In a flattened world

Richard Rorty

  • The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor
    Harvard, 142 pp, £13.95, November 1992, ISBN 0 674 26863 6

If you dislike the ways of discussing moral choices prevalent among the chattering classes of northern California, you will probably agree with Christopher Lasch that theirs is a culture of narcissism. If you rather admire these people’s attitudes and way of life, you may describe it as a culture of tolerance. If you have mixed feelings, you might settle for the description Charles Taylor suggests: it is a culture of authenticity.

Taylor says that we ought neither to boost this culture (in the manner of the truly dreadful books produced by representatives of ‘the human potential movement’) nor knock it (in the manner of Lasch and Allan Bloom). Instead, we should ‘fight over the meaning of authenticity’. In particular, we should keep reminding people that the selves to which they hope to be true are ‘dialogical selves’ – that we are what we are because of the people, real or imaginary, with whom we have talked. As Taylor says, ‘We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining an identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression.’

The great merit of Taylor’s brief, non-technical, powerful book (a series of radio talks) is the vigour with which he restates the point which Hegel (and later Dewey) urged against Rousseau and Kant: that we are only individuals in so far as we are social. None of us has a self to be faithful to except the one which has been cobbled together in interchanges with parents and siblings, friends and enemies, churches and governments. Even if we bring something new and idiosyncratic into the world, it will be at best a slight modification of what was already there. Being authentic, being faithful to ourselves, is being faithful to something which was produced in collaboration with a lot of other people.

People who go on about ‘human potential’, by contrast, think that all it takes to be a full human agent is to be born into the species. To develop your potential, you need only to think about you. There is no need to find out what your neighbours feel or need, much less to read books. For you already have everything that matters, deep down inside. It is natural that this comfortable view should find expression in an exceptionally primitive religion – the New Age movement – for it amounts to identifying your self with God. All you need to do is to become more fully conscious of your divinity – to recognise how wonderful, how luminous, you already are.

The core of Taylor’s argument is a vigorous and entirely successful criticism of two intertwined bad ideas: that you are wonderful just because you are you, and that ‘respect for difference’ requires you to respect every human being, and every human culture – no matter how vicious or stupid. This latter idea is the awkward, muddled expression of a generous impulse – an impulse first aroused when it dawns on us that the people we have been trained to despise (for being foreign, or poor, or black, or gay) bleed when you prick them. But fellow-feeling degenerates into self-indulgent cant and political frivolity when we forget that some cultures, like some people, are no damn good: they cause too much pain, and so have to be resisted (and perhaps eradicated) rather than respected. This so called ‘politics of difference’ pretends that both morality and politics can be reduced to niceness; it evades the thought that moral choice is sometimes a matter of deciding who is going to get hurt.

Self-indulgent cant is still common in Berkeley and on many American campuses, though it is neither so widespread nor so unchallenged as Camille Paglia, Hilton Kramer, Thomas Sowell and other viewers-with-alarm suggest. One of its products is the kind of wildly inconsistent rhetoric dissected by David Bromwich in Politics by Other Means: the insistence that you are only an authentic black if you identify your self with your blackness, only an authentic gay if you identify your self with your gayness, etc. Another is the sort of curriculum reform which mandates what the students at Berkeley now refer to as ‘compulsory chapel’: obligatory instruction in how to respect difference.

Taylor’s lucid attack on this currently fashionable cant is, however, surrounded by a penumbra of sketchy arguments against philosophers with whom he disagrees: arguments of which Taylor has offered more extended versions in the past – notably in his magnum opus, The Sources of the Self, published in 1989 and already something of a philosophical classic. Some of these arguments are aimed at what Taylor calls ‘the liberalism of neutrality’, the view that ‘a liberal society must be neutral on what constitutes a good life.’ This is the view associated with Isaiah Berlin’s praise of ‘negative liberty’ (the state leaving you alone) and distrust of ‘positive liberty’ (the state encouraging you to become good). Others are aimed at what he calls ‘moral subjectivism’: ‘the view that moral positions are not in any way grounded in reason or the nature of things but are ultimately just adopted by each of us because we find ourselves drawn to them.’ On that view, Taylor says, ‘reason can’t adjudicate moral disputes.’

Taylor suggests that both the liberalism of neutrality and moral subjectivism embody ‘anthropocentrism’ – an ism which he never quite defines, but which he makes sound pretty bad. He warns us that unless we avoid anthropocentrism, we shall be tempted by cant and inclined to self-intoxication. But it is not clear how, unless you can manage to believe in a transcendent yet concerned deity, you are supposed to avoid anthropocentrism. Nor is it clear whether it is undesirably anthropocentric to commit yourself, without making any special attempt to uncover what Taylor calls a grounding in reason’, to the great social hope which permeates the democratic societies – the hope for a co-operative global utopia, in which education and technology conspire to make a peaceful life of useful, non-back-breaking, work available to everybody. Suppose you think of that hope as not only merely human but merely historical, as stemming neither from God’s plan nor from human nature, but nevertheless the best way of giving a purpose to your life that you have come across. Does that make you a moral subjectivist? An anthropocentrist? Should you worry about whether you share this hope ‘just because you found yourself drawn to it’?

