Saturday, January 30, 2021

The modern self and the sexual revolution

"A conversation with Dr. Carl Trueman on the modern self and the sexual revolution"

An excerpt from the interview to whet your appetite:

[Charles] Taylor is one of those enviably polymathic people. He’s been a politician. He’s a political philosopher. He’s a straight down the line philosopher. He’s a scholar of the German philosopher Hegel. He’s a historian. I found him particularly useful on two fronts. One, Taylor correctly identifies Romanticism as the key move in Western society where inner feelings become constitutive of who we are. He sees that as leading to the formation of a particular notion of the self which he calls the expressive individual. Essentially, what he means by that is that the self comes to be thought of as that which we feel inside, and the self manifests itself when it’s able to behave outwardly in accordance with those inner desires. That’s where we get the language of authenticity. Today in society, we often use the language of authenticity when we’re talking about people. A good example is Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner in his interview with Diane Sawyer when he was talking about transitioning. He made the point that ‘finally I’m going to be able to be who I always have been.’ Essentially saying, ‘finally, I can be authentic. Finally, I’m not going to be living a lie anymore.’ Now, you don’t have to be a transgender person to identify with the notion that ‘I want to be outwardly that which I feel to be inwardly.’

Second is Taylor’s notion of what he calls the social imaginary. I found this extremely helpful. The social imaginary points to the fact that most of us don’t relate to the world around us in terms of first principles. Life is not a syllogism. I don’t get up from my chair and think, ‘Okay, where do I need to exit the room from? Oh, there’s a door over there. I’ll go through the door.’ I get up and instinctively leave through the door. The social imaginary gets to the idea that that’s how we think about an awful lot of things. It’s how we think about morality. We tend to pick up the intuitions of the world around us, internalize them, and make them our own. We don’t alway think in terms of first principles when we think about morality. A good example might be provided by the gay marriage issue. Most people have not come to find gay marriage acceptable by reading heavy tomes of sexual ethics or sociology. Most people have gay friends or have seen attractive images of gay couples and things like the sitcom “Will and Grace.” It’s not that they’ve been convinced by argument. It’s that their intuitions have been shaped by broader cultural patterns. I found that very helpful in approaching this notion of the modern self. It’s not that we get up one morning and decide ‘Let’s be expressive individuals.’ The very air we breathe shapes, tilts, and bends our intuitions towards that result.


  1. His later comments about midway through the book on Hume and Nietzsche are excellent and trenchant.

  2. Re: The Social Imaginary: There is power to the image. I have tee'd up in my Youtube watch list the following:

    Whoever Controls the Media, the Images, Controls the Culture | Min Kim | TEDxLehighU

    Even if you are verbally minded, you can convey images through words. Roland Bainton wrote "Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther" not for academics, but deliberately for the people out on the street, because he wanted to make his life and theology known. In this Bainton succeeded.

    1. "Whoever Controls the Media, the Images, Controls the Culture | Min Kim | TEDxLehighU"

      Thanks, rgbrao! I'll have to put this on my watch list as well.

      As I've heard conservatives like Ben Shapiro say, culture is upstream from politics (or politics is downstream from culture). As such, whoever controls the media, and the images, controls the culture, which strongly influences politics.

      Another example is Hitler and the Nazis. They knew the power of visual imagery all too well. Not to mention other forms of imagery like the power of words (as you point out). For example, Hitler's speeches used rhetorical manipulation on audiences.

      At a more mundane level, I suppose most parents know the power of visual imagery in how images can affect their kids (e.g. parental guidelines about what film and television to avoid).

      Of course, history is rife with examples of nations becoming totalitarian and seizing control of the media, which assumes there is tremendous power and influence in the media. I guess it was harder to predict the media voluntarily choosing to be so one-sided like the mainstream or establishment media is in the US today.

      In a sense, social media combines the power of the media with the power of images. For example, millions of people get the very latest news as well as amusement from places like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, reddit, etc. And most of it leans politically and socially left.