In his books, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Strange New World, Dr. Carl Trueman presents a compelling intellectual history of contemporary identity politics. From Rousseau to Marx to Judith Butler, Trueman outlines how the evolution of “the notion of the self” gave life to expressive individualism, the sexual revolution, and our present social imaginary.
However, while Trueman’s historical analysis is comprehensive and insightful, some of his philosophical critique is wanting. I do not believe this insufficiency is a grievous fault, for Trueman, as a historian and a theologian, is more concerned with making the ideological matrix of the modern world intelligible to Christians today than with purely metaphysical reasoning.
Yet, for many reasons, a robust and careful speculative analysis of Trueman’s subject is necessary to fully treat, understand, and critique it.
Presently, I want to bolster Trueman’s philosophical arguments against the “primacy of the self” in two limited, specific ways. First, I want to accept and expand Trueman’s intuition that there is something fundamentally correct about modernity’s “inward turn”–that is, our culture’s belief that meaning and identity are found in the individual’s inner life. Trueman allows that, because God created them, the psychological phenomena of our interior existence must give some limited indication of who we really are. However, a more solid philosophical conception of the human soul makes clear that Trueman’s caveat really misses the point.
Second, having shown that there really is some truth to the claim that our identity is found within, I want to provide an account of the relationship between human interiority and personal identity other than that which our present social climate offers, one which is both more philosophically consistent and theologically rich. In other words, using Trueman’s work as a starting point, I will engage and critique the present ubiquitous conception of “the self” by stating its limited merits, pointing out where it goes wrong, and outlining a different account of the relationship between our interior life and who we are.
Trueman’s entire narrative hinges on a critique of what people today think about “the self.” For Trueman, “When I use the term self in this book, I am referring…to the deeper notion of where the ‘real me’ is to be found, how that shapes my view of life, and in what the fulfillment or happiness of that ‘real me’ consists.” Discovering our “self” is the same as discovering “who we are;” when I find and understand my “self,” then I will satisfy my craving for concrete identity.
The self is the irreducible source of one’s personal definition, perception of reality, and one’s meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.
Trueman accepts this concept of the self, but disagrees with modernity’s understanding of how one comes to know the self. According to Trueman, “the modern self assumes the authority of inner feelings and sees authenticity as defined by the ability to give social expression to the same.” As the result of numerous intellect movements, technological developments, and sociological transformations, our culture now considers “inner feelings”–that is, those invisible emotions, dispositions, and sentiments accessible only to the one experiencing them—as the indisputable arbitrator of who we are, what we ought to do, and what will make us happy.
Setting aside Trueman’s arguments for how this came to be and why it is ultimately erroneous (which are excellent and with which I take no issue), the author makes a significant and, in my opinion, erroneous equivocation. Trueman equates those “inner feelings” which are authoritative to the modern self with the totality and sum of all that is signified by the words “inner life,” with all that is caught up in the idea of human interiority as such. In fact, he seems to use the words “inner feelings” and “inner life” almost interchangeably. This is at root to confuse “interiority” with “subjectivity.”
This equivocation is seen most clearly when Trueman reveals what he considers to be the true source of human identity–the external or outward authority of God, who, as our Creator and Lord, defines and fulfills us. The difference between the true source of identity and that source of identity which the modern world offers is, for Trueman, the difference between interior definition and exterior, between that which we search for within and that which confronts us from without.
Though Trueman makes such a hard contrast, he does not therefore conclude that our “inner feelings” have nothing to offer in our pursuit of self-knowledge in the light of God. He writes:
Yet we must be careful not the miss the important truths [expressive individualism] contains…its emphasis upon our inner psychological space and upon our emotions is not wrong. It is wrong only when it makes such things ends in themselves. God has created us as beings with emotions and desires…And that means we need to acknowledge inner psychological space and shape its intuitions in the right way.
While Trueman is absolutely correct to see God as the true source of our identity and to assert that our emotional life is a legitimate source of identity because God created it, he contrasts too strongly God’s exteriority from human interiority, and he consequently gives insufficient attention to the way in which personal identity is grounded in interior life. This mistaken absolute contrast is the direct result of a narrow presupposition concerning the nature of the interior life. Below, I want to show that one can assert both that one’s identity is grounded in the interior life and that God is the ultimate source of our personal identity.
