Expressive Individualism

There is so much to discuss in Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, that it is hard to know exactly where to begin. I have attempted a proper book review, but the flood of information is worth parsing through slowly. One of the most important concepts of the book is the idea of expressive individualism, a phrase taken from the great philosopher Charles Taylor. Expressive individualism is the idea “that each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires.” (46) I can only be an authentic person, and therefore truly flourish as a human being, if I am free to outwardly express what is inside of me, especially my feelings and desires. Jean-Jacques Rousseau laid the philosophical groundwork of expressive individualism when he identified the fundamental corrupting influence as society itself, and not, as Augustine and the Church had taught for centuries, the sin and wickedness at the heart of the individual. In other words, I am inherently good, but society has corrupted me, especially by suppressing and repressing the expression of what I feel inside of me with it’s oppressive rules and standards. Trueman summarized Rousseau’s thought this way: “The individual is most authentic when acting out in public those desires and feelings that characterize the inner psychological life.” (125)

Expressive individualism is the idea that each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our own feelings and desires.

According to Rousseau, authenticity is the highest good that any individual can pursue, because it is the only way to guarantee happiness. I will never be happy unless I can freely express myself. Charles Taylor describes this way of thinking like this: “…Each of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and…it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.” (46, quoted from Taylor, A Secular Age, 475) I have to be myself! I have to get what’s inside of me out into the world! I can’t be me and live by society’s rules at the same time! External authorities and institutions, especially religious ones, are, by their nature, oppressive to the individual and repressive of his or her expression of their true selves. They are, in a sense, enslavers of the will. To quote Charles Taylor again, “self-determining freedom ‘is the idea that I’m free when I determine the conditions of my own existence.'” (Quoted by O. Carter Snead, What It Means to be Human, p. 81-82) A longer quote from Snead is called for:

Flourishing is achieved by turning inward to interrogate the self’s own deepest sentiments to discern the wholly unique and original truths about its purpose and destiny. This inner voice is morally authoritative and defines the route forward to realizing the authentic self. The truth about the self is thus not determined externally, and sometimes must be pursued counter-culturally, over and above the mores of one’s community.
-O. Carter Snead, What It Means to be Human, p. 87

I must be free to express myself, or I cannot be authentic. I will live a lie. And if I live a lie it is impossible for me to flourish or ever be truly happy. Social institutions, and especially the Church, force me to repress my inner feelings and desires, and therefore push me into living a lie. The end result is that these institutions make it impossible for me to flourish as a human being. They are, in my lived experience, erasing my existence through their moral oppression of my inner, psychological reality — my truest self.

Neither Taylor, Snead, nor Trueman are advocating for this way of thinking; they are simply describing it. I, also, am simply trying to describe it because I believe it is an idea worth considering. After all, it has completely taken over our culture. It is the default intellectual position of every American. As Trueman says, we are all expressive individualists now. The problem, of course, is that we don’t consider it. We don’t think about it. Expressive individualism is part of the assumed philosophy, what Charles Taylor calls the social imaginary, of American life. We all believe that authenticity means matching my outward expressions and actions to my internal beliefs, desires, and feelings. We’re also convinced that this understanding of authenticity is essential to the good life. We can’t possibly be happy if we’re one person on the inside and a completely different person on the outside. We are all naturally suspicious of authorities and institutions, and especially of the people in positions of authority within those institutions. Government officials. Religious leaders. Corporate executives. Media figures. All of us have a hard time trusting some or all of these people.

We are all expressive individualists now.

