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

107: Charles Taylor Part III:
The Malaise of Modernity; The Work of Retrieval

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

The causes of the slide to subjectivism are greater than just the changes in the concepts of dignity and honour. Another force moving us to the dark side of subjectivism is the expressivism of the modern age. In the sense that we are unique and authenticity requires that we be in touch with our uniqueness then expressing our self-defined uniqueness is the evidence of that connection. The artist is the archetype of the ideal of this kind of authenticity; an authenticity today of creation not imitation. We make and create ourselves through our work; through what we create. We can also discover who we are by what we create.

The artistic movement form imitation to creation is profound. No longer is originality linked to the real world, the great chain of being or any of the shared horizons of significance. The emphasis on creation (in the sense of originality and uniqueness) in art spills over to morality, ethics, actions and every aspect of human existence.

“Briefly, we can say that authenticity (A) involves (i) creation and construction as well as discovery, (ii) originality and frequently (iii) opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true,…[authenticity] (B) requires (i) openness to horizons of significance … and (ii) a self-definition in dialogue. That these demands may be intension has to be allowed. But what must be wrong is a simple privileging of one over the other, of (A), say, at the expense of (B), or vice versa.”

Given that we can define so much of what constitutes authenticity we can argue about it and therefore “The struggle ought not to be over authenticity, for or against, but about it, defining its proper meaning.” Authenticity in its proper meaning gives us the best chance for a “richer mode of existence” and a greater potential for meaning in our lives. However, authenticity’s corruption and slide to the dark side shows that it is in tension; tension that could go either way. Therefore resistance and persuasion is needed to realize the best of the ideal and minimize the worst. The nature of our free society is that there will always be a struggle between the higher and lower freedoms.

The work of retrieval cannot take sides in a polarized debate but it must be open to all sides – in that sense the pro-side and the con-side are both all right and all wrong.

The second malaise of modernity, the prevalence of instrumental reason, can also be considered in the same style of analysis. Getting to think in terms of efficiency to an end has always been part of human history and in and of itself is nothing new. What is new is the application to our comfort: “Francis Bacon criticized the traditional Aristotelian sciences for having contributed nothing ‘to relieve the condition of mankind.’ He proposed in their stead a model of science whose criterion of truth would be instrumental efficacy. You have discovered something when you can intervene to change things….what is important about Bacon is that he reminds us that the thrust behind this new science was not only epistemological but also moral.” The domination of our environment and the betterment of our condition that results in more creature comforts is highly alluring. We almost expect that improvements will inevitably come to us as a result of continued application of instrumental reason.

The inevitability of instrumental reason seems to evaporate when common consciousness gets united in a value. Public parks are an example of this counter unity. However there does seem to be an uphill battle to defeat the “inevitable” plans of instrumental reason. This incline comes from the institutions and their policies goals plus the atomism and individualism of the modern world: our uniqueness and our expression of our uniqueness often make a different common consensus harder to come by.

Some of the notions that come with instrumental reason are also double sided. Domination and control, part of the hallmarks of bureaucracies which are the primary forces of instrumental reason on society for both good and ill, can easily fall to the dark side when we forget common horizons of significance. Another notion that instrumental reason seeks to diminish is emotionalism. Mathematical thinking and other forms of “high level” calculations are given a privileged position in our society and are the aspiration of many bureaucracies. Taking out the emotion from decision making is very conducive to winning a war. “…it is all too easy for us in our culture to think of ourselves as essentially disengaged reason.”

The author’s work of retrieval is similar to the case of authenticity: “We need to bring together two orders of considerations. Drawing on (a) the conditions of human life that must condition the realization of the ideals in question, we can determine (b) what the effective realization of the ideals would amount to….if we are properly to treat a human being, we have to respect [our] embodied, dialogical, temporal nature.” That is if we consider the real lived experience, story and conditions of people we can find the source of consensus that allows our particular case to win in the continual struggle to control the direction that instrumental reason takes.

The last malaise, the loss of freedom that comes from the dark sides of individualism and instrumental reason (which in today’s society are the excesses of atomatized self-fulfillment in a “free” market society supported by a bureaucratic state), the soft despotism of the immense tutelary power.

“The danger is not actual despotic control but fragmentation – that is, a people increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out. Fragmentation arises when people come to see themselves more and more atomistically, otherwise put, as less and less bound to their fellow citizens in common projects and allegiances.” The task is to resist fragmentation.

“The only effective counter to the drift towards atomism and instrumentalism built into market [sic] and bureaucratic state is the formation of an effective common purpose through democratic action.” Political resistance to the dark sides of individualism and instrumental reason where ever they appear is a new start in the continuing struggle to reverse fragmentation.

“Our challenge is actually to combine in some non-self-stultifying fashion a number of ways of operating, which are jointly necessary to a free and prosperous society but which also tend to impede each other: market allocations, state planning, collective provision for need, the defense of individual rights, and effective democratic initiative and control. In the short run, maximum market ‘efficiency’ may be restricted by each of the other four modes; in the long run, even perhaps economic performance, but certainly justice and freedom, would suffer from their marginalization.”

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren