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A Critical Review of The Ethics of Authenticity


In Charles Taylor’s (1991) The Ethics of Authenticity, the philosopher first outlined the predicament of the individual in this age of modernity and offer a moral approach for one to take to alleviate the potential of being further eroded by the malaises of negative individualism, overwhelmed instrumental reason, and loss of freedom. For Taylor (1991), the potential remedy of one’s morality and positive individualism being debased, narrowed, and flattened lies in one’s search for the voice within which can be a guide; one which will play a central role in responding to the claims of Nature and the world. Particularly thematic for this brief essay will be Taylor’s (1991) idea of the “language of personal resonance” which can play this role. Drawing from this notion of personal language then, I shall elaborate what Taylor means by it, and offer a critical perspective on what seems to be lacking in Taylor’s (1991) discussion on the meaning of authenticity. 


Perhaps one of the most central passages in Taylor’s (1991) work on moral philosophy lies in his assertion that human beings can take the path to live an authentic life. For us to be intuitive to the world within and without, Taylor (1991) claims require special languages. He notes:

 … we cannot explore these intuitions effectively without the help that our languages of personal resonance can give us. This is why the failure to recognize that these [languages] can be used non-subjectivisitically – the confusion of the two kinds of subjectivation – can have important moral consequences (p. 90) 

For Taylor (1991) the “subjectivized” self is one whose sense of individuality and moral ethos is no longer of referential to an objectified, authoritative sense of morality. It is rather based upon freedom of choice, which has historically been structured by our insistence on relativizing values and those which have blurred the sense of external reality which ought to guide our moral conduct. This freedom of choice, a negative individualism in character is one that gives prominence of the self rather than the Self, Reason over the Divine, and the private over public. In the language of postmodernity, subalternity and sub narratives reign over universality and grand narratives as domains out of which morality and authenticity can be achieved in one’s lifetime.

charles 1

The subjectivized self for Taylor (1991) has been allured away from objective truth by way of confusion which arose out of our misinterpretation of how the matter of our action is to constitute. (p. 82). The catastrophe which lies in this confusing of the manner and matter of action, Taylor (1991) claim, lies in the ability of the self to journey through the path of authenticity. Only through one’s realization that authenticity can be derived as the content of artful and thoughtful living through one’s retrieving of moral ideals that this slide towards the debased form of subjectivism can be avoided and hence make us more responsive to the claims of nature and the world.

The language of authenticity lies not in boosting or knocking off modernity, and not in finding a middling ground for both but rather in realizing the centrality of one’s “languages of personal resonance” (p. 90). Through these languages, one can then uphold the center and place it to its once pre-eminence position thereby preventing authenticity from becoming the periphery. Thus, Taylor’s (1991) concern can be interpreted as his fear of a claim of victory by the postmodernists that the center can no longer hold and that the self is free at last from the “iron cage” of external moral sources derived from religion and other forms of organized body of knowledge based upon universal claims of truth.

Taking Taylor’s (1991) argument further that confusing matter and manner of subjectivation, he believes that particularly as it relates to the search for authenticity, “[a] great deal of modern art just turns on human powers and feelings” (p. 89). Because there is now erosion of the availability of “publicly available reference points” particularly in literature and in art, he believes that we no longer can articulate something beyond the self. The subjectivation of manner, in the way objective truth is derived, in his argument is so pervasive that much of what the modern human creative act attempts to articulate hover within the arena of the language of personal dimension.

The atomization of the sense of grasping the meaning in artwork within the context of a higher order has been essentially lost although Taylor (1991) does admit that some major artists of this century do attempt to articulate non-subjectivist languages of personal resonance. Taylor (1991) notes:

 But some of the very greatest of twentieth century writers are not subjectivist in this sense. Their agenda is not the self, but something beyond. Rilke, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Mann, and others are among them. Their example shows that the inescapable rooting of poetic language in personal sensibility doesn’t have to that the poet no longer explores an order beyond the self. (p. 81)

Charles Taylor

By invoking the names of such artistic and literary giants and relating their work to their articulation for something beyond the self, Taylor (1991) subtly situates particularly artists of the Futurist movement as those who have been trapped in the iron cage of the subjectivation of both manner and matter. The Futurists, narcissistic in their effort towards creative expression have left to themselves “only the self to celebrate” (p. 89) making it difficult to attach the significance of the work to the publicly available reference points. And because the matter is subjectivized, the “manner of espousing any end or form of life” (p. 82) which responds to claims made on us by Nature and the world becomes problematic. Thus, subtler languages are needed for a moralistic turn in the way human creative expression need to situate itself.