We live with a mass of unquestioned, unexamined assumptions about the world, ourselves, and God. To even bring them up as if to question them seems at best absurd, and at worst heretical. We rarely have the time, energy, or insight to reflect on these basic assumptions of our worldview, why they exist, and especially how they came to be. And yet we live by them. We write laws and govern our society based on these assumptions. We cast people out of our society for violating them. Should we allow such crucial beliefs to go on operating in the background, or should we bring them out into the open and question them? You probably know what I think. Here are some questions that I have for myself and our society:

  • Why do I think that happiness comes from expressing my internal feelings and desires? Is there any proof that this is true? Are the happiest people in our society the ones who are most expressive of their inner psychological selves? Do they, on average, have healthier relationships and better social outcomes?
  • Why do I believe that authenticity demands the outward expression of these feelings and desires? Why do I believe that these, and not something else like, say, aspirational virtue or rational thought, constitute my true self? Am I more authentic when I show my feelings or when I live out a virtue like wisdom, courage, or self-control? Does the world need more expressive individuals, or does it need more people of virtue and rationality?
  • Is it more correct to make reality correspond to my desires, or make my desires correspond to reality? What insights can I gain about this question from the environment — meaning, the earth itself? What can I learn from the lives of others who have gone in either direction? Along which path do I find the happiest, healthiest people?
  • What happens to a society when the majority of its citizens live lives of unfettered expressive individualism? What kind of future can a society build when the majority of its children want to grow up and become, not doctors or engineers or the president, but YouTube stars? Can a culture sustain itself on a dynamic of fame, expression, and audience-building?
  • What is the true end — the goal or purpose — of humanity? Is it happiness? Authenticity? Or is there something else, a higher purpose that exists outside of myself, that I haven’t considered? What constitutes the good life? Why am I here?
  • What is truth? Why do I believe that it is possible to “live my truth?” Why do I inherently trust my feelings, beliefs, and desires over against the wisdom and teachings that have come down to me through history? Why do I trust myself more than others?
  • Is it possible that my own thoughts, feelings, and desires are just as, if not more, culturally conditioned as the teachings and wisdom that have come down through the ages? Doesn’t it make sense that I, an individual, am more heavily influenced by my culture than wisdom which has thrived in hundreds of cultures over millenia? Is it possible that I have rejected one oppressive cultural institution — the Church — only to embrace another, equally oppressive cultural institution — the world?

Is it possible that my own thoughts, feelings, and desires are just as, if not more, culturally conditioned as the teachings and wisdom that have come down through the ages?

The last set of questions seem particularly poignant to me. How do I know that my psychological self — my feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and desires — isn’t radically shaped by my culture? Why do I believe that my interior world is more pure, more authentic, than the wisdom, teachings, and commands that have been passed down from generation to generation, for thousands of years across countless cultures, in an institution such as the Church? Why am I not more skeptical of myself?

The rise of social media and their algorithms prove that our desires are malleable. Our interior worlds can be manipulated — and easily! We can be made to think, feel, believe, and desire anything. It’s simple digital marketing and story telling. If Rousseau was alive today and on Facebook, would he be so confident that truth and goodness were within him? Or would he see, instead, naivete, immaturity, insecurity, ignorance, selfishness, and gullibility? Rousseau was right about one thing: the outside world does corrupt me. But not because it’s pure evil and I’m pure good. It corrupts me because I’m corruptible, because truth and goodness are not found within me, but rather imperfection, ignorance, and sin.

If my interior world, my psychological self, is culturally conditioned, then I need to find a better source of truth than myself. I need to find a reality outside of myself that is not so malleable, so ignorant, so gullible. I need to lash myself to a rock that will not be moved, because when I honestly look inside myself, I see a field of reeds tossing and twisting in the wind. I see a churning ocean of thoughts, desires, beliefs, and feelings. I find within myself a desire that is here today but gone tomorrow. I discover a feeling that only exists because I’m ignorant or deceived. Expressive individualism fails because I fail. I cannot bear the weight of being the center of the universe. I cannot carry the burden of my own truth. I am too inconsistent, too hypocritical for that. And it’s not the fault of society; it’s my fault. That’s why I need God. That’s why I need to entrust myself to the person who said to his disciples on the night he was betrayed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I’m none of those things. And I need all of those things. We all do.

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

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