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.

; ; ; .