A Rant: The Brief Discussion of the Birth of An Error

Collectivism vs. Individualism is the primary and fundamental misreading of human self-formation out of the Enlightenment and picking sides in that dumb-ass binary has been the primary driver of bad politics left and right for the last 250 years. This binary definitely let to both right-wing (Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism) and left-wing (the progressive eugenics movement as well as eugenics among American pragmatists as well as Stalin’s New man, etc) misreadings of biology.  It is fundamental misunderstanding of Marxian vs. capitalist economics (markets are not truly an individual enterprise and the collective powering of workers was not a denial of individual agency). It is what leads to horrible misreadings of other cultures as well as the US own culture.
 Of the post-Enlightenment thinkers–utilitarianism vs. deontology dominating the philosophical debates since 1700s while neither seemed to deal with multiple valance of virtue ethic theory–Hegel was one of the few to point out that the self only arises against the recognition of something apart from it, and struggling to be recognized by something apart from it to understand itself, it emerges as a being.  You are formed by and against a collective, and you can not more abandon your individual self to the mob at all times any more than you can learn to speak without some to teach you and to talk.
So kindly, let’s quit this damnably stupid way of binary thinking that was perfectly obvious to most philosophical and religious thinkers of the past to sillily reductive (see Stoic epistemology, skeptic epistemology, Greek virtue ethics, Christian and Islamic virtue ethics,  Abhidhamma, etc).

26 thoughts on “A Rant: The Brief Discussion of the Birth of An Error

  1. Part of the problem is language itself. We have two well established and commonly used words with fairly long histories. People get caught up in language. It’s a normal thing to do. There simply is no English word that captures an everyday sense of combined individuality and collectivity.

    But I wonder how many people even think about this or are capable of thinking about this, under the constraints of language. I know that I use these two words in trying to discuss difficult topics, even though I’ve known for a long time that the distinction is false. It’s simply the common language that is available.

  2. Marxist views of identity are outside of the mainstream. I always appreciate anything that challenges the mainstream, even if just to shake up thinking and offer alternative possibilities.

    My own thinking can be quite far outside of the box. I suspect many Marxists would consider my thinking to be a bit kooky. I’m willing to seriously consider some strange ways of looking at the world.


    I’m unclear about what ‘individuality’ might or might not mean. It’s not necessarily just about ideological worldview. And it isn’t just about the Enlightenment. As I see it, there has been something transformative going on with human nature for a few millennia now.

    We take the idea of individuality for granted. We even take the experience of individuality for granted, whether we deem it to be fundamentally real or a misleading interpretation. When people speak of individuality, they are referring to something they know in their experience. So, what is that experienc, if it isn’t what they think it is?

      • I guess it depends on what is specifically being spoken about. Many people, of course, see the origins of individuality in the Enlightenment. But not everyone does. Others point to the Protestant Reformation, Renaissance (see Edward Muir’s The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance), early Christianity (e.g., Paulinism), Axial Age/Moral Revolution, post-bicameralism (or similar theories: Mcgilchrist), etc.

        Psychology, for example, was first spoken of by that name during the Renaissance. I’d point also point out that some of the most famous early thinkers on individuality included the Hellenistic Stoics, as they defined liberty (freedom of mind and choice) as an internal experience separate from society, and that focus on the individual did lead to extreme behaviors at times. And it was the Greeks who formulated one particular notion of the collective with the Demos, the other side of the coin. I don’t know of any evidence from earlier civilizations that offered a distinction between the individual and collective.

        There are many individualities, or rather expressions and aspects of individuality.

        I was looking at some stuff about Marx and human nature. It’s quite fascinating. I’ve somehow never come across this side of Marxism before, and I guess there is a reason for that, as some Marxists don’t interpret Marx’s writings as implying a human nature (according to what I was reading). I found it helpful, anyway. Learning about this made Marxism a lot more comprehensible.

        I noticed Marx referring to consciousness. Now, there is a complex issue. Julian Jaynes had some interesting thoughts on that topic and he was using the term ‘consciousness’ in a specific way, which many people don’t understand. But it is important to understand because it explains how individualistic consciousness might have arisen in the first place.

        I’m left with many questions about Marx’s views. All of this makes me think about how those first settled societies building God Houses and what that might mean in a Marxist framework—what were they producing and what in turn did that create for human identity? Were there material changes that led up to those God Houses, made them possible? I’m not sure. The construction of those God Houses are a mystery. But obviously they are important to understand considering so many towns to this day are centered around God Houses.

