Posted by: gcarkner | October 30, 2019

Identity in Story: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

Narrative Identity: Charles Taylor versus Michel Foucault

People see the world through the lens of belief; it is a search for meaning such as the good life. We need an existential (metabiological) reason for why we exist beyond the pragmatics of mere biological survival. These beliefs or social imaginaries can vary widely, from some religious or spiritual convictions to agnosticism to pure atheism or nihilism. Nihilism is a view that ironically poses a meaning of meaninglessness. Is this perhaps part of our current dilemma, our existential identity crisis? Why do we sometimes weaponize our identity? What do our best thinkers say?

In his articulation of moral mapping, eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor looks to narrative depth as a defining feature of the moral self, identity and agency. Narrative is consequential to the stability and continuity of the moral self over time; it comes in the shape of a personal quest. Taylor gets this notion of self involved in a narrative quest from Alasdair MacIntyre (C. Taylor, 1989, 17, 48). Narration of the quest for the good allows one to discover a unity amidst the diversity of goods that demand one’s attention. The continuity in the self is a necessary part of a life lived well in moral space. He sees narrative as a deep structure, a temporal depth in his thick concept of the self. This adds another texture or dimension to its communal richness.

The good is more than a concept outside the self, an ideal of a life lived well. It is also something embodied, carried in one’s story and the story of one’s community. Community-narrative is a way to understand and mediate the good, be empowered by the good. Taylor writes,

This sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story …. Making sense of my life as a story is not an optional extra …. There is a space of questions which only a coherent narrative can answer. (C. Taylor, 1989, 47)

The key issue is the unity and past-present-future continuity of a life, over against a strong focus of the self-as-discontinuity–a view promoted by Michel Foucault, where the quest is to get free of oneself (one’s past).

The movement for Foucault is towards the ever-new, re-invented self, a self which dislikes vulnerability, and tries to avoid being known by the Other, wedging itself loose from history and community, as seen in the last blog post. The narrative depth is not a priority for Foucault, and there is a minimum interest in continuity of the life with the past. Foucault’s is a very future-oriented self, one that desires to escape the self of oppression history, power-knowledge, the self as a normalized entity. A moral norm speaks of oppression to him.

Taylor, however, believes that one’s story, properly understood, is an essential part of what constitutes the moral self. Thus, for him it becomes relevant to ask, “What has shaped me thus far?” and again, “What direction is my life taking in terms of the good?” or “Does my life have weight and substance?” (Taylor, 1989, p. 50). Taylor suggests that a healthy self must explore questions about the larger span of one’s life, beyond the here and now. This person is not only interested in the immediate present, or an escape into a fantastic future: “My sense of the good has to be woven into my life as an unfolding story.” (Taylor, 1989, p. 47). The pressing question in this dialogue between Taylor and Foucault is this: What is the way to substantial freedom? Is it denial/deconstruction of the burdensome past? Or is it fathoming one’s narrative depth of identity and marking out the trajectory of one’s narrative quest, in order to make sense of one’s story? Taylor wants to argue for executive control over one’s story, mitigating the pressures of cultural trendiness. Tied into this is the concept of a call on one’s life.

In his The Language Animal, Taylor writes: “Stories give us an understanding of life, people, and what happens to them which is peculiar (i.e., distinct from what other forms, like works of science and philosophy, can give us), and also unsubstitutable.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 291).  A key insight here is that:  “It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time.” (C. Taylor, 2016, 319). We must have a take on reality or we entertain an identity crisis. How I tell my story defines my identity, which is central to being a self.  We each have an inner biographer—linking past, present and future mental states. This kind of temporal (diachronic) mapping is critical to a healthy identity: Where have I come from?  Where am I going?  What time is it?  What are my challenges and opportunities? What are my goals? It is imperative that I care about my future self as much as my present self. Narrative is vital to my overall social, psychological, and spiritual health and flourishing. We need great stories to live by and make sense of what’s going on underneath our skin.

In this argument for narrative dimensions of the self, Taylor draws on French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1992, pp. 113-68) who has written extensively on the important difference between ipse and idem identity. Idem-identity refers to the objective stability of one’s identity over time (read as a succession of moments) and outside time, character traits that don’t change with time. Ipse-identity is more fluid and dynamic, as per one’s personal identity as an unfolding character in a novel. It develops in the temporal becoming of the self. It is carried through memory and anticipation, and linked with narrative temporality. Crucial to ipse-identity is the ongoing integration of past, present and future in a unified fashion, a narrative unity (C. Taylor, 1989, 50). Many a story relates the journey from childhood to adulthood, one of moral growth (bildungsroman).

