Our artificial individualism needs to be re-embedded in communities

Our artificial individualism needs to be re-embedded in communities

By Marcia Pally



Has the West lost its pizzazz – its gravitas, ability to guide, its ground? Have we become too secular, merely rational, and thus paradoxically flighty? Or are we not rational enough, our politics and economics still beset by emotional, quasi-religious beliefs?

From my perch, it seems that the West hasn’t lost anything, but rather has gotten too much of what could be a good thing if there were less of it. That thing is separability, and too much of it, untempered by situatedness, yields harmful outcomes, at least by the West’s own standards. Of course, too much situatedness would be equally damaging – oppressive and stultifying.

The binary choice – separability or situatedness – leads the West to the worst of itself. I would like to suggest that through the modern era, the West has usually neither advocated nor made such a binary choice, but that the effects are apparent when we do. Today, we may be in one such moment, with an undue separability that yields abandonment and anomie on one hand and self-absorption on the other.

Thus what is needed are frameworks that foster the simultaneous presence of both. Western traditions offer several (and here I’ll point to one) theologies of relationality, that offers a way to heal this separability-situatedness divide when it occurs.


Let me begin with a few definitions. The identity of the situated person emerges from her point in a nexus of relations; groups and their traditions are held as conceptually prior to the individual, whose values, impulses, movement, even rebellions are formed through acculturation roughly in what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus. Localism, corporatism and communitarianism are associated here. Certain normative claims emerge:

  • that public policy should buttress societal groups;
  • that certain goods are pervasively considered important – like health care or basic education – and these should be publicly financed;
  • that traditional communities carry extensive practical wisdom and should thus change only slowly.

The separable person, by contrast, is a completed entity who, while having been acculturated somewhere, has the mobility and freedom to physically and mentally leave that place to follow the faith, economic opportunities, heartthrobs, and ideas of her choice. Sometimes called methodological individualism, this claim is narrower than ontological individualism, which holds additionally that there is no such thing as groups – we remember Margaret Thatcher’s announcement that there is no such thing as society.

The normative claims of separability include that public policy should foster benefits to the individual, sometimes called value individualism. The jewel in the crown is human rights. Some make the further claim that institutions – governmental, traditional, community, family – should recede to allow the individual to choose among opportunities and options or invent new ones. Negative liberty and rights-based legal systems are associated here.

Though these are sometimes claimed as opposing strains, binary choices, many of the supposed advocates of each perspective have relied on the simultaneous presence of both. That is, to be situated in the West is to be situated in a meld of the two – in fact within a particular range of possible melds. Let me give a few examples.

From Bacon to Rawls

Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes are taken as linchpins of the separable self: Bacon for his individualist epistemology, Hobbes, for his political hermeneutic of the solitary if fearful individual who cedes sovereignty for peace. Yet Bacon considered empirical science – where individuals discover knowledge unknown or adverse to the past – as a means to the traditional, Christian obligation to aid mankind.

Hobbes is a melder of separability and situatedness, not because he imposes the leviathan sovereign on his hermenutically separate person, but because his ideal state depends on citizens possessing traditional western virtues – self-knowledge, justice, gratitude, modesty, equity, and mercy – so that they are able to control fear and appetite. These traditional values are to be fostered through education and what we might call socialization by civil society and governmental institutions – that is, these values rely on situatedness.

John Locke, in spite of his individualist contractarianism, holds that similar virtues are necessary to live under the conditions of liberty. His include religious toleration, liberality, justice, courage, civility, industry, truthfulness and the submission of passion to reason, which must be nurtured by societal institutions – first in the family, and should the father die, the state must step in.

The Scottish Sentimentalists had a similar view of reason requiring tempering and education by the societal right values and sentiments. Montesquieu held that the challenge facing government is to preserve individual liberty (separability) while preventing self-interest from distracting men from the common good (situatedness). And Adam Smith, who may have thought the market could regulate itself, did not think that persons alone could regulate themselves. He argued that one is guided to act lawfully and morally in communities, when one knows others are watching, especially rich others, his “theory of ranks.”

Immanuel Kant, for all his search for a universal morality guided by reason and independent of convention, nonetheless held that “practical anthropology” (the conventional forms of social, political, and legal systems) is needed to foster in people the ability to quell short-term desires and autonomously choose moral law. His list includes critical reflection on experience, prudent judgment, self-discipline, the duty to foster one’s own excellence and promote the happiness of others, and “affability, sociability, courtesy, hospitality, and gentleness” (when they are not mere bows to convention).