        BTW the rise of religion as a separate category and hence the making of secularism seems directly related to the issue of individualism. Before the Roman Empire and Christianity, there wasn’t a clear separate category of religion as we know it. What we’ve come to perceive as religion was originally a part of the social self.

        Many issues come to mind. Marx’s writings bring up some important insights. But my thinking always looks for the greater context beyond any single theory. I see Marx’s species-being as a jumping off point, as it points toward many other areas.

      • I see individuality to be a natural result of Platonic thought, but similar things were happening in the Dharmic religions actually, so even that seems unfair. The sole focus on individuality seems post-Enlightenment or late Protestant, but the idea that ancients did not have an understanding of it seems absurdly simplified.

      • I see the emergence of individuality as we know it to be twofold.

        First, according to Jaynes or McGilchrist (two different theories explaining the same evidence), we could say that the Marxian species-being experienced or produced a social/cultural/lifeway shift that allowed a new metaphoric interiorization of space. Hence, there was an increasing internalization of awareness, thought, emotion, motivation, and identity. Personal mind space was modeled on shared physical space, which allowed for the development of a unified locus of individuated self and a new form of self-reflective mind capable of abstract thought (e.g., Platonism).

        I’d emphasize a point. In line with the Marxian theory of human nature, genetic change is not needed for psychological change. Even contemporary humans under certain circumstances (extreme stress, mental illness, etc) will have the kinds of experiences hypothesized as having been common to the bicameral mind. This demonstrates that bicameral or bicameral-like potential exists within our present genetics.

        Second, no matter what was the original cause, there were clear changes in society. Axial Age theorists point not just to a new interest in the individual self but also changes in a combined increase of urbanization, multiculturalism, travel, and trade. Also, there were new forms and uses of writing: canons, epics, novels, histories, philosophy, rhetoric, pesonal letters, etc—and interestingly the new writings would sometimes describe what seems like a collective memory that society, humanity, and the divine was somehow different at an earlier time.

        In terms of individuality, urbanization and multiculturalism might be the most important. The ethnically insular organic communities with their communal identity were becoming less domnant (politically and economically, culturally and psychologically). This would be the case, whether or not the bicameral theory is true.

      • The question of the relationship between genetics and psychological change is above my pay-grade when I also know about epigenetic complications and mental-triggered gene manifestation.

  3. This is an area where my thinking is more radical. I see the entire framework of debate as a failure, not just the particular dominant worldview. We are all stuck in a paradigm and I’m not convinced anyone yet has been able to fully see outside of it and point to something genuinely different, beyond science fiction speculations. But I do get occasional hints by certain writers.

    My bias in this is that I tend toward the social sciences. That is my preferred interpetive lens. I’ve only ever been indirectly interested in politics and economics. From that perspective, what is the best book or article offering a Marxian analysis of identity that puts it into the context of anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc?

    • I ended up answering my own question. I was able to find several books about Marx and human nature. Any of them probably would be good reading material.

      I was wondering if you’d written about any of this before. So, I did a search on your blog. The term ‘species-being’ only shows up in 3 results, one of which only includes a brief reference. The other two don’t offer extensive discussion, but your thoughts are worth pointing to. In one, you write:


      “Furthermore, for all the talk of species-being in early Marxism, what species-being actually is: unalienated social relationships happen in integrated (integral) communities, even in “late communist” society.”

      I’m not sure what unalienated social relationships would look like in the modern world. Do they really exist anywhere, besides maybe a few isolated rural or tribal communities? Is even ethnically homogeneous nationalism really unalienated?

      The other post offers even more interesting thoughts:


      “There is no consciousness that is not alienated–the human consciousness as we understand it can only exist in reflection upon itself. This act, itself, is an alienating act.”

      This really does touch upon the theories of Jayens and McGilchrist. There may have existed primitive communist societies where both awareness and identity were focused outward, not reflected back upon an isolated individual self.

      Much of what Jaynes explored was this alienation and anxiety that started showing up in writing during a particular era. Even if you disagree with his theory, the emergence of this new alienated self remains to be explained. Why did it emerge? What exactly changed?

      You continue with the following:

      “Alienation, however, in the broader sense is to be fought, tooth and nail, which leads us to my re-articulation of species-being in Marx: the ideology that approaches our un-reflected being. In the parlance of the Lacan, we have a symbolic order in which our fantasy and our real are bridged in a way that is in accordance with need.”

