The Ethics of Authenticity (Chapters 6-10)

The Ethics of Authenticity, Chapters 6-10

In the first five chapters, Taylor argued that contemporary society suffers from three malaises: rampant individualism, the dominance of instrumental reason, and the loss of political freedom brought about by social fragmentation. The bulk of the book looks at the first issue. Whereas various commentators deride modern individualism as purely amoral narcissism that is impervious to criticism, Taylor shows that contemporary ideas of self-fulfillment are rooted in a deeper conceptual history. He argues that choice for the sake of choice is only valuable insofar as we choose well, which means that act of choosing is less important than the object of choice. Such objects cannot be determined by the chooser; rather, they are determined in dialogue with other people. Other people, in other words, are in some way necessary to personal responsibility and authenticity inasmuch as they help determine what a good life looks like.

In this chapter, Taylor will continue looking at how we got to a culture of self-fulfillment, and in the last two chapters he will briefly discuss the other two malaises.

VI. The Slide to Subjectivism

Taylor has been arguing that the “culture of self-fulfilment” is a debased version of a serious moral ideal: authenticity. In this way, his argument contrasts with other criticisms of contemporary culture, which either (a) see it as driven by a powerful but dissolute ideal or (b) lacking any ideal whatsoever. Both criticisms see “the culture of narcissism as quite at peace with itself [. . .and therefore] impervious to argument” (56). Taylor’s view shows the culture “to be full of tension, to be living an ideal that is not fully comprehended, and which properly understood would challenge many of its practices” (56). As mentioned earlier, it is this gap between theory and practice that provides space in which to reason about the culture of self-fulfilment.

What makes the ideal of authenticity devolve into the culture of self-fulfilment? Taylor rejects the idea that it is just moral laxism on the grounds that people have always struggled with morals. Contemporary culture sanctions both “social atomism” and “radical anthropocentrism”: respectively, (i) regarding social relationships as instrumental to self-fulfilment, and (i) “neglecting or delegitimating demands that come from beyond our own desires or aspirations, be they from history, tradition, society, nature, or God” (58).

The social causes for the slide are several, and while not entirely determinative, they are not to be ignored. For one, as parents strive toward an ideal and raise their children in it, the children are more likely to make it a part of their daily lives. Also, the techno-bureaocratic attitude renders all facets of life valuable only for self-fulfilment, thereby de-sanctifying that which was previously revered.

However there are “reasons internal to the ideal of authenticity that facilitate the slide” (60), and in fact there is not one slide but two: a popular one and an “high” cultural one. Inasmuch as the popular one has been dealt with throughout the book, Taylor turns to the academic one. He will end up saying that the notion of authenticity must involve two themes with their corollaries (page 66), but that the dominant trends in post-modernism focus on A at the expense of B: Figures such as Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Marinetti and the Futurists, Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty, Georges Bataille, Foucault, and Derrida are cited as examples of thinkers subscribing to A at the expense of B.

A theme throughout some of these thinkers work (especially Foucault and Derrida) is a questioning of all values and the implicit or explicit rejection of standards imposed by the world. While both go so far as the undo the category of “the self,” Taylor argues that, paradoxically, the leave “the agent, even with all his or her doubts of the ‘self,’ with a sense of untrammeled power and freedom before a world that imposes no standards, ready to enjoy the ‘free play,’ or to indulge in an aesthetics of the self” (61). It is in university students that the high-cultural and the popular slides to subjectivism meet, and the academic slide “further strengthens the self-centred modes, gives them a certain patina of deeper philosophical justification” (61).

Taking the later Foucault as exemplary of the thinkers in the A side, Taylor interprets post-Romantic versions of the self to involve a curious blend of self-discovery and self-expression. That is, we must become what we really are in our own individual, original way, yet this becoming needs some form of expression to be fully realized: “We discover what we have it in us to be by becoming that mode of life, by giving expression in our speech and action to what is original in us” (61).

This link between self-discovery and expression accounts for the increasingly revered role of the artist after Romanticism as well as a shift thinking what “art” is. On the one hand, whereas art’s primary duty previously was mimesis, the representation of reality, its job increasingly comes to be seen as one of moving people: “The specificity of art and beauty cease to be defined in terms of the reality or its manner of depiction, and come to be identified by the kinds of feeling they arouse in use, a feeling of its own special kind, different from the moral and other kinds of pleasure” (64). In a word, aesthetics is born.

