The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

Conceptual tools for understanding the Self

The first of these is Charles Taylor’s “Social Imaginary”. The social imaginary is the collective beliefs, assumptions, habits, and expectations that a society holds unconsciously. What is important about this is that it is widely held by members of a society, and without being articulated. These ideas are intuitive and form a culture’s tastes and behaviors without being self-consciously acknowledged.

A second concept by Taylor is the relationship between what he calls mimesis and poiesis (drawn from the Greek terms for ‘imitating’ and ‘making’ respectively). These words describe two ways humans can relate to the world. Mimesis acknowledges the surrounding world as foundational and aims to conform to it and discover meaning in it. Poiesis on the other hand flips this on its head and finds meaning within one’s own self and seeks to conform the world to this self-made reality.

The transitioning of western civilization from mimetic to a poietic approaches over the past five centuries coincides with (or was expedited by?) our ability via technology to shape and conquer the natural world, using developments in medicine, food production, communications, transport, etc. We have gotten used to conforming reality to suit our goals and desires, rather than accepting reality as it is.

Another conceptual tool is Philip Rieff’s identification of the modern person as driven primarily by psychological concerns. Matters that are internal to a person, such as their feelings, desire, or satisfaction, are deemed more important than things external such as their physical needs, or societal or family expectations).

It is in this context that the concept of expressive individualism becomes paramount – the belief that the individual’s inner feelings are the true expression of themselves, and must be acknowledged by others as such. Therapeutic needs now demand extensive amounts of energy from society as the individual’s right to express their inner, psychological selves without criticism has become a cornerstone of modern western societies.

This can be observed in the retributive response to the cakemaker who refused to provide a cake for a gay wedding, or the deepening seriousness with which hate speech is taken (not to mention its broadening definition).

Another term that arises frequently in the later parts of the book that is introduced early on is sittlichkeit. Sittlichkeit is a German term referring to the intuitive moral structure of a society, together with its behaviors, obligations, expressions, and ultimately legislation.

The development of this “psychological man” and his need for recognition is traced through the history Trueman sketches out in this book.

Conceptual Tools for Understanding Culture

The key thinker here is Philip Reiff, and his paradigm of “The modern west as a third world culture.” This refers not to the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and South America, but to one of three ways Reiff classifies cultures, depending on what they broadly base their moral codes on. In this schema, “First Worlds” are based on myths, while “Second Worlds” base their ethics on religion. The myths and religion of these kinds of cultures give stability to the culture and provide a basis for definition of good and evil as well as for accountability. “Third worlds” by contrast are founded on nothing that is sacred or transcendent. The modern west is what Reiff calls a third-world culture (he allows for multiple cultures to exist in a society but sees the dominant culture of the west as secular). Such a culture justifies itself by itself and ultimately has no stability nor ability to sustain itself long term as a third-world culture.

We can see third-world culture at work in the way that moral issues are no longer framed in reference to something transcendent (e.g. God), but instead to ourselves or to human concerns (e.g. personal fulfilment or mental wellbeing).[1]

The remaining conceptual tools for considering culture are brief and relate to the notion of the modern west as a “third-world” culture in the way Reiff considers it, particularly as it aims to repudiate and deconstruct the “second-world” culture from which it has grown.

There is the role of third-worlds as anti-cultures, which negate the second-world they emerged from and decline to pass on the values of past generations to the present as they are seen as valueless, or even harmful.

Reiff also describes what he calls “deathworks”; artistic works whose role is to popularise elite-level disdain for established culture and its values, and so tear down its esteem in the public mind. This is done not by argument but by changing the aesthetic tastes and sympathies (e.g. by ridicule). He give the interesting examples of pornography and abortion.

There is also Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that ethical choices are now made without “teleology” or purpose as a category for assessment, and how this lack alters the way the subject matter is understood.

Part one concludes with the following quote, regarding these philosophers of culture:

What is clear from their writings is this: questions connected to notions of human identity, which are raised by the LGBTQ+ movement are only the most obvious contemporary example, cannot be abstracted from broader questions of how the self is understood, how ethical discourse operates, how history and tradition are valued (if at all), and how cultural elites understand the content and purpose of art.” (p. 102)

It is with these analytical tools in hand that Trueman at last begins his history. This summary will only overview key points.