Philosophy / Charles Taylor, Augustine And The Ethics Of Authenticity

Charles Taylor, Augustine And The Ethics Of Authenticity

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Autor:  anton  12 September 2010
Tags:  Charles,  Taylor,  Augustine,  Ethics,  Authenticity
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The notion of authenticity is one of self-fulfillment and Charles Taylor recognizes that there are dangers in accepting modernity's drive toward self-realization. However, he is not willing to give up on this idea of "authenticity." In The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor lays out a system of thought and morals that connect our search for self-realization with our desire towards self-creation. He is attempting to keep a form of individualism while still operating under objectivism. He will point out the good and damaging aspects of the modern development of an authentic self and mention the importance of some moral measurement system.

Taylor claims that St. Augustine initiated a concept of inwardness, a turning towards the inner self to find truth and the idea of authenticity is simply a further development of Augustine's inwardness. In this paper I will discuss in detail Taylor's idea of authenticity: the pros and cons. I will lay out some of his arguments as to why he thinks this idea originated with Augustine. I will talk about Augustine's view on the inner man and how this is connected with knowledge and memory. I will then talk about some of Augustine's views. Freedom is also an important aspect to moral conduct so I will explore both Taylor's and Augustine's view of freedom. Finally, I will argue that the ideal of authenticity (although it contains some truth) is not an ideal that Augustine would promote.

Three Modern Worries

Taylor begins the book by discussing three worries of modern society. The first is individualism which is selfish and self-centered. The modern concept is bothersome because people see freedom as loosening the chains of traditional notions of hierarchy. We have become a society where we are breaking away from "older moral horizons." Everything in creation is connected in some way and when there is a loose hierarchy there follows a loose meaning of life. The "dark side of individualism" the focuses on the self in such a way that it flattens and narrows the framework which give significance and meaning to human life.

The second trouble is the dominant attention given to instrumental reason. Instrumental reason values efficiency above all other goods. Nothing else is considered sacred or has intrinsic value, only extrinsic value. The question is how useful a thing is. "Maximum efficiency is the measure of success." Once the hierarchical order of creation has lost its meaning, creatures loose their significance and are vulnerable to solely instrumental use. The fear here is that everything will be decided on a cost-benefit mentality. This leads to absurd practices of "putting dollar assessments on human lives."

The last worry is a lack of participation in the political realm. Individuals are enclosed in their own comfort zones and have little motivation to leave their homes and the satisfactions of their private lives to get involved. Once participation declines the more the bureaucratic state takes control and leaves the citizens powerless. This can lead to soft-despotism which Alexis de Tocqueville describes as a society where most of its members have given up being actively involved in the ordering of that society only to find out that it is run by a vast guardian-like power that discourages participation and jeopardizes political liberty.

Taylor does not want to slip into the acceptance of these three malaises. He claims that all of these issues are controversial. He seems to claim neutrality between modernity knockers and modernity boosters. The knockers are those who believe that instrumental reason and modern individualism inevitably lead to a culture that is preoccupied with the self and self-indulgence and puts moral horizons and political liberty at risk. The boosters are those who accept the consequences of modernity and believe that a rejection of these will result in a culture that hinders the spread of new ideas and new social or political developments and ultimately lead to societal regress. Taylor will grant that there is some truth in both of these positions and tries to expose it through out the rest of the book.


In his discussion of relativity, Taylor points out areas of disagreement as well as agreement. He defines relativism as a system of thought derived from a form of individualism "whose principle is something like this: everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value." Basically there is no hierarchical ordering of truths. Everyone has their own set of truths and no one should try to convince them otherwise. This is what Taylor calls the "individualism of self-fulfillment." His concern about this view is that it narrows the meaning of life because it is too self-centered and it rejects issues that go beyond the self. However he thinks there is "a powerful moral ideal at work here" which is the view of being true to oneself and will refer to this view as authenticity. "The point is that today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn't do it." ; Taylor thinks this point is being overlooked that there must be some moral reason pushing people in a certain direction. Deviant forms of authenticity simply consider the advantages given to the individual apart from any moral stance. He admits that there are deviant forms of authenticity but they take away from the true meaning of it and that when most contemporary critics think they are critiquing authenticity they are really just critiquing its deviant forms.