A lot of people who, like me, agree with Taylor that ‘in articulating this ideal’ – of authenticity – ‘over the last two centuries, Western culture has identified one of the important potentialities of human life’, are unperturbed by the ‘subjectivist’ thought that ‘our moral positions are not grounded in reason or the nature of things.’ This is because we think that our moral positions, like all the other parts of our selves, are grounded in dialogue: they are not Sartrean ‘choices’, not acts of resolute will, but the products of discussion. If ‘reason’ just means ‘lots of conversation’, then of course reason can adjudicate moral disputes. What else could?

It is never clear, however, whether this meaning of ‘reason’ is good enough for Taylor – and if not, exactly why not. Things are not helped by his harsh but unfocused criticism of what he calls ‘the trendy doctrines of “de-construction” ’. Taylor says that ‘Derrida, Foucault and their followers’ attempt to ‘delegiltmise horizons of significance’. He also says that ‘anthropocentrism, by abolishing all horizons of significance, threatens us with a loss of meaning and hence a trivialisation of our predicament.’ Anthropocentrism, apparently, is something which Derrida and Foucault exemplify.

I should think Derrida at least (Foucault, who once said that he ‘did not believe in happiness’, is a more complicated case) would protest that neither he nor any other philosopher could ‘abolish all horizons of significance’ even if they tried. You cannot think without having a horizon of significance – for to have such a horizon is just to see the relevance of some things to your concerns and the irrelevance of others, to see the point of some projects and not of others. The most a philosopher (or a poet, or a lover, or a political revolutionary, or anybody else) can do is to alter your sense of relevance and point, thereby moving you from one horizon of significance to a slightly different one. The only way somebody could arrange for you to have no horizon of significance would be to lobotomise or enslave you.

Derrida, and most of the other post-Nietzschean philosophers against whom Taylor warns us, would like to move us into a horizon of significance in which we would no longer see the point of the questions, ‘are my moral positions grounded in reason? in the nature of things?’ – although we would still see the point of talking things over with people who occupy different moral positions. We would no longer lake seriously any of the various projects which Derrida calls ‘metaphysical’. This seems to me a good move to make. Taylor sees it as a dangerous one. In trying to spell out its dangers, however, he pretty much drops the charge of ‘abolishing’ horizons of significance. Instead, he speaks of ‘a flattened world, where the horizons of meaning become fainter’. ‘We face,’ he says, ‘a continuing struggle to realise higher and fuller modes of authenticity against the resistance of the flatter and shallower forms.’

Taylor’s clearest example of such a flatter and shallower form is what he calls a ‘merely anthropocentric’ ecological policy – one in which restraint in the use of resources ‘is shown as necessary for human welfare’. As against this merely pragmatic and instrumental appeal to save the forests and the seas for the sake of our descendants’ happiness, Taylor insists that ‘we need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us.’ He says that we need ‘a stronger, more inner sense of linkage’: the sort of linkage which ‘a great deal of modern poetry has been trying to articulate’ – and adds that ‘perhaps we need few things more today than such articulation.’

In a moving chapter called ‘Subtler Languages’, Taylor quotes ‘Tintern Abbey’ and the beginning of the Duino Elegies (‘Who if I cried out would hear me among the orders of the angels?’) in order to help us see what he thinks we may lose if we set aside everything which Derrida calls ‘metaphysics’. This chapter did not quite convince me that we need to worry about subjectivism and to beware of anthropocentrism, but it came close. It unsettled some of my previous convictions. I think Taylor is right that, if we want help in formulating what might be lost if we went all the way with Derrida and Foucault, Wordsworth is more useful than Mill or Russell, Rilke more useful than Aristotle or Hegel. And he is certainly right that ‘when Wordsworth and Hölderlin describe the natural world around us, they no longer play on an established gamut of references, as Pope could still do in Windsor Forest. They make us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no adequate words.’ He is also right that with these poets ‘a watershed has been passed in the history of literature.’ Perhaps we philosophers, even Taylor himself, are still working with pre-Romantic ideas, ideas which those poets hoped to make obsolete. Perhaps we have not yet caught up with those poets, not yet glimpsed the horizon of significance within which they wrote. Perhaps even Derrida – one of the most gifted and imaginative writers of his time, but still very much a philosopher – has not done so. Perhaps even his extraordinarily fine grained and sinuous language is not subtle enough.

Maybe Wordsworth and Rilke can help us find a horizon of significance which is no more anthropocentric than it is theocentric, no more subjectivist than it is metaphysical. Even my hero John Dewey, the instrumentalist’s instrumentalist, hoped for such a horizon. Dewey warned us against ‘the essentially irreligious attitude ... which attributes human achievement and purpose to man in isolation from the world of physical nature and his fellows’. At the end of A Common Faith he said that ‘the community of causes and consequences in which we, together with those not born, are enmeshed is the widest and deepest symbol of the mysterious totality of being the imagination calls the universe.’

The imagination, not reason. Earlier in that book Dewey says that ‘the idea of thorough-going and deep-seated harmonising of the self with the Universe ... operates only through imagination.’ ‘Only’ is important. I think that Taylor would be more authentically himself – more faithful to his own best, most Rilkean insights – if he gave up on the rather flat and shallow question of whether our moral positions are, or should be, ‘grounded in reason’. He could then move on to the more useful question of whether they are sufficiently imaginative.