In the first chapter of Charles Taylor’s 1975 book Hegel, he sets the scene. He’s describing the kinds of ideas that were floating around in Hegel’s time, that defined the problems Hegel would come to tackle when he began his own work.
Johann Gottfried von Herder had a major impact on the ideas of the time, and we can still feel his influence today. He reacted against the absolutism of much Enlightenment thinking – attempts to find fixed universal principles for deciding what is true – by arguing that each individual is unique, with his or her own way of being human. This puts him against Aristotelianism too, since Aristotle would say that there’s just one way of being a good human being – being rational, being political – and not a multiplicity of ways, each uniquely good in its own way.
So each human being has his or her own particular path, but
“the idea is not just that men are different; this was hardly new; it was rather that the differences define the unique form that each of us is called on to realise.”
Herder is setting up the notion of authenticity: you’re authentic if you’re living up to your own unique potential, becoming what you are. You’re born unique, each of us as unlike as grains of sand, he says. But the essential thing is: you have an individual potential that you need to find. You’re authentic not just by virtue of being, but also by virtue of becoming aware of your own purpose, and finding your own meaning this way. It’s this search for your own differences that gives you the highest kind of purpose that you can find in life, so that
“the differences take on moral import; so that the question could arise for the first time whether a given form of life was an authentic expression of certain individuals or people.”
You are not to be judged on whether your life matches up to a universal ideal. In fact, it’s difficult to see how anyone can judge you but you yourself, since your path is yours alone. But the loss of universality makes it all the more urgent: you alone are responsible for finding yourself, and becoming what you are.
This does not mean that everything in life rests upon your shoulders. We depend on others for all sorts of things: for food, shelter, education, companionship . . . But there is at least one thing in life you alone are responsible for, and that is coming to know yourself. “This is the new dimension added by a theory of self-realisation,” writes Taylor, and this new dimension will be a central part of the challenge Hegel will come to face when it comes to giving an account of what it means to be an individual in the modern world.
(Quotations are from Charles Taylor’s Hegel.)