Conflicting Theories

In viewing the development of authenticity it is important to see the other ideas it was trying to combat. Authenticity is in conflict with consequentialism since it is not a matter of calculations to determine what is right or wrong. For consequentialism external factors determine the justification of an action. Whichever act will bring about the best consequences is the one to choose. This means that at times the individual might have to push himself aside and forfeit his own personal feelings if it will bring about the best consequences. On the other end of the spectrum is the notion of emotivism. This view was not a matter of dry calculation, "but was anchored in our feelings." It is more focused on being in touch with one's inner voice. This inner voice tells you what is wrong or right. It is basically just a matter of preference. The individual looks inside himself, turning inward, and whatever he feels is best at a certain time is what he should do. There is no reason involved and there is no way to universalize this concept because people have different feelings. Taylor does not want his idea of authenticity to fall into emotivism for fear of it becoming too subjective. Whether or not he is successful in this endeavor is another matter.

Even though he is trying to stay away from falling into emotivism Taylor finds something useful in the theory: the inner voice. At this point, Taylor makes the claim that this concept of inwardness, listening to the inner voice and turning inward toward the self to find truth "can be seen just as a continuation and intensification of the development inaugurated by Saint Augustine, who saw the road to God as passing through our own reflexive awareness of ourselves." Before I go into more detail about this claim I wish to continue the discussion on authenticity to give a clearer picture on what it is and how it has impacted the culture. Once we have a more complete and comprehensive picture it will be easier to see if the ethics of authenticity is in conformity with Augustine's philosophy.

Areas of Influence

We now know some of the theories Taylor is trying to combat so what might have influenced Taylor's articulation of authenticity? The idea of authenticity seems to adopt a hint of Romanticism: Taylor appears to be influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Taylor thinks Rousseau is important because he emphasized the importance of breaking one's dependence from outside influences. "Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves." There is a voice within us that should direct us. Taylor also claims that Rousseau articulated the idea of self-determining freedom. This is the idea that one needs to break free from external influences and decide for himself what affects him. Taylor thinks this idea goes too far for he does not want to dismiss external influences all together. Authenticity and self-determining freedom are often confused and Taylor sees that as a dangerous slide towards subjectivism. I will go into this topic of freedom more in detail later but for right now I want to continue my discussion on influences of Taylor.

Taylor is also influenced by Johann Herder. Herder was one of the first major articulators of a principle of originality: Each person has his or her own way of being original. There is a particular way of life that is my way and my life should not be merely an imitation of some one else's.

This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost partly through the pressures towards outward conformity, but also because in taking an instrumental stance to myself, I may have lost the capacity to listen to this inner voice.

This is a driving force in the ideal of authenticity. It is through being true to myself that I am able to define myself which leads to self-realization.

Even given these influences on Taylor it is important to remember that he does not want to be an advocate for subjectivism. He does see some truth in Rousseau and Herder in the sense that they focus on the inner self but he still believes outside influences play an important role in the ethics of authenticity. Taylor claims that human life has a dialogical character. By this he means that humans are able to understand themselves only through shared languages of human expression. Basically we need other people to help fulfill who we are for we do not come to a self-definition alone. But he does point out that we must try to define ourselves to the fullest extent possible. We need to gain control of those influences and avoid falling into dependencies.

