“The Ethics of Authenticity” by Charles Taylor is an important book
“What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-levelled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete forms; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relationship with the cosmos.”
I have decided to review Charles Taylor’s “The Ethics of Authenticity”, first published in 1991, because of its content and its method.
Starting from the latter: the Canadian philosopher tackles the issue of contemporary individualism without any ex-ante contempt. We should learn to address opinions that are radically different from ours — especially those seemingly held by large chunks of the population — through a similar lens. First, properly understand the opinions in question, then explore why they matter, and what makes them moral for the people who hold them. Many roots of our malaises grew from the fact that we have turned into a society of “boosters and knockers”, to borrow Taylor’s choice of words, where the reason of some is an absurdity to others. Compromise is an increasingly forgotten art.
The book’s content, a subject matter conceived by Taylor more than 25 years ago, has grown in relevance and urgently calls for our attention, as one generation after another find themselves trapped in the inconsistency of ‘authenticity’ in a world where an abundance of products tend to accelerate its drift towards narcissism and extreme individualism.
So what is ‘authenticity’? Taylor links the term from Lionel Trilling’s book Sincerity and Authenticity. For Trilling, authenticity develops from sincerity, “the avoidance of being false to any man through being true to one’s own self”. Taylor transforms this authenticity into an ethics, a general principle for moral ideals and needs. Born at the end of the eighteenth century with Rousseau and Locke as a new moral need that reflected changes in society, authenticity is currently undergoing a profound and regrettable transformation: the drift towards an extreme individualism, the “culture of narcissism” — a phrase Taylor borrows from Christopher Lasch. For Trilling, sincerity and authenticity have a natural connotation with society, as the need to be sincere with oneself serves the ultimate goal of being a good member of a community. Taylor laments at one point: “At a broader social level, [extreme individualism] is antithetical to any strong commitment to a community”.
While Taylor’s critique rejects the convenient contempt and dismissive tone of other authors (Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, and Gilles Lipovetsky to name a few) choosing to elevate authenticity to the status of a moral ideal, it does not hold back ruthless judgement and even an urgent worry over our ideal of the self. This extreme trivialisation of authenticity started to develop in concomitance with social changes such as mass migrations into cities and influences from ‘high’ cultures — “the Nietzchean critique of all values [that] cannot but exalt and entrench anthropocentrism”.
Taylor’s first attack on extreme authenticity, the one that is making the real damage, begins with his observation that followers of this ideal exclude a priori any external reference or model when defining their own identity. In its purest form, extreme authenticity does not admit to any higher, external authority as a meter of personal fulfilment: self-realisation ought to be defined as the centring on the self and the “concomitant shutting out, or even unawareness, of the greater issues or concerns that transcend the self, be they religious, political, historical”.
This is all very well, one could almost hear Taylor saying, except that we exist only because of a community: our existence can’t be expressed in terms of the self. Here, Taylor introduces his powerful concept of ‘dialogism’. Our existence is unavoidably dialogical because of two facts: somebody else (“significant others”) have taught us the language (of words but also of art) through which we define our identity, and some goods in life are accessible only in conjunction with another person. This concept is at odds with the ideal of authenticity because the relationships one develop with other members of the community are not ‘unconditional’, and exists merely as an instrument for self-fulfilment. Social links are therefore expendable: their reason-to-be ceases as soon as one’s identity corresponds to its self-imposed goal.
In reality, it is this same concept of identity that creates a particularly strong friction with authenticity, ultimately leading to self-sabotage. On one hand, we define our identity in agreement or struggle with another beyond the horizon — a “background of intelligibility” where things happen and take on a meaning. On the other, the “intimate level, we can see how much an original identity needs, and is vulnerable to, the recognition given or withheld by significant others”.
The need for recognition of contemporary individualism that Taylor describes in 1991 pales with that of today’s young generations. And as such, ever more than before, the followers of extreme authenticity find themselves in a strong contradiction in our social media world: even the screen of anonymity that the Internet allows cannot conceal the grating friction between the self-reference of such an extreme individualism and the need for social recognition that our thirst for ‘likes’ represents. Far from needing no one, we crave recognition from all over the world thanks to the infinite avenues of the World Wide Web.
After making a strong case on the inconsistencies of the subjectivist slide towards authenticity, the second half of the book lays out the plans of Taylor’s evangelising mission: “What we ought to do is fighting over the meaning of authenticity and trying to persuade people that self-fulfilment, far from excluding unconditional relationships and moral demands beyond the self, actually requires these in some forms”.
To further define his target audience, he introduces the distinction between the authentic manner, the self-referential language in which we express our identity, and matter, the self-referential meanings in which we define our identity.
