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The "Modern" or "Modernist" Self?
Examining "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" [Pt.1]
I first heard of Carl R. Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to the Sexual Revolution while I was listening to a podcast at work. The host of the show briefly mentioned the book, stating that many people thought it was very insightful and helpful as regards the present cultural focus on the LGBTQIA+ movement in the West. Given that Trueman is a professing Reformed Christian scholar who has received the praise of many academics — secular and Christian alike — I thought the book would be good reading material that I could possibly recommend to others who were not as familiar with philosophy and how it has affected our contemporary era.
However, once I began reading the book it became clear to me that Trueman is not giving an analysis of the contemporary self but an apologetic for a particular view of the self that has its roots in postmodern ideas that are fundamentally at variance with Christianity. In a word, Trueman’s book identifies the self of philosophical modernism with the contemporary self, altogether bypassing the major shift in thinking about the self that occurred in the postmodern era (whose cultural effects we are still experiencing). Postmodernism’s influence on Western culture was being felt in intellectual and aesthetic disciplines as far back as the 1980s,and this influence did not exclude conceptions of the self. Indeed, among postmodernist philosophers one finds a general consistency of thought regarding the self. Rather than viewing the self as a primarily intellectual, volitional, individual, and autonomous agent capable of understanding himself essentially by means of self-examination and, what is more, capable of expressing his inward essential nature via representational systems of communication (e.g. language, music, bodily modification, etc), the postmodernists view the self as the product of historico-social forces — e.g. economic, political, and, therefore, linguistic interactions within a local community.
The question, then, is simply this: Why does Carl R. Trueman bypass this shift in thinking and identify the contemporary self with that which died nearly a century ago in philosophical discourse? If Trueman’s intention is to present the sources of the self via a historical investigation, then why has he failed to cover just how radically the postmodernists changed how contemporary culture in the West views the self? Was this an accident, or was it an intentional move?
Trueman’s exclusion of some of the most important postmodern philosophical ideas regarding the self, I will contend, is intentional. His intended purpose is to cast aspersions on various enlightenment ideas derived from the Christian worldview that are not in agreement with his communitarian beliefs. I understand that this is a big claim, and one that requires time and space to flesh out, and so I will be giving this criticism over the course of many posts. I think it is necessary to address this book given the amount of positive attention it is currently receiving from many Christians who truly desire to protect the flock against the world’s thinking. For in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Trueman identifies a false problem (namely, expressive individualism) and points his readers toward solutions that are actually the real cause of what we see happening in the LGBTQIA+ movement today (namely, postmodern anthropological concepts that are in stark contradiction to the Christian faith).
—Hiram R. Diaz III
§I. Disambiguating “Modernity”
The academic use of the word “modern” can be confusing to someone who is not familiar with how academics can sometimes use common non-technical words when discussing very technical matters. If the present era is, by definition, the modern era, then how can an academic say that “the Modern Era” ended in the early 20th century? Similarly, if modern simply means contemporary, then how can anyone coherently assert that we are living in a “post” modern era? Indeed, to what could the term “post-modern” possibly refer?
Thankfully, most academics make their intended meaning clear. Any confusion regarding a word they are using is quickly cleared up once the scholar tells us how that word is being used. Clarification of this kind can be accomplished implicitly by giving a description of the “modern” object in question (e.g. “Modern philosophy put great emphasis on the primacy of reason in all human endeavors”). Scholars can also do this by explicitly stating how they are using the word (e.g. “‘Modern,’ in this sense, refers to that which is contemporary”), by simply capitalizing the word when it refers to the specialized referent (e.g. “Modern”), or by explicitly defining the word in question.
As with any kind of communication, it is the communicator’s duty to clearly relay his ideas to his audience. For instance, consider how clearly Steven Best and Douglas Kellner articulate what they mean whey talk about “modernity” (modernism, etc). They write —
Modernity, as theorized by Marx, Weber, and others, is a historical periodizing term which refers to the epoch that follows the ‘Middle Ages’ or feudalism. For some, modernity is opposed to traditional societies and is characterized by innovation, novelty, and dynamism…The theoretical discourses of modernity from Descartes through the Enlightenment and its progeny championed reason as the source of progress in knowledge and society, as well as the privileged locus of truth and the foundation of systematic knowledge. Reason was deemed competent to discover adequate theoretical and practical norms upon which systems of thought could be restructured.
This explanation tells the reader that modernism or modernity refers to a historical period, not the contemporary era. Now that the authors have made their meaning clear, the reader can follow the rest of their writing without confusion. When these authors speak about the characteristics of the modern era, for instance, and go on to speak about epochal characteristics that are absent from our contemporary era the reader will have the means available to him to make sense of an otherwise seemingly false assertion. In this study, we will differentiate between the contemporary self (i.e. the self as conceived of in our era) and the modernist self (i.e. the self as conceived of by the philosophical modernists), for the sake of clarity.