Horizons of Significance

Our own originality and self-defining has to fall under a background of significance. Taylor says that soft relativism is self-defeating for the reason that it gives importance to something simply because we choose it or we feel that way. This reasoning (if feeligns can be so called reasoning) holds no ground because not all our options are equal. One's feelings or simply the fact that it was chosen does not determine what is significant. "Things take on importance against a background of intelligibility." He calls this background a horizon. If the horizons of significance crumple there is no way to preserve authenticity. These horizons are not decided but must be discovered. If we truly want to define ourselves significantly we cannot reject the horizons which make things significant. Without these horizons all choices lose their level of significance. For example, choices of sexual orientation are equal to other preferences of taller or shorter, green-eyed or blue-eyes sexual partners. Self-choice becomes trivial and incoherent if there are not some decisions that are more significant than others. "Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the deeds of citizenship, or the call to God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial." Although Taylor does mention that horizons are necessary he fails to give his audience a clue as to what these horizons consist of and from where they come.

Taylor's View on Freedom

One might hope that a discussion on Taylor's view of freedom might clear up some of the ambiguity presented in the theory of authenticity but it does not. If anything it simply adds to the confusions. Throughout The Ethics of Authenticity, he speaks of self-determining freedom which is the idea that one is free to the extent that he decides for himself whatever concerns him. The self is shaped by these concerns and not external influences. "Self-determining freedom demands that I break the hold of all such external impositions, and decide for myself alone" He warns against this view in the sense that he feels it has lead to a self-centered individualism which rejects all influences (whether significant or not). This view of freedom places choice at the center in which things gain significance simply because we say so. As mentioned before a thing does not gain its importance simply because we choose it. "Authenticity can't be defended in ways that collapse horizons of significance." From this it seems as if self-determining freedom cannot be a beneficial view to have.

Later in the book, however, Taylor begins to describe the relationship between authenticity and self-determining freedom as having some kinship. "Authenticity is itself an idea of freedom; it involves my finding the design of my life myself, against the demands of external conformity." This sounds very similar to self-determining freedom. So where does he stand? The horizons of significance would have to fall under the "demands of external conformity." It seems as if Taylor is swaying back and forth on the issue. He then proceeds to hint that self-determining freedom can be acceptable as long as it does not slip into an extreme form. He says, "В…authenticity can't, shouldn't go all the way with self-determining freedom." Does that suggest that it could go part of the way as long as it is not full force? I think this remains unclear.

He will criticize the extreme form of negative freedom where freedom is the lack of external obstacles which could interfere with what one wants to do. Later he will claim that there are also internal obstacles which get in the way of what one desires. He characterizes negative theories as opportunity-concepts since "В…being free is a matter of what we can do, of what is open to us to do, whether or not we do anything to exercise these options" (213). Freedom can mean just that nothing (internal or external) stand in the subject's way.

Taylor's formulation of what he thinks is the best concept of freedom takes the form of a negative theory В– "the subject is still the final authority as to what his freedom consists in, and cannot be second-guessed by external authority. Freedom would be modified to read: the absence of internal or external obstacle to what I truly or authentically want."

To sum up the discussion on authenticity Taylor mentions the worth of this ideal. He believes that it has placed more emphasis on leading a more self-responsible way of life. He does openly admit that troubles or worries can arise from this ideal. The temptation of pushing aside any limits or boundaries on self-determining freedom can lead to extreme forms of anthropocentrism (which is the idea that human beings are considered the central element of the universe.) This in turn just leads to a society which has lost meaning and life becomes trivial because there is no longer a background of intelligence. He defines authenticity as (a) involving creation, construction, discovery, originality, and often opposition to societal rules and maybe even that which we recognize as morality. However it also (b) requires "openness to horizons of significanceВ…and a self-definition in dialogue." He does recognize that there is tension here between (a) and (b). He also states one cannot lean more towards (a) than (b) or vice versa. His discussion of authenticity is a story of ambiguity. He does not show how one can resolve the tension between (a) and (b). His idea of freedom is unclear and he does not give us a clear understanding of what exactly the horizons of significance are.


Now I will turn to the discussion of inwardness and Taylor's view on Augustine. In The Trinity, XII.I, Augustine makes a distinction between the inner and outer man. The outer man consists of all bodily things including the images of external things. The inner man is the soul. "Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth." Taylor will attempt to unpack this idea of inwardness found in Augustine.

