Individualism

very cold February day

Apologies to those who were disappointed to have searched in vain for my blog last weekend. I’m not sure if there was anyone, in that both of my regular readers know what sort of schedule challenges I was dealing with, but I in the interest of building a regular reader base again here I should be polite about it and apologize when I miss. I should also say that I’ve been thinking rather deeply about matters of how much my value depends on other people, and which other people. And part of the question, dear reader, is to what extent you are part of the validation for my existence.

Recently I’ve been looking at and defending the dualism and individualism inherent in Descartes’ cogito (“I think therefore I am” for the non-philosophers reading this). My good virtual friend Brian wrote recently that it should be rephrased, “We speak therefore we are.” That in fact is a slightly more philosophically viable alternative to the African variation of putting cogito up against the general proverb which can be loosely translated, “A person is a person because the people are the people.” In both cases, however, there is an assumption that Descartes was basically mistaken in believing that his individual existence could be defended according to his individual mental processes. I actually reject that rejection on a couple different levels, while at the same time taking its underlying admonition towards community participation quite seriously. But at the same time I haven’t really reached any final conclusions on this one. I should explain.

First of all, Descartes’ proposal in his first principle is very modest: he could be sure that he himself, in some way or some form, actually existed; just because he could sit around worrying about it. You can’t sit around worrying if you don’t exist. Whatever else you can doubt, that much seems to be as far beyond doubt as anything could possibly be, no matter how paranoid you are. Descartes was not saying that he was necessarily human even; just that in some form he existed. Therefore it is unfair to claim that he was mistaken. Brian has basically admitted that this is correct. Mari, the scholar through whom I have been considering the African perspectives, has made the same observation.

But beyond that there is the question of whether Descartes’ self-sufficiency and in verifying his own existence actually does more harm or good. The argument against him here is two-fold. First of all, he is stressing aspects of his selfhood that have nothing to do with his body as such. He could just as well be a dragon avatar in World of Warcraft, or a human power source in the Matrix or even a character in the Major’s imagination is Sophie’s World for that matter. His not knowing what he is for sure, and his refusal to trust that his body is necessarily part of that identity, is something that many find extremely disturbing. Isn’t it more important to start with what we know to be true about ourselves in terms of our physical existence, which can at least be scientifically investigated and all that?

But more important in the minds of these anti-Cartesians is the matter of recognizing the importance of the community. In order to be truly valuable as a person, and in order to be at peace and harmony with oneself and the surrounding world, isn’t it important to recognize and own the group(s) of people who have socialized us into the identities we now have? Wouldn’t a failure to do so be inherently self-deceptive? And perhaps more importantly, isn’t the acknowledgment of the rights, dignity and value of others key to the realization of our own individual rights, dignity and value? Shouldn’t we listen to the sagacious words telling us that “no man is an island,” and join Van Morrison in responsively saying, “Rock on, John Donne”?

There is much about both of these objections that I can sympathize with, but I ultimately reject both of them as standards for the foundation of my personal identity. To begin with the latter, I quote Abraham Maslow: “What shall we think of a well-adjusted slave?” Is it best to be at peace and harmony with all that tries to oppress us? If you happen to have a vested interest in controlling others you might think so, but most people I know would say of course not.

Maslow believed that everyone needs to have a sense of belonging and social acceptance before they can rise to greater heights, but he does not believe that social acceptance should be the final standard for defining a person’s ultimate value. That ultimate value should be in terms of realizing something within ourselves which has value entirely independent of society’s readiness to accept it. Another important Jewish-American thinker of Maslow’s generation, Lawrence Kohlberg, proposed that when it comes to morally justifying our actions we tend to fall into one of six basic categories, based on our level of personal maturity and development. Those with the most childish perspectives tend to think of what kinds of rewards and punishments they might get from those in charge of their worlds. Those with somewhat more mature perspectives consider how the society works and what they have to do to fit in. Those with the most mature perspectives go beyond worrying about what is socially and culturally accepted to thinking about what ultimately has universal ethical value. The sad fact of the matter is that if instructed by authority figures and socially pressured to commit atrocities, most people would readily do so. The ones who would not are those rare eccentrics who put their personal principles and values ahead of the communally accepted ones. That doesn’t mean that they put themselves ahead of everyone else; it just means that they believe in some higher standards than social acceptability as a guide for their lives.

When it comes to Descartes’ mind/body dualism we get into trickier territory. The question of whether a spirit world beyond the physical even exists is not something that many readers here take for granted. It would also be fair to say that such a concept was probably rather absent from the ancient Hebrew that Christianity is theoretically based on. The Bible’s first hint at the idea of heaven comes in Psalm 49 – my paraphrased version: “God’s going to come and get me after I die. Those rich bastards are just going to rot in their graves.” Even that sort of leaves open the question of whether the soul goes to be with God, or whether the psalmist is expecting God to give him his body back. Moving up to Jesus’ time, following all of the Hellenistic influences on Judaism, the controversy seemed to be whether bodies would be resurrected for a time of divine reward and punishment (the Pharisees) or whether we just die and that’s the end of it (the Sadducees). Jesus’ talk of non-sexual angel-like heavenly beings (Matthew chapter 22) took both sides by surprise. The apostle Paul in turn carried on with the idea that the afterlife would include a resurrection of physical bodies (I Corinthians 15), but he then tossed the blatantly Hellenistic understanding into the mix, that when he died he would be “away from the body, at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5). So with all that confusion about whether one’s body is one’s true self in the Judeo-Christian tradition, how can we defend this non-scientific idea on religious grounds even?

So this leaves an important issue open: Is there really more to me than just my body? Is there some greater natural purpose to my life than biological/genetic survival? Or for that matter, on the other hand, must all of my thoughts and motivations and purposes in life be explainable in terms of chemical and hormonal states within my body, combined with the social and cultural influences I have received?

On the one hand there is an important aspect to my body being an important part of who I am. If I am truly in love with a woman, I don’t think that can work without our fully appreciating each other both mentally and physically. One without the other leads to a far less satisfying relationship. And if I hope for romantic love to involve all aspects of my being, including the physical, why shouldn’t religious fervor and spiritual experiences also include all of me?

But even phrasing it that way implies an assumption that each of us is more that our bodies. Can we really escape from that? Can we find a consistent reductionist perspective that says the physical part of me is all there is, and operate honestly in our social interactions on that basis? Perhaps, but being a radical vegan would probably be far easier. Nor do I really see this as a matter of cultural conditioning either. I believe that the human experience, with all of its mysteries, wonders, beauties, pains and inherent longings––including those for truth and justice––is best explained by postulating that there is more to each of us than just our bodies. So like Descartes I strongly personally believe that there has to be something more to what makes me me than just this wonderful body of mine. Whatever else there is to me, that part of me has to operate within this body (most of the time at least), and the question of whether my body and brain getting damaged fundamentally changes who I am is yet another complicated matter; but I’ll go into my perspectives on the Phineas Gage story some other time. Descartes didn’t have the final truth of the matter, and neither do I. All he implied in this regard in “cogito” was that his certainty of his existence didn’t have to depend on his body, per se. That far I’d be inclined to agree.

So the question is, how big a risk is there in following Descartes into individualized self-hood? My friend Brian, citing Thomas Merton, and the African philosophers and theologians I’ve been reading about all seem to consider this a major problem. I’m not so sure.

I do agree that to be complete as persons, each of us needs to be connected with something bigger than ourselves. None of us are biologically or psychologically designed for lives of solitude. We need other people in our lives. We each need to know that we are important, in every aspect of who we are, to others around us. None of us can live without loving and being loved in some way or another. I would even go as far as to say that, as much as I admire Kierkegaard’s thought and writings, he lived an unnecessarily sad life and died younger than he should have due to his failure to get this point.

I’d also agree with the basic concern that in order to be fully human and fully at peace with oneself, one also needs to accept oneself physically, “warts and all,” and one needs to respect the human value of those in one’s community and environment. Not seeing others as important because they’re not entirely just like me, and not accepting myself because I don’t match up to my own platonic ideal for myself can both really mess up a person’s life. But the thing is, I don’t see Descartes as being in any way to blame for such problems.

To me the thing that prevents people from integrating their own identities with a broader sense of what it means to be human is tribalism, in all of its various forms. What isolates people from other people is not an inherent sense of self-sufficiency, but rather a feeling that the only people that matter are those in my own little group –– the ones I was raised with, the ones who worship in the same way I do, the ones who look and dress like me, the ones who speak with a familiar accent… By excluding those who don’t fit into those categories, I effectively make myself less human.

Thus, ironically, to be more harmonized, integrated and complete as a person, I need to dare to step outside of my tribal boundaries. From my immediate community’s perspective I need to be more of an individualist. As much as I may love them, the limits of their world cannot be the limits of my world. God, and humanity, are bigger than what any tribal, cultural, religious or national group can encompass.

Of course I cannot on my own encounter all of the richness of the human experience without particular trusted friends in the process, and in some way those too can become “my tribe”, but when such a tribe starts to limit more than reinforce my sense of who I am in terms of a broader sense of harmony, connection and purpose, it’s time to loosen those ties. For that matter there will always be dangers posed by the defensive structures of other tribes out there. Not everyone will trust me and accept me on the basis of my openness and good will towards them. I can’t safely try connect with everyone out there. But if I as an individual respect each person I encounter as an individual, rather than our seeing each other as representatives of hostile tribes, that vastly improves our potential for harmony with each other.

I’ve mentioned before at some point in my blogs that I sort of self-identify as “the Flying Dutchman.” I’ve also heard rumors that my father before me carried the same label at times. The fact that the original Flying Dutchman was a legendary sea captain attempting hopelessly to get around the southern tip of Africa, and his family name might even indicate a closer family relation, are interesting ironies at this point in my life. Beyond that, the part I do not identify with in the legend is losing all contact with the rest of humanity through blind ambition. The part I do relate to very strongly is a sense of being an outsider––a non-member of whatever tribe I encounter, wherever I go. In some ways though, at this point in life I find that oddly refreshing, in that it enables me to establish many contacts that identifiable members of stereotype-able tribes aren’t able to establish.

I’m actually hoping that many readers will be able to identify with this form of individualism as a means of establishing greater personal integration. I’m hoping you’ll allow me to be a member of your own loose tribal units, and that we can trust each other regardless of our background differences. I’m hoping that these words enable a sense of personal connection between myself and each reader, and among readers here, that somehow helps each of us to be a bit more human, and perhaps a bit more spiritual as well, in the process. If other members of “tribes” I’m currently associated with have a problem with that, that’s their problem, nor ours, and I can live with that. And as I see it, Descartes, wherever he’s at, is part of our same gang.

If this strikes a chord with you I’d appreciate you letting me know, and passing it on.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Individualism, Philosophy, Religion

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