Charles Taylor, Gretchen Rubin, identity, law, music, Prince Ea, qualitative individualism, race, Supreme Court of India
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.
I’ve come to notice the importance of this ideal as part of my attempt to learn from a small number of traditions, rather than all of them, and to make these the traditions that choose me, whose truth claims make a claim on me. I’ve taken far too long to realize the importance and influence of the tradition that this particular ideal underlies. A major reason is that this tradition is so important to us as to be almost invisible, one whose influence is so pervasive we often fail to see it, as a fish does not know it is in water. The invisibility is such that I am not even sure there is a satisfactory name for it.
But I am convinced that this ideal is there and it is all around me and even in me, and probably you too. I think it provides the reasons underlying several of today’s most passionate social movements, especially the transgender movement but to a large extent the gay and lesbian movement as well. It sometimes seems to be expressed more often in pop songs than in philosophy – but it is expressed there over and over, over a long period of time. In the ’80s Sting closed “Englishman in New York” with the multiply repeated advice “Be yourself, no matter what they say”; in the ’90s Enigma sang “Don’t care what people say, just follow your own way”; in the ’00s Natasha Bedingfield added “No one else can say the words on your lips”; this decade we had Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” proclaiming a liberation from expectations and the freedom to be oneself.
Notice that many of these songs are not merely refusing others’ constraints, but recommending an ideal for others to follow as well – not merely “I will be myself” but “Be yourself”. It is advice frequently given. At an educational-technology conference last year, the keynote speaker cited advice she’d once gotten from her teacher: “If you try to be me, who’s going to be you?” In her own projects of self-improvement, Gretchen Rubin needed to remind herself to “Be Gretchen”. Being one’s true or authentic self is taken in these various contexts as something worthy and normative, something we should do and are at risk of not doing. Charles Taylor, probably the best philosophical chronicler of this ideal, notes:
it is hard to find anyone we would consider as being in the mainstream of our Western societies who, faced with their own life choices, about career or relationships, gives no weight at all to something they would identify as fulfillment, or self-development, or realizing their potential, or for which they would find some other term from the range that has served to articulate this ideal. They may override these considerations in the name of other goods, but they feel their force. (The Malaise of Modernity 75)
As I understand this ideal, its individualism stands in contrast to being primarily defined by a group, a community, or especially biological characteristics. The spoken-word artist Prince Ea puts a version of the ideal forward in his video “I Am Not Black, You Are Not White”, with its refusal of racial and other “labels”.
It seems to me that in our everyday ways of thinking about what we should do or what we should be or how we should live, this ideal takes on more prominence than do the ideals of utilitarianism or of Kant that are typically taught in introductory ethics classes. It is, in that sense, a more prominent part of contemporary Western ethics, as it is lived, than are the philosophies that are more typically taught. Those courses tend to focus on “morality” in a narrow sense, which I do not think a wise approach. When we modern Westerners start trying to think about our so-called “intuitions” about ethics in a more general sense, we are likely going to find our way to the ideal that people should strive to be truly themselves.
Nor is this only a Western ideal anymore. While the ideal has its origins in the modern West, it can no longer be considered merely “a Western ideal” any more than Buddhism can be considered merely “an Indian tradition”. Consider the Indian Supreme Court’s recent decision of Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India, the case that struck down India’s laws against gay sex. The very opening words of the decision are as follows:
Not for nothing, the great German thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, had said, “I am what I am, so take me as I am” and similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer had pronounced, “No one can escape from their individuality”. In this regard, it is profitable to quote a few lines from John Stuart Mill:- “But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency of personal impulses and preferences.”
The emphasis on the unique being of an individual is the salt of his/her life. Denial of self-expression is inviting death. Irreplaceability of individuality and identity is grant of respect to self. This realization is one‘s signature and self-determined design. One defines oneself. That is the glorious form of individuality.
The decision continues to emphasize this ideal of individuality throughout its text. The Western origins of the ideal are hardly concealed here, opening with quotes from no less than three modern Western philosophers. Yet this decision is now the law of the land of India, as decided by Indian judges, in a way that overthrows a law (Section 377) imposed by Western colonialists in 1861. The ideal has become Indian, just as Buddhism became Japanese and Mongolian and Thai.
There is a lot to be said about this ideal, and this will be the first in a series of posts that explores the ideal in more detail. (You may have noticed, for example, that the ideal stands in some tension with a Buddhist view of non-self.) The first question to ask about the ideal is what to call it; even that question is tricky enough to merit a post of its own, and that will be my next post.
I’m so glad you’re writing about this.
