On Character

For some time now I’ve been thinking on and off about the concept of character and I’ll use this blog as a way of trying to give those thoughts a little more shape.

I became interested in character for a few reasons. I’ve been a long time admirer of Aristotelian virtue ethics, in which character plays a central role. Then a few years ago I read The Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett, and this suggested two simple points. First, neoliberalism is responsible for what Sennett identified as a corrosion of character that for the most part leaves people feeling miserable and helpless. Second, the idea of character might be a useful point around which to mobilise a form of resistance to the destructive power of neoliberalism.

But this throws up a problem – actually, many problems, but I’ll start with just this one. Because the way character is normally understood is more or less explicitly embedded in virtue ethics, if it is to be useful in thinking about how best to resist the destructive power of neoliberalism, then virtue ethics itself must be up to the job. But is it? There has been a good deal of very impressive work done in and around virtue ethics over the last few decades, but there remain certain problems that leave it looking at odds with aspects of modern life that cannot be ignored. Principally, these concern the fact that it depends on a sense of the ‘good life’ that is difficult or impossible to reconcile with the pluralism of the world today: not just in the sense that liberal democracies promote diverse lifestyles, but in the wider sense that life in a developed and largely secular liberal democracy is not the only form of life we see around the world today, but neoliberalism is a global phenomenon. If the strategy to resist the destruction of character depends on adopting a manifestly local practice, then its significance is clearly diminished.

I could add that although a long term admirer of Aristotelian ethics, I also regard myself as a pretty much convinced reader of people like Michel Foucault and Michel Serres, as deeply impressed by the work of Judith Butler, and so on. None of which sits comfortably with being Aristotelian. It’s fair to say that an ethics that promotes a single vision of the good life, and then grounds this in a teleological metaphysics reflecting a fixed order in the universe is going to have difficulties when it comes to dealing with aspects of the contemporary world, let alone the challenges thrown up by the kind of radical thinkers to which I’m attracted. In spite of this, some people have done remarkable and brilliant work in bringing key insights from Aristotelian ethics to bear on contemporary problems, and moreover have done so with a resolutely international perspective – I’m thinking here above all of Martha Nussbaum. But I kept coming back to the same difficulty: how can character be part of a strategy to resist neoliberalism without this being a purely defensive, even reactionary, move that is simply digging its heels in and trying not to budge?

The best answer I can find is this. There is something important and compelling in the idea of character as a constructible, malleable, yet robust sense of ‘who I am’ and how I act toward those around me. It has the likeable quality of being an essentially social concept: I can be an isolated subject, but one cannot develop character without fellow human beings, friends, and others. I also like the sense that it represents a point of resistance, something capable of change, but that won’t bend easily to the demand for continual reinvention (on someone else’s terms). So although there are problematic aspects to the idea of character, let’s try to re-think it from the ground up using the resources of thinkers that have led the way in thinking critically and innovatively about life and the world today.

In trying to do this, I will turn to Foucault, and the idea of the cultivation of the self. But I know already that I’ll spend some time with Georges Canguilhem and the idea of health as normativity. Judith Butler will feature, as will Michel Serres, and no doubt others.

If this is a line of thinking that interests you, please get in touch and we’ll find a way to share ideas more flexibly than this blog allows at the present time.

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