On the other hand, the artist as creative comes to be valorized as a purest crystallization of the self-making person. It’s not a large step to see how this emphasis on self-making blends into a generalized anti-conventionalism, and “self-definition comes early to be contrasted to morality” (63)

Indeed, the very idea of originality, 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. We can, of course, believe that it will be in harmony with the right rules, but it is at least clear that there is a notional difference between these two kinds of demand, that of truth to self and those of intersubjective justice. (63)

In other words, authenticity requires the deepest aspects to be embraced and brought to light, but “[m]orality as normally understood obviously involves crushing much that is elemental and instinctive in us, many of our deepest and most powerful desires” (65); as a result, an explicitly anti-moral ethos develops that embraces immorality, such as the cult of violence that pervaded various early 20th Century aesthetic movements and, incidentally, helped lay the foundations of Fascism.

Returning to the chart above, Taylor faults the Nietzschean-cum-Postmodern side of authenticity for stressing the constructed, creative side of our “expressive languages” even to the point of embracing amoralism, but they ignore the horizon of significance and dialogic setting that binds us to others. Taking such a stance is at least in part in line with the notion of authenticity insofar as it embraces radical freedom (the A side of the chart), but that is just the problem: “the notion of self-determining freedom, pushed to its limit, doesn’t recognize any boundaries, anything given that I have to respect in my exercise of self-determining choice” (68), and the consequence is the erasure of horizons of significance, leaving with us with a confused worldview:

At one moment, we understand our situation as one of high tragedy, along in a silent universe, without intrinsic meaning, condemned to create value. Bt at a later moment, the same doctrine, by its own inherent bent, yields a flattened world, in which there aren’t very meaningful choices because there aren’t any crucial issues. The fate of the great ‘postmodern’ doctrines that I’ve been describing here, as they impact on the North American university, illustrates this. They become flatter and kinder than the originals. Flatter, because they serve in the end to bolster the more self-centred images of authenticity. Kinder, because they are taken as supports for the demands to recognize difference. Foucault, in the American university, is emphatically seen in general as a figure of the left. This is not necessarily the case in France, and even less in Germany. (68-9)

With the fading of horizons of significance, self-determination takes on a more important role, leading to the vicious circle of valorizing choice for in a degraded version of authenticity.

VII. La Lotta Continua

The title from Italian as “the struggle goes on,” and it’s a slogan from the Red Brigades indicating that that the revolution will never be complete. Taylor has spent the majority of his time teasing out aspects of the ideal of authenticity that go unnoticed by both its boosters and its knockers. Choosing to be a knocker or a booster of authenticity is a mistake, he argues, because they are both wrong:

What we ought to be doing is fighting over the meaning of authenticity, and from he standpoint developed here, we ought to be trying to persuade people that self-fulfilment, so far from excluding unconditional relationships and moral demands beyond the self, actually requires these in some form. The struggle ought not to be over authenticity, for or against it, but about it, defining its proper meaning. We ought to be trying to lift the culture back up, closer to its motivating ideal. (73)

As he will argue in this chapter, the ideal of authenticity has merits in its own right, and it’s here to stay anyway, so the pressing task is to sort out what it is and ought to be.

As for its merits, they speak for themselves: a life embracing greater self-responsibility “allows us to live (potentially) a fuller and more differentiated life” (74). Even those deploring the excesses of modern individualism do not really want to go back to an era of stifling, rigid social hierarchies. For example, the critics of the culture of narcissism surely make their own life choices in part based on considerations of what would be fulfilling or self-developing, etc. Of course, that ad hominem point is not an argument in favor of authenticity, but “it ought to induce some humility in its opponents” (75). Rather than seeking to condemn the culture wholesale, critics would be better off focusing on the most self centered forms of the authenticity, many examples of which have been discussed already. If you think that these developments are unproblematically embraced by the young generation, then you’ll despair for the future. But if you see new practices of self-fulfilment as “the site of an ineradicable tension,” you find the room to negotiate the ideal.