First Taylor mentions that the key to turning inward is that, for Augustine, it paves the road to God.

В… the principle route to God is not through the object domain but В‘in' ourselves. This is because God is not just the transcendent object or just the principle of order of the nearer objects, which we strain to see. God is also and for us primarily the basic support and underlying principle of our knowing activity.

It is important to note that Augustine does not deny that God can be known through His creation, but he does shift to a more internal search for truth. This idea was foreign to that of Greek tradition for they placed a great deal of emphasis on the order of the cosmos. They looked outside of themselves to the cosmic order. "Action was morally good if it agreed with the rational order of the universe."

Taylor then moves to a discussion of radical reflexivity. Taylor defines radical reflexivity or the first person standpoint as when we "В…become aware or our awareness, try to experience our experiencing, focus on the way the world is for us." This reflexive stance can be better understood by understanding Augustine's view of knowledge. His attention was focused on the activity of knowing itself rather than the field of objects known, in contrast to Plato. Each person is engaged in his own activity of knowing and because of this it is personal and in a sense exclusive because no one else partakes in my activity of knowing. When one looks to his activity of knowing he turns to the self and takes up a reflexive stance. "В…there is a crucial difference between the way I experience my activity, thought, and feeling, and the way that you or anyone else does. This is what makes me a being that can speak of itself in the first person."

Human Psychology and Trinitarian Theology

Taylor says that this turn inward became very attractive but it must not be forgotten that for Augustine this turn towards the self was simply a way to get to a higher truth: God. Our society has slipped into modern subjectivism and has overlooked the fact that there is a greater reality than just ourselves. In On Free Will, Augustine is the first to use the cogito argument (which is popularly known from the writings of Descartes). The cogito is Latin for "I think." In order to get to the conclusion that God exists, Augustine begins by saying that one cannot doubt his own existence for "if you did not exist it would be impossible for you to be deceived". Because of this Taylor believes that Augustine gave us the first-person standpoint. By drawing inward we become aware of our own existence by the fact that we are thinking. The very fact that I can reason presupposes that there is something out there greater than myself. This of course is God. "By going inward, I am drawn upward." No longer is God just found in the world but in the "intimacy of self-presence."

In the process of trying to attain a better grasp on God, Augustine makes an interesting psychological parallel to the Trinity. The human soul has three functions: the memory, intellect, and will. These are independently assigned to the Father, Logos, and Spirit. God is the first cause and is completely independent from everything else in the universe; He needs nothing outside of Himself. The source of all of creation, both material and immaterial, owes its beginning and continuation to the intellectual activity of God. God knows Himself only through looking inside of or reflecting upon Himself. The same parallel can be made in regards to man and his memory.

The idea that turning inward can lead to a discovery of the truth emerges also in Augustine's doctrine on memory. In the memory is not only where one finds God but also gains a sense of his own identity. The memory is where one finds continuity of self for it recalls past actions; what one did, and where, and when, and how it felt when he was doing it. "When the mind wants to express itself, it recollects itself by a kind of immaterial turning back upon itself." Man comes to knowledge of himself by turning inward and reflecting upon his memory which contains a continuity of past events.

Human memory is an image of the Father, who comes to know himself in himself, generating the other persons; he is the creator В– as memory is where we come to know ourselves, and where we "create" all the "new and new representations of things" by which we connect ourselves to the world God made .

Other authors see the connection between Augustine's Trinitarian theology and the human psychology. "He (Augustine) attempted to apply what he had perceived by introspection and self-analysis to the image of the Trinity." A perceiver's memory, rather than the outside world, presents the object of cognition. St. Augustine's psychology seems to be self-sufficient, at least with regard to the intellectual activity of man. "Both the raw material of cognition and the drive towards understanding can be found in the soul without an indispensable point of reference in the outside world." Through this discussion on memory it becomes clearer how the idea of inwardness is present in Augustine.

