How can you be yourself if there is no self?

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The rise of qualitative individualism in the West coincides relatively closely with Western interest in Buddhism. Nietzsche and Emerson, two of the most influential qualitative individualist thinkers, both had an interest in Buddhism stronger than was usual for philosophers of their time. And the greatest flowering of Western interest in Buddhism occured in the 1960s, the same time when qualitative individualism itself became fully mainstream.

Qualitative individualism can be put in many ways, but one of its most characteristic injunctions is “be yourself”. The injunction is often phrased further in terms of one’s true self. Such ideas are of central importance to the LGBT movement. A recent news profile asking Boston University students about the meaning of being transgender finds many of them echoing a common refrain: “discovering your truest self”, “finding one’s true identity”, “being their true selves”, “being truly, completely, unapologetically me”.

None of this seems like a great fit, on the face of it at least, with a tradition that has proclaimed for 2000 years that there is no self. Continue reading

The material conditions of qualitative individualism

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When I first started reading Charles Taylor on qualitative individualism in my 20s, my Marxist father complained that Taylor paid too little attention to material conditions. I didn’t really get the criticism at the time, but I do now, for reasons that go well beyond reading and writing.

Taylor’s discussion of qualitative individualism (or “expressivism” or the “ethics of authenticity”) takes place largely in the realm of ideas, as mine also has so far. I have tried to trace the history of the ideas of qualitative individualism. But such a history is incomplete. Continue reading

The case for individual teleology

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The big problem with the relative lack of philosophical attention given to qualitative individualism is that the ideal has had relatively powerful defences. Its most explicit defenders have been existentialists like Sartre, but Sartre’s best-known defence, at least, seems to fall flat. Charles Taylor has done the most to articulate the idea and how and it makes internal sense, but for the most part he is very cautious about ever actually endorsing it. Sometimes his defence of it seems to be simply on historicist grounds, as I quoted him in my first post on the subject. That is: qualitative individualism happens to be what we believe in the educated 21st-century West, and it is just for that reason important to us. Western governments therefore need to respect it just as the governments of Turkey or Indonesia need to respect Islam. Beyond politics, it is among our assumed starting points for inquiry, such that philosophically it is important to think with it (even if in the end we come to find it untenable). This point does matter.

But the point also doesn’t go far enough. Continue reading

Existentialism is a qualitative individualism

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My first post on qualitative individualism attracted several helpful comments, possibly drawn here by a link from Daily Nous. A couple of these commenters pointed out that that the ideal is not as “invisible” as I made it out to be – not even to philosophers. I hear it expressed relatively rarely in philosophical works now, but this would not have been the case fifty or sixty years ago, when the philosophy that was all the rage was: existentialism. Existentialism is not the only way for qualitative individualism to be expressed philosophically, but it may well be the most influential to date. Continue reading

The metaphysical prehistory of qualitative individualism

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Where does our deeply held ideal of qualitative individualism – that our differences from other individuals are of the highest significance for our living well – come from? We saw last time that it was most developed by Romantics, especially German ones. But where did they get the idea? Here as in so many cases, a characteristically modern idea has premodern roots. When German Romantics like Humboldt and Herder articulate the idea they often refer to a metaphysical “principle of individuation”, sometimes referred to by the Latin term: principium individuationis. That is, everything, in the human world at least, has a principle that makes it unique, what it is and nothing else. Where are they getting this idea? Continue reading

The birth of qualitative individualism

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What is remarkable about the ideal of qualitative individualism is that it is so pervasive yet so rarely thought about in depth. To get a bit more of that depth, I would like to examine next the question of where it comes from.

The idea is modern, I think, though like so many modern ideas it has premodern antecedents. A while ago I breezed a little too easily over the differences between qualitative individualism and Aristotle. I said:

Aristotle – not exactly a great friend of modern liberal freedom – thinks of the best politics in terms of allowing each person to fulfill a highest end or telos, all being the best they can be. Some thinkers would consider this teleology a higher and truer kind of freedom than choice alone. But it seems to me that the freedom of choice is a vital part of the freedom to be what you are. Who would know what you’re meant to be better than you yourself?

I missed something there. If it’s so clear that you’re the person who knows best what you’re meant to be, then why would Aristotle have been “not exactly a great friend” of the political freedom of choice lionized by qualitative individualists today? Continue reading

Naming the “be yourself” ideal

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What name should we give the ethical ideal I spoke of last time, the pervasive idea that you should “be yourself, no matter what they say”? The answer to that question isn’t easy.

I initially started thinking of this ideal simply as “Romantic”. But “Romantic”, with a capital R let alone a small one, refers to a range of ideals considerably wider than this. I asked my friend Andrew Warren, a Romanticism expert, to define Romanticism, and he responded that Romanticism resists definition. (I recall him once having given the stronger answer that “Romanticism is that which resists definition”, though that isn’t his own recollection.) Continue reading

An invisible ideal that we cherish

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When we study non-Western cultures it is difficult to separate out the study of “philosophy” from the study of “religion”. Those of us who study the brilliant arguments of élite men are often told we should pay more attention to the lived culture, to what people there actually say and do. There are advantages and disadvantages to studying other cultures this way. But one of the things we often don’t do is turn that same gaze on our own.

What if, as philosophers in the West, we paid more attention to the ideas that actually underlie our everyday lives and cultures and arguments rather than to prestigious theories? As “religious studies” scholars do, in ways that do not and should not depend on the concept of “religion”? I think that if we approached contemporary Western philosophical culture in this way, we would discover how much of our ethical life is animated by an important ethical ideal that has not had a defender as philosophically rigorous and articulate as a Kant or a Rawls. Continue reading

Are there non-omnipotent gods?

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Several commenters had concerns about my post on not believing in God. This is understandable, since there I take a concept that a large chunk of the world’s population has oriented their lives around for over a thousand years, dismiss it in a couple short paragraphs and spend more than half the post instead discussing why I avoid calling myself an atheist.

That is to say that the topic of disbelief in God deserves more attention than I gave it there. And as most commenters pointed out, it does depend heavily on how you define God. Continue reading

“Indian philosophy” vs. “Buddhist ethics”

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It is not especially controversial to say that ethics is a branch of philosophy. I’ve occasionally heard people dispute that claim, but mostly on the grounds that ethics extends beyond philosophy per se, to narrative and the like; few would say that ethical reflection is in general not a philosophical activity. Likewise it is not controversial at all to say that Buddhism began in India, or that Buddhism played a central role in the development of Indian philosphy.

So why is there so little overlap between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics”? Continue reading

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