In other words, society isn’t moving one way or the other:

The fact that there is a tension and struggle means that it can go either way. On one side are all the factors, social and internal, that drag the culture of authenticity down to its most self-centred forms; on the other are the inherent thrust and requirements of this ideal. A battle is joined, which can go back and forth. (77)

Those seeking a definitive solution will be disappointed, for the age of individualism opens a door that cannot be closed: “[w]e can never return to the age before these self-centred modes could tempt and solicit people. Like all forms of individualism and freedom, authenticity opens and age of responsibilization [. . . .] By the very fact that this culture develops, people are made more self-responsible” (77).

A corollary of this irreversible era is the impossibility of ensuring individuals will become their best selves by reifying self-control in social, political, or economic structures. One of the least credible aspects of orthodox Marxism was the belief that the demise of capitalism would automatically entail that “the great and admirable fruits of modern freedom would flower; the abuses and deviant forms would whither away” (77). Such utopian aspirations betray freedom at its essence—freedom is the freedom to get better or worse. It is for this reason that the struggle goes on, interminably. Taylor grants that “some societies may [. . .] slip badly into alienation and bureaucratic rigidity,” but the world is too varied and pluralistic for the whole thing to sink in one motion. Thus, Taylor is not proposing that the age of self-responsibilization is automatically better or freer; rather, it provides a factor that cannot be avoided in deciding our lives and society.

By taking the worse version of authenticity as narcissistic and resistant to discussion, the knockers of authenticity actually end up colluding with the boosters to impose a degraded version of the ideal: “Both in a sense conspire to identify it with its lowest, most self-centred expressions” (80).

VIII: Subtler Languages

It’s important to separate the manner from the matter of the ideal of authenticity, a pairing equivalent to the form-content distinction:

On one level, it [the ideal of authenticity] clearly concerns the manner of espousing any end or form of life. Authenticity is clearly self referential: this has to be my orientation. But this doesn’t meant that on another level the content must be self-referential: that my goals must express or fulfill my desires or aspirations, as against something that stands beyond these. I can find fulfilment in God, or a political cause, or tending the earth. Indeed, the argument above suggests that we will find genuine fulfilment only in something like this, which has significance independent of us or our desires. (82)

Confusing these two levels of self-referentiality is “catastrophic.” That of manner is indispensable in our culture, but that of manner is not, and failing to distinguish them “lends legitimacy to the worst forms of subjectivism” (82).

The chapter turns mainly to a discussion of modern art (primarily poetry and painting after 1790) and how its aesthetic principles differ from those of earlier works. As mentioned in chapter VI, around art’s task of mimesis gives way to one of creation. Part of this shift is a recoding and decoding of hither-to widely understood reference points. For instance, in Macbeth Lennox recounts the night of Duncan’s murder by mentioning “lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,” and the day remains dark. The previous day, a falcon was killed by an owl, and Duncan’s horses rebelled against their human masters at night. The point of this list of events is to highlight the act of regicide, that most “unnatural” event in Shakespeare’s England. Similarly (this is my example), medieval and Renaissance paintings of weddings often feature a dog, the symbol of loyalty and obedience. If you see a dog in an old painting, you can instantly decode it. Poetry and painting are saturated with these widely agreed upon symbols.

In post-Romantic poetry, these codes no longer function. It’s not just that they have given way to another set of codes; rather, the whole idea of a public doctrine of symbols has been largely dispensed with. The poet now must invent the language to express the idea they want to convey. That’s not to say that a poet cannot draw on these older doctrines, just that they cannot have the fixed meaning they would have in an earlier time; “the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable” (84). Part of the purpose of this invention is to “make us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no adequate words. The poems are finding the words for us” (85).

So in modern art, we understand meaning not as given across various artists and works, but as worked out by a particular work or artist. Understanding requires attending to the individual work or artist’s manner of expressing. That is not to say, though, that all art become merely a “personal vision,” aka a “subjectivification of manner.” Many of the greatest writers over the past 200 years (Taylor mentions Wordsworth, Eliot, Pound, Proust, Mann, Joyce, and Rilke) eschew writing merely about themselves even though they all struggle to work out new forms of expression.