This point is illustrated by Taylor’s insistence at the end of the chapter that: Perhaps the loss of a sense of belonging through a publicly defined order needs to be compensated by a stronger, more inner sense of linkage. Perhaps this is what a great deal of modern poetry [art and other forms of creative expression] [has] been trying to articulate, and perhaps we need few things more today than such articulation (p. 91) Having set forth Taylor’s assertion that the two forms of subjectivation – of manner and matter of action – can be ill – referential and that a legitimate path to an articulate form of rationality lies in one’s rediscovery of the languages of personal resonance, I shall now offer a critical reflection of Taylor’s central thesis. 


An admirable dimension of Taylor’s (1991) work lies in his powerful self is subjected to and in his insistence, that authenticity can be retrieved through one’s search for the voice within. To me, modernization, at least insofar as Taylor’s work addresses, has shaped the modern psyche into one having blind faith in technology, believing in technological determinism as a god of progress, and into being drowned by the call of professionalism with all its attendant philosophical underpinnings of utilitarianism and social Darwinism.

I value Taylor’s insistence that authenticity must lie not in the trivialized view of its ethics and not to be situated in its meaning of existence within the chaos and complexity of modernity, not in a compromise between what the “boosters” and the “knockers” believe but essentially in one’s finding of the voice within. But then, what is authenticity, in its most objective sense? Wherein lies the languages of personal resonance” Taylor (1991) talked about? And if authenticity must exist, what ethnicity might it be housed in? Though forceful in his call for one to retrieve authenticity, Taylor (1991) seems to be circumnavigatory in his arguments.

On the one hand, he mentioned a great deal throughout terms painting towards authenticity – terms such as “horizons of significance,” “external reality,” “ideal” and “language of personal resonance” – but leaves these terms to be defined by the self without clearly stating what authenticity must look like. If the self is to seek “authenticity” what then should await us at the end of the journey? Is it one whose tenets are defined by “organized and revealed” religion such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam? Or should they be ones based upon Plato’s “Theory of Forms,” Nicomachean ethics, Buddha’s Eightfold Path, Hindu Sutras, or any others conjured by so-called evolved religion? Taylor is vague in outlining this matter of action, although allusions to angels and the notion of “The Great Chain of Being” are made.

Through critical in his analysis of what poets particularly the post-Romantics have contributed to the subjectivation of authenticity, Taylor (1991) failed to do justice to the manner the Romantic era has contributed to our understanding of the metaphysical and mystical self; one which has enriched our understanding of the subjective human experience to continue our journey to objectivity and authenticity. Isn’t poetry, in the sense Taylor talked about, concerned with the articulation of the resonance in the self to provide clues to life’s web of guesses called authenticity?

Attacking the modern artist’s preoccupation with the exploring of the language of self-referentiality, Taylor (1991) notes that:

 … some of the important issues of our time, concerning love and our place in the natural order, need to be explored in such language of personal resonance. To take a salient point, just because we no longer believe in the doctrines of the Great Chain of Being, we don’t need to see ourselves as set in a universe that we can simply consider as a source of raw materials for our projects. We may still need to see ourselves as part of our longer order that can make claims on us.

Whilst Taylor might be correct in stating that the modern artist who speaks the language of anthropocentricity is lacking in his/her sense of authenticity, he is not convincing in his explanation of the difference between the objectivity the anthropocentrist attempts to struggle for and the subjectivity (which is in fact) inherent in his “languages of personal resonance.” Whilst I am not claiming that Taylor is incoherent in what constitutes authenticity, the philosopher himself seems to have offered a blurry sense of what authenticity could be.

