Lecture Zero: Theme 0.5

0.5 Inwardness and ordinary life


Hadot drew attention to practices of the self in Hellenistic culture aimed at embracing a sort of cosmic view that would transcend the individual standpoint in all its limitations and situatedness. Foucault’s discussion of classical Greek self-mastery over pleasures illustrates a different account, located closer to the middle of the spectrum. Here, self-mastery does not lead one to transcend the individual, but rather to assert its power and dominion over the contingency introduced by emotional drives. In both cases, ancient Greek selves are strongly rooted in their surroundings, both at the cosmical level and at the social level. However, today’s Western culture is often characterized by a marked uneasiness towards transcendence (pace Platonic and Stoic schools) and also towards the sort of moralistic self-mastery described by Foucault. This is usually captured under the (admittedly broad and vague) rubric of ‘secularization’ that seems to shift the conception of the self more markedly towards the other extreme of our spectrum, one where the difference between the self and its biological ground is dissolved in the name of immanence and embodiment. How did we get here?

Charles Taylor, in his Sources of the Self (1989) offers a broad reconstruction of how the process of subjectivization (to use Foucault’s term) is constitutively related to a moral space shaped by the acknowledgment of certain goods that make life meaningful for the individuals who recognize them. By regulating their life in relation to these goods, the individual actually constructs their own identity and its place amidst others. These goods provide a general orientation in life and allow for the constitution of an order or hierarchy within which actions can be judged, and overall progress or regress with respect to the good(s) assessed. This picture not only offers a generalization of the cases we discussed above, but also stresses a further aspect: human life can be ruled by multiple goods, and they can be in conflict with one another, thus creating moral and existential dilemmas. Taylor’s reconstruction focuses on the tortuous way in which the competition between potentially conflicting goods led modern Western conceptions of selfhood to tilt towards the more secularized and immanent pole of our spectrum that is now dominant.

Taylor’s book was published at a great watershed in contemporary history, the year of fall of the Berlin Wall (the symbol of the fall of a certain way of shaping the world’s geopolitics), and just three years after the Chernobyl disaster, which can now be regarded as an appetizer for the sort of global ecological meltdown that marks our days. The book is complex and multilayered. One strand is polemical and takes issue with a certain narrowness of conceiving of morality, reducing it either to a theory of obligation (what it is right or wrong to do), or to a purely proceduralist structure (what are the right methods to ensure appropriate action). A second strand is historical or ‘archeological’ in Foucault’s sense, namely, it provides a reconstruction of the various and diverse transformations that took place in European thought (mostly French, British and partially German) and North-America (mostly in the United States) from the seventeenth century up to the early twentieth century, out of which the ‘modern’ way of being a self progressively emerged. Yet a third strand argues more directly for an account of what it means to be a self in the first place, and in light of this account challenges current alternative views as too simplistic, and discerns in the history of modern identity a genealogy of this account. For present purposes, we shall focus on this latter aspect of Taylor’s discussion, substantiating it with some of his claims derived from the historical emergence of modern identity, and leaving the more polemical aspects to the interested readers of the whole work.

One way Taylor announces his general view of identity is by framing it in terms of orientation. He writes:

I want to defend the strong thesis that doing without frameworks is utterly impossible for us; otherwise put, that the horizons within which we live our lives and which make sense of them have to include these strong qualitative discriminations. Moreover, this is not meant just as a contingently true psychological fact about human beings, which could perhaps turn out one day not to hold for some exceptional individual or new type, some superman of disengaged objectification. Rather the claim is that living within such strongly qualified horizons is constitutive of human agency, that stepping outside these limits would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as integral, that is, undamaged human personhood. […] To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand. (Taylor 1989, 27)

The last few sentences in the above quote makes it clear that Taylor’s discussion cannot be confined to a study of cultural or social norms. Instead, he aims to show such norms are constitutive of the way selfhood is constructed. In his subsequent discussion, Taylor adds two important refinements to this view. First, the question of orientation is essentially framed in terms of ultimate or constitutive goods (what he calls ‘hypergoods,’ §3.2, 63). These goods are not only the highest values that one recognizes, but they are also used as criteria for judging other goods as more or less consistent with them, more or less subordinated, to be accepted to some extent, or to be rejected altogether. Second, as a result, (hyper)goods provide criteria for assessing one’s moral progress in terms of advance or regress from the sort of aim or objective that these goods establish. Being a self is not something static. It is not a condition in which one just occupies the same place. Being a self is a process of moving towards or away from those centers of value that bestow meaning on one’s existence and life. The self is not independent from the goods that set the trajectory of its becoming; the self is this becoming, which is framed in relation to certain goods. From this point of view, the self faces two crucial moral issues: on the one hand, the problem of assessing progress or regress with respect to a given good, and on the other hand, the possibility of subscribing to multiple and potentially conflicting goods, with all the dilemmas that this entails.

