The Myth of the Independent Subject. featuring Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre

One of the dominant myths of our time is that of the ‘independent subject’ (also known as the “transcendental ego,” the “Cartesian Subject” or the “true self”) . In short, this myth states that there is some “I” that exists, separate from ‘incidental’ features like my height, skin color, or family background, who makes choices about my life. This independent subject is the essence of my “identity;” it is “who I am” at the most basic level. It is usually what we are referring to when we say that “deep down we are all the same”. Politically, this motivates the “personal responsibility” right and the “free to choose your own way” left. And while I think that personal responsibility and freedom of choice are pretty good things, I also think that this way of thinking about human beings is confused.

I find it interesting that both “radical” leftist forces and extremely conservative right wing forces agree that this is a central mistake of modernity. For the left, the mistake is in believing that there is a universal experience of being human – that we can sensibly talk about human beings in the abstract, leaving aside questions of gender, race, and physical ability. Feminist and critical race scholars, for example, have argued that the supposedly universal “independent subject” is in fact the “white male subject”. For the right, the mistake has to do with the way that the emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual breaks down community, religion, and family ties. I’m sympathetic to both of these positions, and so quite sceptical to the idea that we are basically independent thinking subjects.

A big part of this scepticism comes from the importance that “communitarian” philosophers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre play in my thinking. These philosophers are critical of the myth of the independent subject, and they also go a long way towards developing a more useful way to think about human identity and subjectivity.

What follows is an excerpt from an essay I wrote about Taylor and MacIntyre. It includes a sort of fun bit about cowboys, which is meant to illustrate what I think is wrong with the idea that we are really just independent actors. The main thrust of the argument is that human beings always exist in a variety of contexts, and you have to understand these various contexts in order to understand their “individual” identities.

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Taylor’s Framework

In the opening sections of Sources of the Self, Taylor outlines three major features of the human condition. In each case, his characterization pulls against a major impulse in modern culture. And yet, according to Taylor, it is impossible to understand our human situation without recourse to these three features. This will form the basis for Taylor’s argument that modernity is “inarticulate”, which I will return to below.

The three features of the human condition that Taylor emphasizes are its embedddedness in society, its orientation toward the good, and its narrative structure. Taylor talks about each of these as fundamental attributes of the “self” or of “identity”. I know who I am only by recourse to these three features.

Taylor argues that a human self is inescapably situated within a socio-linguistic context (Sources, chapter 2.2). This argument receives the most attention in the liberal communitarian debate. Taylor is explicitly distancing himself from the modern idea of the subject as an a priori chooser, capable of a fundamentally dis-interested relationship to his social context.  Taylor argues that human identity, our sense of self, is formed dialogically, in conversations with “other selves” (35). This means that human identity is formed a) with others and b) in language. And this is not simply a fact about the genesis of human identity; it remains an inescapable feature of it throughout one’s life (36).

Taylor’s second point is that human beings are inescapably oriented toward a conception of the good (chapter 2.3). Again, Taylor sees this as a fundamental feature of “having an identity”. One of the most important ways I understand “who I am” is by understanding what I value – what motivates me and what I aspire to: “in order to understand, make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative distinction, of the incomparably higher” (47). This link between an idea of the good and our sense of self is embodied in our everyday language: when someone loses a sense of what is good (a Catholic who suddenly stops believing in God, or a life-long capitalist who realizes that his money cannot bring him happiness), we say that they are having an “identity crisis”. Here Taylor is differentiating himself from a common modern position, which claims to do without an overarching sense of “the good”. For Taylor, to reject constitutive goods is to reject the self.

The third essential feature of human identity is its narrative structure. I understand who I am in terms of a story; a story of where I came from, and a story of where I am going (47-48). The other two features of identity make themselves felt here, since the story of my life a) is told to and about my “significant others” and b) has to do with my values, with my sense what makes my life worth living. It is essential to this conception that we are consistently re-telling the story of our lives– so a break-up or a conversion or some other major event might always cast things in an entirely new light. Indeed, it might demand a whole new story, which would indicate that I have become, in some sense, a new person. But only in some sense, because my “newness” is always relative to the “old”. There is good sense to the statement “I am no longer the person who married that woman,” but only because you can tell a story about how you got from A to B. There is a narrative unity that connects these two “me’s.”