But I’m also a little surprised to hear that this impulse has until recently been invisible to you because it has been visible to me for a good while now. Years ago at a now-defunct blog, I suggested including it among Haidt’s moral foundations: http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-polonius-virtue.html
It also reminds me strongly of World 3 in W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds construct, with which I am perhaps too familiar: https://accidentalshelfbrowsing.wordpress.com/2016/11/26/what-world-do-you-live-in-part-1/
(My apologies for what must look like a lot of self-promotion.)
At any rate, I’m very interested in what you plan to say about this next, because the commitment to authenticity is not often discussed philosophically, as far as I can tell, and I also really want to see what you’d say about it in relation to Buddhism. Have you read Douglas Hoffstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop? That seems like it might bear fruitful comparison.
I probably should have given you this link about authenticity as a moral foundation, not the other one: http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/2013/11/an-apology-to-authenticity.html This one is a bit more substantial and a bit fairer, I think.
Amod Lele said:
“Authenticity” isn’t my favourite name for it, but I’ll get into that next time. I do think it would be interesting to think of it in terms of Haidt’s foundations. Haidt’s theory is good at making people realize there are moralities out there other than theirs, but I’ve never found his five-factor model particularly convincing.
I don’t think I would say this ideal has been invisible to me, at least not for a while – I read Charles Taylor early enough to at least have it at the back of my mind. I think it’s invisible to a lot of philosophers, though.
I’ve read Gödel, Escher, Bach, but not I Am A Strange Loop.
I must have misunderstood: invisible not to you, but generally. Got it.
I guess I’ll wait to hear what your reservations are re: authenticity.
And I mention Strange Loop because it seems to offer something very close to a vision of self or non-self that would both a) be compatible with some kind of Buddhism, maybe, and b) be able to account for the sort of persistent traits worth developing that I assume you are going to talk about. I don’t know enough about Buddhism, or what you have planned, to be sure of that, though, so the best I can really do is recommend that you look at it if you get a chance.
Donna Brown said:
I don’t know that it’s “invisible”… Historian Élie Halévy wrote in the early 1900s, “in western society, individualism is the true philosophy.” Louis Dumont, in 1960, was contrasting the West to India, and saying that the difference is that in the West people are individuals, and India, they are socially defined (sounds like that is changing.) And since I’ve been exploring individualism myself recently, I’ve come across some good books on its origins in the Christian idea of the soul, initially, followed by German romanticism among other factors. It is not surprising to me that the Indian court quoted German philosophers, as modern individualism has a portion of its roots in German ideas of the importance of each unique individual flourishing via throwing off social constraints … Anyway, I agree individualism is vitally important to understanding Western culture, and it has certainly affected how Buddhism is practiced in the West versus in more traditional cultures…
Amod Lele said:
“Invisible” may have been the wrong term, at least when speaking of society in general. It’s mainly been invisible to philosophers, especially analytic ones. Individualism per se has not, but “individualism” is a large concept and there are at least two kinds of it. I’ll be taking up that point next time.
Great timing, I was just talking at our local science fiction convention this past weekend about “religion” as philosophy vs lived practice (and how often fictional religions end up unconvincing on the latter metric). But insofar as that’s relevant to philosophy, it’s that it shows the same disconnect between understanding the importance of lived experiences to the oft-removed thinkers: writers and philosophers in equal measure.
As an amusing aside, I have always been awed by how many people earnestly quote Shakespeare’s “Above all, to thy own self be true.” Polonius is a buffoon, and he’s supposed to be giving terrible advice.
Amod Lele said:
Yes, I think you’re right. I’m feeling a little pissed off at religious studies as a discipline right at the moment (for reasons I will leave as vaguebooked in public), but what it has tended to get right is to pay attention to the ideals a society’s people actually live by and not only the ones its intellectuals proclaim – and this is particularly important to do when we look at our own society.
Of course, it was Nietzsche in Zarathustra who prophetically urged us to “become what thou art!” I have been writing a book chapter about how Aristotelian ideas concerning eudaimonia have worked their way into the contemporary psychologies of Jung, Maslow, and Seligman. In it, I wrote: “Aristotle viewed eudaimonia as the culmination of a teleological developmental process—involving cultivation and contemplation as well as adventitious factors—that had human happiness as its ultimate goal. This model became a template for later Western accounts of human flourishing. In our own time, psychologists have also theorized about innate, developmental processes and their role in wellbeing. Some of these accounts have emphasized an innate drive towards wholeness, or towards self-realization that unfolds over time. Ideas that view wellbeing as the outcome of developing one’s inner potentials have become dominant in contemporary culture.” The key here is the transformation in contemporary Western culture from the cultivation of the virtues (aretai) to the cultivation of one’s inner potentials with some vision of “wholeness” as the final endpoint.
