Reading Week Part 1: The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor

In honour of this week which has been sanctified by the University as “Reading Week”, I will blog about books.

I just finished reading The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor. The book resulted from the Massey Lectures, “The Malaise of Modernity,” which were broadcasted on CBC Radio in 1991.

First, Taylor begins by enumerating the three malaises including: individualism, instrumental reason, and the institutions and structures of industrial-technological society. Individualism is problematic because, “people are no longer sacrificed to the demands of supposedly sacred orders that transcend them” and this contributes to a “loss of meaning.” Instrumental reason is used to refer to “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end” and this means that efficiency is the measurement of success over virtue, for example. Industrial-technological society, Taylor argues, paves the way for “individuals to give a weight to instrumental reason that in serious moral deliberation we would never do” and this he says “is about a loss of freedom.”

Taylor aims to strike a balance in his assessment of modernity between the extreme positions of “the boosters and the knockers.” He thinks that “a systematic cultural pessimism is as misguided as a global cultural optimism.”

And so, he begins to describe authenticity. This is a word I will likely avoid using in the future given how ambiguous and confusing I have found it to be in Taylor’s thought.

Essentially, Taylor wants to resist extreme contempt for modernity because there is a “powerful moral ideal at work” in modern culture. This moral ideal (often distorted by the three malaises of modernity) has to do with a kind of self-fulfilment centred on “being true to oneself, in a specifically modern understanding of that term.” This he calls authenticity and he says it “should be taken as a serious moral ideal.”

Here are some quotations on authenticity to demonstrate why I am confused:

The ethic of authenticity is something relatively new and peculiar to modern culture.

Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfilment or self-realization in which it is usually couched. This is the background that gives moral force to the culture of authenticity, including its most degraded, absurd, or trivialized forms. It is what gives sense to the idea of ‘doing your own thin’ or ‘finding your own fulfilment.’

Can one say anything in reason to people who are immersed in the contemporary culture of authenticity? Can you talk in reason to people who are deeply into soft relativism, or who seem to accept no allegiance higher than their own development – say, those who seem ready to throw away love, children, democratic solidarity, for the sake of some career advancement?

Authenticity is not the ememy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.

Authenticity is a facet of modern individualism.

Authenticity involves originality, it demands a revolt against convention.

Authenticity involves creation and construction as well as discovery, originality and frequently opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true, as we saw, that it requires openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that can save it from insignificance) and a self-definition in dialogue.

The struggle ought not to be over authenticity, for or against it, but about it, defining its proper meaning.

This is pretty confusing stuff. Authenticity is a word that Taylor uses to describe the tension between bad individualism (atomization) and good individualism (“responsibilization”).

Interspersing numerous pleas to environmentalism, communitarianism, and anti-abortion efforts, his policy prescriptions are generally fairly big leaps from his analytic and socialistic system of thought.

There are many interesting references throughout this book to such wide-ranging thinkers as Tocqueville, Bloom, Arendt, Rawls, MacIntyre, Hutcheson, Rousseau, Hegel, Montesquieu, Foucault, Bacon, Wordsworth, and Rilke.

Ultimately though, I was not very impressed by this book. Perhaps I should try another one. In the meantime, for good reading on modernity, individualism, democracy and so on, it makes sense to return to reading Democracy in America and The Quest for Community from which I have still only read excerpts.


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