Through examining some of Augustine's views it becomes apparent that though he did bring about this idea of inwardness, I would argue that one should be careful in tracing the ethics of authenticity back to this idea of inwardness. The ideal of authenticity can be very dangerous because it is very easy to slip into subjectivism. Taylor is trying to get a "good" form of individualism while still operating under objectivism but it is questionable if he can. People want to keep a sense of who they are and do not want to compromise their very selves for social conformity; this is attractive. I do think there is some truth to what Taylor is saying and I believe Augustine would find some truth as well. There is no doubt that one cannot rid himself of all external influences. Augustine even noted the importance of a community in the process of self-realization.

Their qualities compelled my heart В– conversation and laughter and mutual deferrings; shared readings of sweetly phrased books; facetiousness alternating with things serious; heated arguing (as if with oneself) to spice our general agreement with dissent; teaching and being taught by turns; the sadness of anyone's absence, and the joy of return. Reciprocated love uses such semaphorings В– a smile, a glance, a thousand winning acts В– to fuse separate souls into a single glow, no longer many souls but one.

The Biggest Difference

I think the biggest difference between Charles Taylor and Saint Augustine is that Augustine speaks about Christian morality whereas Taylor seems to be just talking about plain morality. He does not come out and say that a moral ethic should have God as the center point. Even though it seems clear that Augustine does bring up, on numerous occasions, the topic of interiority or inwardness in his writings it is important to note his emphasis. God, not the individual, is always at the center of discussion. He recognized the battle between the spirit and the flesh. "В…I was sure that it was better for me to give myself up to your love than to give in to my own desires." Augustine's view of human nature is one that is fallen "contaminated" with mortality, sin, misery, suffering, and conflict. Man is totally dependent on God for salvation for he needs God's grace.

В…you, O Lord, turned me back upon myself. You took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not wish to look upon myself. You stood me face to face with myself, so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stains and sores.

Augustine wants to do the will of God, not his own will. He seeks to go beyond himself. "I will to pass beyond even this power of mine which is called memory, desiring to reach you, where you may be reached, and to cling to you there where you can be clung to."

In my opinion, what Taylor does not take into account is that man is fallen and not all our desires, feelings, reasoning, etc are in accord with divine law. We will err in our own self-creation and discoveries. For Taylor, by looking inward one can come to God. For Augustine, God brings man to himself, to look deep within himself so he may realize that there is a higher reality. The starting point for Taylor is the individual and for Augustine it is God. To some extent (at least in The Ethics of Authenticity) Taylor sounds like a phenomenologist. Pope John Paul II is also a phenomenologist however he allows for the guidance of Divine revelation. There is a deeper metaphysical meaning to looking inward. Taylor seems to have missed this idea.

Augustine would agree that there is a "horizon of significance" and that some things are more important than others. This becomes more evident by reading his views on authority. A movement towards truth is a movement to accepting and trusting authority. Alasdair MacIntyre discusses how authority comes into the method of understanding. Take a child, for example, who is learning about the Eucharist. He is not (at a young age) able to justify this belief but the belief needs to be accepted for further understanding. These beliefs are accepted on authority. Once a child believes the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ he can further his understanding of this belief and read into the arguments of why Catholics believe in it. For Augustine the word of the "scriptural preacher" has to be recognized as authoritative.

He gives a more definitive understanding that the highest thing in this hierarchy of meaning is God. In The Ethics of Authenticity, when explaining the "horizons of significance", Taylor does not actually give a guide as to where people can find this background of intelligibility. However, in Sources of the Self he does point out that Augustine attributes the perversity of the will to the desire to make ourselves the center of the world and to have power over everything that surrounds us. For Augustine this is a type of slavery for we are controlled by our desires and passions. Evil results not just from a lack of insight into the good but also "involves something in the dimension of the soul's sense of self." But reflexivity is not the sole source of evil for if it was the solution would be to turn away from the self.

