New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

sec age(Links to Rounds 1 , 2, and 3

In the previous chapter, Taylor outlined some of the main “bulwarks” of enchanted belief that had to give way for exclusive humanism to eventually emerge. In Chapter 2, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society,” Taylor examines some of the new construals of self and society that would help make that shift possible: the development of a “disciplined, disengaged stance to self and society” (136). In doing so, Taylor continually reminds us of the  “zigzag” nature of this trajectory; instead of an inevitable subtraction of enchanted beliefs or transcendent references that culminated in a purely immanent humanism—secularism’s irresistible march– new imaginaries were generated by initially religious motives. For example, the early modern devotional effort to bring the Incarnation’s sanctifying force to all the ordinary contexts of life “led people to invest these contexts with a new significance and solidity” (144) ; a significance that would eventually become self-sufficient and severed from transcendent roots. Taylor continually emphasizes the “zigzag” trajectory to combat the guise of inevitability or “naturalness” that modern secular narratives employ to cloak their own contingency and religious origins.

So what were some of these new construals? In this post I’ll focus on the new construals of the self, and in the next post will look at those of the new social order (which Taylor explores in more detail in Chapter 4, “The Modern Social Imaginary”).

The emergence of a buffered, disengaged self arises through and alongside other conceptual changes. For one, the Aristotelian-Christian notion of nature shifts from one in which things have their own inherent nature and telos (what Taylor calls the “autonomization of nature”) into a “vast field of mutually affecting parts.” This shift results partly from nominalism, a theological reaction to what was perceived as the constraint of God’s ability to (re) determine the “good” or telos of things in light of this independent or “autonomous” nature. In other words, the move ensured that the good is whatever God wills; not God must will whatever is good as determined by nature. As a result, “God relates to things as freely to be disposed of according to his autonomous purposes,” and it is one short step from human beings “disengaging” from nature to take a similarly “instrumental” stance towards the world—initially for devotional purposes, but then for their own sakes as rational agents who can master nature rather than taking their cue from its normative patterns.

The modern self not only disengages from and instrumentalizes nature, but the very materials of selfhood. The ancient idea of the emerging Form of self, where virtue and goodness blossom with our will’s collaboration and harmonization with Form or Nature, gives way to a sense of total self-fashioning or self-reconstruction. The mechanism of this refashioning is God-given reason, and reason galvanizes the will, which dominates the passions and imposes discipline and form on the self. It is not Form at work, but our own self-action and will. The Christian element to this neo-Stoic revival is the belief that God is the source of reason, and we follow him by cultivating our own reason and judgment to fight God’s battles in the world—or to simply become excellent human beings, which is now seen as God’s will. Worship is rechanneled into efforts to cultivate reason; grace and agape are decentered by reason, will, and self-action. Our highest good is no longer agape, but rational control. Passions and desires carry no higher meaning but are “de facto solicitations” from which we can rationally distance ourselves and objectively evaluate them. Even our very desires for intimacy and human relationships are demoted to aspirations to sufficiency and transcending the need for recognition— a buffering of the self from others. We can see this in the new etiquette surrounding bodies and intimacy; whereas medieval etiquette books were primarily concerned with “unjustified presumptions of intimacy” across social ranks, the modern body applies this buffering to everyone but one’s closest emotional intimates. We create and deploy disgust and fastidiousness to control the self and establish boundaries against “bodily life and against each other”, and civilization becomes, “in a sense, a matter of feeling shame in the appropriate places” (143).

Ultimately, Taylor concludes, we see by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that “What moves us now is no longer a sense of being in tune with nature, our own and/or that in the cosmos. It is something more like the sense of our own intrinsic worth; something clearly self-referential.”

The shifts in conceptions of natural law follow suit; whereas Thomistic natural law and Spanish theorists like Francisco Suarez followed the Aristotelian-Platonic notion an “order… at work, striving for realization,” modern natural law theorists like Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke defined natural law as what “suits” a being who is both rational and sociable, and is binding through reason alone, according to Grotius, or through God’s (autonomous) command, according to the more moderate Locke and Pufendorf. Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa reinforces the idea of a malleable self (constructed through proper education) and is one of the chief proponents of applying this new version of natural law in society; the “rational order” that is natural law serves as a crucial underpinning for a post-confessional public order and political life.

