Jan 11, 2011

The myth of Individuality: A contrarian take

Individual... In Dividual... Not Divisible... A whole thing... Self-contained... An end unto itself in matters of living. An Individual has in the modern world become a unit-of-existence that is the normative 'level-of-analysis' in deriving ethical wisdom, social conventions, economic structures and institutions of governance among other things.

An individual is often assumed to have autonomous motives, is reposited with agency of causation, credited with full awareness of his needs, considered the locus of morality and each one is thought of as a complete instantiation of humanity. While this view took root first in the west, it is now a credo preached in just about every modern institution in much of all nations of the world. When considered theoretically, it is found to constitute the very foundations of 'classical economics' in particular, the 'capitalist' weltanschauung in general and the popular imagination of urban-middle classes enthymematically.

But the truth, viewed from a dispassionate distance, is that there is scant individualistic about most men, only bantam individualistic about some men and something remarkably individualistic is to be found in only an exiguous few  in a whole generation of men. 
(I will henceforth use the term 'one' to refer to any person in general and the term 'individual' only to refer to the subject of this article)

If the sum total of one's existence, the full aggregate, could be sliced up into chunks and put in either one of two given baskets, based on whether the proffered chunk has an 'individualistic' or a 'non-individualistic' quality about it, surely only a small proportion would emerge finding its way into the first basket. And this asymmetry in 'distribution of existence' between the two qualities, is likely to hold up even if not the full aggregate but a part specific (or a constituent realm) of existence is taken up for slicing - be it the realm of thoughts or cognition, the realm of feelings or emotion, the realm of actions or behavior, or perhaps any other realm that might be imagined as any blend of the foregoing three.

Non-individuality can be weighed against individuality and found massively more abundant as it exists both 'within' and 'without' the phenomenon of individuality. This is  so, as 'within' an individual there can be and indeed are multiple identities, schisms, contradictions and heterogeneity ; while 'without' an individual, i.e. between different individuals, there can be and indeed are common identities, associations, complementarity and homogeneity.

So in this sense, individuality is an obfuscation of 'differences within' and 'similarities without'.. merely an 'averaging out'  An exclusive reliance on it (individuality) as a mode of observing and explaining the human condition, is tantamount to a denial of a substantial chunk of the experience of being alive and living in this world. 

Social Constructivism: Our existence is utterly Social in its most fundamental aspects

Because to each one of us, the stream of consciousness  presents itself like a private event, akin to a process to which one himself is the only witness, it is very tempting to believe that we all are indeed different, distinct, independent, self-contained and complete within-ourselves. We also find it explanatorily expedient, to view social phenomena as merely an aggregate view of disaggregated individuals acting of their own accord in line with individualistic motivations. Methodological Individualism is often assumed to be a phenomenal proof for ontological individualism.

A conception of man premised solely on foregoing assumptions, while congenially agreeable with facile modes of thought that we are accustomed to, is nonetheless is a travesty of ratiocination. 

Whereas what appears to us as our very own private consciousness, is infact composed entirely of symbols and patterns which are social constructions (unless you suffer from severe Autism or have failed to acquire a human language). If you ever found yourself wondering why is it that you do not remember anything of your early childhood, as to what accounts for no consciousness of the past beyond a point - it is quite simply because of the 'non-individualistic' social nature of consciousness.. you ONLY are able, by your very psycho-cognitive design, to meaningfully be aware of things AFTER you've acquired a capacity for symbolic thought, most powerful and ubiquitous form of which is Language - a symbol system as non-individualistic as it can get (it is utterly essentially socio-cultural).

Numerous studies have shown a lack of 'meaningfulness' of conscious experience along with severe retardation in capacities for thinking, feeling, verbalising and even imagination, in subjects who've been deprived of 'social stimulation' in their developmental stages due to, for various reasons, being subject to confinement, isolation, segregation or what I may so call for the purpose of this article , 'extreme asocial individuation'. So hypothetically, if you'd indeed be born into a desolate island with no other human being... you will NOT grow up to be like Tom Hanks in Cast Away... but will, if somehow saved from immediate demise, grow up with a profound irremediable deficit in every psycho-emotional-cognitive attribute (including consciousness) that makes you human.

Ergo, even the most apparently individualistic phenomena, your very own consciousness, has a foundational non-individualistic quality about itself, its very substratum is social. Experienced reality of human existence is a shared artifact, and as such, is infinitely more an outcome of social constructivism than individualistic contemplation.

A Swarm of Starlings: An example (rather extreme) of the loss of useless individuality for gain of useful collectivity; here the collective behaves like a single Superorganism and much more intelligently than the rather dumb individuals of this passerine species.

Finally, to view human social phenomena (like culture, economy etc.) as being caused by nothing more than the sum of all individual 'willings' of the ones who constitute the collective; by the mere arithmetic accumulation of the effect of the agency of causation reposited solely and independently within the personality of each individual .... is , apart from strong evidence for the cognitive bias of correspondent attribution, an inadequate theory of cause-and-effect.

Except for the animalistic motive of self-preservation and physiological needs of hunger, thirst, protection from cold etc., almost every 'higher' human motive is either patently social or at least parasitic on a social cognition like 'respect' 'guilt' 'shame' 'prestige' 'power' 'love' 'belonging' 'authority' etc. Amongst the countless reputable adherents of this view is Abraham Maslow, who conceptualized human needs and motives as hierarchically structured in such manner that all higher motives are either social, spiritual or transcendent in nature and not individualistic. Most actions of men, driven by social motives as they are, are also actuated within the 'structures of relations' between individuals..and not in the solipsistic realm of the individual in a social vacuum. Every organized human endeavor... be it manifest at the level of a family, a corporation, a community or even an person acting alone.. and be it as simple as merely existing without productive employment or be it as complex as governing nations and running economies... just quite everything, features reciprocal determinism, i.e. individuals effecting collectives and collectives effecting individuals.

It is this cyclic causation, that too with an unmistakable non-individualistic environmentalist bias, that effectively(and adequately) explains behavioral phenomena - both when a man acts alone and when groups of men act collectively. ANY social or collective phenomena is never just 'the sum of its parts', as should happen if existence was confined only within individuals and no attribute of it(existence) were to transcend them(individuals) and characterize the collective. WHEREAS s
ocial or collective phenomena are most often 'more than the sum of its parts' (when individuals cooperate) and quite often 'less than the sum of its parts' (when individuals are uncooperative) and each single one becomes 'less than' or 'more than' what he or she is in isolation. 

Everyday living too, is a social phenomena where all of us are always something more or something less, always something apart than merely our separated selves. A man is born wholly an animal, but development consists in transformation of that biological organism into a social one. Our  very identity, entity and mode-of-existence is mighty much more collectivistic than  it is individualistic.

This, in my opinion, is a liberating thought.

It  enjoins upon us, as a species, a moral, rational and existential imperative to acknowledge our mutual inter-dependence; and to interweave the mutuality and the sense of shared meaning harmoniously into the narrative fabric of human life on earth.


Unknown said...

"almost every 'higher' human motive is either patently social or at least parasitic on a social cognition like 'respect' 'guilt' 'shame' 'prestige' 'power' 'love' 'belonging' 'authority' etc." This adds credence to your contrarian take. Also, the > < sum of the parts concept is apt here. I have lately been thinking about the way we behave and have been able to successfully explain using the above viewpoint as against the individualistic approach.

Baddi said...

Loved reading it! Good Job!

Siddharth Kaushal said...

Cheers mate. I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for commenting.

Bishwajit said...

Very interesting piece ... But I am not quite sure.

While the society around us is critical in shaping our thoughts, helping us identify needs that are relevant and finally in recognizing (or otherwise) new ideas and taking them forward to new generations - we should not discount the power of individual intelligence, capabilities ... where the ideas are actually born and where lots of individual level daring is needed to persevere. Societies are strongly shaped by human intuitions and it is actually a "circle of effect" is just a not one-way arrow from society to humans.

Individual excellence, daring and first-rate minds will continue to shape the future of our civilization. Societies act as mirrors - and reflect in a broader scale the social impact of new ideas ...

Siddharth Kaushal said...

thanks man.

of course.. i did not rule out the possibility of remarkable individuals.. and their effect on society.. in fact i said "something remarkably individualistic is to be found in only an exiguous few in a whole generation of men."...

although you must see that my point is slightly different from the chicken-n-egg question of whether man makes society or society makes man.

my analysis was a deconstruction of the very idea of individuality.. it was to uncover that notions that go into conceiving a human being as an individual.. and what limitations does this notion of individuality present us with in furnishing a satisfactory explanation of human condition.

even a brilliant scientist, not quite someone like Einstein or Newton, but your average professor at MIT for instance, is in the choices that are available to him, in choices that he makes, in motivational patterns, in cognitive architecture, in emotional predisposition and in moral constitution... a 'product' of the historical-cultural-familial social context of which he was a part.

the idea is not to take credit away from the individual for a creative accomplishment (say a technology like the atomic bomb) and diffuse it over society... but to explain the very circumstances that shaped the choice to pursue the atomic bomb.

point is.. it is easy to over-estimate the extent to which the individual human being is the locus-of-causality for his actions.. as he is a salient figure. but easy to under-estimate the extra-individual factors as the locus-of-causality for his actions as they are invisible abstract and intricately enmeshed with each other.

Anonymous said...

who knows wat work ?

Wanderer said...

I feel there has been excessive focus on, and valorisation of the individual.

We often celebrate the final straw on the camel's back, and the individual who put it, while ignoring the foundation built by society at large which led to the final straw. In this sense, our celebration of individuals seem unreasonable to me.

If Einstein didn't come up with relativity, someone else would have. If Hillary and Tenzing didn't climb everest, someone else would have... In any case, we don't know the 'greatest' inventors and explorers - the first people who crossed seas and mountains, the ones who came up with writing, ones who built the first wheelbarrow or boat or the first farm... We celebrate the first guy to do this or do that, when we can put a convenient name and face.. even when it makes no sense, like Columbus.

I think it's difficult for humans now to accept our own insignificance on earth.

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