Taylor believes that authenticity in manner is unavoidable in our modern society. He compares this new ideal to the changes in artistic expression, in poetry and in figurative art where the disappearance of external references all around for artists (“the cosmic syntaxes in the public domain”, as put it beautifully by Earl Wasserman) due to the Weberian disenchantment of the world forced them to develop a new language of expression, where they propose their own references and make them credible. He cites Rilke’s new language of expressing and validating antiquated references such as angels, or the naturalistic shifts in the works of Caspar David Friedrich. Many other artists flooded my mind while reading those passages of the book: the industrial naturalism of JMW Turner, or Emily Dickinson, who wrote about nature, love, and passion from the solitary enclosures of her room. These are all examples where the ideal of authenticity is expressing higher meanings, such as angels, love, or nature through a new, individual language. They don’t propose a disruption in meanings, they simply express them through new means.
On the other hand, authenticity in matter forces a categorical rejection of external sources and meanings and build a system of ideals that have only the self to celebrate.
So it is crucial for Taylor to distinguish individual manner to an individualistic matter because it is only then that authenticity is fundamentally wrong, narcissistic, and society-defeating.
Taylor’s mission to save authenticity from its most trivial and decadent version — manner + matter — is to convince, “in reason”, the Narcissuses of modern times that their extremism is self-defeating because the absolute self-reference they pursue is impossible within life in society . And through his book, Taylor has successfully made a compelling case for serious consideration of this idea. Accepting this inconsistency and embracing a deeper, shared meaning will help them thrive, and to reach the fulfilment that they so dearly pursue. Stripped from its excesses, authenticity would recover its social intentions and urge us to be participants of social sustainability.
And if the shift in mindset of the people was not enough, Taylor’s mission becomes even more arduous when he exposes how extreme, trivialised authenticity also affects current-day business and politics. As he implies — and I am in complete agreement — we are ceaselessly surrounded by institutions that are becoming more self-referential by the day.
Instrumental reason, “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end”, has maybe pre-dated industrial capitalism as Taylor indicates. But it is an ideal that is fully embodied in the functioning of modern firms. To me, in our modern capitalistic society, “iron cage” — a concept that Taylor borrows from Max Weber — refers primarily to how firms are trapped in the pursuit of “maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio” because their continuous existence depends on their capacity to distribute dividends to powerful shareholders who are becoming richer by the minute. Mere crumbs are left for remuneration of labour, and for the achievement of higher orders and purposes of our society and our communities.
Similarly, the fragmentation of society — a logic corollary of our increasingly atomistic self-referentiality — reduces our political participation, which allows bureaucratic states and political powers to become evermore self-referential. Taylor’s observation in the early 90s was a foresight into this current predicament: “In this regard the American political scene is abysmal. The debate between major candidates becomes even more disjointed, their statements ever more blatantly self-serving, their communication consisting more and more of the now famous ‘sound bytes’, their promises risibly unbelievable (‘read my lips’) and cynically unkept, while their attacks on their opponents sink to ever more dishonourable levels, seemingly with impunity”.
There is a lot to be said and to be commented about this closing of the book which describes the vicious circle in which the ethics of authenticity continues to degenerate into atomistic individualism and self-referentiality across individuals, firms, and political institutions, but I will save them for another occasion. I want to wrap up my review of this concise yet powerful book by paraphrasing its primary optimistic message in a way that is maybe a bit corny, but greatly validated by Taylor’s work.
Modern society appears more and more entrenched in an ideal of ‘one’. The ethics of authenticity is trivialised into a narcissistic and solipsist self-referentiality. Politics have become self-referential and firms have funnelled their objectives solely to efficiency and the enrichment of ‘ones’, their shareholders. There are ‘ones’ everywhere. But ‘ones’ is simply not what makes our society sustainable.
The ideals of the ‘one’ are illusory and we need to think in terms of the ‘many’. Unfortunately, in the thirty years since the publication of Taylor’s book, we have retreated further into this illusion. The culture of narcissism has found new ways of expression and propagation. Behind their façade of online sociality, Internet, social media, and user-generated content platforms have been misused as beauty contests where the exaltation of the selves compete with each other by the most audacious selfie, the most disrespectful Insta-challenge, or the loudest influencer.
But I really think that this same modern language, an ever-modern “manner of authenticity” in Taylor’s words, provides us with an instrument to talk, “in reason”, to the adepts of the narcissist society and to propose to them an alternative to their solipsism. In other words, technology must empower us to transform self-exposure into an instrument for social sustainability, rather than demean us into performing self-realisation-by-likes. Such a movement, starting with individuals, will inevitably propagate to firms and the State because these two institutions ultimately depend on all of us. It is high time we take on Taylor’s invigorating optimism and follow his lead to achieve a more sustainable society.