      I honestly don’t know what that might mean. All that I know is that, as I read about Marx’s view on human nature, I sensed the radical potential of Marxism. We are talking about not just a revolution of the social order but a transformation of human nature.

      You recently told me that you are no longer interested in predictions and that you’d bet on evil. I don’t know if what Marx offered was a prediction, but it sure wasn’t betting on evil. It seems like an envisioning of a truly optimistic possibility. I don’t know how likely it is, though. If you want a safe bet, I’m sure you’re better off putting your money on evil.

      I can be cynical at times. But I can’t ignore the potential I sense, no matter how much it is suppressed and stunted. When I look at history, I realize massive transformations of human nature seem to have happened before. Marx wasn’t wrong for thinking they could happen again. The uncertainty is what causes them and, conversely, what keeps them from happening.

      • I wasn’t even thinking about Stalin. The Soviet genetics program puts this discussion into a different context. The same goes for Nazi eugenics. It was an idea in the air at that time.

        Once it is realized human nature can change, it opens a new avenue of potential social control. Authoritarians in the past only dreamed of that power, but it might become a realistic possibility in the not too distant future. Genetic research is advancing at a face pace.

        I wonder how this fits into the original Marxian notion of species-being. The idea of production effecting human nature might become much more direct, when genetic changes become a product.

      • Knowledge of how social change could happen isn’t moral justification for social control of that social change. Nor does it make clear what positive social change would look like.

        Knowledge we are gaining now could be used in ways that we can’t imagine at present. The unpredictable part can’t be nullified. It seems any action we take right now will be a shot in the dark, whether done by an authoritarian regime or anti-authoritarian activists.

        The best we can do is help to create the conditions where social change becomes a greater probability, even knowing we can’t know how it would turn out. It probably doesn’t matter at this point. We aren’t going to stop change and, considering the conditions developing in society and on this planet, it is unlikely to be mere minor changes.

        I’d be surprised if an authoritarian doesn’t come along to attempt to make use of this increasing knowledge.

  4. I wanted to add something.

    I sense that I’m missing much of the context to your thinking. Also, I sense that you might not be interested in explaining that context, as this post seems like an expression of frustration more than anything else. But, as in many other cases, we probably don’t disagree to a great extent. Or maybe we do.

    I don’t even know what are your opinions on the things that interest me the most: Axial Age, bicameral mind, etc. I suspect most Marxists would have little interest in such things, although maybe I’m wrong. I have a higher tolerance for strange speculations than most people have. I tend to see all of humanity as strange, and so strange speculations naturally follow.

    I feel like I’m throwing comments out into the dark because I simply haven’t a clue about the greater background to this post. I’d like to better understand your views of the origins of individualism. If you could throw me a few bones, it would be much appreciated.

    • Axial age is tied directly to the second stage development of agriculture, the first stage being mostly oppressive and had actually let to a decrease in health outcomes but more stability from the hunter-gather period. Bicameral mind I tend to be somewhat skeptical of as there is no evidence of that much difference in brain biology between hunter-gather and agricultural humans that would have let to confusion that created deities.

      • I don’t think Jaynes was assuming there was a biological change. The central point is that something was altered in how the brain functioned, not necessarily in how the brain was structured. People began thinking differently. That could be because of a Marxian change in production or something else, partly depending on whether we see the change in mind as a cause or a result.

      • You make a good point. Schizophrenics have some of the experiences that are hypothesized for the bicameral mind. And schizophrenia is caused by specific changes in brain structure. It is reasonable to assume that structural changes are always involved.

        I guess I was more thinking that there doesn’t need to genetic changes, although there have been the emergence of some new genetics in recent millennia. I just don’t think genetics can explain the social and psychological changes because they were too widespread.

        The bigger issue, if not genetics, then what passes the changes onto following generations. Epigenetics? Acculturation? Or is it more akin to something in the physical environment such as how lead toxicity alters brain functioning?

      • I was reminded of an example from ‘normal’ people. Many have imaginary friends in childhood. If that were to happen in adulthood, we’d call it mental illness. But it is rather common in childhood. At some point, children learn to shut down that part of their brain or somehow a change occurs. What does that mean in the structure of the brain?

  5. One thing stood out to me in reading about Marx and human nature.

    It was apparent how important is alienation. The focus on alienation seems to have arisen simultaneously with the focus on individuality, both having become of central concern during a certain era and remained a central concern ever since.

    The problems with alienation and individualism may have worsened with the Enlightenment, but those problems had been developing for a long time. The Enlightenment exacerbated, rather than caused, the problem. Then industrialization and mass urbanization worsened it further.

    I briefly discussed an aspect of this in a post from many years ago:


    “Christianity in particular was always a rootless religion. It formed in the urban areas of Rome that included many displaced people. The imperialistic expansionism of Rome has always been at the heart of Western religion and culture. The Axial Age religions in general promoted a transient class of monks and preachers. Many of these religions taught we weren’t at home on earth, but that our true home was elsewhere. This was a major shift for humanity and it set the stage for all of modern civilization.”

    Alienation wasn’t just a concern. It was embraced and quite early on. It became a normalized experience, a new way of being in the world. It was a sense that our home was elsewhere, that humans don’t belong here.

    Did Marx ever discuss this early period of collective alienation?

    • I had an interesting thought. It would be nice to have sociological or anthropological data about the experience of alienation of the Soviet population. It seems likely that someone like Lenin grew up with a sense of alienation, during that period of conflict and instability, shifting political loyalties and revolutionary fervor. He spent his early life under surveillance and oppression, even imprisonment and exile. How likely is it that people steeped in alienation would be able to create a new society that transcends that alienation?

  6. I have some questions for you.

    Do you think what most people call ‘individuality’ is anything more than another word for alienation? There is no actual way for an individual to exist, in the sense of some kind of isolated human identity separate from and independent of social realities and environmental conditions. Isn’t the perception of individuality simply the experience of dissociation and splintering within human nature?

    I ask these questions in the context of the historical development of individuality. The initial focus on individuality seems to have developed with the early breakdown of organic communities. That happened with the first large multicultural empires with their urbanized centers of population and governance. But that breakdown of organic communities didn’t become fully dominant worldwide until industrialization and globalization.

    Alienation is a slow erosion across the centuries. Even now, there is some vague living memory of what once approximated organic communities. The oldest generation still alive largely grew up in small towns and rural farm communities. Isn’t that what many people are nostalgic about, the last remnants of organic communities quickly fading away? Isn’t even climate change conflict an expression of this sense of malaise about the world being transformed and a way of life ending?

    Many of the complaints and criticisms people make seem rooted in this sense of alienation, but too few people understand its source or even exactly what it is. It rarely gets described in straightforward terms, as alienation. Instead, some particular thing such as social media, the gay agenda, cultural Marxism, or whatever gets blamed. All that most people understand is that the world is changing and they don’t like it. The actual larger context and deeper causes are too hard to grasp.

    If alienation is the key issue, what would allow people to understand it, not just intellectually but also emotionally and viscerally? The problem with alienation is that people apparently are even alienated from the awareness of their alienation. What would force it into awareness? But the problem is that anything that forces alienation into awareness also causes anxiety. People either seek to shut down the feeling of anxiety or they react to it in negative ways.

    I’ve thought about alienation in other terms over the years. But thinking of it in terms of the species-being offers a new angle of insight. It reminds me of a couple of things. There is Robert Jay Lifton’s ideas about dissociation in terms of splitting or doubling. And there is cartesian anxiety. Integral theorists often talk about that, sometimes in relation to the work of Varela and Maturana. But Marx put this kind of understanding into a larger theoretical framework.

    Anyway, isn’t arguing about individualism and collectivism just another way of missing the point? Isn’t it a distraction from coming to terms with the larger fate facing the species-being that isn’t just beyond individuals but also beyond any particular collective identity?

    Humans have never before had to deal with the reality of human lives and communities as part of a shared biosphere. There is no evidence that humans have the capacity to ever deal with this. Yet neither can we turn back to traditional organic communities, at least probably not without industrialized civilization first collapsing. A non-destructive revolution appears unlikely.

    We can’t see the problem because we are the problem. Our human nature is intertwined with the conditions that form the present expression of that human nature. Is there a leverage for positive and constructive change? If so, what is it and where is it? How does a social order of alienated individuals escape their own alienation when they can’t even see the trap they are in?

    • “Anyway, isn’t arguing about individualism and collectivism just another way of missing the point? Isn’t it a distraction from coming to terms with the larger fate facing the species-being that isn’t just beyond individuals but also beyond any particular collective identity?”

      In short, yes. Individualism is the particular habit of trying to make alienation into a virtue while denying where your other virtues came from. Collectivism is trying to make passivity a virtue while hiding that one has any personal agency.

  7. Pingback: Views of the Self | Marmalade

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