Thus by the Enlightenment, the modern disciplined, disengaged self is capable of participating in the universal reform to refashion society into a disciplined, civilized, homogenized order—a task Taylor describes in more detail in chapter 4.

Once again, we haven’t reached the arrival of Mormonism in our chronological trajectory, but I see elements in Mormonism of the Enlightenment heritage and departures from it. On the one hand, we are neither tabula rasa nor depraved matter, but uncreated, embryonic gods with our own particularity (thus, not quite the Platonic Form) that is cultivated and expanded by gospel living. Agency and will along with grace are crucial in that process. In the Brigham Young version of theosis, we will progress in mastery in laws and principles to one day organize their own worlds. He envisions that human beings are “made as independent in their sphere as the Lord is in His, to prove themselves, pursue which path they please, and choose the evil or the good” [JOD 1:49]. Yet we uncreated beings also occupy an autonomized cosmos of radical thinghood, of self-directing intelligences. But all our autonomy and agency are constrained by laws of existence (or wickedness and happiness) that predate God himself, and in which he is bound to recognize a good independent of himself. The buffered self is also checked by a soteriological communal vision in which we are metaphysically bound together as family or ultimately a universal network (depending on which version of sealings we look at), in which our fullest selves honor that profound relationality. Yet that relationality is disciplined and structured into dynasties, kingdoms, “perfect governments” [JOD] and other structures that will find their precedents in Taylor’s next chapter and post. These are just gestures towards Mormonism’s ever-interesting position in these trends, some of which will become much clearer and more fleshed out as we head into the following chapters about eighteenth and nineteenth-century developments.

9 comments for “New Construals of the Self: Secular Age round 4

  1. I think my problem with so much medieval philosophy is the assumption, especially in Aquinas, that there is a “natural” telos to things that God determines. That just runs to counter to my understanding of free will, not to mention the Mormon break with creation ex nihilo.

    However the danger, even without nominalism, is treating everything as instrumental. I think you bring that part out really well. The question ends up being when is instrumentalist use wrong? I confess that it’s here I turn to Heidegger’s transformation of Aristotle. That is when we are using things in an instrumentalist way and they break down (for whatever reason) we see them as more than a tool. It’s in that encountering things as more than a tool that we can have an authentic encounter with them.

    In the existentialism of people like Sartre this might be seeing a waiter as more than someone bringing my mean, but something autonomous.

    The break with creation ex nihilo in a fashion then is the break with instrumentalism in an even more radical fashion. This always brings me to Levinas and his break with Heidegger. Heidegger (at least the Levinas version) thinks everything ultimately in terms of the person themselves. The for-the-sake is always of dasein. For non-philosophers reading – basically all tools, practices and meaning are in terms of their function for me the existing person who encounters them. Levinas takes it further. Behind every face is an endless depth that is a soul. The same relation we have with God comes to define how we know other minds.

    To turn it all about, the question of instrumentalism comes up against the ethical demand as I encounter other people and realize they are more than my aims. I can’t understand them in terms of myself.

    I’ve always loved Stoicism, but the great problem of it was always thinking of yourself as part of a machine. That’s what we should be doing. It has no room for parts that are more than their place in the machine. I think, as you noted, that Stoicism has its rebirth every few generations because there is a drive to accept that place in the machine whether the machine is God, society or earth itself in some mystic sense. But that’s always unsatisfying and Stoicism never is good about when we should be disrupting the machine.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Clark. So do you think that free will must include completely determining one’s own ends, or can some kind of “natural telos” arise from a particular kind of “nature” we possess? (i.e. as thinking, reflective creatures, our telos will involve some kind of refinement of our reflective capacities, etc.)–whether God “created” that nature or we simply have it? In his own personal political philosophy, Taylor seems to believe in a Rousseuaian/Kantian telos in which we are only as free (and thus fully human) as we can rationally determine our own ends and evaluate whether those ends are in line with our true Inner Self or natural disposition towards compassion/moral good; in other words, our proper end is conforming to rational and moral laws because we are reflective, moral creatures. I don’t know Kant well enough to understand Taylor’s distinction between instrumental reason and “practical reason,” but he sees his approach above as adopting Kant’s practical reason.