The poster boy for nineteenth century separability, John Stuart Mill, also gave situatedness significant place in his political thought. He noted that man’s ability to live in liberty relies on certain characteristics or virtues forged by robust engagement in one’s milieu – local government, voluntary associations with the public good as their mandate – and by the family, state-backed schools and churches. His “Religion of Humanity” takes Jesus as its model because of his service to his fellow man. The ideal towards which people should strive, on Mill’s view, is enduring help to others and the provision of the public good. A lack of social virtues, Mill held, may be punished by the state.

A final example of separability from the twentieth century is John Rawls, whose scheme for setting up society – the “original position” and “veil of ignorance” – seem to many to posit a being that is not only separable but hypothetical. And to be sure, Rawls’s original position requires enough separability from one’s context to imagine that, when participating in his society-designing exercise, one might not end up in the best situation in the society one is planning. If one might end up on the bottom, what kind of society would one create? But when one makes that imaginative move, one is not traditionless or valueless. Designing a fair and just society requires that people draw on their ideas of justice and fairness, garnered from their communities, traditions, and so on.

Rawls’s own two conditions for just societies (“each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic right and liberties ” and “social and economic inequalities … must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and … they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society”) are hardly valueless. To be obvious, they prize justice and fairness; they require substantial inalienable rights and equality of opportunity (separability) and his “difference principle” mandates significant advantage for society’s less well off (situatedness).

Separability continues to demand situatedness

Each of the above thinkers, signposts in the argument for separability, nonetheless assumed significant roles for situatedness – in particular, for traditional western virtues, family, religion and certain state institutions. They assumed also that working towards the public good was one of the key things people did with their (free) time.

Modern situatedness advocates also propose a meld. Edmund Burke held that societies should rely on past experience – untested belief or what he called prejudice – as they form character, expectations and judgment – that is, not only situatedness, but the situations of one’s forefathers with but slow change. He thought gentlemanly virtue makes honest business possible and knits society together through bonds and affection in ways that abstract rights could not. All must submit to it, and Burke – though a commoner – did not refrain from censuring members of the House of Lords who failed to do so.

And here is separability. Burke held that virtue and talent can be found among men of ordinary rank, who may criticize their “betters.” Moreover, he understood that, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Were Burke as much a situatedness-insister as he is taken to be, he – a commoner – would not have dared write books to insist on it.

Burke’s complaints about separability were continued in Romanticism – for example, in Novalis and Schelling’s critique of Fichte’s hermetic “Absolute I” (whose vision is so determined by its internal lens that it can present only variants of its own thought to itself and never quite reach the world “out there”). Yet Romanticism, in pointing up the formative influence of community, land, culture and language, did not abandon separability. Indeed, it flipped the argument on its head, arguing for each person’s rights, not on the grounds of the abstract law entitled to separable persons, but on the grounds that each person is unique. As the Romantics championed each people’s language and culture (situatedness), each group and then subgroup and sub-sub-group, they ended in advancing the individual life, especially the artist and non-conformist (separability).

We can follow this mix of separability and situatedness in nineteenth century nationalist movements, which saw individual, democratic rights – grounded in separability – as hand in glove with national self-determination – a situatedness claim. Even Positivism held that education – which spurred individuals to break with the past and discover new knowledge and technologies – would contribute to publicsocietal improvement.

I would add that the structural anthropologists beginning in the late nineteenth century and their heirs in twentieth-century deconstruction, for all their investigation of mankind’s profound situatedness in discourses,, nonetheless assume inalienable rights and much of the separability of present-day life. For all their “de-centering” and deconstructing of the humanist subject into flux in a discourse, even Giles Delueze and Luce Irigary signed their books, with their own names. Moreover, the purpose of deconstructionists like Foucault was personal liberation: to point up how discourses maintain power and to enable those with less to force its redistribution. It is a situatedness project for separability.

Some of Foucault’s contemporaries in communitarianism critique separability for greater situatedness. Thinkers like Alasdaire MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel charge neo-liberal separability with yielding alienation and economic selfishness. They seek a return to greater situatedness in the form of community and corporatist associations, as well as an ethics of responsibility for others.