A Counter Example: The Lone Ranger

Each of these three points is controversial. Taylor claims that they are inescapable features of human identity, but it is not difficult for us to imagine an individual who does without them. Indeed (and this is Taylor’s point) a major tendency in the modern world is to understand individual freedom precisely as not being determined by ‘contingent’ circumstances. The truly free individual is the one who is able to make it on his own. This ideal is embodied in various artistic works and archetypes – perhaps most clearly in the type of the “lone ranger” or “cowboy”. For my purposes, I will treat the lone ranger as an embodiment of the modern ideal of individual freedom. He will therefore serve as a test case for Taylor’s arguments; if even the lone ranger turns out to be incomprehensible without recourse to the categories Taylor proposes, we will have good reason for using those categories.

Imagine a self-sufficient pragmatist: a cowboy. This individual has cast off his past. To be sure, he was once a child, but he has moved far from home. He’s taken a new name: the boy John Smith died when he left New York fifteen years ago. And just as he has rejected his past, he has rejected the ideals that came along with it. This man deals with the task in front of him, and has little patience for abstract moralizing about what is “good” or “right”. I suppose you could try to tell the story of his life, but if you asked him he would probably tell you it has been “one damn thing after another”.

This image is useful, not only because it is an apparent counter-example, but because it embodies a typically modern, typically liberal, typically American ideal. The ideals this character embodies inform much of the contemporary liberal philosophy against which Taylor develops his position. So let’s consider Taylor’s hypothetical response, point by point.

Taylor’s argument in essence is that rebellion from one’s past is just another form of relating to one’s past. So the cowboy has not actually rejected his past. Rejecting one’s alcoholic father and pious mother are just ways of continuing the dialogue with one’s significant others. Taylor might point to the common tropes in cowboy films that reinforce this point; the protagonist who hates drunks “‘cause his daddy was one,” or who goes out of his way to help a widow who reminds him of his mother. There is no such thing as simply escaping one’s past.

The cowboy claims not to worry about abstract questions of “good;” he faces the problems in front of him. Taylor acknowledges that this or that particular good can be left aside or abandoned, but this is not the same as doing without a good. At the very least, the cowboy’s insistence on self-sufficiency, his demand that he rely on no one but himself, indicates a certain valuing of freedom. And just like anyone else, he can tell a story about how he became more and less free. He used to think that he was freer in town, where he didn’t have to worry about criminals. But now he sees that he was relying on the sheriff, and that made him weak when the criminals did come around.

This example is not artificially chosen; it is almost exactly Taylor’s diagnosis of the modern condition. Like the cowboy, modernity is inarticulate about what motivates it. It has a certain set of values – most notably freedom understood as self-sufficiency – which resist understanding oneself in relation to a higher good and to a community. But the higher good is precisely freedom, and that ideal of freedom is characteristic of a certain community in a definite time and place. Being a self-sufficient individual is typical of “the American Way”.

Alasdair MacIntyre

In After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre gives a very similar account of the human subject. Like Taylor, he develops his position in explicit opposition to the naturalist, liberal temper that he thinks dominates modern philosophy. The key to MacIntyre’s account is his notion of a “practice”. A practice is an activity that lends meaning and structure to our actions (a good example is the game of chess). Practices are the basic unit for understanding human action; no action is comprehensible outside of the practice or set of practices to which it belongs. MacIntyre winds up echoing Taylor’s arguments about the basic conditions for human identity. Practices are inescapably social (I can only play chess with someone else, and within the broader community of chess-players who have agreed on the rules of playing chess). They inevitably orient themselves toward some conception of the good (there is a “good” chess game). And they are made sense of by narrative (I was playing poorly until I succeeded in capturing his queen, then things turned around).

There are, however, important differences in how MacIntyre and Taylor would understand the figure of the cowboy. For MacIntyre, the rejections of tradition, of community, and of an ideal of the good have a little more substance. The cowboy really does try to live without these things. Of course, he does not fully succeed, because they are inescapable features of the human tradition. But by placing himself outside of his tradition and community, the cowboy (and the modern individual generally) experiences a real loss. His life is fragmented. He loses the ability to make sense of the various demands put upon him; he no longer has any means by which to resolve conflicts between competing demands. For Taylor, the cowboy has simply moved from one kind of relationship to his tradition to a different one; for MacIntyre, he has placed himself in a paradoxical position of trying to do without a tradition. This parallels their respective diagnoses of modernity. For Taylor, modernity is inarticulate about its (nevertheless fully present) relationship to tradition; for MacIntyre, modernity is incoherent because it has moved away from tradition (and community and a conception of the good).

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One thought on “The Myth of the Independent Subject. featuring Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre

  1. Pingback: Why do people have such a hard time understanding structural injustice? | The Abstract

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