This is necessary because clarity of this kind is precisely what is lacking in Carl R. Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (hereafter, RTMS) as respects the meaning of the word “modern.” One of the initial problems the reader encounters is that while RTMS is supposedly giving us a genealogy of how the so-called sexual revolution evolved into what we see today — where sexuality is viewed as intrinsic to one’s identity, and denials of one’s self-ascribed sexual identity are viewed as acts of violence— the “modern” self which it describes is one that died decades ago with the academic abandonment of philosophical modernism. Thus, ironically, RTMS’ contemporary self is not contemporary but Modern(ist), as we shall see below.
§Ia. The Contemporary Self vs. The Modernist Self
Trueman believes that the contemporary self embraces expressive individualism, the belief that individuals find their meaning by giving expression to their individual desires, i.e. by being true to themselves/living authentically. O. Carter Snead, an author Trueman has recommended to his audience for help in understanding this subject,describes expressive individualism in more detail, writing —
Expressive individualism, in its purest form, takes the individual, atomized self to be the fundamental unit of human reality. This self is not defined by its attachments or network of relations, but rather by its capacity to choose a future pathway that is revealed by the investigation of its own inner depths of sentiment. No object of choice—whether property, a particular vocation, or even the creation of a family—is definitive and constitutive of the self. In Michael Sandel’s words, it is an “unencumbered self.” Because this self is defined by its capacity to choose, it is associated fundamentally with its will and not its body. The individual—the person—is thus understood to be identical with the exercise of this particular type of cognition. Therefore, expressive individualism is inevitably dualistic—privileging the mind while subordinating the body in defining the person.
On his and Trueman’s view, then, the contemporary self is characterized by —
An association of his identity with his will/choice
A desire to live in accordance with his inner dispositions, sentiments, beliefs, etc
A fixation on the self as a willing and thinking psychological subject, rather than a body
Is this an accurate depiction of the contemporary self? How does it compare to the modernist self? As we will see, there is not much of a difference between Trueman’s contemporary self and the modernist self.
Firstly, we note that philosophical modernism believed in the
…existence of [a] stable, coherent ‘self’, independent of culture and society. [Wherein] one either is one's racial, ethnic, national or gender identity (the traditional view) or one has an innate identity which should be separated from social influences (Rousseau's romantic view).
Secondly, we note that the modernist self is perhaps best fleshed out by the Existentialist philosophers who “made the concrete individual central to their thought.”The Existentialists argued that “our essence (our set of defining traits) is chosen, not given,” and thus placed a great deal of importance on the individual’s responsibility to live authentically. As the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy further explains —
…existentialists hold that people decide their own fates and are responsible for what they make of their lives. Humans have free will in the sense that, no matter what social and biological factors influence their decisions, they can reflect on those conditions, decide what they mean, and then make their own choices as to how to handle those factors in acting in the world.
…existentialists are concerned with identifying the most authentic and fulfilling way of life possible for individuals…To become authentic, according to this view, an individual must take over their own existence with clarity and intensity. Such a transformation is made possible by such profound emotional experiences as anxiety or the experience of existential guilt. When we face up to what is revealed in such experiences, existentialists claim, we will have a clearer grasp of what is at stake in life, and we will be able to become more committed and integrated individuals.
Like Trueman’s contemporary self, then, we see that the modernist self was marked by individualism, anti-essentialism, self-creation via freely chosen actions, an association with his will/volition, a desire to live authentically/in accordance with what one truly is, and a fixation on the willing and feeling psyche as one’s true self, over and against the body. The similarities here are striking.
It should be clear to the reader that those who are currently arguing that the contemporary self has the traits enumerated above are identifying the contemporary self with modernist self. Yet these two things are not identical, seeing as there is an entire philosophy of the self that has been articulated by the postmodernists, a self that stands in nearly a diametrically opposed relationship to the modernist self. Consequently, when Carl R. Trueman presents our contemporary culture’s problem as that of expressive individualism, and then describes the contemporary self in ways that are nearly identical to the modernist self, the reader has to ask himself: “Why?”
Is Trueman unaware of the fact that postmodernist philosophers — who had an impressive impact on many academic disciplines for decades at this point — tore apart the modernist concept of the self in numerous writings, and from multiple disciplinary perspectives? It is hard to believe that he could be so ignorant, given that the distinction between the Modernist self and the Postmodernist self is not an arcane subject for academics, but is one that is likely covered — at least in broad terms, e.g. general outlines of Modernism and Postmodernism’s differences — in every undergraduate’s intro to philosophy class.
