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Whatever I think, therefore I am: An interview with Dr. Carl Trueman on his “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self”

There’s a lot packed into this book [1]—and it’s not short—but can you provide a brief thesis or synopsis?

It is a study of how the conditions have emerged in our society that allow people to regard the statement ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body’ as coherent and to see its positive affirmation as a political imperative.  Having said that, I only really address transgenderism towards the end because my basic argument is that such changes are deep, wide, and longstanding, and that we need to see the sexual revolution of which it is a part as one aspect of a much broader revolution of what it means to be a self and how human flourishing is understood.

Your previous book, Histories and Fallacies [2], endeavored to teach people how to do history well, and there is a similar lesson presented early on in Rise and Triumph. You say in the introduction that “no individual historical phenomenon is its own cause.” What do you mean to communicate to readers with that axiom? In many ways it serves as the methodological guide for the book.

We can all tend to be mesmerized by the present, especially when that present involves radical and unprecedented shifts in society’s thought, intuitions, or behavior.  So, when we see something like gay marriage, or Trumpism, or transgenderism, or ‘wokeness’ suddenly hit the headlines, we can tend to forget that each of these has a background.  None emerged from a vacuum or caused itself.  All are the result of a complex of historical factors and are thus, on one level, symptomatic of developments in our culture in more general terms.  

It is important that we study these backgrounds for at least two reasons.  First, such study allows us to understand the immediate phenomena with greater accuracy and thus respond more thoughtfully.  For example, Christians tend to think the sexual revolution is about behavior and respond by reasserting Christian sexual mores.  In fact, the sexual revolution is about identity.  That certainly includes behavior but sees that behavior as having a greater significance for who people actually are.  Christians need to grasp that in order to understand why phrases such as ‘We hate the sin but love the sinner’ seem so implausible in the secular world since they rest upon the distinction between, say, homosexual desire and personal identity, a distinction which those outside of the church will not immediately recognize.  In other words, knowing the background helps to inform our public engagement.

Second, knowing the background helps us understand the depth of the problems we face. If the problems are now deeply embedded within the way people imagine society to be, we cannot solve them simply by an act of congress or a Supreme Court appointment.  I am afraid it is much more difficult than that.

In the subtitle of the book, two themes are previewed: “cultural amnesia” and “expressive individualism.” Can you briefly define those for us, and perhaps “emotivism” as well?

Cultural amnesia refers to the fact that our culture sees the past more and more as something to be repudiated and overcome.  This takes many forms: the general neglect of the past as a source for knowledge in society at large; the domination of humanities in higher education by theoretical approaches predicated on the notion that history and the past are really tools of legitimating injustice in the present and therefore in need of demolition; and the commitment of our cultural elites–educators, tech giants, politicians–to dismantling old patterns of thinking and acting.

Expressive individualism refers to the dominant way in which we all today intuit our selfhood.  We believe that our humanity is realized by us being able to express outwardly that which we feel inwardly.  The initial impulse for such thinking comes from Rousseau and the Romantics but it is now the default of our culture at large.  In such a world, sexual identity, for example, becomes important because some of our most powerful inner feelings are those connected to sexual desire and being able openly to express that becomes important to our personal authenticity.

Emotivism is the term Alasdair MacIntyre used in After Virtue [3] to describe the fact that, because there are no agreed metanarratives any more, our claims of right and wrong are really claims of emotional preference.  To say ‘Abortion is wrong,’ for example, is really to say ‘I personally disapprove of abortion.’  In his later work, MacIntyre uses the language of expressive individualism to articulate the same idea, indicating how closely the individualized notion of the self and our current incoherent ethical discussions are.

What’s the relationship between induced cultural amnesia and what’s been referred to as the history wars?

There is a close connection. Once one sees the past as not so much a source of wisdom but as a tale of oppression, then the battle ensues to dethrone the old narratives (and their artifacts – statues, names on buildings and scholarships, etc).  The problem, of course, is that this is generally conceived as a zero-sum game where one narrative is presented as mutually exclusive of all others.  For example: either America was founded on freedom or it was built on slavery.  In reality, there is some truth to both.  Human agency is complex and not simply the zero-sum power game that so many seem to think. 