Taylor’s historical analysis uncovers how Western conceptions of modernity are shaped by their endorsement of multiple and conflicting goods. The polemical side of Taylor’s discussion is targeted what he considers overly simply or quick attempts to dismiss or dissolve this problem. The two strands are related to one another. Most often, dismissing the dilemmas and conflicts entailed by subscribing to multiple goods is based on what Taylor calls ‘inarticulacy,’ the inability (intended or not) to explicitly spell out the nature of the various goods to which we subscribe and the weight and meaning we see in them. But in order to avoid inarticulacy, historical research is needed. As Taylor explains:

the path to articulacy has to be a historical one. We have to try to trace the development of our modern outlooks. And since we are dealing not just with philosophers’ doctrines but also with the great unsaid that underlies widespread attitudes in our civilization, the history can’t just be one of express belief, of philosophical theories, but must also include what has been called ‘mentalités.’ We have to try to open out by this study a new understanding of ourselves and of our deepest moral allegiances. (Taylor 1989, 104-105)

This historical project takes up almost four fifths of Taylor’s book. To simplify it, the main theme concerns the idea of turning towards ‘inwardness.’ In Taylor’s view, ancient Greek mentality is based on a direct access to a pregiven ontological order, which is available for inspection by the sufficiently wise. The order (the good) is ‘out there,’ it only needs to be looked upon. What we discussed in connection with Hadot and Foucault’s accounts helps to illustrate this point. One turning point in this story is constituted by Augustine’s merging of a Greek philosophical outlook (mostly based on Platonic and especially Neoplatonic elements) and Christian faith. For Augustine, the order of reality is established by God, but in order to see this order, one cannot simply look ‘out there’ in the natural world of the sensory objects. One has first of all to look ‘inside,’ namely, at one’s own ability to know. This inner knower is the one who actually sees through the eye, and yet it is not the same as the eye itself. I see things, but I am not the sheer act of seeing, much less the objects I see. I am more than this living consciousness that sees through the eyes. In Augustine’s view, this sort of contemplation reveals that there is a light in us, a light of reason and life, which reveals something much greater, namely, God itself. God is this inner life and inhabits this inner consciousness that makes us capable of knowledge. What we see, in fact, we see only because of this union with God, because we see ‘in’ God. In order to express this relation, Augustine exploits the spatial metaphor of inwardness in order to stress that this principle is not something we find out there, in front of us, but something that is found by moving in the opposite direction, turning inwardly, in interiore homine (‘within the human being’).

As Taylor emphasises, Augustine sees the moving inward as the first step to moving upward, namely, towards God. This latter step will be progressively eroded starting from the early modern period. The story that Taylor traces is complex and multifaceted, but one powerful line takes philosophers like Descartes and Locke as those who fully articulate the idea that we can find in ourself a rational order, which empowers us to live and deal with the world in a new way, based on a degree of disengagement and control. Commenting on Descartes, Taylor writes:

Descartes’s ethic, just as much as his epistemology, calls for disengagement from world and body and the assumption of an instrumental stance towards them. It is of the essence of reason, both speculative and practical, that it push us to disengage. Obviously, this involves a very different concept of reason from Plato’s. Just as correct knowledge doesn’t come anymore from our opening ourselves to the order of (ontic) Ideas but from our constructing an order of (intra-mental) ideas according to the canons of evidence; so when the hegemony of reason becomes rational control, it is no longer understood as our being attuned to the order of things we find in the cosmos, but rather as our life being shaped by the orders which we construct according to the demands of reason’s dominance. (Taylor 1989, 155)

The rational control of reason is linked with a new attitude that understands and handles the world as an an instrument for achieving certain goals, which are themselves set, scrutinized, and validated by reason. This instrumental attitude is born of a self-reflexivity that is different from the sort of reflexivity that can be found in ancient Greek thought, since it is no longer experienced as an attunement to the pregiven order of the cosmos, but rather as a discovery based on one’s own inborn ability to use reason well. This new stance tends to go against the grain of received tradition and authority and instead emphasizes the importance of critical evaluation (an emphasis that can hardly disguise its Protestant overtones).

