Posted by: gcarkner | October 29, 2019

Identity in Community: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

Communal Identity: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

How do we map our identity onto the communal landscape? Such a map is actually an articulation of one’s moral ontology. Taylor believes that we are vitally linked to our moral framework. How is identity formation interwoven with the constitution of the good life? How do we become a good person? A strong qualification in Taylor’s notion of the moral self is the communal or inter-subjective aspect of self-constitution. The good is not a free-floating ideal, but truly something embedded in human story and community. This aspect of his moral ontology stands in stark contrast to Foucault’s individualistic (rebellious) moral subjectivity. In Taylor’s view, the self is partly constituted by a language, one that necessarily exists and is maintained within a language community, among other selves.

There is a sense in which one cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who are essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of language of self-understanding … a self exists only within …‘webs of interlocution’. (C. Taylor, 1989, 36)

These webs of interlocution prove significant for Taylor; the Other is critical to one’s moral self-constitution. In his view, there is a necessary, ongoing conversation with significant others which is critical to one’s moral identity development. In Taylor’s terms, there is a myth in Foucault’s moral self, which says that one can define self in terms of a relationship with oneself alone, and more explicitly in relation to no communal web, that true creativity and originality demands that one should work out their own unique identity (C. Taylor, 1989, 39). For Taylor, this is not possible at a practical level. It is rather an artificial and unhealthy abstraction of what it means to be human. Thus, against the backdrop of Taylor’s convictions about the play of the good in moral ontology, the character of Foucault’s quest for freedom can lead in an unhealthy direction, towards the isolation of self, and painful loneliness. It opens a key question of what is important to moral constitution and what fuels healthy agency and subjectivity.

These two grande pensée philosophers are in fundamental disagreement on this issue of self-definition with respect to the community: Taylor’s communal self contrasts starkly with the Foucault’s radically individualistic self. Taylor (1989) contests that:

I define who I am by defining where I speak from, in the family tree, in social space, in the geography of social statuses and functions, in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also crucially in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out. (35)

The first half of my PhD dissertation outlined Foucault’s ethics of freedom and the aesthetic self. For him, moral self-constitution means that one defines oneself over against the social matrix. Taylor disagrees and sees the benefits of a self which is integrated into a social matrix, even if withdrawn temporarily for perspective. Foucault sees the need for disruption; Taylor pursues integration. Taylor notes that even from one’s earliest years, one’s language for the moral must be tested on others. Matthew Crawford agrees with this (M. Crawford, 2015, 183-85), and contends that the lack of such dialogue can lead to moral autism. Gradually through this sort of relational-moral-conversation, the individual self gains confidence in what it means and in who she/he is as moral being. This is no small thing, but quite a profound aspect of what it means to be human and to have metabiological meaning. The Other must also be granted her intrinsic integrity, voice and presence for this dialogue/interlocution to be effective.

One is moved, even transformed, by the lives, the wisdom and the deeper understanding of the Other. Taking his picture of moral ontology a step further, Taylor argues for self as socially embedded in its moral constitution. One relates to the good, not only as an individual self, but within a communal context, where the community also relates to and incarnates some good or goods, some ideals. Some today would use the language of values or moral convictions. This stands in contrast to the distinct lack of we (communal) language in Foucault’s grammar of the moral self. He instead promotes a more decontextualized, aesthetic self, which embraces an agonisme with respect to the social sphere of life. He is especially sceptical of social constructions of the good. The communal and narrative dimensions of self are not on Foucault’s map. He makes a move to return to agency, and yet lacks a full, robust version of healthy subjectivity. Here’s telling quote from William Connolly:

Foucault … cannot endorse this quest for attunement and self-realization. He proceeds at the second level, as a genealogist, deploying rhetorical devices to incite the experience of discord or discrepancy between the social construction of self, truth, and rationality and that which does not fit neatly. And the recurrent experience of discord eventually shakes the self loose from the quest for a world of harmonization, a world in which institutional possibilities for personal identity harmonize with a unified set of potentialities in the self, and the realization of unity in the self harmonizes with the common good realized in the social order. This quest for identity through institutional identification becomes redefined as the dangerous extension of “disciplinary society” into new corners of modern life. Genealogy exercises a claim upon the self that unsettles the urge to give hegemony to the will to truth. (W. Connolly, 1985, 365)

Community in Taylor does not necessarily entail uniformity, or a dull conformity and conventionalism, but rather can be a dynamic, growing economy of being-with-others. Community occurs even where there is disagreement between interlocutors. He opens this theme up beautifully and profoundly in his The Language Animal, chapters 6-8 (C. Taylor, 2016). But one cannot have community without some sort of normativity, some common commitment to the good. There is no value-neutral inter-subjective state of affairs. There should be no surprise that there is a notable link between Foucault’s avoidance of community and his transgressive attitude towards normativity.

Genuine, authentic community cannot exist without the normative–there must be a good or goods, virtues or values that we hold in common. This element is essential to trust and mutual respect. The interpretation of self in terms of its relation to the good can only proceed in recognition of self’s interdependence with other selves. Taylor (1989, 37) presses Foucault here: “The drive to original vision will be hampered, will ultimately be lost in inner confusion, unless it can be placed in some way in relation to the language and vision of others.” Foucault’s thin version of self is abstracted out of community, and out of narrative continuity, because of a concern to avoid domination, and a need to resist power relations. This is a classic overplay of his power relations and truth games. It is overreach.

~Gordon Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology.  James K. A. Smith @ Regent College on Augustine and Late Modernity

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: the making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Connolly, W.  (1985) Michel Foucault: An Exchange: Taylor, Foucault, and Otherness. Political Theory 13 3 Aug.  365-76.

Crawford, M. (2015). The World Beyond Your Head: one becoming an individual in an age of distraction. New York, NY: Allen Lane Press.

Part II is on Narrative Identity

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