One term not mentioned in the subtitle but nevertheless intricate to the narrative is that of plasticity, or rather, “plastic people.” This is how you, in part, characterize the enduring result of the influence of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. You say, “[P]erhaps the most striking characteristic of today’s understanding of what it means to be human is not its sexual content but rather its fundamental plasticity.” Human nature has become “dynamic.” Can you flesh that out a bit more for us?  

By ‘plastic people’ I am trying to capture that idea of self-invention that lies at the heart of our modern rejection of human nature as having a given ‘essence’, which is the idea that lies at the heart of modern expressive individualism.  Take Nietzsche, for example.  He argues (correctly, in my view) that if you take God out of the picture of reality, then human nature, beyond its biological structure, is something we can invent for ourselves.  Life becomes a matter of performance, of being whoever we want to be.  Oscar Wilde might be the supreme and most sophisticated example: the sexual rebel, the aesthete, the man who made his own life a work of art.  We are all wannabe Wildes today, impatient of having identities imposed upon us by others.

You draw on some seminal (notoriously nigh unreadable) sources in this work to inform your own analysis. To point out a few: from Philip Rieff you borrow the ideas of “the triumph of the therapeutic” and “psychological man;” from Charles Taylor you derive the modern notion of “expressive individualism” (mentioned above); and you find Alasdair MacIntyre useful for his argument that ethical discourse has descended into competing moral truth claims propped up by nothing other than emotional preference. Would you briefly comment on each of these?

Each of these figures approaches the modern human condition from a different angle. Rieff, a creative and critical appropriator of Freud uses a psychological lens.  Taylor, a philosopher, uses Hegel and the Romantics to analyze the modern notion of the self. And MacIntyre approaches the question of ethics in a world where society is marked by incommensurable narratives.  The three thus generate different but complementary perspectives that I try to combine in my work.  Human identity, agency, and culture are complex realities that cannot be understood from a single perspective and therefore a toolkit of compatible but different analytical approaches is necessary.

You have assembled a motley crew of influencers, to borrow a contemporary term, in this book. Can you say anything about why you selected the figures that you did? Some might be more obvious, like Marx, but what about someone like Wilhelm Reich? I doubt the average reader has ever heard of him.

I chose the thinkers not so much on the basis of how many people will have read them or even how directly influential they have been but rather as representing key intellectual moves or broader cultural pathologies that have shaped the present. So a figure like Marx is obvious.  Even those who are not Marxists tend to think in some ways significantly shaped by him.  For example, the contemporary cultural tendency to deny the existence of the pre-political, to see all human arrangements – from the Boy Scouts to the family to cake baking for weddings — as politically charged, is an important part of how we now imagine the world.  Marx is one of the key figures in the story of how that came to be.  But the genealogy of modern cultural pathologies involves other, less well-known figures.  You mention Reich – well, he is one of the first to make a connection between Marx’s theory of political oppression and Freud’s notion of sexual repression.  That paves the way for the all-important modern notion that political liberation and sexual liberation are inextricably connected.

Who did you almost include but leave out?

Oscar Wilde. The man was a genius and perhaps the most sophisticated and charming representative of the expressive individual.  All of us today are, in a sense, cheap, less charming versions of Oscar.

Who was your favorite author/figure, of those included, to study?

I have a personal love for Romantic poetry, music, and art.  So William Blake, with Shelley a close second.  Although I find Nietzsche and Marx both intellectually fascinating and, in many places, masters of exhilarating prose…

Dr. Trueman, thank you so very much for your time and timely new book!

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted by MR’s regular contributor, Timon Cline. Timon’s questions are in bold. This article is an excerpt of the full interview, which will be published in Modern Reformation, Vol. 30, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr, 2021).

Dr. Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.

Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. His writing has appeared at Areo Magazine [4]The American Spectator [5], and National Review [6], and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post [7].