Amod Lele said:
I think you’re going to like the future posts I have coming: I’m going to aim to talk about the modern ideal in relation to Aristotle, ways in which it is similar but also differs, and how that difference came to be. Nietzsche is probably the philosopher who’s done the most to articulate it, but I don’t think he’s a reliable guide to living well. We may do better to bring the Aristotelian ideal more in harmony with modern individualist conceptions.
Animal Symbolicum said:
In his contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Steven Crowell, professor at Rice University, presents existentialism as an attempt to elaborate a normative framework which is neither a moral-ethical framework, nor a natural-scientific framework, nor even a virtue-theoretic framework.
The guiding norm of this overlooked framework of values is called “authenticity,” and the project each of us embarks on under the guidance of this framework is “myself-making.”
Worth checking out for your upcoming reflections: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, Animal. This week’s post explains why I don’t use the term “authenticity” to describe the ideal. But I do think you are quite right that existentialism is an important tradition to consider here: it is one philosophical articulation of a qualitative individualist ideal, and possibly the longest lasting to date.
Very good topic — on the tension between authenticity and ‘non-self’ I would recommend Crispin Sartwell’s ‘Entanglements: A System of Philosophy’. I feel his ‘paradox of essence’ gets the crucial dynamic. We become an individual in direct proportion to our cultivated connections to the world, not through accessing something enclosed deep inside our ‘selves’.
“We might call this the paradox of essence: the more pure a thing is, the more self-enclosed, the less fully is it something, or the less fully itself it is: the less individuated it is by its unique relations.”
Sartwell, Crispin. Entanglements: A System of Philosophy (SUNY series in American Philosophy and Cultural Thought) (p. 62). State University of New York Press. Kindle Edition.
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Yan Kancuch said:
The entire existentialist tradition is both a critical reconceptualizarion and endorsement of that ideal. Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus. To be sure, it’s a small part of a marginalized tradition within contemporary analytic ethics, but the latter is only a very small period in the ethical philosophical tradition.
And of course even more marginal, but also influential, are the American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau.
Importantly, the founders, whether acknowledged or not, of existentialism are Plato’s Socrates (the critique of social authority via self-examination) and Descartes (the grounding of all knowledge in a subjective method where knowledge is ultimately verified individually). “Know thyself” just is the Socratic formulation of “be yourself,” since your true self just is your rationally appropriated beliefs. So it seems strange to also suggest that the ideal goes unnoticed in the western tradition generally, as opposed to contemporary ethics.
(Nietzsche is not as much a part of the existential tradition as he’s often taken to be—not only because he thinks authenticity is for the few, but because whether we achieve it is entirely fated, so “become what you are” is irony bordering on sarcasm. “Ecce Homo” sums it up as: “I never had any choice.” His most quoted passage on individuality or the “sovereign individual” oozes with irony: it’s an accidental product of social conformity that makes animals rule-guided and predictable in a way that allows for consistent variations—individuals are at bottom automata diverging from their programmers. the end, Nietzsche is, as he admits explicitly, more concerned about the rule than the exception, since only by giving meaning to the majority can you protect the rare, fragile exceptions, who are valuable not for their individuality but their life affirming nature.)
It’s worth remembering, though, that “be yourself!” is a somewhat odd command logically speaking. If not yourself, who else would you be? It’s physically and logically impossible to be any other thing, as Aristotle already pointed out.
I also take issue with phrases like “find yourself” or “become who you’re supposed to be.” What mythical entity is responsible for throwing my “true self” somewhere out there in the world for me to go on some long-winded Easter egg hunt? Or has some hidden, secret plan of this awesome being I’m always just short of becoming? And WHO am I in the interim anyway? Some sort of p-zombie?
I understand that these phrases actually intend to convey notions of doing things your own way, thinking for yourself, not following the crowd, etc., but I do wish they would say these things in a more logically sound manner.
Finally, I don’t think just doing what reflects your “true inner self” is always such a hot idea–Ted Bundy and Charles Manson come to mind.
I think you make good points Nicole. The points seem completely relevant to a hypostatized ‘self’ conceptualized outside of its embedded context, but maybe less so if the point is to be genuine to our own of our understanding or fluency within the medium within which we acting.
So I think an earnest humility concerning self-deception coupled with an attempt to pay attention to our underlying motivations would be requirements for the following of this concept to lead to ethical behavior. I wouldn’t look at it as becoming some pre-destined ‘true self’, but just as acting more genuinely — more true or better aligned with situations we encounter.