The Discovered Self

This is the first in a series. Please see Parts Two, Three, and Four.

by Albert Norton, Jr. (September 2023)

Christ in Silence, Odilon Redon, 1897



In 2020, Carl Trueman published The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, subtitled Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. It’s an important book but, as with all writings in the postmodern age, one has to pay close attention to precise word definitions. “Expressive individualism” can be misunderstood. The opposite of individualism is collectivism, so it’s not obvious that one should attach any kind of pejorative to forms of the word “individualism.” Trueman’s intent becomes clearer upon reading one of his shorter essays, in two parts dated November 9 and 10, 2020, at Public Discourse, titled The Rise of the “Psychological Man.” “Psychological man” perhaps resonates better. It’s important we understand the cultural shift it portends.

How did people form their sense of self before we all became “psychological man?” Once upon a time, the sense of self was formed from relations outside oneself. People grew up forming their sense of identity on the basis of love relationships: son, brother, friend, citizen, child of God. A person’s sense of his own “self” would be formed from beliefs concerning the nature of reality that he acquires from his environment and from reason. That sense rested on an understanding that there is a common human nature, containing the conscience and basic principles like the givenness of categories in reality.

With that common-sense understanding of how identity is formed, we can consider the shift away from it to “psychological man.” Instead of forming one’s identity on the basis of external influences, we turn to examination of the interior being. I suggest the seeds of this shift lay in existentialist thinking that survives as a significant strand of postmodernism. It meant a turn inward to discover one’s true essence. My true “self” is in here somewhere, to be discovered. It is Whitman’s “barbaric yawp.”

This coincides with the shift to emphasis on psychology which, especially after Freud, is taken in large part to be the study of what makes the inner person. A significant book from the 1960s highlights this shift of emphasis: Philip Reiff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. People increasingly centered the self’s needs and wants, and the culture came to reflect that centering. This was a shift from faith to therapy, which is why Reiff’s book was subtitled Uses of Faith after Freud. Freud, you recall, developed his theories around tensions in the inner being, especially regarding sex. Id, ego, superego, and all that. The “triumph” was that of inner self-examination over the outward seeking of God in faith.

A new form of self-identity arises out of this subjective, inner-seeking, therapeutic environment. If you understand the world to revolve around its Creator, and the self to be defined in terms of relationship to that Creator, then you naturally form your sense of “self,” or “identity” on that and on other relationships in life, especially parents, but also including other family, and authority figures like teachers, and on community, friendships, and so on. I might say for example that my identity is in Christ, with Him as the Northstar in the development of self reflected back to me in close relationships with parents, siblings, spouse, and friends. Or, I can discover my identity in the wellspring of my inner “true” being, which will manifest in categories of personhood supplied by ideologies formed in the culture upon the advent of “psychological man.”

Sex is central to identity formation. Religions teach that very thing. But traditional religion taught there are two ontological categories of human being, male and female, and that there are proper and improper uses of sexual function. One’s identity must be formed within the given category. We identify our maleness or femaleness not by consulting our inner psychology, but by the body and through social reinforcement of male and female category.

If the inner, “true” self is the source of identity, however, then even one’s sex can be discerned by looking within, and this can trump the obvious external, bodily indicator of sex category. This helps explain the intractability of trans identity activism. From the trans activist perspective, how dare you not accept whatever I say I am? From the objective truth perspective, how is it compassionate to affirm delusion? The tension is acute when we’re talking about children. Is “gender affirmation” genuine kindness? Or is it indifference tricked out as tolerance?

The sexual attraction one feels can also be a source of identity. A male attracted to males, for example, may not think of himself as a person who is tempted to the sin of same-sex sexual experiences. He may conceive himself as a distinct category of human: a gay man. That’s his “identity,” a sub-category of human being to which he consigns himself in eternal conflict with other sub-categories.

