February 08, 2007

Charles Taylor's horizons of significance

In preparation for his visit to ND next month, I'm reading Charles Taylor's The ethics of authenticity. (That's the communitarian-liberal philosopher, not the Liberian dictator and war criminal with connections to Pat Robertson.) I'd like to think that I'm going to write a full review on this once I'm finished, so this will just be a brief note on his idea of horizons of significance. (cont'd below the fold)

Taylor takes as his starting point the idea that authenticity, in the existentialist and quasi-existentialist sense of, roughly, being true to one's own inner nature, is a significant and legitimate ethical principle. This is in sharp contrast with other communitarians, including possibly ND's own Alisdair MacIntyre, who dismiss authenticity as nothing more than a flimsy, incoherent relativism with (in MacIntyre's case) a lousy theory of personal identity or ethical selfhood. Taylor's primary thesis is that the idea of authenticity has been significantly corrupted. More specifically, he spends the first half of the book arguing that the flimsy, incoherent relativism that's the ethical status quo in our society is incompatible with actually achieving authenticity. That is, if you try to live your life according to this `soft relativism', you will never live authentically.

One argument-sketch his gives for this last claim is that authenticity presupposes (requires) external `horizons of significance'. To borrow the example MacIntyre uses to make the same point, consider the practice of painting. Painting well (or, being a good painter) presupposes standards of excellence in painting that go beyond your decisions and preferences. That is, you can't just declare yourself a good painter; you're judged to be a good or bad painter according to historically established standards over which you have no direct control. As Taylor puts it, in our culture of soft relativism, we `tend to see fulfilment as just of the self, neglecting or delegitimating the demands that come from beyond our own desires or aspirations, be they from history, tradition, society, nature, or God' (58, my emphasis).

The point is compelling, at least rhetorically, but also troubling. Why troubling? I think because the idea that the demands or standards are external to me means they're out of my control. Look again at Taylor's list of the sources of significance: historically, those demands and standards have been intimately linked with oppression and suppression; or, more generally, authenticity seems to be achieved more often by those individuals who reject the standards and demands of their society than those who embrace them. This is why so many existentialists (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, Sartre) cherish both authenticity and iconoclasm -- the two seem to go hand in hand. Taylor appears to be arguing, contra Nietzsche, that authenticity is actually incompatible with iconoclasm.

Can we reconcile Taylor and Nietzsche? (Some day I really should write a bit on how reconciliation is so central to my approach to philosophy.) I think so, if we recognise that `external to me' is very different from `immune from revision'. Consider Picasso. Picasso successfully challenged and changed the standards of good painting, but was only able to do so because he was a good painter (indeed, an excellent painter) according to the very standards he challenged. Or consider the various civil rights movements of the 1960s and '70s. They were able to challenge and change our understanding of what makes for a truly just society by appeal to ideas of justice that were already present. These are examples of iconoclasm, but not complete and thoroughgoing iconoclasm. Instead of tearing down everything and starting over completely, these iconoclasts subverted selectively and rebuilt from within the status quo.

Hence, recognising that my pursuit of authenticity presupposes some horizons of significance determined by the community and tradition in which I engage that pursuit does not also presuppose that I can never criticise, rebel against, or change those horizons. This change won't be easy, of course, and a complete transformation of those horizons seems to be impossible, but I'm not sure that any of the four existentialists I mentioned above really believed authenticity required such a radical rejection of the status quo.


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