attention to an individualism of self fulfillment, a relativism described as:

"Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each must in the last instance, determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content" (14).

Bloom and the naysayers smell sloth. They point the finger at the pretentious intellectualism of the young and call it self-indulgence, egoistic, and morally lax. After all, in an age of uncertainty, it is better to remain as uncertain as possible lest we be required to act selflessly on behalf of others. They decry self fulfillment for admiring pragmatic survivalism rather than heroism, and hint at the third worry, the worry of a populace so self-focused that it wanders blithe into soft despotism. Bloom especially talks about a narrowing and flattening of the human being.

"Narrower because they [those who hold to an individualism of self fulfillment ] lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. . . . Flatter, because without interpretations of things, without the poetry or the imagination's activity, their souls are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around" (Bloom, 61).

Taylor largely agrees. And yet he believes the critics miss something. They miss the moral force underneath its narcissistic popularization: the moral ideal of authenticity--an ideal he believes (and that is the program of the book, to demonstrate and defend this belief) is valuable and should not only be retained but developed, clarified, and observed with care. Unfortunately, Taylor receives no help from those who might agree with him.

Those on the inside get the moral ideal of authenticity mixed up with caricatures. Most, for example, espouse authenticity along with a soft relativism--Taylor also calls it a liberalism of neutrality or simply tolerance. Soft relativists are skittish about the implications of saying that some forms of life are higher or better than others. They say, "a liberal society must be neutral on questions of what constitutes a good life. The good life is what each individual seeks, in his or her own way, and government would be lacking in impartiality, and thus in equal respect for all citizens, if it took sides on this question." The result: public and political reflection shirks any reflection on the good. These "friends of authenticity" clamp their hands over their mouths, leaving the field to its detractors.

Taylor goes on to identify two other factors that conspire in the silence of its friends: a culture enthralled in moral subjectivism and the usual methods of social science explanation. Taylor's discussion of moral subjectivism begins lumping the adjectives all together: individualism of self fulfillment; toleration; the liberalism of neutrality; moral subjectivism. What is he talking about? Are they all the same or different? Still, one can agree that these positions "are not in any way grounded in reason or the nature of things" but find their source in the popularity game of subjective fashion. Real political debate is rendered innocuous, as is any Aristotelian language of human nature. But what about social science? How does it conspire to silence all naysayers on behalf of authenticity? Well, by ignoring it altogether. The "hard" explanations of the social sciences--industrialization or the rise of class mobility--completely ignore the possibility that "soft" moral ideas effect social change. Marxism, notes Taylor, is guilty as charged: ideas are the product of economic changes. But much non-Marxist social science agrees. "And this in spite of the orientation of some of the great founders of social science, like Weber, who recognized the crucial role of moral and religious ideas in history." "What are often invoked [to describe social change] are applications that are non-moral . . . motivations that can actuate people quite without connection to any moral ideal . . . a desire for greater wealth, or power, or the means of survival or control over others."

"Even where individual freedom and the enlargement of instrumental reason are seen as ideas whose intrinsic attractions can help explain their rise, this attraction is frequently understood in non-moral terms. That is, the power of these ideas is often understood not in terms of their moral force but just because of the advantages they seem to bestow on people regardless of their moral outlook, or even whether they have a moral outlook. Freedom allows you to do what you want, and the greater application of instrumental reason gets you more of what you want, whatever that is." (20-21)

Therefore, in the face of withering social criticism from without and crippled by forces from within, little real reflection on the moral force of authenticity is accomplished.

The rub is that everyone, those within and without, are mostly arguing over caricatures. Most of the external attacks, argue Taylor, target caricatures of authenticity, not the real thing. And expressions like soft relativism, he continues, are simply "debased and deviant forms of [the] ideal" which "don't represent an authentic(!) fulfillment of it." According to Taylor, each of its caricatures is in reality a betrayal of its fundamental ideal. "So far from being a reason to reject the moral ideal of authenticity, [each] should itself be rejected in its name. Or so I would like to argue" (22). And here, finally, Taylor begins to suggest a platform for dialogue with naysayers and with so-called friends whose soft relativism has so far made them immune.

"Articulacy here has a moral point, 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. . . . I think that authenticity should be taken seriously as a moral ideal . . . worthwhile in itself and unrepudiable by moderns. What we need is a work of retrieval, through which this ideal can help us restore our practice" (22-23).

It will be interesting to see where Taylor goes from here.

Previous entries in this series are:
Taylor on Modernity's Malaise; Baudelaire is Melting.

; ; ; ; ; .