Trueman, perhaps unintentionally, constantly equates “inner feelings” with “inner life;” this is to say that all those invisible operations of the human person’s spiritual dimension are subjective, fallible, and metaphysically thin. But this is not the predominant view of ancient or medieval Christian philosophy; that older and more powerful view of human interiority can be summed up in this common Scholastic phrase: knowing is a kind of being.
To make the relevance of this idea apparent, we must back up before proceeding. Every human being is endowed with a spiritual soul. This is simply a tenet of the faith if one is a catholic Christian, and if one gives any credence to the greater tradition of classical philosophy. This soul is not the “ghost in the machine” of contemporary imaginings, but the invisible, spiritual form or organizing principle of the human person. Possessing a soul is, in relation to the earthly created order, what it means to be a human. It stands to reason then that those powers which humans possess which toads, toucans, and camels do not are the proper powers of the soul; namely, knowing and loving.
Problems with Trueman’s conception of interiority as subjectivity already begin to show through. According to the classical tradition, it is not “feelings” that primarily make up the contents of a person’s interior life, but rather knowledge and love. The problems sharpen when we consider what human knowledge really is.
In a phrase, knowledge is an act of the soul by which it receives the form of the thing known and acquires a corresponding perfection. Both of these ideas need unpacking.
In the same way that the soul is the form of the body, so every existing thing has a “form,” an essential organizing principle that makes that existing thing united, identifiable, and knowable. For a dog, the form of “dog-ness” is that principle of the dog’s existence that makes the dog one dog rather than many, that makes it a dog rather than a cat, and that makes a rational person able to perceive that it is in fact a dog.
But how, metaphysically speaking, does the form of the dog cause the rational person to know the dog as dog? According to Aristotle and his followers, the mind, in a way that does not admit of exhaustive explanation, receives the form of the dog intellectually, and without losing its own form, takes on the form of the dog also. It is in this way that the dog becomes present to the mind, and so that the mind can, analogically speaking, see it.
This act of knowing is not a neutral act of the mind. It is in reality a positive perfection, a step in the direction of that full perfection which is the telos of the human person. We can see the truth of this when we come to understand these mysterious words of Aristotle, “The soul is, in a way, all existing things.” Aquinas interprets Aristotle in this way:
Aristotle did not hold that the soul is actually composed of all things, as did the earlier philosophers; he said that the soul is all things, “after a fashion,” forasmuch as it is in potentiality to all—through the senses, to all things sensible—through the intellect, to all things intelligible.
God created the human soul in such a way that it is potentially capable of knowing all created realities. In other words, there is nothing in the order of creation which is intrinsically unknowable to man. Additionally, God designed man with these potentials that man might realize them, and with the intention that, by coming to know created realities, man would begin to fully become that which God destined him to be.
A human person’s interior life, then, is not simply the arena of their passing emotional and psychological tumult, but rather the progressive perfection of their highest spiritual faculties through knowledge (and love, of course, but that discussion is divergent from our course). One of those perfections—the most important at present—is self-knowledge.
In the same way the human person is able to make a cat present to his soul through knowledge, so the human person can make himself present to himself through knowledge. That is, he can behold all of himself with all of himself. This is actually one of the classic proofs for the immateriality of the soul. Take a material object—your hand for example. You may touch a part of your hand to some other part, but you cannot touch all of your hand with all of your hand. The mind, however, is capable of exactly this. The human person can intellectually “touch” the entirety of their spiritual soul with the entirety of their spiritual soul through knowledge, to make their soul both subject and object of their understanding.
This “touching” of the whole mind with the whole mind is self-knowledge, and we may call such a perfection identity. Identity or self-knowledge is an objective, metaphysically thick reality which is indeed found within the mysterious confines of the human heart, needless to say of a very different sort than the kind that modernity offers.