Concerning the modern artist, would it not be fair to also state that the raw materials used for their projects are but means to situate his/her creative word, unconsciously or otherwise, within the demands made by our larger order – that which calls upon human beings to use his/her creative energy, power, and vision to understand what lies beyond the self-referential self? Would this not make the modern artist’s demonstration of authenticity similar to the Romantic poet’s sentimental connection to Nature? What then, it entails, is the difference if any between human nature and Nature itself as Taylor (1991) reformed to? Did not for example Rousseau mean Nature in a similar sense to those referred to by those such as St. Francis of Assisi, Kabir, Averroes, and those attempting to explain what “God” is as a metaphysical concept? I thus find Taylor’s failure to provide a clear explanation of “the ethic of authenticity” as a delimiting factor contributing to the weak suggestion of what constitutes a moral solution to the malaise of modernity.

Rather than engaging in a tedious philosophical discourse on what constitutes authenticity and how the languages of personal resonance can help link us with Nature, Taylor (1991) could have been more direct by first defining how one is situated in the Great Chain of Being with all his/her attendant relationship with God and the angels and next to explain how philosophy can provide a breeding ground for a theosophical outlook for one’s returning to God and the Angels. Taylor could then perhaps define what God means and how modernity has eroded, debased, flattened, and narrow our concept of the self in search for the Ultimate Self. Instead, Taylor (1991) chose to overuse the term “authenticity” and took the risk of being linguistically scrutinized by the subjectivity of the term itself.

Perhaps the problematic spin in the discourse Taylor has offered lies in the semantic nature of any term – be they “God,” “Nature,” “Self,” “resonance,” etc. – which can inevitably fall into the trap of subjectivation! My own experience in making sense of this physical world and conscientizing myself to the malaises of modernity has taught me to look at authenticity from a theosophical perspective.

Being born into the Islamic faith, I am offered the challenge of searching the cultural-phenomenological exactness of the word “God,” and of understanding where Angels reside and where Evil dwells – without losing faith in the power of subjectivism and what self-referential language can offer. I am authentic not only because I attempt to subjectivize Phenomena, subvert external reality, challenge ideas, and question authority but also define God in a sense the God is closer to me than my jugular vein. The physical world I inhabit – Nature as it unfolds – is the raw material I use as an artist to define the language of my resonance which in turn connect me to another understanding of what God means of which this understanding keeps on shifting – never the same from when it was last conceived.

Whilst Taylor stops at “authenticity” as a goal of one’s existence, I take it as a perpetual point of reference to define my beingness and becomingness. Within me lie the horizons of significance to be explored, like veils of ignorance to be lifted, like a rustic mirror to be shined until the self within can be seen; the self in it created in the image of the self outside. I am thus both subject and object, subjectivized in an objective self of which the One in me is many and the many One. I am essentially a horizon of which the outside and the inside unite! 


Having briefly discussed Taylor’s (1991) main assertion particularly in Chapter VII are over the need to come to terms with the subjectivation of matter and manner and having provided a critique of his lack of clear explanation of what constitutes an “authentic self,” and finally relate to those two dimensions of this brief essay to my belief what the subjective and objective self can entail, I conclude with the following paragraphs on the value of the author’s idea. Taylor’s (1991) The Ethics of Authenticity is in general, a lucid, powerful, and enlightening explication and assertion of what the individual in this modern and postmodernizing society can reflect upon.

Embedded in the philosophical discourse on authenticity as a point of personal and spiritual reference is the idea that the predicament we are in – modernity – is not entirely an iron cage but one which is a challenge to harness our moral strength so that our struggle to be and become moral beings can continue. The la lotta continua, the slogan for continuing the struggle, ought to make us collectively transform this age from one of marginalization paving way for the creation of a genuinely free society. The dialogue must begin with one’s inner voice and with those of others in response to perhaps the ecosophical dimension of modernity. Quoting Pascal, Taylor (1991) concluded that 

[m] odernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misere. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge. 

And indeed, for Taylor (1991) authenticity is not a forking path – neither that of the boosters nor the knockers of modernity – rather, one of a different route. Or in the words with apologies to the poet Robert Frost, it is the road not taken, glad that it was taken… for it will make a difference! 


Taylor, C. (1991). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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