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Anti-Anti-Individualism

There is a critique of individualism that goes something like this:

Before modernity, human beings had meaningful lives as parts of groups. Dance, ritual, myth, tribal laws and folkways, all served to unite us, giving our lives emotional richness and depth, and giving us a way to respond to the contingency and fragility of individual life. Modernity caused us to lose this existential and aesthetic depth, and this social cohesion, by promoting practices that divide and atomize, and philosophies that encourage us to view ourselves as separate.

The trouble with this critique is that if you are going to find it persuasive you must find it persuasive as an individual. IF you are sunk in a collective identity you are not in a position to choose whether or not to be an atomized, enlightenment individual. Who would do the choosing?

So the critique of enlightenment individualsm ends up assuming the truth of the position that it is attacking. You have to be a separate individual making choices in order to understand and respond to it.

There’s something appealing to it, no doubt — who wouldn’t want the emotional benefits of solidarity, a particular identity, and a rich web of relationships — but to listen to it requires splitting our minds. There must be the part of the mind that is individual enough to recognize the cogency of the anti-individualistic critique, and there must be the part of the mind that attempts to enjoy the psychic benefits of communalism, while at the same time forgetting that it is as an individual that I choose to enjoy those benefits. So, listening to the anti-individualistic critique entails splitting our psyches into two warring parts.

This is a switcheroo indeed for a position that promises integration!

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3 thoughts on “Anti-Anti-Individualism

  1. It seems as simple as that everyone is stranded being an individual – any sense of being ‘connected’ is essentially an illusion – an illusion of both habit and lack of processing power in the brain.

    That’s why people find it so hard to ‘break free’ – because you already are a loose fragment! You already are a fragmented individual.

    Far from trying to be an individual, what you’re left with is trying to be part of the herd! But the herd does not try to be part of the herd – they are, by process, just are. While you will try and for trying rather than just being…never quite fit in.

    You’re banging on a door either way (a mimes door, that is). But the true individual (in as much as awareness makes it any more true than it already is) is on the outside of it, trying to get back in.

  2. Mikey says:

    This argument against individualism does demand a splitting of our psyches into two warring parts and also promises integration. The argument also speaks to the part which is winning and persuades it to lose. That doesn’t make the argument untrue or invalid. If we were talking about a more conventional war with tanks and bombs and stuff, this argument would be a double agent who recruits spies. She’s not entirely honest, but essential to the war effort and definitely on the side of integration (in the end).

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