    Tell me more about your draw to Stoicism, I’m curious.

  3. Well my view of free will is that I don’t trust our semantics. That is I think terms have some similarity to how it’ll be most helpful to understand the term. As such I don’t like any of the positions within analytic philosophy dealing with term free will. I just the philosophical intuitions and normative language use are misleading. (Which is more or less an implication of being extremely distrustful of the place intuitions are given in philosophy)

    I think we can conceive of telos in terms of agent intents. That’s where our use of terms like “aims,” “goals” and so forth are most commonly used. I’m leery of pushing those terms outside of their natural linguistic habitat though. I do think we can have a use of telos that’s broader and at least closer to the Aristotelian use if not exactly the same. That is the universe may tend towards certain structures as various forms of complexity and self-development develop. So, to give an analogy, the evolution of wings in biology is best seen in terms of efficient causation rather than final causation in Aristotle’s categories. By and large biology reject teleology even if it uses the language at times in a metaphoric sense. Yet at the same time wings evolve independently in many creatures (with some bug re-evolving wings after losing them). That suggests there’s a nature tendency to the development of wings in a broad set of environments. Personally following C. S. Peirce’s use, I have no problem calling that a teleology.

    An other kind of teleology we can perhaps discuss is what I discussed relative to Hebrew conceptions of truth at my blog. I’ve mentioned that before. This is roughly akin to Aristotle’s use of essence with a few differences. It’s more or less the idea that things as they present themselves to a person tend towards what those things are. So the essence of a road to Salt Lake City is that the road actually goes to Salt Lake City. With objects with a certain temporal nature that means they tend in the future to a certain behavior. So humans die. Thus there’s a telos of humans to death. Trees grow, so a pinecone properly planted tends to grow. This is very much with Aristotle’s use although we have to be careful.

    With regards to God, the question in a Mormon context is how much freedom God gives the world. That ends up getting into the various ways Mormons grapple with biological science – especially evolution. We want human life to be special in some sense and directed in some sense by God. To my eyes the most fruitful way to think of this is that evolution and self-emerging complexity are just innate aspects of the universe given the laws of physics it follows. God can intervene in various ways to bring about environments that make humans likely. This isn’t traditional divine creation, especially not of the more anti-evolutionary Evangelical sort. (And of course Mormons have had strong flirtations with such views over time) It’s more akin to lightly directed breeding programs ala how we’ve domesticated so many animals and crops affecting their evolution. Heck, I wouldn’t exclude outright genetic modification to bring things about at times.

    If we combine that view of God with biology with that semi-Aristotilean sense of teleology then we can say God has a teleology for various types of life.

    My problem with the Rousseau/Kant view is that I’m dubious there’s some inner self to which we’re true. You could I suppose point to the material spirit body, but that just pushes the question back a level. This is why the more existential form in figures like Sartre or Kierkegaard is interesting. They tend to reject that there’s any inner self to which we’re true. Well Kierkegaard is trickier here because in some ways he keeps a thing-in-itself logic – Keith Lane over at BYU Hawaii has an interesting book on that.

    What they all share though is the idea that to be free is to have a form of self-authorship. Which seems true as far as it goes. The question is what this authorship means. It’s there we’ll get different requirements depending upon who we’re talking about. Often this authorship is wrapped up with questions of when someone is praiseworthy or blameworthy. That’s the drive behind libertarian free will.

    As to Stoicism, I’ve personally found it a fascinating group. The part of its ethics I like is the recognition there are things we have no control over. It seems inherently valuable to not get worked up over things we can’t control. So in terms of my personal philosophy of life there are aspects of the Stoic view of emotions I’m extremely sympathetic to. The parts I dislike is the tendency of Stoics to accept society as it is given. You see that especially in the Roman Stoics who aren’t exactly agitators for change over things like slavery. Even Epictetus who was a slave and whom you’d think would be concerned about that seems far too passive. That danger of passivity is a huge problem in Stoicism.

    I also like Stoic physics and I’ve enjoyed studying their relation to contemporary science. Finally I think that Orson Pratt’s theology, as nutty as it is, ends up just being Stoic cosmology only with Priestly atoms rather than the more field theory that Stoics adopt. So the Stoic theory of “fire” as a fluid through the whole universe actually ends up being quite similar to the idea of a single quantum mechanical field for the whole universe.

    While I ultimately find Stoicism problematic, I’ve long found them the most interesting of all the ancient philosophies.

  4. BTW Surprised there haven’t been more comments. This was my favorite chapter you’ve done thus far Rachel even though I’m behind in the reading.

  5. Clark (1.2) – I think I’m with you on the general sense of telos, as related to essence or general function (or in other contexts, evolutionary results or directions). I think you ascribe more to God’s direction than my filtered experience of Mormon history/doctrine does, but that’s one of the issues I’m mulling over. I’m curious about your rejection of any Inner Self and how that relates to the Mormon conception of an eternal self (intelligence, agent, etc.). Are you rejecting the sense of a unique inner self, or a general nature of Inner Self (common to humanity as a species)? Or the idea of a pre-existing self at all, as opposed to one that is continually constructed or “authored” — and if so, by what? I’m not sure reason is a granular or nuanced enough term for the mechanisms by which we author ourselves. This is another [vast] issue I’m interested in at the moment– what wedge of selfhood, if any, separates us from determined chains of cause, effect, unconsciously learned behaviors, etc., and naive construals of agency and autonomy. Pre-existence is an elegant answer, if an abstract one. In the book “The Lucifer Effect,” for example, even as Zimbardo argues that it matters more “where we are than who we are” (i.e. explaining evil behavior by situational factors like group pressure, conformity, etc. and looking at familial and other situational factors in explaining those who resist evil), even he leaves a space for some agency, even if he doesn’t know how to explain what that is or where it comes from. The age-old nature vs nurture question, I suppose.

    Your comment “Often this authorship is wrapped up with questions of when someone is praiseworthy or blameworthy” isn’t entirely clear to me– can you expound on that? That sounds interesting. I also have no knowledge of Stoic physics, so I’ll have to poke around in there sometime.

  6. Interesting as I’m usually accused of having God be far too hands off with creation. I tend to see it as akin to Monsonto’s non-GMO seed programs. Grow lots of plants. Zap them with radiation. Select the ones that seem useful. Repeat. LOL. So there’s a lot of freedom inherent and I suspect there are enough planets in the universe capable of life that evolution is functioning on so that God has a lot to select from. This was one of the worlds close enough. How much intervention was necessary I just don’t know since I don’t know how close was “close enough” for our bodies to fulfill the plan of salvation.

    Concerning inner self and eternal self, I think the Mormon history of the eternal self is much more open than people think. A lot of 20th century thought on the issue is pretty biased by B. H. Roberts. I used to call Roberts as the originator of a true tripartite soul along Cartesian lines. After reading him more carefully I think that’s wrong, but I think he did push a certain view of intelligence as our true self that’s closer to a Cartesian mind than what one sees in the 19th century. Brigham Young really comes pretty close to a contemporary physicalist theory of mind – albeit applied to spirits rather than bodies. He thinks the parts aren’t intelligent at all and that spirits can be destroyed. Then there’s Orson Pratt’s influential version which is this weird Stoic/atomistic take on his and his brother’s earlier more neoplatonic conception of spirits being made literally from God’s immaterial spirit substance. He takes it all down a more Leibnizean line.

    With both Young and Pratt (and arguably many other figures) it’s almost impossible to tell whether there is a fixed essence for soul/mind. The main argument for such is that this life as a probationary state in the plan of salvation only makes sense if there’s something about individuals God can’t control. But that of course needn’t be something fixed to which we only need be true. It’d work just as well if there’s a nothingness inside our eternal nature that God also can’t control. This is more how Duns Scotus looks at God’s essence – which arguably gets picked up by Heidegger and to a degree existentialism in the 20th century. It also arguably is what Levinas does with other minds using God as absolutely other to move us to seeing other people as absolutely other yet with an ethical demand.

    Now I’m biased in that I think this Heideggarian, Scotus, Levinas view is apt to be the correct one. However the opposing view that there’s simply objects with immutable properties frankly explains the religious evidence just as well.

    To get back to your question, I find the term self to have many senses, some of which are unstable. I think we often use the term without being aware of the term as a tool. Ditto with similar terms like identity. What does identity even mean relative to us? Often (but not always) the discourse reduces to what persists through time. But that may well include stable parts and unstable parts. It’s just that I think we can’t really use the term just as what persists through time. It ends up being surprisingly like the question of authorship. An other notion that seems simple on its face and complex in its analysis.

    If the self is what we are to be true to, it’s just not at all clear what we mean. I honestly would not want to be true today to my 9 year old self. Hopefully I’ve changed. It’s the significance of that change which makes the discussion so complex.

    As you note, there’s a lot of naive conceptions of causality here that really need to be unpacked. (As an aside I think Ricouer’s work on narrative is very important here for understanding all this. I’d throw in as well his book Oneself as Another)

    Mormons point to pre-mortality but honestly I just don’t think that does much in terms of the problem. For one the notion of spirit birth (and the question of whether there even is a spirit birth) means that just pushes the questions back a level. Because there’s nothing remotely like clarity on these issues – which surprises many people who assume the theology is more developed than it actually is – I don’t see how it solves much. Saying pre-mortality solves these issues, to my eyes, is on par with saying childhood and adolescence solve the issues.

    Regarding free will and blameworthiness. In the analytic free will literature the debate over what freedom means or whether people have it really the question is when or whether people can be ascribed responsibility to acts. That is can we blame them or not. The typical argument against determinism for instance (and this is taken up by Blake Ostler in volume one of his theological works) is that if my choices are either due to what’s innate to me or is due to my environment then I deserve neither praise nor blame for any choice I make. Likewise if we throw in randomness you get the same issue. Most of those who pick libertarian free will do so because they think we ought hold people for blame or praise for their acts. (Blake explicitly makes that claim in his book regarding whether God could justifiably punish people) People who really don’t have an intuition or need to hold people accountable in that sense seem much more open to rejecting free will.

    As such there’s really two ultimate sources for free will views. Either worry about blaming people or else just thinking that ontologically there’s no third alternative between randomness and free will.

  7. The strongest Mormon challenge to the modern trend toward a disengaged, buffered self is the weeping God. This, to me, suggests a vigorous challenge to not only a conception of the self that is independent of others, but also the tendency to think of the self as largely independent of emotion.

    (My thinking about both of these issues is that it provides a really nice way for Mormons to engage with recent feminist thought that develops both of these ideas in really intriguing and productive ways.)

  8. Could you expand a bit Robert? It’s true that modernism tends to think through problems with a certain conception of what’s appropriate reason. Often emotions are devalued in terms of the analyzing but not necessarily in terms of the answers/analysis. That is I think we have to be careful here.

    I’d add that if we’re talking society writ large, I’m not sure the problem is the disengaged self (whether by reason or by irony). Rather the far bigger problem is perhaps following instinct and emotion too often. (Looking at the current election cycle in particular)

  9. To add, since I’ve invoked Kierkegaard so much of late. One way to look at what bothers me so much about Kierkegaard is that issue. How do we distinguish the recent move towards identity politics of all sorts and trumps of victimhood (often divorced from all reason such as with a certain subclass of Trump supporters) from Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. I’ve not seen too much analysis of this but contemporary politics to my eyes seems very similar to what I fear in Kierkegaard.

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