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.


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