The Practices of the Self

The Practices of the Self

by Charles Larmore

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What is the nature of the fundamental relation we have to ourselves that makes each of us a self? To answer this question, Charles Larmore develops a systematic theory of the self, challenging the widespread view that the self’s defining relation to itself is to have an immediate knowledge of its own thoughts. On the contrary, Larmore maintains, our essential


What is the nature of the fundamental relation we have to ourselves that makes each of us a self? To answer this question, Charles Larmore develops a systematic theory of the self, challenging the widespread view that the self’s defining relation to itself is to have an immediate knowledge of its own thoughts. On the contrary, Larmore maintains, our essential relation to ourselves is practical, as is clear when we consider the nature of belief and desire. For to believe or desire something consists in committing ourselves to thinking and acting in accord with the presumed truth of our belief or the presumed value of what we desire.

Larmore develops this conception with frequent reference to such classic authors as Montaigne, Stendhal, and Proust and by comparing it to other views of the self in contemporary philosophy. He also discusses the important ethical consequences of his theory of the self, arguing that it allows us to better grasp what it means to be ourselves and why self-understanding often involves self-creation.

Winner of the Académie Française’s Grand Prix de Philosophie, The Practices of the Self is that rare kind of lucid yet rigorous work that transcends disciplinary boundaries.

Editorial Reviews

“Larmore offers a book about the social nature of the self. Though viewing the self as largely socially constructed is nothing new, the author’s insight into the sense in which people are fundamentally social beings is new. Larmore blends the thought of ancient and modern writers with his own into a sophisticated collection of arguments about just how convention shapes people. . . . This is crucial reading for researchers of any tradition on the nature of the self.”

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The Practices of the Self

By Charles Larmore


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-46887-7

Chapter One

Sincerity and Authenticity


"One cannot praise the natural too highly." In Stendhal's lexicon, being "natural" means being fully oneself. It refers to the sort of authenticity that he sought in all his writings—novels, psychological, and autobiographical works, and even his reflections on literary style. To him, the natural was most forcefully expressed in passion. And its antithesis lies in what Stendhal called "vanity," the concern with what others think of us, which leads us to behave as they would expect us to, subjecting us to the "great principle of the 19th century"—and, we might add, of the following centuries as well—"being like another."

In an essay written in 1927 as a preface to Lucien Leuwen, Paul Valiry attacked Stendhal's worship of the natural with exceptional acuity. In his view, the concern with being natural was the result of a double illusion. Neither the idea itself of the natural nor the attempt to achieve it is as Stendhal supposed. Not that Valiry looked down on Stendhal for having pursued the natural as an ideal. He was quite entertained by Stendhal's efforts to attain it. But his amusement arose from the unavoidable disparity he saw between what being natural was imagined to be and its real character: "I do not hate the tone he has created for himself. Sometimes he enchants me, and he always amuses me—but this happens contrary to the author's own intentions, through the comic effect that so much sincerity and something of an excess of life unavoidably produce in me."

Valiry made two objections to the project of being natural, both of considerable force. The first deals with the opposition that Stendhal set up between being natural and vanity. Stendhal, he pointed out, believes in a "Natural-Self to which culture, civilization, and customs are enemies." If we could only regain this natural-self, we would escape the way we modern beings habitually see ourselves through the eyes of others. We would stop comparing ourselves to others and following their example. According to Valiry, the trouble lies in the distinction we must thus assume between what is supposedly natural and what is conventional. Any principle used to disentangle the two turns out itself to be conventional. That is, "the natural" is also a social category, and true passion and spontaneity are defined by criteria and paradigms shared within a community. "Could we believe that even love," Valiry proclaimed, "is not shot through with things we have learned, that there are not traditions even in the fervor and agitation and the sentimental and intellectual complications love can engender?"

How, in fact, can this verdict be contested? Is it not clear that the behavior and sentiments seen as "spontaneous" always carry the stamp of cultural codes deep within them? I would like to add a remarkable detail to Valiry's fairly abstract reflections. Stendhal himself unwittingly offers striking proof of the accuracy of this proposition. Several times, his treatise On Love evokes the episode of Paolo and Francesca, as Dante relates it in the Inferno (canto 5), citing it as the perfect example of passionate love. It is nonetheless a curious choice. Explaining to the pilgrim Dante "the first root of our love," Francesca recounts how Paolo and she were reading the romance of Lancelot together, and how when they reached the passage where Lancelot kisses Guinevere, Paolo did the same to her. Thus they fell in love by taking their inspiration from a book—and not from just any book, but from one of the Arthurian romances that served as love manuals at the time. As "true" as it was, their passion was consequently pervaded by canonical conventions governing love.

