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Monthly Archives: June 2008

Charles Taylor and Authenticity

I’ve been reading more of Charles Taylor’s new book, A Secular Age today, and am really enjoying it. I get the same pleasure reading his work as I do reading the work of Isaiah Berlin. Both are wonderful historians of ideas, with the range and depth of learning to draw idea-maps, showing how we got to where we did, what were the main routes of development, the key turnings and junctions. I rate him way higher than some faddish thinker like John Gray, who is taken very seriously here in the UK but seems pretty mediocre to me.

One of the exciting things for me about reading Taylor, whose work I first came across about a year ago, is that his thinking covers a lot of the ground that I have been thinking about over the past four years or so, while I was writing my first book, The Wild Man (which is still adrift in the literary wilderness searching for publication…).

Taylor is also interested in the tension in our society between civility and authenticity, between our desire for public approval and our need to be true to ourselves. His work also takes in some of the thinkers who have been really important for me, such as Norbert Elias, Rousseau, and the Stoics.

I actually wrote to Taylor after reading another of his books, called The Ethics of Authenticity. In that book, Taylor asked what were the philosophical foundations of our culture’s obsession with being authentic or true to our personalities, rather than serving our communities as the ancients often strived to do.

He highlighted the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of course, whose Confessions is a great hymn to the modern religion of being true to oneself. He also suggested, less convincingly, that post-modernist philosophers like Derrida and Foucault have also had a big impact on how young people think there is no higher truth than being true to oneself.

Anyway, I wrote to Taylor, saying how much I enjoyed his book, and how I was thinking and writing about similar topics. I suggested to him that the idea of authenticity and of ‘being true to oneself’ is actually much older than Rousseau, and goes back to Sophocles and the Stoics, and the Stoic or Platonic idea of being true to the God within one rather than putting all one’s effort into one’s public image.

I also suggested the Sixties and the Me Generation had a big influence on the modern cult of authenticity – particularly all those self-development courses, Scientology, Arica, Reich and the Primal Scream movement, Esalen and so on, all of which, as Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay The Me Decade, were quests for the fabled ‘Real Me’:

“[Such movements shared a common assumption]… I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess baggage of society and my upbringing to find the Real Me.”

Taylor was kind enough to reply, and I hope he doesn’t mind if I print his reply here:

dear mr evans,

thanks so much for your letter and for your paper. sorry for the lower case, i’ve broken my arm, and it’s hard to write at length. but i wanted to say how much i enjoyed your paper. i am entirely agreed that the sources you mention are much more important for the culture of authenticity than foucault and derrida. i also agree about the importance of the ancient tradition, particularly stoicism for the idea that we should find our truth within rather than in public approval.

but what modern authenticity adds to this is the idea that each person has hi/her own way of being human. the truth is not simply a general one about human beings, but has a dimension which is personal.

this doesn’t mean that we have simply replaced a general view of human nature with personal authenticity, rather this is a modification of the earlier view.

it’s an interesting question what importance this dimension of personal authenticity has in different forms of the rebellion against [Max Weber’s concept of] the iron cage. if i get you right, you favour more the earlier formulations in which some core understanding of the human is the basis of the rebellion.

but beyond all these issues, i hope very much that you finish your book. we urgently need more intelligent and perceptive discussions of this whole range of issues. thanks again very much for letting me see your paper. best wishes, charles taylor
What a nice guy, eh? He may be an important philosopher, but he still had time to reply to some random punter emailing him out of the blue.

I then emailed him back asking him to read the manuscript of my book and make recommendations or help me get it published. He didn’t reply to that email 🙂

Still, I’m thoroughly enjoying his new book, and will write another post on it soon. In the meantime, below is a video of him being interviewed last year by David Frost, around the time he replied to me – in fact, you can see his arm is still broken.


Animism and The Porous Self

I’m reading the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s epic new work, A Secular Age, which looks at what we mean when we say ours is a secular age, and how it differs from all previous ages, how we came to be ‘disenchanted’ as Max Weber put it.

Taylor makes a good contrast between the self in the previous era, the era of animism and spirits, and the self in the modern, disenchanted era.

He writes how the self in the age of animism and spirits is a porous self:

“Whether for good or evil, influence does away with sharp boundaries. [The self becomes] porous to some outside power, a person-like power…This porousness is most clearly in evidence in the fear of possession. Demons can take us over. And indeed, five centuries ago, many of the more spectacular manifestations of mental illness, what we would class as psychotic behaviour, were laid at the door of possession, as in the New Testament times….”

And this power, as Taylor writes, can equally be seen as benevolent – we are filled with the Holy Spirit, or with the spirit of our elders, we become an instrument of God.

The modern self, by contrast, is what Taylor describes as a “buffered self”, in that a much stronger buffer exists between us and our outside environment, and we are much less likely to become possessed by spirits or forces:

“As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer [between me and outside forces], such that things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’, to use the contemporary expression…This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”

He goes on: “Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.”

I was writing about this at the start of this year, when I tried to sell a book on the link between animism and animation (no publishers have gone for it yet unfortunately). My basic argument was that while we did indeed live in a post-animistic age of disenchantment, we are still “haunted by the ghosts of old religions” to use another phrase of Weber’s.

And we see old animist ideas of the porous self re-appearing in popular culture, particularly in animation, in sci-fi and in fantasy.

The best metaphor of the porous self, for example, is probably the rickety old hut in Evil Dead II. The self in the animistic universe is like that hut – constantly assailed by external forces, by nature spirits from the surrounding forest, by zombies from the basement, with every object in the hut conceivably housing some benevolent or malevolent spirit.


On the other hand, the flipside of this porous self is that you can become infused by benevolent spirits, and become superhuman. This is what we see happen in many superhero comics, and in a great deal of animation. Take He-Man, for example – he finds a magical sword, utters an incantation, and suddenly he is infused with a magical spirit and becomes “the most powerful man in the universe”.


Here the porous self is experienced as something beneficial and empowering. All you need is some magical amulet or charm, and you can draw down the powers of the cosmos and become stronger, fitter, luckier than you normally are.

What I’ve noticed speaking to a schizophrenic friend of mine is that he, along with many other psychotics, has a very porous sense of his self. He believes that demons are trying to destroy him, and he lives in perpetual fear that they will succeed, so he needs the power of Christ to defend him from these regular assaults on his self.

Many other psychotics have similar fears of intrusions into their self, by demons, or by foreign powers, like the CIA. They fear their minds are being secretly controlled or manipulated. They do not have confidence in their autonomy from outside influences.

Perhaps all mental illness is in some ways a vulnerability to outside forces, real or imagined. And returning to sanity is when you once again assert your independence, your free will and autonomy, when you mark the zone of the self where external forces cannot impinge.

In this sense, you’d have to see Stoicism as a crucial moment in the development of the modern, buffered, ‘sane’ self, which asserts that a zone of free will exists in the human psyche, which if properly developed and exercised, no external force, spirit or power can manipulate or overcome.