With the turn from faith to psychological self-formation, the concept of sin is discarded. The truth is that an inclination to sin is present in every heart; we’re to actively resist it to be the best person we can be. We live our lives swimming around at the mouth of a whirlpool. We can fight it by swimming away from it, to the weaker outer edges of the vortex. Or we can relax, deny the existence of the vortex, and be sucked into it. Children don’t know any better, if we don’t teach them, so that’s what they will do.

With the thinking of Jean Jacques Rousseau and many another after him, a shift began away from the Christian understanding of mankind’s inclination to sin, toward an understanding that we are essentially good except as corrupted by society. Evil does not exist in my own heart, in other words. It invades me from the outside. We come to think of our moral task as repulsing the corrupting evil outside ourselves, rather than suppressing the evil in our own heart. The line between good and evil no longer runs through each individual heart, on this understanding.

In the last two or three generations or so, the evil in the heart is increasingly denied and is thereby given rein because that’s what we do, we fall into destructive patterns of thought haphazardly if we are not conscious of sin and our own frailty in dealing with it. Part of the problem is that we’ve collectively become allergic even to the word “sin.” The demons laugh their heads off when we recoil at mention of sin. But fine, let’s call it something else, so long as we’re willing to accept that it’s here in the heart, not just vaguely out there somewhere. It’s a little monster inside each of us that becomes as big as we allow.

If evil is external, it follows that the uncorrupted discovered self is an expression of moral purity. The necessary corollary to the self as basically good is that any attempt to abridge the discovered inner identity must be evil. That attempt is bigotry, the new original sin, words and attitudes that would deny the pure discovered identity.

Denial of the discovered identity is not just to be fought as evil corruption, it is to be fought as an existential threat, quite literally. A person’s identity is their very self, and denying that identity means denying the self. Thus, if my body is sexually male, but my discovered identity is female, and you deny that I am “really” a female, you are attempting to cancel my very existence. Identity is essence, in this way of thinking.

This precept is not unique to trans ideology. A person immersed in the therapeutic conception of self sees evil only in what they call bigotry. They may not conceive of a dark side to their own being, so focused are they on how good they are. How open-minded. How accepting of other people. How unwilling to call evil “evil.” You do you. Indifference is transmuted alchemically to moral uprightness.

The paradigm of discovered identity has profound implications for relationship to authority. Absent belief in God and the reality such belief discloses, we have a tendency to consider internal predilections, feelings, emotions, and desires as being solely authoritative. External sources of authority are suspect. Even, or perhaps especially, the authority of fathers, but certainly all human sources of authority for which the father is archetype.

Some time ago in child psychology circles, there arose a new concept called “oppositional defiant disorder.” It’s a phrase to describe children who oppose authority and are defiant toward it. But that’s true of every child, to some degree or another, why is it elevated to a mental health “disorder?” It’s a therapy-language response to the observation that so many children and teenagers in this day reflexively oppose authority in the abstract, and, being children, oppose it particularly as it is embodied in parents, and especially the father. External authority is a threat to the internal authority of one’s discovered identity, which must be allowed to emerge from the inner being.

It’s quite difficult, in this environment, to turn to religion to understand reality. We can easily ignore its factual narrative supporting hard principles, and substitute vague spirituality. This is why moral therapeutic deism has replaced Christianity in too many ostensibly Christian churches. It is a capitulation of the church itself to the paradigm of psychological man.

A consequence is that we are incapacitated from grasping that our default state is to turn to evil. Evil is not the difficult thing to explain about humanity; good is. The cultured, educated, disciplined state we try to bring about in our children must include an understanding of how to renounce evil so we don’t “lean on our own understanding” (Prov 3:5). Instilling that self-discipline and that truth about selfhood is what it means to rear a child, rather than just keeping him and feeding him like a pet. Left to his own devices he will feed the monster within, the self in a state of nature, the self-authored self.

If you have trouble thinking religion is so important, think instead of “transcendence,” the understanding that there is something higher and greater to which we appeal: objectivity of truth and morality. You can think of it as Platonic idealism, or as correspondence theory of truth, or as the logos. The danger is in disconnecting from understanding this objective feature of reality. The disconnect means moral decisions are no longer externally guided. The compass is broken. We drift on stormy seas with a broken rudder, vulnerable to shipwreck in every gasping moment.

This psychological turn has coincided with the loss of a sense that there is a common and stable human nature, with the result that, in Trueman’s words, “all that remains of human purpose is the attaining of personal psychological happiness in whatever form happens to work for the individual concerned.” This is utter relativism and utter narcissism. Our identity emerges from the raw material of inner being, like mushrooms from nightsoil, without reference to its impact on others. It appears from the outside like self-absorption producing false contrived identity, but from the inside as timorous innocence, fearful of identity-denying “violence.”

People who have not gone ‘round the bend on psychological self-formation are often puzzled at regularly being called bigots, or homophobes, or transphobes, or something similar. It’s puzzling because they see a clear distinction between the evil ideology, on the one hand, and the person who adopts it, on the other. Communism is evil, but that doesn’t mean a billion Chinese people are. Likewise, a transperson is the confused victim of transgender activism, not a personification of evil. But if identity is essence, then rejection of the ideology counts as rejection of the person affected by it. For psychological man, identity is in the ideology, so an attack on the ideology is an attack on identity; an attack on the very self. The idea that one can love the sinner but hate the sin is entirely lost on those who discover identity in the inner id, because for them there is no distinction. Ideology and self are ineluctable.

Words are the instrumentality by which we affirm or deny the discovered, internally-derived identity. Denial is thought to be injury, conceptualized in psychological terms. “Misgendering” a transperson by using the “wrong” pronoun, for example, or “deadnaming” them, is deemed equivalent to a physical assault. Speech conformity is imposed to alleviate this “violence.” An objection to homosexuality may be taken as denial of the selfhood of another, an act of political violence. You can say you believe marriage to be between a man and a woman, and that sex belongs only inside that marriage, but a person who identifies himself as “gay” is not going to hear this as disagreement about application of universal moral principles. He’s going to hear it as a denial of his very existence.

It’s not just that we use words to disagree about things, but that we disagree about the purpose of words. It’s the age-old problem of the serpent in the garden, the misuse of language that distorts objective meaning, and is the source of man’s universal morally compromised state. The serpent employs deceptive language rendering us, if we are not vigilant, unable to assign objective and transcendent meaning to anything. We’re our own first casualty, in alienation from God.

As I say in my book The Mountain and the River/Genesis, Postmodernism, and the Machine (New English Review Press 2023), the alienation is an endemic feature of our existence, it’s not just theory. We spend our whole lives in desperate yearning, sometimes unable even to figure out what it is we yearn for. In my earlier book, Intuition of Significance, I talked about yearning a lot, citing the contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga who argued that yearning for reconciliation with God is properly understood as “basic” in epistemology. It’s why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

When we unhitch ourselves from belief in God, we don’t eliminate the feeling of alienation. We just attribute it to something else, usually a particularized dissatisfaction with the imperfect world, and we concoct man-made ways to cure it, usually through some sort of utopian political vision. Marx is a model for this, and is the most pertinent for postmodern philosophy, but you can see all through history people trying to cure the felt sense of alienation in ways that obfuscates rather than clarifies.

The shift in how we formulate self-identity means everyone should be maximally free to self-actualize, and the impetus for that actualization is to be in no way constrained by social norms or even nature. There can be no natural claims based in love imposed against that ultimate freedom. I am the sole author of me. I reject any restraint on my desires. I will not tolerate any external channeling of my energies on the pretense that it teaches self-discipline, or is necessary to learning, or causes me to acquire respect or love. Hear my primal scream. I am a toddler exhausting myself in wailing frustration. An animal reacting in rage to any suggestion that I am a child of God.

This leads me to state even more emphatically the central premise of my book reflected in the Solzhenitsyn quote: “Men have forgotten God, that’s why all this has happened.” It’s all one way or the other. Either nothing is wasted or everything is. Either there is a God who cares, or nothing whatsoever matters even a little bit. Either love is the air we breathe, or power is. Death or life. Choose this day.

Reminds me of the old joke: There are only two kinds of people in the world. The kind who say there are two kinds, and the kind who don’t. Everything about our existence presents dichotomously. Many of the dualities that present to us in reality are ineradicable; fixed; ontological. Like the duality of male and female.

A final thought, harkening again to Trueman’s work. Maybe you’ll sympathize. One needn’t be a theologian to be greatly concerned with how secular philosophies degrade our conception of reality as informed by religion. I’m worn out by church leaders’ lack of preparedness to help Christians understand what we’re up against. We can’t engage the world without understanding its garbled notions of what a person even is.


The needs of this hour are not so much that of explaining the church to the world. First, we need to explain the world to the church. —Trueman


Table of Contents


Albert Norton, Jr is an attorney and author. His most recent book is The Mountain and the River: Genesis, Postmodernism, and the Machine (New English Review Press 2023).

NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


4 Responses

  1. Interesting, and far expands my ability to think about something that has caught my attention many times.

    Too many on the ‘right’ still paint the issues in terms of individualism versus collectivism. It’s very Cold War.

    There was a time when the right even in the democracies, without there being much or any change in their other beliefs, values, and policies, would have seemed the collectivist side and the left the individualist, and this even stretched into the Cold War. Traditional religion, family values, parental authority, ‘community standards’, the authority of schoolmasters or clergy or police officers, deference to traditionally constituted or legally constructed authority, “law and order” as a core principle, strongly applied, aggressive ‘public safety’ in determining criminal justice or public health measures [remember when it was the right that somewhat wanted to quarantine AIDS patients, hard as it is to contract AIDS?] were all pretty conservative tropes. Most still are.

    If you read conservative political philosophers, including from the US, not explicitly from the libertarian tradition, this is all the clearer, as it was and somewhat still is in practice. So, Burke through Kirk with a few others I can’t recall, maybe Mansfield and Jaffa, one whose name was Thomas but surname eludes me and was NOT Thomas Nagel, as much as Nozick or Rand, are part of the tradition.

    Whereas the left was all about challenging these things, which looked at from outside of conservatism, might fairly be called arbitrary sources of authority and precepts restricting individual freedom. Your typical small town of mid century America might seem a shockingly restrictive place to those who call themselves conservative now. The situations that create drama in literature and TV from the 50s or even 60s seem ridiculous and arbitrary now to those of us who do not share the assumptions. We would just act in some way that seems normal and within our rights now, almost or fully unaware we are rejecting norms that our forebears regarded as sacrosanct. The idea that divorce should result in being shunned by family and friends, that one’s neighbours can rightly meddle in one’s business for the sake of community standards or values, that local officials can do so, etc., are all largely alien. To the conservatives of an earlier not so long ago time, all normal. It was the liberals, and even the lefties, who fought most of these things.

    Conservatism did move in a more explicitly libertarian direction, but not all of it, and not all the way, and only the pure libertarians even want it to. We are still making arguments that limit personal freedom of action and self-definition all the time, fundamental ones. They only vary a bit depending on who makes them.

    The left, I think I fairly argue, was always and still is equally selective about when they were promoting individualism, and have moved, in many ways, in more collectivist directions. The communists and their heirs were of course always the cynical ones, promoting max individualism to destroy collectives they hated in order to create new collectives based on different premises and with even more power over their members.

    But at no point, including today, is there a straight conservative=individualist or leftist=collectivist line. We are both both of those things. It just depends on what kind of individualism or collectivism, about what aspect of the human condition, and what things to we think are eternal verities not open to debate or politics.

    To be on the leading edge of the left today, one must be an individualist of a kind more radical than ever before. It is to demand, and believe in the possibility of, total, unfettered, individual and personal control over all aspects of self, self-definition, and definition of self in relation to others. One must also be a collectivist of a kind more radical than ever before, though perhaps not to the same degree. It is to demand the absolute duty of all to ” validate ” the choices of all members, to believe that each member’s choices are so fragile and vulnerable as to be “harmed” by any gap in such recognition, and to use compulsion to enforce that recognition.

    That kind of individualism is pretty alien to all humans that have come before, who all regarded ourselves bound by at least some human obligations and above all by some derived principles of physics, chemistry and biology, which were not regarded as mutable in any meaningful sense, so not subject to either personal choice or politics. It’s hard to even imagine how they could be. But the belief that they are is, nonetheless, a true and radical expression of the dream of human freedom it its ultimate degree. Who cannot at least see that, even if considering it to fly in the face of immutable nature? It is an aspect of our desire to be gods, free at last of all limits. Not unlike our desire to be immortal or to fuse with AI. That kind of collectivism is also alien to all that have come before- never before has any society, however strict its beliefs and forceful its methods, every quite reached the point of believing we all must “validate” one another let alone that everyone’s very existence or even well-being depends on it being compelled. [Perhaps some societies have come close, but usually even then have been about conformism to some external ideology or ruler, not one another.]

    Whereas the conservative of today faces a series of problems. I do not, pace the author, think it necessary to believe in the Christian [or Jewish, or Muslim] God and attendant moral order. Or even any polytheistic religion with attendant philosophy. It is actually possible to have a secular conception of the cosmos and still resist all of this. Perhaps one cannot come up with a universal, perceived-rational, consistent “moral order”, without religion. It is, of course, all somewhat arbitrary and the idea of “human rights” is essentially as “religious” a notion as is “salvation”. Nature does not contain these things. But physics, chemistry and biology provide many means of resistance to most of this modern stuff.

    I don’t think you’re going to get a majority for anything that explicitly rests on Christian teaching, anymore. That doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the debate.

    1. I agree the old left/right linear spectrum is insufficient now. The old left has mostly succeeded in its grind toward collectivism, and Republicans have just slowed the march a little here and there. The habitual collectivist way of thinking exacerbates all the other insanity in our culture, but in my view “men have forgotten God, that’s why all this has happened,” to quote Solzhenitsyn speaking of the USSR.

      When I wrote The Mountain and the River, which NER published this year, I was writing about postmodernism’s devolution from the perspective of objectivity and universality which presuppose essential ontologies written into the cosmos. But I was writing about evolution in ideas. I was a little slow in coming to grips with the “rise of the therapeutic” (quoting the title of Reiff’s 1966 book), so I didn’t say much about it in the book. It’s just as well, I had a lot crammed into it already. But now I realize the shift to the psychological paradigm is as significant as the evolution of wrong-headed propositions. We can imagine a person whose whole outlook centers on their own emotional well-being, and doing so helps us understand the paralyzing self-absorption of so many people all around us, becoming ready grist for the totalitarian mill.

      You write about “individualism” perceptively. I’ve been confused by a lot of writing in which forms of “individualism” are used. To me it’s a good thing; it stands in opposition to collectivism. I had a lot to say about individualism and collectivism in my last two books. But some people, like Carl Trueman, use it to mean the paradigm shift whereby a person perceives the whole world through the lens of their own psychological well-being. Sometimes they modify “individualism” to “extreme individualism” or “expressive individualism,” but what they mean is this paradigm shift to “psychological man,” a phrase I think fits better.

      I hope to continue installments on the subject of The Therapeutic in a series of short essays, possibly 10 or more. I’m about half way through with them.

  2. Adam and Eve discovered self-identification/definition when they received the consequences of their self-agency in rejecting the rule regarding the Tree of Knowledge.

    1. I’ve listened to lectures describing the Fall as an event of acquiring “metacognition.” I think there’s more to it than that, the tree they ate from was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So it’s moral awareness specifically, not just the puzzling thing we call “consciousness.” The connection to “the discovered self” I suppose is they formed their identity around the moral good and bad objectively existing in the world and in their own being, not on a Gnostic acquisition of the sense of selfhood manifesting in the inner id.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend