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.

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