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.