Monday, July 16, 2012

Loss of the Individual

In the works by Ullmann[1] and then Morris[2], the concept of the individual is shown to come forth during the middle ages. I would argue that it was also present at the time of Columbanus, as evidenced by his correspondence with Gregory I, the “Great”, wherein one sees an individual, Columbanus, communicating with a Roman head of state. Notwithstanding one sees the “individual” arise, one separate from a citizen, a subject, or some other member of a group. Even the Marxist author Meiksins-Wood states that Ockham was one of the first philosophers promoting the concept of an individual[3]. Ockham rejected the Aristotelian constructs of Universals and perforce of the thought therein came to see man as a collection of individuals, separate and distinct human beings. Thus from the 10-13th centuries we see the understanding and acceptance as people as individuals.

By the 19th century we see America as a land of individuals, and the concept of individualism developing and prospering. At the early part of the century we have de Tocqueville and his observation of the individualism of Americans, and I would argue in the famous paper by Weaver and Brandeis, the concept of privacy, and more critically the “right to be left alone”, is an individual right, and the paper is essentially and essay on individualism.

Dewey’s work on rejecting individualism was one of the first strong Progressive articulations of a changing view of what America should be[4]. Dewey rejected the de Tocqueville individualism of the frontier and of what had made America what it was and introduced the controlled Progressive version, his new individualism.

Lukes has written extensively on individualism and his seminal work is a core document[5]. For Lukes the key ingredients of individualism are[6]:

Respect for Human Dignity

As we had already stated privacy, and more to the point, anonymity, are key to individualism; the very right to be left alone. Respect of human dignity is simple all are created equal, and that each is to be respected. Autonomy is the core as well, the ability to go off and create. That fills the same space as self-development.

Now I would argue that the current President in his recent speeches, as has Prof. Warren in her campaign addresses, take the Progressive, if not almost communist (or at least Marxist by the denial of individuals and the acceptance of classes, a nominalism of sorts), stance that no one ever did anything on their own and as such whatever one attains in life is owed to society as a whole. That is the individual may exist, but that is a mere phenomenon, not germane to our society. The society as an Aristotelian abstraction is all that exists, nominalism, if you will a total anti-Ockham world.

The danger of course is that if we allow this gross rejection of the individual, and if we demand the group as the only element of existence, we drive out creativity, we drive out freedom, and we destroy our very idea of this country. The truth is that individuals create, individuals conceive of new things, take personal risks, and the may attain great success. We want to nourish such an environment, not create one where we destroy the individual. It has taken well over a thousand years to get individualism to this point. That is one third of humanity’s recorded history. Do we want to destroy it in four more years?

[1] Ullmann, W., The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages, Hopkins Press (Baltimore) 1966.

[2] Morris, C., The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200, Univ Toronto Press (Toronto), 1987.

[3] Meiksins-Wood, E., Citizen to Lords, Verso (New York) 2008, pp 226-227.

[4] Dewey, J., Individualism Old and New, Prometheus (Amherst, NY) 1999.

[5] Lukes, S., Individualism, Harper (New York) 1973.

[6] Lukes, ibid, p 125.