Professor Anthony K. Appiah on “Self-Creation or Self-Discovery”

McGill University, The Charles Taylor at 80: An International Conference


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At the Charles Taylor at 80: An International Conference, Professor Anthony Appiah read a brief philosophical paper titled “Self-Creation or Self’-Discovery”. He argued that Professor Charles Taylor’s work can be seen as a challenge to a Humean picture of agency by offering in contrast a constitutive(s) and embedded social formation(s) of agency itself. In his brief presentation Professor Appiah traces the centrality of Taylor’s notion of interpretation for locating the profound dialogue between self-creation as a form of self-discovery in the making of a meaningful life.

The Humean picture, contends Professor Appiah, offers a largely empirical conception of the self. It is defined by two “psychological states”: (1) beliefs (i.e., what actually is) and (2) desires (i.e., what ought to be). Because the former (beliefs) can be formed on the basis of evidence, it  can be either “true or false”, while because the latter (desires) however happens in or to us, it can only be “satisfied or unsatisfied”. Getting what we want is therefore guided by our beliefs of what is. “I want the glass of wine because I believe there is wine in it; no wine and the desire loses its point”. To criticize the desire for wine is to criticize the belief that there is wine to be had. The problem as you can see is that if we remove the conditional element from the want, we also remove any belief about how the world is, and along with it any criticism of the desire. Unlike normative judgments (which are beliefs), unconditional wants or basic desires are not intrinsic action guiding but based on fact. We can see in this model that values are not based on facts; that “there aren’t any values, not at least in the world” — they are a matter of beliefs and thus non-judicable. More so, if values are intrinsically valued in and for themselves unconditionally, they are above the purview of critique. In short, because the Humean model ascribes that there are no facts to desires, there is no way for us to persuade another to also have the same want. In this picture, “relative truth looks like the best that we can hope for”.

As G.E.M. Anscombe notes however, there is a lack of common sense in this position. She notes in her book On Intentions the following:

“But is not anything wantable, or at least any perhaps attainable thing? It will be instructive to anyone who thinks this to approach someone and say: ‘I want a saucer of mud’ or ‘I want a twig of mountain ash’. He is likely to be asked what for; to which let his reply be that he does not want it for anything, he just wants it. It is likely that the other will then perceive that a philosophical example is all that is in question, and will pursue the matter no further; but supposing that he did not realise this, and yet did not dismiss our man […], would he not try to find out in what aspect the object desired is desirable?”, G.E.M. Anscombe, On Intention, section 37.

Professor Taylor’s work offers an explanation, and thus a contrasting picture to the Humean view, of this desirability by referring to the “social context” in what makes “our actions intelligible to ourselves and to one another”. In this picture of the world, our self-understanding and agency occur in the integration of our social ‘we’. It is through this sociality that we “flesh out the social nature of the self”. For the Professor Taylor, the Humean picture and its associated epistemologies have “deformed” our conception of agents “engaged in practices” that occur “in and on the world”. Borrowing from Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’, our practices are largely and a unceasingly an “interpretation and reinterpretation” of our inherited social world. Thus in a non-Wittgensteinian sense, the “relationship between rule and practice is richly reciprocal”. We are inextricably “self-interpreting beings”.

While the Humean view has some pull on us, we broaden our horizons by making the step Immanuel Kant had argued in seeing both pictures as “shifting perspectives”. While from one standpoint we belong to the sensible world (Sinnenwelt), where we are “subject to natural explanation in terms of natural causes”, this is not however the standpoint for seeing ourselves as free agents acting on the world. As Kant writes,

“All men think of themselves as having a free will […] [F]or purposes of action the footpath of freedom is the only one which we can make use of reason in our conduct”. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans.H.J.Paton, 118.

According to Kant, in order to shift our perspective, we need to see ourselves as part of what he called the intelligible world (Verstandeswelt).

“We can enquire whether we do not take one standpoint when by means of freedom we conceive ourselves as causes acting a priori, and another standpoint when we contemplate ourselves with reference to our actions as effect which we see before our eyes. When we think of ourselves as free, we transfer ourselves into the intelligible world as members and recognize the autonomy of the will together with its consequence– morality”. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans.H.J.Paton, 118.

Unlike Kant, however, Professor Taylor situates our free moral agency as “already and always” embedded in the social. What is ‘desired’ is “rooted in our sense of who we are”. Professor Appiah contends that this sense of “who we are” is in fact in a “already and always” dialogue “interpreting and re-interpreting” our social self.

“And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him. All imitation in morals and in life is wrong”, Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, here.

We can call this view that of self-discovery. It contains the idea of finding one’s own true self apart from its mischaracterizations in the community one finds himself and to which one belongs. As Professor Taylor notes in the Ethics of Authenticity,

“There is a certain way of being that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me”. Charles Taylor, Ethics of Authenticity, pp.28-9

The problem with the self-discovery model is a) it represents the self as it exists only in “dependence of webs of interlocution” and b) obscures the role of invention of the “process of making ourselves”. Professor Appiah finds the objection in Foucault’s discussion of art in the Genealogy of Ethics.

“Sartre avoids the idea of the self as something that is given to us, but through the moral notion of authenticity, he turns back to the idea that we have to be ourselves–to be truly our true self. I think the only acceptable practical consequence of what Sartre has said is to link his theoretical insight to the practice of creativity–and not to that of authenticity. From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” Michel Foucault, Genealogy of Ethics, p.262

The “alternative” to the picture of “self-discovery” is we can call “self-creation”. As Professor Appiah clarifies we find in the Ethics of Authenticity the picture of self-creation becomes one of self-discovery.

“[…] I can identify my identity only against the background of things that matter.  But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters”, Charles Taylor, Ethics of Authenticity, p. 40

The process of creativity in shaping ourselves a meaningful and authentic life requires the re-discovery of our social self. This unceasing process is guided by an interpretation of our social world in the sense of the Taylor-Wittgenstein conflict. Creativity is required to “make sense” of the world one was born, and the “body, the family and the community” that were given. Because “there is no one way of doing this”, the self is intersubjective, historical and, unlike the Humean model, it is open to criticism. The interpretation of our world is a major aspect of our sense of belonging to it in a way that is authentically ours. We simply do not invent or interpret new meaning out of nothing, but we are “being guided by the material” in a dialogical relationship of discovery and creation.


One Comment on “Professor Anthony K. Appiah on “Self-Creation or Self-Discovery”

  1. Pingback: Professor Anthony K. Appiah on “Self-Creation or Self-Discovery” | © Integrating Horizons

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