Trueman overlooks this dimension of the relationship between identity and interiority when he unjustifiably confuses “interiority” with “subjectivity.” Knowledge is a kind of being grounded in the being of the soul which perfects the soul in its pursuit of its God-given end. One of these perfections is self-knowledge, a mode of knowing in which the soul as an immaterial substance looks back on and considers itself. The knowledge which the soul obtains by this looking is what we call identity.
Two questions immediately present themselves in light of this definition:
- How does one practically come to attain this self-knowledge?
- How does God as our source of identity factor into this?
I hope to show that these questions are two sides of the same problem, and that a single line of argument will answer both.
To begin: we are only able to know ourselves to the extent that we are realized, actual, perfected, and intelligible. The point is clear enough—we can only see something if there is something to be seen. When we look on ourselves, we are able to see that we are a human being, an individual instantiation of a certain nature that we recognize. Beyond this, however, our knowledge of ourselves comes from a reflective gazing on those potentials in our soul which have been actualized by knowledge; that is, on our memories.
In a real if mysterious way, we are our memories. Memories are those forms of things which we have come to know and which are enduring in our intellect, forms that are really, like all knowledge, united to our own form. We all recognize the truth of this. Everyone knows that our past life—checkered with memories from childhood, family life, friends, foods we like, music we listen to, etc.—are integral to knowing who we are. Yet, at the same time, almost no one would say that our memories are solely responsible for our identity. Furthermore, all of those unrealized potentials of our intellect bring no light at all, for what self-knowledge can be drawn from attempting to know what we do not know?
It would seem then that, in order to truly know ourselves, all of the potentials of our intellectual being would have to be actualized; that is, we would have to know and love all of those things which we are capable of knowing and loving in the way that we personally are capable of knowing and loving them. But how can this be? If this is true, it seems that self-knowledge must be impossible. Certainly, this must be the case for the naturalist and the atheist.
But theology tells us otherwise, for, according to the Christian faith and to the wider natural theology of the Western tradition, God contains in himself the perfections of all things in a preeminent way. All the organizing principles which inform the created order exist transcendently as ideas in the mind of God and these divine ideas are coterminous with his substance. To come to know God is, in a way, to come to know all things, and, when we have come to know all things in the light of knowing God, we are finally able to look on ourselves and really know ourselves.
Such a claim sounds ludicrous until we consider that we come to know God and ourselves according to three progressive levels: nature, grace, and glory. Simply by nature of being rational humans, we are capable of knowing that God exists, knowing something of his attributes by analogy, and of directing our knowledge and love primarily toward him. This limited natural contemplation makes God present to an extent in the human soul and begins to illumine the dark mysteries dwelling therein.
In the economy of God’s grace offered to us in the sacred humanity of Christ, the Holy Trinity indwells our hearts through the instruments of the sacraments and of the three theological virtues. It is especially in this stage—the stage in which Christians who have been baptized and are not living in mortal sin inhabit—that the relationship between our interior life and God comes to the foreground. By grace, the Holy Trinity is really united to us in a special way in our souls, and, in the reflective act of looking on ourselves with ourselves, we see God in three person, who literally gives form, definition, and identity to our spiritual life.
Finally, in glory, we will behold God in his essence, wherein is contained that perfection which is our identity in a transcendent way that surpasses human speech. In the Beatific Vision, when we look at God, God, in revealing himself, reveals us to ourselves also.
Trueman is right to be highly critical of our modern culture’s attempt to ground personal identity in interior feelings. He is also right to appeal instead to God as the authoritative source of who we are. However, he is wrong to remove the interior life from the center of the search for personal identity and to oppose the exteriority of God to our human interiority. Man comes to know himself by “looking” on himself; however, that self on which man looks is only luminous and intelligible in the light it borrows from the three-fold knowledge of God.
- Carl Trueman, Strange New World, Wheaton: Crossway, 2022, 21 ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid, 22. ↑
- Ibid, 32-33 ↑
- Ibid, 180. ↑
- Aristotle, De Anima III.8, translated by J.A. Smith, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/soul.3.iii.html ↑
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.84.2, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: 1920), online Edition Copyright © 2017 by Kevin Knight, https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3015.htm ↑