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.


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