There is some reason for optimism. In times of uncertainty, with declining American influence, a worldwide pandemic, increasing tangible awareness of the impact of human-generated climate change, widespread claims of systemic injustice, and an economy suffering from a workforce that is resigning in large percentages, it may seem strange to have an optimistic outlook. What may seem even stranger is that such an upbeat outlook is not specifically religious in its outlook; the optimism for our individual and collective futures is based on a central ideal already familiar to cultures that are nominally “Western”, as well as the developing world: authenticity. For those that grew up in the sixties, authenticity got a bad name, especially as a personal ethic, because it was often linked to more debased forms of “do whatever you want” subjectivism that so many have criticized as debased, and as having a “flattening” and “narrowing” effect on life.
Let me introduce you to a 30-year old book: The Malaise of Modernity, known outside Canada as The Ethics of Authenticity.
The 90-year-old Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor is a major theorist of modern subjectivity. His influential 1989 book Sources of the Self weaves a centuries-long narrative about the development of modern notions of selfhood, and his mammoth 2007 volume A Secular Age explores the implications of a secular turn in culture. Much shorter than either of those books, The Malaise of Modernity is based on the Massey Lectures series he delivered in coordination with CBC Radio in 1991. In this work, Taylor addressed what he termed “three malaises about modernity”: the fear of a loss of meaning (“the fading of moral horizons”), the rise of “instrumental reason” in technology and the market, and the “loss of freedom.” The first malaise—associated with the rise of individualism and theories of self-fulfillment—is the focus of much of the book.
Crises of moral horizons, freedom, and technology might seem very familiar—and perhaps even more pressing—to readers 30 years later. Taylor wrote in the wake of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, and other works arguing that a wave of relativism and self-obsession was drowning modern society. In seeing how these uses of subjectivity lead to undercutting the meaning of choice and of larger action Taylor agreed to some extent with these critiques. However, he also argued that powerful moral resources could be found within the culture of authenticity, which contained not only degenerate forms of narcissism but also a more elevated kind of self-fulfillment. Taylor’s reimagining of the deeper resources of authenticity illuminates contemporary controversies about the self and community. He calls it a work of retrieval, i.e. that there is a point to articulate the sources of authenticity in order to understand how both the elevated forms of self-fulfillment and the more narcissistic variants often appeared in the works of the same authors, both historical and contemporary.
In Taylor’s telling, the culture of authenticity can partly be derived from revolutions in philosophy in the eighteenth century, as Rousseau (among others) tapped into evolving notions of the inner self. A sense of the significance of the inner self has a long legacy; deeply influenced by Catholicism, Taylor presented Augustine as an early explorer of our “reflexive awareness of ourselves.” However, the rise of the culture of authenticity dramatically raises the stakes of interiority, granting a sense of “moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature.” Knowing yourself as some particular entity with particular traits, desires, and conditions, i.e. as a particular individual, has achieved great prominence as a contemporary ideal. Along with the appearance of Freudian psychoanalysis, many major literary works of the past two centuries—from Wordsworth’s lyrics to Marcel Proust’s labyrinthine In Search of Lost Time—have focused on the drama of the inner self. Most bookstores across the world reserve the largest sections of their shelves to “self-help”.
In talking about our moral landscape, it is easy to see how authenticity could lend support to the concept of an unencumbered self—of freeing the person from all commitments so that she can do her own thing. The greedy theme of “me, me, me” can clearly be heard in modern life – including the well-worn trope about the millennial generation that they have a sense of “entitlement”. Taylor, however, held that narcissistic norms ultimately subvert the aims of authenticity as an ideal. Authenticity, rightly understood, needs ethical and personal commitments. Moral human beings striving for greater authenticity requires that we live, he observes, within “horizons of significance.” We exercise choices within those horizons, which gain significance only if we recognize their values as in some ways constituting our action rather than the other way around. If choice becomes self-ratifying—if every value is right merely because you choose or create it—then choice itself becomes insignificant. Thus, “soft relativism self-deconstructs.” To live without a background of significance that situates oneself is to be deprived of a meaningful life. Self-fulfillment requires something beyond the self. Allan Bloom was thus right to scorn narcissistic solipsism as “flattened and narrowed”—a flattening and narrowing that shows why a culture of narcissism is not our culture’s highest expression; it is, in fact, a perversion of authenticity. Conversely, our moral landscape is richer and deeper than the “knockers” suppose.