Art’s balancing of the manner/matter distinction regarding authenticity helps point the way in the larger ongoing cultural struggle over authenticity.

To take a salient example, just because we no longer believe in the doctrines of the Great Chain of Being, we don’t need to see ourselves as set in a universe that we can consider simply as a source of raw material for our projects. We may still need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us

Indeed, this latter may be thought of as urgent. It would greatly help to stave off ecological disaster if we could recover a sense of the demand that our natural surroundings and wilderness make on us. The subjectivist bias that both instrumental reason and the ideologies of self-centred fulfilment make dominant in our time renders it almost impossible to the state the case here (89-90)

An anthropocentric environmentalism is not the ideal ally because it still relies on nature as a resource that is good for us; it’s not such a far leap for this instrumental calculation to flip back over to the destruction of the environment. Recovering something like a sacred reverence of nature and our connectedness to it might be the best antidote to the pervasive influence of instrumental reason.

IX: An Iron Cage?

As promised in the first lecture, Taylor turns away from “the fading of moral horizons” that accompanies contemporary individualism and turns to the threat posed by instrumental reason’s dominance. Just as he rejects the terms of the debate between the boosters and knockers of authenticity, so does he refuse to take a side on the debate of whether instrumental reason is a good thing or a bad thing: he’s interested neither in singing the praises of technology nor in railing against it as inherently bad.

Taylor observes that there are some complicated and confusing cross-alignments of views among the various boosters and knockers: “[c]rudely put, the knockers of authenticity are frequently on the right, those of technology on the left” (95). And yet, Right-wingers tend to advocate maintaining tradition even as their enthusiastic support for unfettered capitalist economic policies has proved highly corrosive to traditional ways of life. Nor is this contradiction only on the right; many lefties hold “an attentive, reverential stance to nature,” and yet they also advocate “abortion on demand, on the grounds that a woman’s body belongs exclusively to here. Some adversaries of savage capitalism carry possessive individualism farther than its most untroubled defenders” (95).

Given the complications inherent in a for-it-or-against-it debate about instrumental reason, Taylor again calls for an act of “retrieval” to find the moral sources that fuel the dominance of instrumental reason. “Retrieving them might allow us to recover some balance, one in which technology would occupy another place in our lives than as an insistent, unreflected imperative” (96). Taylor grants that to a large extent, instrumental reason compels our assent through setting up coercive systems and institutions, such as the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, and yet, there nonetheless remains some reserve of critical reason that is not exhausted by external compulsions. We are not, in other words, in an “iron cage.” For one, the dominance of technology and instrumental reason came from somewhere—technology did not simply develop institutions: “this outlook also had to begin to have some force in European society before the institutions could develop” (99).

Remembering this reserve of critical reason is important to avoid political defeatism. If we really think minds are at the mercy of institutions, our outlook will be bleak. If, however, we believe that atomised individuals are capable of collaborating about common concerns, then we begin to form a common political orientation. Coming to grips with the compelling force within the ideal of instrumental reason is the first step to recovering a sense of purpose in instrumental reason. One of these is

an ideal of self determining freedom. We are free when we can remake the conditions of our own existence, when we can dominate things that dominate us. Obviously this ideal helps to lend even greater importance to technological control over our world; it helps to enframe instrumental reason in a project of domination, rather than serving to limit it in the name of other ends. (101)

Instrumental reason has grown up in an era of thinking about the subject that downplays reason’s messy entanglements in bodies, social relationships, emotions, and traditions. We find such disconnected use of reason in the mathematization of social policy, for example. Such a view of reason has venerable philosophical forbearers, especially Descartes.

Despite the powerful compulsions that instrumental reason has, we can resist domination by recalling two of the moral contexts from which instrumental arose.