But for Augustine, it is not reflexivity which is evil; on the contrary, we show most clearly the image of God in our fullest self-presence. Evil is when this reflexivity is enclosed on itself. Healing comes when it is broken open, not in order to be abandoned, but in order to acknowledge its dependence on God.

In my readings of Augustine I did not come across him highlighting the idea of self-creation. Augustine focuses more on discovering the truths which have already been established by natural law, divine law, and eternal law.

Augustine's turn toward interiority did influence western world but it has taken on a secularized form. "We go inward, but not necessarily to find God; we go to discover or impart some order, or some meaning or some justification, to our lives." Man should be a doer of the law and not a judge of the law.

Augustine's View on Freedom

Before ending the discussion of Augustine I think it is important to look into his ideas of freedom and compare them to that of Taylor. For Augustine true freedom is possessing a truly good and righteous will. "The choice of our will is fully free when it does not serve our vices and our sins." True freedom is only attainable through God's grace for man is fallen and held in bondage to sin. Man while on earth cannot possess true freedom in its entirety simply because he is fallen and subject to sin. To put in contemporary terms his idea of freedom is one of positive freedom - one where man strives for excellence and breaks the chains of sin. He also recognizes what people today call negative freedom, which as described earlier, is one in which one is free to the extent that there is as few possible external forces that could keep one from doing what he wants to do. "Whether he will or no, a man is necessarily a slave to the things by means of which he seeks to be happy. He follows them whithersoever they lead, and fears anyone who seems to have the power to rob him of them." These people are too concerned with temporal things and become distracted and dissipated in the multiplicity of sense objects. They should be clinging to the eternal and everlasting by striving for positive freedom where they live righteously and virtuously. Even his idea of freedom is focused on God something higher than the individual.


Taylor's project of trying to maintain individualism under some sort of objectivity does not seem to be impossible. There are many times when one must rely on individual prudential judgment to make a decision or leading a moral life. Even within Catholicism today there is room for individual prudential judgment, especially in the area of bioethics. The Church has not come out with clear cut statements about many issues. Of course the Church does come out and give statements on what is or is not permissible because not all circumstances are the same. Some universal statement cannot be made in all bioethical decisions because much depends on the particulars of the situation and it must be carefully considered to those persons involved. The Church expects all individuals to act on a well informed conscience and the Church may provide them with guidelines and helpful advice but at the end of the day it is up to the individual after carefully examining the entire situation to make the best decision. Many people have to look to the Church for guidance.

In an effort not to completely dismiss Taylor's project it is important to point out that he is trying to reach out to those who are too self-centered and who do not think about living a moral life. Maybe that is why in The Ethics of Authenticity he does not explicitly state that God is to be the center of our lives and He is to be the highest in the "horizons of significance." Perhaps talk about God would only shy people away from this ideal he believes in so much. I do think it would be unfair to assume that Taylor's own personal views are that the right of the individual has precedence over the will of God. In a lecture given that the University of Dayton he stated,

Our being in the image of God is also our standing among others in the stream of love which is that facet of God's life we try to grasp, very inadequately, in speaking of the Trinity. Now it makes a whole lot of difference whether you think this kind of love is a possibility for us humans. I think it is, but only to the extent that we open ourselves to God, which means in fact, overstepping the limits set in theory by exclusive humanisms.

Taylor's idea of authenticity does give way to many warnings. It is analogous to walking a tight rope. If one leans too much to one side (which in all reality may not be much at all) it can lead to disaster. He adopts a lot from the Romantics and the focus is too much on the individual. Although he does try to get away from too much emphasis on the individual by mentioning the "horizons of significance" he still does not give us an idea of what this hierarchy consists. People may look inside themselves to formulate this hierarchy but this again can lead to subjectivism. It seems to suggest that there could be a variety of heirachies and who is to say that one is better than the other. Also the ambiguity of his idea of freedom only leads to more ambiguity on his idea of authenticity. These are all problems that Taylor must address if one is to get a clearer concept of his project. If Saint Augustine were to read Taylor I think he would find these worries and suggest that Taylor's central focus should be on God.

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