Nonetheless, as with Foucault, separability is lodged in their work. While Sandel holds that a person is herself owing to her cultural values and goals, he holds also that a person can re-assess and change her goals. While Alasdair MacInty reemphasizes the “embedded self,” he also insists that individuals come to their own moral standards, which does not require accepting “the moral limitations of the particularity of those forms of community.” He wants most of all that individuals have separability enough to reject present, undue separability. Indeed, he is counting on separability from this present trend to take the West back to situatedness. Charles Taylor holds that each person becomes what she is by situatedness in community, which she in turn must nourish. But he is also concerned that if she doesn’t, the West will lose its prized aspect, separability, or in his words, “freedom and individual diversity.”

In short, deconstructionists see the problem of today’s West in too much situatedness (which gives undue power to elites or to the conformity of the crowd) while communitarians see too much separability (yielding purposelessness or greed). Yet both see the solution in a robust mix, arguing for it, so to speak, from either side of the aisle.

This is the legacy of the modern West. Much thought and politics has assumed the simultaneous presence of separability and situatedness for the good reason that when a meld of the two gives way to one or the other, we get a mess in the West – at least by the West’s own standards.

There has been much debate about the ideal meld, but debate assumes both. Together they suggest a self that is not selfish, communities that can change, and people who can change communities (opt in, opt out). By contrast, when the West gives way to untempered situatedness – to the idea that people should live in the same groups and ways as tradition has had it – one faces oppression (situatedness enforced from above) or conformity (by the crowd).

We can recall the counter-Enlightenment theocrat Louis de Bonald with his catchy program to replace empiricism’s “authority of evidence,” with “the evidence of authority.” Or the tribalist strains in Volksgeist, nationalist, white supremacist and fascist movements, and the dulling conformity that was challenged by Kierkegaard, Dos Pasos and countless young moderns who left home to make their way in the world. Situatedness unconstrained by separability violates the West’s sense of itself.

As does separability unconstrained by situatedness. The demand that institutions and traditions recede to allow for individual choice – neo-liberalism’s banner claim – can leave one anomic and valueless, without guides to evaluate one life course over another. Moreover, could one develop a life plan de novo, one would lack the networks, public policies and institutions to realize it – one would be left with little opportunity to pursue opportunity.

Finally, undue separability risks a self that is self-absorbed, for how would it occur to one to care about others if they have faded conceptually and physically from view. One example might be the economic culture described in Greg Smith’s New York Timesarticle, “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs” – a culture Smith called “toxic and destructive,” concerned only with how much money is made off the clients, rather than focusing on, “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.”

Neither Adam Smith nor most advocates of separability would approve of this culture, but we cannot today shrink our urban centers or global economy into eighteenth-century sized units, themselves already alarming to Smith for their anonymity. So we need other frames that promote a separability-situatedness meld. I’ll describe one here – theologies of relationality – which buttress both the separable individual, her freedom and decisions and her situatedness in tradition, service to others and community.

Traditional wisdom and theologies of relationality

Theologies of relationality share the principles of separability. Indeed, the Protestant emphasis on self-responsibility and the individual conscience was a foundation of separability in early modern Europe. Its insistence on the worth of each individual (made in God’s image and not sacrificeable for the group), on the individual’s personal relationship with God, on individualist Bible reading (without priestly intermediary) and on the priesthood of all believers (and thus a strong role for the individual) was key in making the separable individual conceptually and practically possible in the early modern West.

Moreover, Protestantism demands self-responsible striving. While this initially meant striving for moral betterment, striving itself became a muscle well-exercised and applied to many arenas of life, including the political and economic. But in modern Europe, striving in these arenas required release from feudal, legal and economic bonds. The slow shift towards such release – even with the significant resistance against land enclosure – created modern separability.

Finally, the Protestant emphasis on self-reliance was reinforced in the dissenting sects by the marginalization and persecution they faced from Europe’s states and state churches. In Britain’s American colonies, it was reinforced further by the rough conditions of settlement, where survival depended on can-do individualism and voluntarist associationism. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, separability meant mostly the independence and self-rule of the township and church community, while in the nineteenth and twentieth, it took on increasingly individualistic emphases – the individual’s freedom to pursue the life he thought best.