While Trueman is using the word “modern” as a synonym for “contemporary,” his description of the contemporary self bears too many similarities to the modernist self for the reader to simply ignore. This situation is problematic for three important reasons —
Given that among academics the modernist self died a long time ago, and was replaced by the postmodernist self, then it cannot be the case that the contemporary self is identical to the modernist self.
Trueman does not discuss the postmodernist self, leaving his readers with a giant gap between the modernist era and the contemporary era.
What Trueman advances in place of the contemporary self is strikingly similar to the postmodernist self, and rests upon concepts that are foundationally opposed to Christian orthodoxy.
One may claim that Trueman’s use of the word modern may be unintentionally ambiguous. He could have written his book without once considering how the term is used in academic and, in particular, philosophical contexts. But, again, this is unlikely given the man’s credentials and experience as a published academic. What appears to be the case, rather, is that Trueman’s use of the word modern is intentionally ambiguous, allowing him to argue against a concept of self-hood he opposes on ideological grounds that (i.)once dominated academic and, hence, public discourse, but (ii.)is no longer accepted or promoted within academic and, hence, public discourse.
The level of dependence that Trueman has on Charles Taylor’s philosophy makes it clear that he owes much of his thinking, on this subject as well as others, to Taylor.So what does Taylor mean when he speaks about “the Modern Self”? The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy helpfully gives a succinct synopsis of Taylor’s “most influential book” The Sources of the Self, stating that it is —
…a criticism of Enlightenment views of the self which stand in the way of our understanding our experience as moral agents.
Taylor is, in other words, presenting a criticism of the modernist self, the self as articulated by modernist philosophers working within the overall Enlightenment understanding of the cosmos, man, and society.
At best this suggests that Trueman’s contemporary self is an accidental strawman, a philosophically modernist self that is accidentally being superimposed on the contemporary self (e.g. through ignorance). At worst, it suggests that Trueman’s strawman is intentional, an ideologically driven association of the evil actions of contemporary individuals with the definitive characteristics of the modernist self whose best qualities, incidentally, were derived from the Christian worldview. Seeing as Trueman criticizes those very qualities throughout the course of his book, I sadly have to conclude that his ambiguity regarding the “Modern Self” is intentional.
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In the realm of literature, postmodern novels flourished during this time. This included works like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984), Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy (1985-1986), and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1984). In the realm of film, postmodernism also flourished, including films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Terry Gillam’s Brazil (1985), and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
Regarding postmodernism’s influence in the world of academia, Harland G. Bloland
The modern/postmodern debate began in the United States in the 1960s in the humanities, gained momentum in the 1970s in the arts and social theory, and by the early 1980s became, as Andreas Huyssen noted, ‘one of the most contested terrains in the intellectual life of Western society’…
—“Postmodernism and Higher Education,” in The Journal of Higher Education Vol. 66, No. 5 (Sept/Oct 1995), 521. (emphasis added)
Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (New York: The Guilford Press, 1991), 2.
There is a particularly biting irony to Trueman’s discussion of the contemporary belief that words are violence, given that his colleague Rosaria Butterfield believes this as well (as I have demonstrated in my critical review of her book “The Gospel Comes with a House Key, see here), and has also identified criticism of her writing and teaching as “hatred” (see Butterfield, Rosaria. “Bless Those Who Hate You,” Desiring God, Nov 6, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20211107013123/https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/bless-those-who-hate-you).
See Cline, Timothy. “Whatever I Think, Therefore I Am: An Interview With Carl Trueman,” Modern Reformation, March 1, 2021, https://modernreformation.org/resource-library/articles/whatever-i-think-therefore-i-am-an-interview-with-carl-trueman/.
Church Life Journal, Dec 1, 2020, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-anthropology-of-expressive-individualism/.
Drake, Tom. “Modernism vs. Postmodernism,” https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/engl_258/Lecture%20Notes/modernism_vs_postmodernism.htm.
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Online], “Existentialism,” https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1.
ibid. (emphasis added)
ibid. (emphasis added)
In his article “Two Cheers for Charles Taylor and Friends,” Trueman quite openly states as much, writing —
Of all the contemporary thinkers I have enjoyed reading over recent years, Charles Taylor is probably the one from whom I have learned the most. It isn’t simply his arguments on matters such as the formation of the modern self and the nature of our secular age that have proved so instructive; it is also his constant ability to present different and even conflicting viewpoints in a cool, constructive, and appreciative manner. In an era when the default setting is the demonization of those with whom we differ and the swift dismissal of any viewpoint that makes us uncomfortable, Taylor’s tone is as instructive as his arguments are insightful.
— First Things, March 27, 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/two-cheers-for-charles-taylor-and-friends. (emphasis added)
Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2005), 361.