Parts III and IV of Taylor’s book are devoted to exploring how this conception of identity evolves through the eighteenth century up to the twentieth century. In general terms, this evolution entails first a problematization and then a progressive dismissal of a theistic background. This is the phenomenon usually referred to as ‘secularization,’ often associated with the radical Enlightenment, and which finds a well-known slogan in Nietzsche’s dictum ‘God is dead.’ One advantage of Taylor’s analysis is that it avoids (and in fact dispels) a number of oversimplifications that surround this evolution, including the tendency to regard it just as a consequence of the development of a new scientific understanding of the world and growing industrialization. Rather, Taylor stresses how a number of themes that come to be associated with the new secularized picture of identity found a first instance in religious outlooks, and how the dismissal of a theistic view can be seen as the result of growing competition with other moral sources.

The re-evaluation of ordinary life (the life of family and work, production and reproduction) offers an apt illustration of this broad picture. As Taylor argues, a number of radical Christian reformers (mostly Calvinist, and often Puritans) had reasons to insist on the importance of expressing a full commitment to Christian faith in all dimensions of ordinary life. Instead of letting a devoted group of ‘specialists’ (ordained people, monks and nuns) pursue the holy life to its fullness on everybody else’s behalf, every Christian should attempt to embody the values of Christian faith, and this should take place in any aspect of one’s daily life. Through some alterations, this idea is taken up again by a number of thinkers who progressively detach it from its religious inspiration. Deists across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Enlightenment thinkers in the later eighteenth century, put an increasing emphasis on the fact that the good life consists in fulfilling natural needs, maximizing natural pleasures, and minimizing suffering. Quite quickly, this view further extends from the individual level up to the interest of the whole of humanity, through sentiments of sympathy and benevolence. Life and nature are seen as good in themselves, and living a good human life is basically living in accordance with its natural demands. At the same time, this realization comes from self-reflection, in the sense that it is based on having looked more closely not at nature as a pregiven ontological order, but rather as how nature manifests within our own human way of experiencing and feeling reality.

Following it through various variations and transformations, Taylor argues that the modern dismissal of (and distrust for) a theistic framework is connected with the fact that some of the goods that have been progressively endorsed as capable of determining modern identity (the autonomy of reason, the goodness of nature and life) can be fully defended only insofar as they are detached from the theistic framework. In other words, powerful strands in modernity see that their most cherished values are at odds with the assertion of a ruling God, or else that the commitment to a theistic good is at odds with the commitment to the autonomy of reason and the goodness of nature. As Taylor writes:

The mutation became necessary when and to the extent that it seemed to people that these moral sources could only be properly acknowledged, could only thus fully empower us, in their non-theistic form. The dignity of free, rational control came to seem genuine only free of submission to God; the goodness of nature, and/or our unreserved immersion in it, seemed to require its independence, and a negation of any divine vocation. (Taylor 1989, 315)

This historical development can be seen, from the point of view of Taylor’s reconstruction, as a progressive deepening of the implications of having turned inward. Such continuity emerges in his discussion of the subsequent Romantic and post-Romantic culture. In reaction to the instrumentalist and disengaged attitude fostered in the previous period, nineteenth and twentieth centuries thinkers and artists developed yet another way of relating with the natural world. Nature is, for them, seen as a source of awe-inspiring epiphany. Nature becomes a symbol of inner and deep meanings. However, these meanings do not exist as objectivized presences in nature itself (they are not Platonic Ideas), but manifest only through and within the artist’s way of expressing them. Nature’s revelation is always indexed to a certain subjectivity that experiences it, and hence it remains fundamentally different from pre-modern accounts.

Previous forms of objectification of nature are now perceived as limiting and claustrophobic, ultimately undermining our sense of unity and wholeness with the world at large. But even this new outlook is not without its dilemmas. If this sort of aesthetic expressionism is followed to its conclusion, then one might conclude that nature itself is also always a construction, a work of art, at least to some extent. What is liberating in this view is that it finds in the power of creating and expressing a new moral source, a new good that does full justice to the human condition. Here, ‘as in Genesis, seeing good makes good’ (Taylor 1989, 454). Reworking the old Biblical model in a radically atheistic direction, late nineteen-century mentality seems ready to verge towards radical constructivism, in which the good is in the making of it, in willing it, in creating it. The good is no longer discovered ‘out there’ or rationally deduced via observations of an objective human nature. It is rather brought forth by the self in its own self-making, and this process of self-making is nature. But if this is so, then morality (the drive towards benevolence and justice, and the constraints that come with it) might eventually be seen as a relic of a life-denying attitude. This, at least, seems the conclusion drawn by Nietzsche.