Yet, though theologies of relationality place considerable value on the separable person, they do not allow the self to end in self-absorption. They guide one towards an ethics of situatedness, to the formation of relationships and institutions so that conditions wrought by separability may be re-wrought when they neglect, impoverish, or violate the common good. They direct one to work through the community of the church for the community of humankind in an activism of resource-distribution and opportunity-restructuring.

Theologies of relationality come to this by being committed to traditional wisdom – transcendent texts, which historicize current assumptions and offer ideas outside the contemporary range. For instance, “The first task of the church,” theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, is “to exhibit in our common life the kind of community possible when trust, and not fear, rules our lives … what a politics of trust can be like.” A polity of trust is indeed outside present political discourse and perhaps should prod us to examine our commitment to such an agonistic frame. The alternative of the undefensive polity of trust is found in the transcendent Deuteronimic text, “Choose life, the way of God” (30:19) – for the way of God means to trust and care for each other as God does for us.

Here we have a link between the separable person – each worthy of dignity, rights and opportunities because God values each one – and her situatedness in conduct that cares for others, the common good and environment: love among men is constituent of loving God. One cannot love God without caring for man.

In the Judaic tradition, the idea is found in the Tanakhic provisions for the poor, the prophets’ exhortations on their behalf, later rabbinic codes and most centrally in the idea of brit or Abrahamic covenant, which – based on faith, trust, and love – binds man to God in a promise of eternal, mutual care, which we are then to extend to others.

In the Christian covenant, it is found in the principles of justification, where serving others – being right or justified with them – is constituent of being justified with God. As Jesus explained in his description of the Last Judgment, those who are justified with God are those who loved man – first, the man who was Jesus but then all those in need, as Jesus explained, “whenever they did it to the least of these brothers and sisters, they did it to me” (Matthew 25: 40).

This sort of thinking distinguishes itself from traditions that separate serving others from salvation or justification – a split that usually locates the aid emphasis in Jesus and the salvific emphasis in Paul. In theologies of relationality, these are twined. Indeed, for the Apostle Paul, the unity of the God-of-salvation and the God-of-agapic-giving is made a structural aspect of Christianity. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:2-3, salvation rests on love of others:

“if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Covenant between God and man is made possible by grace. Grace allows for a covenant/relationship with God, but this is also atemplate for relationship among men. Relationality is thus dyadic and an inclusive loop. From the Father to Son, from Son to us, from us to each other – an idea elaborated in the relationality inherent in the Trinity and Eucharist.

Partaking of the Eucharist binds each person to God – indeed, places her in the body of Christ. Yet in doing so, community is created. For embedded in this one body, we cannot neglect any part of it, any person. Paul reminded the Corinthians, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). Being in the body of Christ is being in the communal body. If we fail at one (community, service), we will not succeed at the other (salvation).

For Paul, the resurrection too is linked with the salvific meld. Jesus’s resurrection and his offer of eternal life show God’s love for us, but they are also key in how we should love each other. For the offer of salvation scuttles the scarcity-competitive mode of living that comes with fear of death. Though confined to history and earth, we yet remain in a more enduring life and so we can let go of competitive fear with its eternal return of Hobbesian conflict. We may act towards each other with love.

And so the eschaton changes the polis – in the private sphere but also at the societal level, as a basis for socio-economic networks. Indeed, this was Jesus’s vision of how to build a polity of love and trust. In it, the individual is not subsumed by the group but remains of prime worth on her own. Yet because of that worth, each such person is responsible for building networks of giving or resource-distribution for others whom God loves.

“The point is,” Tri Robinson, pastor of an Idaho church explained to me, “if healing the brokenhearted, setting the captives free and ministering to the poor was Jesus’s job description [in Isaiah 61] then we believe it is ours as well.”

At present, theologies of relationality ground considerable global activism in environmental protection and poverty reduction. As I have described this work elsewhere, I will conclude by saying that in my field research on religious activism, I met people who came to this theological meld of separability and situatedness through their families and traditions – through their situatedness. I met others who had moved quite far from their natal communities and traditions to come to their meld – that is, they came to it through separability.

Marcia Pally teaches Multilingual Multicultural Studies at New York University, and her latest book is The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good. You can listen to her discuss her perspectives on situatedness and separability with Scott Stephens on a recent episode of Counterpoint on Radio National.