Now, not only does Stendhal fail to mention this essential aspect of the example of passionate love that he chose, but what is more, when he quotes without commentary the lines in which Francesca describes the fatal moment,

When we read how that smile, so much desired, Was kissed by such a lover, in the book, He, who will never be divided from me, Kissed my mouth, he was trembling as he did so,

he stops right before the line where she clearly indicates the borrowed nature of her love: "The book, the writer played the part of Galahad." That is, the book provoked their passion just as Galahad (Galeotto) encouraged Lancelot and Guinevere's. It is hard not to believe that Stendhal intentionally cut the quotation short, glimpsing how the example did not really suit his purpose. Doesn't the example, thanks to Dante's clear-sightedness, demonstrate not what Stendhal wants it to, but rather how illusory the idea of a purely authentic sentiment is? Such is Valiry's thesis: not that true passion does not exist, but that "being natural," pace Stendhal, is but one of the many ways of "being like another." The distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity is defined within a universe of conventions.

Valiry raised a second objection to the ideal of being natural that is no less forceful than the first. Let us grant Stendhal the existence of a natural self. Nonetheless, by striving to coincide with this self as much as he could, by trying in this sense to become natural (or, let us say, "authentic"), Stendhal, in his opinion, inevitably succumbed to the "comedy of sincerity." What did he mean by that? We should note that the notion of sincerity can have several meanings. When it is a matter of being sincere with others, Valiry admitted that there is not the slightest problem, at least in theory: we simply need to tell others what we tell ourselves. Being sincere with ourselves, if that means frankly recognizing what we think or feel, does not pose an essential problem either. But when we see sincerity as the ideal of being one with our most intimate self, the project of being sincere falls apart. By trying to be what we consider our natural self, we create within ourselves a "division of the subject" (as Valiry himself put it), since we must observe ourselves in order to verify that we are adhering to this ideal. At the same time, we strive to "ignore and classify as out of bounds the observer, who is judging the match," with the goal of assimilating ourselves completely to our natural self. Thus the objective of becoming one with our natural self is essentially contradictory. We can easily play at being sincere, but in fact we never really manage to be so.

What appears to doom the ideal of being natural to failure is, according to Valiry, the very will to be sincere with ourselves in the way that being natural requires. "As soon as the 'will' gets involved," he notes, "this will-to-be-sincere-with-oneself becomes an inevitable principle of falsification." Basic ally, Valiry's idea—and it seems irrefutable—is that the ambition of being natural presupposes that we are in a position to recognize our potential success, which entails that at the moment in question we must be able to distinguish ourselves enough from the result in order to confirm that it has occurred. When we seek to become our natural self, we thus institute, counter to our very objective, a distance between ourselves and this supposed self that no effort can ever suppress. Pursuing an impossible ideal, we can only put on a show of sincerity in the sense of being natural or authentic. This is the affectation that Valiry claimed to uncover in Stendhal: "I perceive the project of being oneself, of being true to the point of falseness. The true that one favors changes thus imperceptibly, as one writes, into the true that is made to appear true."

Ultimately, Valiry's analysis repeats La Rochefoucauld's famous observation: "Nothing makes it so difficult to be natural as the desire to appear so."

Are Valiry's objections irrefutable? In our day, the notion of being natural or authentic has an ambiguous status. On a theoretical level, it has generally become an object of skepticism, if not flat-out rejection. Few philosophers still consider giving authenticity a philosophical articulation, as opposed to what was the case in the first half of the twentieth century. If the question even arises, it tends to be seen as no more than a mirage or a mental confusion, which can also have unfortunate consequences. But on an existential level, that is, in our daily life, I am sure that each of us continues to feel, at least sometimes, the desire to stop measuring ourselves against others and their expectations and to be ourselves. The ambivalence of this situation leads me to believe that the notion of authenticity involves something truly valuable, despite the illusions that are clearly part of it as well: a truth that deserves to be detached from the falsehoods surrounding it. In the first chapters of this book, I therefore propose to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In this regard, Valiry's essay has an exemplary value, and not only for our appreciation of Stendhal. Indeed, the objections Valiry raised point to the two most serious difficulties that, in my opinion, confront the ideal of authenticity. By setting my sights on these obstacles and showing how to overcome them, I aim to rehabilitate authenticity as an ideal in these first two chapters. I should begin by explaining, however, why I am giving Valiry's two objections such a central role, since it is not obvious that they are the most important ones to be considered. Explaining this strategy will show how I intend to approach the problem of authenticity in general.

As is well known, the ideal of authenticity has long been the object of many other critiques. Most common are the ethical objections that have so often been raised against it. Thus it has been said that the cult of authenticity leads to contempt for the expectations of others and, from there, to social anomie. The complaint is also made that it inspires a kind of fatuousness that keeps its adherents, satisfied at being reunited with their true selves, from imagining that it is often better to transcend what one already is. Such concerns are not irrelevant; the dangers they evoke doubtless exist. But I don't think these objections have the force they are often believed to possess. For them to discredit the notion as a whole, one would have to suppose that authenticity's status as a value depends on its having always to take precedence over our other interests. Only on that assumption can the dire consequences of an existence devoted solely or above all to being authentic suffice to discredit the ideal as such.

