Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

106: Charles Taylor Part II:
The Malaise of Modernity; Soft Relativism & Horizons of Significance

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

“The ethic of authenticity is something relatively new and peculiar to modern culture.” The author traces the sources of the ideal to Rene Descartes’ disengaged rationality of “I think therefore I am.” Descartes made the first modern challenge to have people think for themselves rather than blindly accept authority. Then came John Locke who, in his second treatise of Government, wanted to make social obligation second to an atomatized personal will that could choose which obligations to accept. These continue to inform our age but were also challenged by the Romantic period that believed we were all “endowed with a moral sense, an intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong.” The entrance of the notion of right and wrong was to counter a religious notion that divine reward was a calculation. The Romantic influence was especially critical because it is the first modern source that suggests we have to be in contact with our true (moral) feelings to be truly human. (Prior to this some believed we had to be in touch with God or with the Good to be truly human). Jean Jacques Rousseau turned feelings to nature: we had to be in touch with our nature to be human. He also articulated the idea of self-determining freedom: a freedom free of blinding external social constraints. Johan Gottfried von Herder introduced the notion that “each of us had an original way of being human….Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance.” Originality just got a moral significance. The underlined terms are the core of the “modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfilment….This is the background that gives moral force to the culture of authenticity, including its most degraded, absurd, or trivialized forms.”

Going forward, the author wishes to acknowledge that in our human condition we necessarily have an identity that is continually influenced by our contact with others: “…the making and sustaining of our identity…remains dialogical throughout our lives.” (Q1)

Finding ourselves or our originality is connected to shared human significance. Something unique about us is, a feeling or fact for example, is not humanly significant on its own without recognition; without a story connecting the fact or feeling to others. This is a first strike against soft relativism: things have significance not because one person deems them to have it but rather because many people deem them to have it. “Things take on importance against a background of intelligibility.” Intelligibility means: possible of communicating and convincing others. “Your feeling a certain way can never be sufficient grounds for respecting your position, because your feeling can’t determine what is significant. Soft relativism self-destructs.” (Q2)

All of us have inescapable horizons of significance that we share with other individuals, other groups, our whole society, all our species and perhaps all life. “In stressing the legitimacy of choice between certain options, we very often find ourselves depriving the options of their significance.” The implication that all options are equally worthy because they are freely chosen is authenticity going too far because it is the horizon of significance that gives meaning to a chosen act (not the act itself). (Q3) Self-fulfillment (in opposition to the demands of society or nature that shut out or ignore the social horizons of significance) trivializes (by making what is significant insignificant), narrows (by reducing all value legitimation to choice), and flattens (by making equal those things that are unequal) the ideal of authenticity. “I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature [the environment], society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters.”

One of the dark side manifestations of the contemporary notion of individuality is the purely personal understanding of self-fulfillment and the purely instrumental significance of the outside world for our self-fulfillment. However, the intimately connected notion of identity creates the need for recognition from the outside world of the uniqueness of one’s identity. Two modern developments have come together to problematize the tension: the disappearance of the notion of “honour” and the emergence of the notion of “dignity”. By honour the author is referring to stable and unchanging social strata that automatically provided more or less honour to people. In such a society recognition was automatic and well understood. Today honour is a much more fluid concept dependent on many factors (many of which are not in the control of the person). As such the need for recognition of personal identity becomes fluid and dependent on exogenous factors – this is a psychologically anxiety creating development. (Q4)

Dignity on the other hand is democratically consistent but unsatisfying in terms of recognition. In so far as our personal identity is supposed to be internally derived (but in reality it is dialogically derived) and everyone has the same dignity there is a kind of loss of uniqueness that comes from equality of recognition. In the past when identity was socially derived, social recognition was built in and taken for granted. “The thing about inwardly derived, personal, original identity is that it doesn’t enjoy this recognition a priori. It has to win it through exchange, and it can fail.” Because there are trivial and inconsequential differences between everyone, “Recognizing difference, like self-choosing, requires a horizon of significance, in this case a shared one.” Therefore treating everyone (especially your most significant other) and everything outside you instrumentally (that is as a means) to the end of self-fulfillment trivializes, narrows and flattens all human relationships by the elimination of all horizons of significance save instrumentalism. (Q5)

Q1 The author believes that even hermits or people who try to reject everything and everyone in their lives still have a social history which influences them. The very act of trying to reject the influence of others is an influence of others. Sometimes through our memories and sometimes subtly through body language and sometimes directly through force, we are always influenced by others. Do you accept that our identity is developed dialogically?

Q2 Can your feelings, unrecognized by any other, ever be sufficient grounds for respecting your position? Do we have to respect all facts and feelings equally?

Q3 What is the significance if I were to choose to pick up a cup from a table and put it away? Without the context of a horizon of significance the significance of my act is unknown. If I helped an exhausted restaurant worker – one may consider it a good act. If I put it away knowing that it was for someone to use momentarily then one may consider it a passive aggressive act. In other words the choice associated with any act is significantly less important than the shared context. Do you believe that choice confers a meaningful significance to an action or is the meaning in the context?

Q4 Do we have a need to be given or to give appropriate honour? Does it ever compete with the duty to give equal dignity to all? Must recognition be earned?

Q5 Can individual self-fulfillment really mean treating everyone as a tool? Is this part of the malaise of modernity? Do you believe that maintaining horizons of significance higher than choice and instrumental reason alleviate this?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren