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Fr. 590

January 6, 2015

John Terrell’s recent publication at The Stone approaches the upcoming American electoral struggles through the lens of the individual and each party’s understanding thereof. For this term, “individual”, can be thought to summarize rather neatly the divergence between their platforms:

In a broad sense, Democrats, particularly the more liberal among them, are more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives and to strive for policies that emphasize that understanding. Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe, however, often trace their ideas about freedom and liberty back to Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that the individual is the true measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.

Whereas the left, relatively speaking, holds forth an individual embedded in a specific context and network of relations, the right posits an individual qua self-interested absolute, i.e. without relations of logical or practical dependency. As Terrell’s article will show, similar debates on the individual’s embeddedness and absoluteness have played out in the history of philosophy. Our question in all of this is whether there remains such a thing as the individual and, if so, whether this entity is in need of redefinition.

If certain philosophers of the Enlightenment have painted the individual both as the most basic unit of human existence and as an egocentric creature, it is worth noting that others, both before and after, have highlighted just how much abstraction is to be found in this portrayal. Indeed, Terrell finds a certain irony in modern science’s coming down on the side of the latter.

So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.

If the libertarian and Tea Party strains are likely to resist such findings out of fear of “knowledgeable” authority, their reasons for doing so are perhaps understandable. Without a doubt, the individual presents a concrete, more readily identifiable entity than any network of human relations. Certainly, as in the case of a church group, we can concede the existence of a community, but this is most often analyzed down to its components at the individual level, at least in the West, to the detriment of other entities such as the environment, background or the whole. Again, these are less readily identifiable to the observer and present less of a unified, discrete personality.

Yet religion and science dovetail on the social origins of the individual, and Terrell again unearths an irony characteristic to the question as he has thus far laid it out.

The irony here is that when it comes to our responsibilities to one another as human beings, religion and evolution nowadays are not necessarily on opposite sides of the fence. And as Matthew D. Lieberman, a social neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written: “we think people are built to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In reality, we are actually built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society’s norms.”

Although Terrell distances himself from Lieberman’s claim as to norms, he sides with the latter on his broader claims, which belie the Enlightenment myth of a perfectly self-interested individual who bands together with others of the sort only in the aim of preserving that same self-interest. In reality, a careful consideration of language leads us to much the same conclusion. Insofar as language is learned from others and language allows for a greater organization and empowerment of cognitive activity, higher cognitive activity can only be learned from, with or in the presence of others. Terrell corroborates this claim in his own fashion.

Human evolution has made us obligate social creatures. Even if some of us may choose sooner or later to disappear into the woods or sit on a mountaintop in deep meditation, we humans are able to do so only if before such individualistic anti-social resolve we have first been socially nurtured and socially taught survival arts by others.

All that being said, Terrell does not mean to suggest that Enlightenment views of individual and society are without their merits. It is quite the contrary in that these views served an eminently political goal: that of reforging the web of political and legal relations between the different elements of then-contemporary society.

The simple answer, at least during the Enlightenment, was that they wanted people to accept their claim that civilized life is based on social conventions, or contracts, drawn up at least figuratively speaking by free, sane and equal human beings — contracts that could and should be extended to cover the moral and working relationships that ought to pertain between rulers and the ruled. In short, their aims were political, not historical, scientific or religious.

More simply, if humans were social by convention rather than nature, then it would be possible to alter the make-up of any given society insofar as its current configuration is not the product of necessity but of artifice.

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