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Fr. 591

January 7, 2015

The fact remains that the grounds for Enlightenment backing of more egalitarian political relations need to be recognized for what they are, namely, elaborate rhetorical tools for defining and redefining extant practices and privileges. Divorced from their original context, such tools take on an absolute meaning which can mislead the reader not only as to their content, but also their intent and extent. In other words, the meaning of “individual” takes on a different cast and achieves a wider field of applicability than the authors had foreseen.

Continuing with his diagnosis, Terrell even goes so far as to compare these tools to myth.

However pragmatic their motivations and goals, what Rousseau and others crafted as arguments in favor of their ideas all had the earmarks of primitive mythology. As the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argued almost a century ago: “Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief, it safeguards and enforces morality, it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man.” Myths achieve this social function, he observed, by serving as guides, or charters, for moral values, social order and magical belief. “Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.”

Much like primitive myth, Enlightenment thought surrounding the selfish, self-serving individual sought to make manifest then-current, latent views of society and its composition in order to set forth a new chart for values and order, codified today under the form of individual rights and freedoms. If Terrell draws our attention to this myth, it is precisely with the intent of underlining its own artificiality, the way in which its beginnings and future rely on the package of rhetorical tools and empirical psychology explained above. For this reason, the myth can be, if not remade, tailored to the exigencies of our contemporary political situation.

While as an anthropologist I largely agree with Malinowski, I would add that not all myths make good charters for faith and wisdom. The sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals. There was never a time in history before civil society when we were each totally free to do whatever we elected to do. We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today.

In short, in view of recent empirical advances and longstanding conceptual findings, the individual of the Enlightenment needs to be reembedded, as it were, in the network of relations from which she first arose. The logical conclusion to the task briefly outlined by Terrrell above is twofold. The first consists in accepting that there exists such a thing as the individual but one sorely in need of redefinition, given the exigencies of contemporary political society. After all, at the base of current juridical relations is just such a legal individual, with all of the advances in individual freedoms and rights that this brings. To do away with the individual entirely would come to little more than to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The second should be understood along the lines of making manifest precisely that web of self-defining relations to which Terrell alludes previously. If we acknowledged above the difficulty of recognizing this web as an identifiable entity, standalone or otherwise, this is not to suggest that the task is an altogether impossible one. Conceptually speaking, nothing condemns this procedure to inevitable failure. Neither is this, however, to downplay the conceptual difficulties of wrapping our head around such a notion, i.e. that a relation, or a web of relations, can be as much an entity as that between which they stand as relation, i.e. individuals, entities, etc. To make manifest and identifiable the latent and unrecognized: such is our task.


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