Charles Guignon has written a lovely book called On Being Authentic. He draws on a number of philosophers and historians, and on examples from contemporary culture, to tell the story of where our modern notions of ‘being authentic’ and ‘being true to oneself’ really come from.
Broadly speaking, according to Guignon, we have seen three types of ‘self’ in the West. In pre-modern times, in the classical and medieval worlds, we had ‘the extended self’. Here, what makes me ‘me’ is that I belong to something bigger than me, something that comes before me, and extends beyond me. I don’t choose or define this larger whole – it defines me. As Guignon writes:
My identity is tied into the wider context of the world, with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come. Such an experience of the self carries with it a strong sense of belongingness, a feeling that one is part of a larger whole [p18].
It reflects the interwovenness of all reality. I am part of an overarching whole, a cosmic scheme. The meaning of my life is very clear, and it is not at all up to me. There is lots of identity and belonging; but very little freedom.
In modern times, over the last four or five centuries, the idea of individuality and subjectivity has become more prominent. I am a subject with my own experiences, feelings, desires and opinions. I relate to the outside world of course, but that relationship is partly determined by my own decisions about how to construe that relationship.
The key term here is ‘autonomy’, so that the modern self is not so much ‘extended’ as ‘nuclear’ or ‘punctiliar’ – meaning I am the centre, the nucleus, of my own world, and not just the periphery of a socially constructed world. I still have an identity, but it’s one that I have helped to create through my personal choices.
In a post-modern culture, according to Guignon’s summary, the very notion of the stable self or subject has been called into question. Human identity is fluid and contextual. We now have different selves and limited powers of choice. There is no stable centre to the self but multiple centres with different perspectives. We have different masks, different roles, different potentialities. Some we are responsible for and in control of, some not. We absorb the values and visions of others without acknowledging the process.
The nuclear or punctiliar self of modernity gives rise to the fragmented or decentred self of post-modernity. There is at once a radical freedom, even to go beyond who you are and recreate yourself; and a radical impotence, because you never have the secure foundation of a self from which to move or make a decision.
This is all very familiar to philosophers, but Guignon is a good teacher, and he writes with great insight and wit. And what I find so interesting about today’s Western culture, at least in Britain, is that it is one huge pile up of conflicting notions of the self. It’s not actually post-modern. It’s pre-modern and modern and post-modern all at the same time (and maybe some people would say that this a very definition of post-modernism!). We are longing to belong, and to be true to our inner selves, and to set off in radically new directions – all at the same time. No wonder we are confused!