Instrumental reason is grounded in a moral ideal “of a self-responsible, self-controlling reasoning. There is an ideal of rationality here, which is at the same time an ideal of freedom” (103-4)

Instrumental reason is connected to the “affirmation of ordinary life”—reason should be put to the service of perpetuating life and family (rather than being purely unengaged thought for the sake of thought). We have inherited a demand first articulated in Francis Bacon that there should be “a model of science whose criterion of truth would be instrumental efficacy” (104)—call it techno-science. In part, this ideal animates great movements of international solidarity in the form of relief efforts. We believe, for example, that people should not be passive victims of the devastation wrought by famines and hurricanes and that we should do something to prevent or lessen their suffering. Those who dismiss technology as inherently oppressive take for granted many of the securities is has provided (I’m looking at you, anti-vaxxers).

So instrumental reason is animated by moral ideals, not only by blind self-propagating force. Retrieving the moral background helps us to consider the ends to which instrumental reason should be put, and there two considerations needed to carry out this retrieval: (a) what are the conditions of human life needed to realize the ideals in question? and (b) what would effective realization look like? Going over old territory, we can note with regard to (a) that human life is inherently dialogic, so  (b) respecting this fact—not going full-steam ahead with instrumental reason at the expense of this social embeddedness—must be part of the realization. An example Taylor gives of how this might look is in medical treatment: rather than rushing forward with treatments of diseases and symptoms,  technical treatments should be inscribed in a larger ethic of care-giving that accounts for one’s hope and despair, etc.

X. Against Fragmentation

In the first chapter, Taylor laid out three malaises: a culture of narcissism and the dominance of instrumental reason are the first two, and they have been dealt with. The third one that he will take up in the final chapter is the loss of freedom that results from the other two.

Taylor begins by finding fault both with communist countries and the response from non-communist countries to the global collapse of state communism. The collapse shows that it is naive to think we can run a country purely on a decisionist model—there must be some allowance for undecided mechanics to play a role (mainly market mechanics). On the other hand, some in the West assume that the collapse of communism is an endorsement of Western  free-markets, which is equally a mistake in Taylor’s view: “Stability, and hence efficiency, couldn’t survive this massive withdrawal of government from the economy, and it is doubtful if freedom either could long survive the competitive jungle that a really wild capitalism would breed” (110). The mistake on both sides is thinking that a single principle is sufficient to organize a society.

In fact, we can live together neither by abolishing markets entirely nor my organizing ourselves solely by way of them. There will always need to be some work of balancing the two sides, which will play out as an unending struggle. But just because a final victory is impossible does not mean the whole venture of struggle is futile; “there is winning or losing ground” (111). The unbridled application of instrumental technology will threaten environmental catastrophe until such time as we collectively work to preserve the environment.
The problem of political freedom that this chapter addresses enters here, because collaboration of market and bureaucratic democracy weakens democratic impulses in the populace and leads people “to accept too easily being governed by an ‘immense tutelary power’,” the “soft” despotism mentioned early in the book (112). We might not see anything quite like traditional tyranny, but we should be considered about the social fragmentation that leads to a kind of undemocratic democracy. Fragmentation means just the atomization of society mentioned earlier, with people seeing themselves increasingly as less bound to others by common projects and allegiances. Even where some common projects exist, their scope is smaller than society as a whole (such as a particular community, religion, etc.). This fragmentation leads people to participate in representative democracy only to the extent that they can advance their own partial interests without concern for the society as a whole. People see common project as fanciful and utopian, so they give up, which in tun increases the social fragmentation further.

Taylor wraps up the book with a whirlwind discussion of current trends in US State politics and law from roughly the 1960s onward. However, the basic themes he decries are the partisan politics that play out in US legal decisions (such as stacking the Supreme Court to fight the abortion decision in Roe vs Wade [1973]), “sound byte” political slogans, attack ads, wedge issues, increased lobbying, and basically all the features that characterize contemporary U.S. politics of partisanship and non-cooperation. While it is a stretch to call this society despotic, critics on the left and right have decried the rise of apathy and cynicism as well as the decline of voting rates to around or below 50%. Moreover, political and judicial issues are increasingly determined in a winner-take-all way: you either win or lose, and there is no middle ground. Taylor points out how the abortion debate has found itself stuck between asserting either the rights of the fetus or the rights of the mother, with the two seeming to be mutually exclusive.

Resisting this fragmentation is an effort we can make, and while there is no specific system for doing so, just recognizing that it is happening and that we are not entirely determined by our situations would go a long way.


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