There are two significant implications of these two features of identity through time. One is the possibility of the future as different from the present and past, the possibility of redeeming the past, in order to make it a part of the meaning of one’s life story (C. Taylor, 1989, 51). It is to bring a fresh interpretation of, for instance, one’s suffering, failures and disappointments. Foucault wants a new future as well. But narrative does not allow for a discontinuity with the past, a refusal of past identity or origins–a strong feature in Foucault. Taylor cautions against any avoidance of wrestling with the past:

To repudiate my childhood as unredeemable in this sense is to accept a kind of mutilation as a person; it is to fail to meet the full challenge involved in making sense of my life. This is the sense in which it is not up for arbitrary determination what the temporal limits of my personhood are. (C. Taylor, 1989, 51)

The past, grappling with the meaning of the past, seeking healing from past hurts and failures, is vital to the healthy self as a narrative. Psychoanalyst Jordan Peterson agrees and through his program A Self-Authoring Suite, he has helped many Millennials to sort through the problems in their past that keep them from moving forward. In Sweden, it has reduced university student drop out rates by 20%. Taylor agrees with Foucault that it makes sense to set a future trajectory for one’s life, to project a future story, to have what MacIntyre calls ‘a quest’.  This promotes the sense that one’s life has a direction (C.Taylor, 1989, 48). He is equally open to personal creativity.

Because we cannot but orient ourselves to the good, and thus determine our place relative to it and hence the direction of our lives, we must inescapably understand our lives in narrative form, as a ‘quest’. (C. Taylor, 1989, 51, 52)

This quest requires a telos or goal, and for this, some knowledge of the good is required. Taylor believes in narrative in the strong sense—a structure inherent in human experience and action, narrative as a human given, an essential part of reflection and self-interpretative in the human moral agent. This narrative is embedded in community where one is accountable to other narratives in other interlocutors He sees these conditions as connected facets of the same reality.

For Foucault, the trajectory of the quest is definitely towards the beautiful (aesthetic self) rather than the good. In Foucault’s self-constitution, there is a strong will to escape the past, especially with his heavy emphasis on the continual reinvention of self. He does not want to leave a trail in the character of the self. It entails a very limited, abstract relationship to narrative. This is precisely where Taylor can correct or complement Foucault’s work on ethics and identity. He seems to be pressing the question as to whether I can so easily accomplish this escape from my past self, and whether this attempt is a boon or a problem for my self. There appears to be a deficit in the narrative unity and continuity of the self that is endemic to Foucault’s liberation strategy for the future. The continuity of the self is heavily in question, perhaps even broken in a harmful way.

In Taylor’s sense, Foucault is suggesting a self-articulation that attempts an escape or liberation from one’s earlier, historical self, untying/excising self from past identity. The assumption is that the earlier self is in the iron cage of power/knowledge, which prevents the future self from a positive emergence in full freedom and creativity. He believes in a horizontal transcendence of self. Foucault’s focus of concern is the becoming of the self (ipse-identity), the re-scripting of the self in the future, the self re-written. But he is very weak on the idem-identity. There is a common interest in both Taylor and Foucault, in the future of the self, but a sharp disagreement on the relationship with the past. The outcome is that there would also be a major difference in the stability and possibilities for the future self.

Taylor’s scenario maintains continuity with the past, attempting to resolve past issues and pain. Foucault’s scenario maintains a radical discontinuity with the past, seeing a need to deconstruct it, escape it, disrupt its hold on oneself, and change one’s identity in order to hide from the chains or the pain of the past (the fugitive outlook). There is difficulty here: the pursuit of a complete, discontinuous re-invention of self (which Foucault celebrates) is to court psychosis and possibly to do oneself personal damage (C. Taylor, 1989, 51). It is easy to imagine that some very extreme forms of life could emerge out of assuming such discontinuity and experimentation. Imagine a lying dictator who refuses accountability for his past actions or words. In Taylor, on the other hand, the good is interlaced with narrative and community in order to provide the self with more infrastructure, roots, accountability and depth of meaning. The quest should be to resolve the issues and problems of the past in order to maintain authenticity and integrity.

What can one conclude from the above discussion? With Taylor’s vision as a corrective to Foucault, one can build on Foucault’s strengths in the arts of escaping domination with its strong sense of responsibility for one’s self-creativity and self-empowerment, and moderate his extremes (the most blatant is social anarchy and violence, or blatant narcissism). As we say above, Foucault seems to miss the point of the idem-identity (the continuous aspect) as an essential part of the self—the unifying aspect of character. The individual self does have a significant part to play in the process of the development of character. All selves have creative possibilities too. Both great thinkers agree that taking responsibility for one’s self-constitution is a mature strategy.

Nevertheless, the two disagree dramatically on the importance of a thoroughly situated self with a freedom that is also intimately contextualized in a relationship to the good, to community and narrative. Taylor offers insights on the contours of the self that Foucault was philosophically blind to. His approach shows a more complex dimensionality of the self, while Foucault’s self is more stripped down.  These insights seem to be important in making intelligible sense of the moral self and the meaning of one’s life, ultimately shaping one’s whole identity. It also offers a dimension of normative accountability and structure for meaning.  I can check your past actions to see whether I should trust and hire you into an important job in the present. In general, Foucault over-plays the factor of power and the aesthetic to exclusion of the good in the moral self. His moral self is very power-laden. The moral horizon is a clear additive to Foucault’s thinking and offers a helpful critique of his minimalist moral self.

~Gordon Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology

p.s. Perhaps it is time to stop asking why we are here and start praying for a vision for world impact, Dream Big: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbnzAVRZ9Xc

Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Taylor, C. (2016). The Language Animal: The full shape of the human linguistic capacity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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