However, I reject this presupposition from the start, and on principle. I am convinced that, in general, the ethical order is more complex than what the philosophical hankering after system, the old ambition of subsuming the Many under the One, easily leads us to believe. Its structure is in reality pluralistic, not hierarchical. By that, I mean that there is no fundamental value—whether happiness or freedom or well-being or autonomy—that serves as a foundation for all the other values that we have reason to embrace, nor is there a supreme value that should always prevail over every other value with which it might come into conflict. Reciprocally, a value is no less real or legitimate just because we recognize, in certain circumstances, the need to sacrifice its pursuit in order to pursue other values.

This is the standpoint I think we should adopt in order to make sense of the ideal of authenticity. To be sure, we have all no doubt dreamed of a life in which each of our feelings and each of our acts would be natural, indifferent to conventions and to comparison with others, and utterly faithful to our intimate selves. The obsession with living an authentic life surfaces among the most eminent followers of this ideal. Insofar as I propose to abandon this aspiration, I am obviously conceiving the notion of authenticity in an uncustomary way. But such a reformulation is necessary if we are to take to heart what the pluralism of value demands.

Once we have accepted that authenticity is at best one value among others, we can easily admit what should in any case have never been denied-that in certain circumstances the pursuit of authenticity can lead to undesirable consequences. The more modest conception I present is thus less open to the ethical sorts of criticism that highlight the negative results that can arise from the desire to be authentic. None of this means, however, that we clearly understand what constitutes the value of authenticity. Far from it. That is precisely one of the themes I intend to explore. What needs to be clear from the beginning is that we cannot reject the idea of authenticity merely by indicating its social and personal disadvantages. Every value can clash with others and in such a way that we would sometimes be right in subordinating it to their demands.

This is why the objections formulated by Valiry, which call into question the very coherence of the notion of authenticity, seem to me to be more important. They remain every bit as forceful even when we decline to consider authenticity a comprehensive ideal for the whole of our existence. Whence their other virtue: they impel us to define more precisely than usual what we mean by the notion. Doing so may even push us to eliminate certain incidental elements in order to focus on those aspects of authenticity that can withstand the charges of incoherence. That, in fact, is the tack I take in the following pages.

Furthermore, Valiry's two objections are rather obvious, even unavoidable. Who has not wondered if we can really succeed in living authentically, if that implies escaping the weight of social conventions? Is it conceivable that we could live without comparing ourselves to others, without basing our behavior on their expectations or modeling ourselves on their example in any way? Moreover, supposing there exists in us some natural core uncontaminated by social comparisons, who would not wonder whether the effort to make ourselves coincide with that core is not self-defeating? Does not our incessant reflection, at work in our striving to attain this sort of self-identification, necessarily get in the way?

Many have advanced such objections. If today the notion of authenticity seems dubious if not incoherent, if the very idea of developing a "philosophy of authenticity" has fallen out of favor, it is in large part because of this chorus of rejection. The intellectual weakness of the ideal of authenticity has become apparent to so many that hardly anyone talks about it anymore. The matter would seem to be closed.

My goal is to shake up that certainty and to reopen the question of authenticity. The reproach of incoherence is less decisive than one might think. To justify this conclusion, I will develop in this and the following chapter Valiry's objections in what seems to me their strongest form. In each case, I will focus on the radical development that the objection has been given at the hands of another, later thinker. For the objection that insists on the ubiquity of convention and on the inevitability of comparing ourselves with others, I look to the theory of social mimetism developed by Reni Girard. As for the argument that any attempt to make oneself coincide with a supposedly natural self undermines itself, I turn to Jean-Paul Sartre's analysis of bad faith. I am convinced that only by exposing the ideal of authenticity to these twin challenges will we be able to determine how it can be successfully rehabilitated.

At the same time, I should note that reworking the notion of authenticity is not an end in itself. There is a much deeper subject that I thereby intend to lay hold of. Being authentic, if the term has in fact a coherent meaning, surely implies being fully or purely oneself, that is, behaving in such a way that the self one is appears without deformation and in keeping with its intrinsic character. This suggests that the analysis of authenticity can serve as a means for shedding light on the essential structure of the self. Indeed, as I explained in the Introduction, the nature of the relation to oneself by which the self is itself defined, along with the different ways this relation to oneself is expressed—especially in reflection, constitutes the crux of this book. In these first two chapters, the goal will thus be to compile some elements for the theory of the self that will follow.


Excerpted from The Practices of the Self by Charles Larmore Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles Larmore is the W. Duncan MacMillan Family Professor in the Humanities and professor of philosophy at Brown University. He is the author of numerous books in French and English, including The Autonomy of Morality.

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