A similar point applies to our identities, and not merely our moral landscape. For Taylor, humans are fundamentally relational beings, and a cultural order that treats all human associations as instrumental and temporary would profoundly damage our ability to flourish. The need for ethical and social commitments partly motivates Taylor’s criticism of what he called “the liberalism of neutrality,” which endlessly shies away from questions of the good life. According to Taylor, recognizing the unique difference of others also demands attention to common values. But it also emerges from his understanding of Lionel Trilling’s important insight: we become who we are in dialogues with significant others. That is, we are not self-made; instead, we gain our identity through the refinement provided by intimate relationships.
Taylor offers a helpful lens for looking at culture, whether in 1991 or 2022. He rejected seeing modern culture as the deterministic unfolding of a single ideological narrative to be either celebrated or deplored. He dismissed the “polarized debate between . . . cultural optimism and pessimism” as not only misleading but also “crippling when it comes to engaging in the real, never-completed battle to realize the highest potentialities of our modern culture.” Taylor seeks to offer a middle way between completely rejecting modern life and uncritically celebrating it. Instead, his work has sought to locate virtues within modernity; seeing those virtues can help combat some of its vices. (Along the way, he also rejected in The Malaise of Modernity the argument that modern life is fundamentally determined by broader technological and material conditions; ideas, artistic traditions, and so forth also profoundly shape our individual lives and the social order.)
Taylor observed that, even if many moderns may not see themselves within some “Great Chain of Being,” we “may still need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us.” Robert Putnam and other sociologists have documented the ways that many modern cultural and political trends have pushed us in the direction of isolation. But that impulse has been countered by movements that stress integration into some larger order. In 1991, Taylor briefly discussed how environmentalism could be one vehicle for asserting participation in such an order. In recent decades, the idea of connection to a larger order has been a key premise in many discussions about what is now called climate change. Tracts arguing for the need to tackle climate change treat it as an existential threat that all humans are somehow involved in through their use of carbon.
The social justice “reckoning” in recent years can also be seen in the context of the drive for some greater attachment. One of the key tropes of this reckoning is that the various pathologies of American culture are “systemic”—that they pervade all of American life and define every American’s life. Those systemic evils and the need to combat them constitute a “larger order” that makes absolute claims upon us. On one hand, this reckoning can partly be traced to the imperatives of authenticity and recognition. The long history of racial discrimination runs counter to the recognition of individual dignity, and the attempt to expand the canon of figures, cultural traditions, and intellectual narratives in U.S. culture could speak to the project of expanding recognition.
On the other hand, many critics of the reckoning have themselves appealed to the ideals of authenticity and recognition. They argue that becoming “woke” has often come by promoting racial essentialism that degrades human individuality by reducing the person to a mere representative of a demographic type. They accuse it of promoting a contemporary pessimism, in which all of life must be transformed through a radical campaign of “doing the work.” They claim that the terminology of the “reckoning,” far from expanding recognition, might actually be a deeply alienating mode of discourse (critics point, for instance, to polls indicating that the term “Latinx” is much more popular among elite activists than among Hispanic Americans generally). They also argue that some of the proposed solutions of the “reckoning”—such as removing police from poor communities or giving patients preferential medical care based on their race or ethnicity—actively harm the project of individual recognition.
More than a few critics of woke culture have argued that it promotes a politics of fragmentation, a phenomenon that Taylor also discussed in The Ethics of Authenticity. Though Taylor has been sympathetic to Canadian multiculturalism, many U.S. observers have seen a risk of fragmentation in many modes of identity politics. In The Once and Future Liberal, for instance, Mark Lilla argued that an emphasis on identity among progressive activists was interfering with the effort to create a broader democratic coalition for change. Taylor similarly warned that a politics of fragmentation threatened the sense of democratic governance, as “the electorate as a whole [feels] defenseless against the leviathan state.”
The end of The Malaise of Modernity asserts that “one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow or dangerous.” Avoiding both triumphalism and despair, Taylor’s work reminds us that modern life is fundamentally at play—that our cultural moment contains the possibility for elevation as well as degradation. In offering a rejoinder to radical despair (which in turn can provoke political radicalism), The Malaise of Modernity also provides a deeper account of self-fulfillment: the true realization of our gifts demands that we escape the citadel of selfishness and recognize the ethical demands that give real depths to ourselves. In doing so, there is more than some reason for optimism.