In fact, the turn inward can move even further. Not only God is dead, but even the idea of a unified center of agency, a substantial self becomes increasingly more unbelievable, yet another relic of the past. In Taylor’s words:

And so a turn inward, to experience or subjectivity, didn’t mean a turn to a self to be articulated, where this is understood as an alignment of nature and reason, or instinct and creative power. On the contrary, the turn inward may take us beyond the self as usually understood, to a fragmentation of experience which calls our ordinary notions of identity into question, as with Musil, for example; or beyond that to a new kind of unity, a new way of inhabiting time, as we see, for instance, with Proust. Indeed, we can see how the notion could arise that an escape from the traditional idea of the unitary self was a condition of a true retrieval of lived experience. The ideals of disengaged reason and of Romantic fulfillment both rely in different ways on a notion of the unitary self. The first requires a tight centre of control which dominates experience and is capable of constructing the orders of reason by which we can direct thought and life. The second sees the originally divided self come to unity in the alignment of sensibility and reason. Now to the extent that both of these come to be seen as facets of a world and an outlook whose claims to embrace everything we want to escape, to the degree that we adopt a post-Schopenhauerian vision of inner nature, the liberation of experience can seem to require that we step outside the circle of the single, unitary identity, and that we open ourselves to the flux which moves beyond the scope of control or integration. (Taylor 1989, 462)

This story brings us to the edge of an abyss called ‘today.’ Being a self is a relationally and historically determined constructed process. Being an active self in the fourth century BCE in Greece is something different from being a Self in the same period in India, and this is different still from being an embodied self today. Today’s Western conceptions can be seen as struggling with the heritage of inwardness. This is an attempt at locating moral goods and sources not in a pregiven order objectively established ‘out there,’ but rather in the very conditions of possibility for any experience. And those conditions seem to be ‘in here.’ Rational examination, self-reflection, and expression, are all different ways in which this turn inward can take shape. This movement opens up the possibility of alternative, competing, and potentially conflicting goods. If they still include the possibility of looking at a theistic ground, this is no longer the only option, and hence its own meaning is radically transformed by having lost its hegemony. Potential competitors are now the power and dignity of human reason itself, and the creative power of expressing human experience. The overall trend seems to push Western modernity towards some form of immanentism, according to which moral values must make room for some form of acknowledgment of the goodness of life as it is; that is, of the rights of living in the ordinary and restraining from world-denying attitudes and metaphysical escapism. However, what also emerges from this process is that by turning inward, we do not discover something there. There might be an ‘here’ but there is nothing truly there, we are Da-nichts. The progressive dismissal of the pregiven ontological order matches with a progressive dismissal of a way of understanding the self as a self-standing, pregiven, ontological entity.

If we consider this broad picture without attempting to escape from its problematicity, then we are left with a question:

Does something have to be denied? Do we have to choose between various kinds of spiritual lobotomy and self-inflicted wounds? Perhaps. Certainly most of the outlooks which promise us that we will be spared these choices are based on selective blindness. (Taylor 1989, 520)

One way of interpreting the results of Taylor’s discussion is by focusing on the dilemmas about the pluralism of values (and its potential inconsistencies) that modern identity seems to entail. From another point of view, this discussion illustrates the theme from which we departed: the self is a constitutively relational hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering, in one way or another, the uncertainty that is inherent in its conditionality. Modern identity is one of the ways of constructing a hermeneutic self that is capable of mastering the uncertainty inherent in its conditionality, which can be phrased in terms of orientations in life towards one or more goods capable of bestowing meaning. Yet from another point of view, modern identity also shows that in the very attempt at self-mastery (in the attempt at creating and bringing forth goods) the self also creates and constitutes its own uncertainty. This is the most profound, troublesome and paradoxical aspect that we have to face. In the arising of modernity, Western identities introduce new sources of morality, which also complexify the positioning of that very identity they contribute to establishing. Disengaged rationality challenges established theistic outlooks, and creative expressivism challenges rationality. These challenges are themselves not pregiven, they are evoked in and by the evolution that the process of self-mastery entails. Ultimately, this also leads from a turning inward towards the self as a unified moral agent, to the discovery that there is no such a unified and pregiven self to begin with. We turn inwards, but turning inward we turn nowhere, towards nobody.

This suggests yet another pressing question: could it be that the problem of self-mastery is not limited to the potentially conflicting ways in which this process is constructed, but lies in the very attempt at mastering uncertainty? In other words, could it be that uncertainty itself is also partially constructed, fostered, and made more troublesome by the very attempt at mastering it? And if this is so, what are the consequences for our understanding of the self and of its tragedy? These are some of the questions that await us in the following lectures.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.