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A Social and Environmental Philosophy: The Individual and Collective Dimension of Action by Kenneth Wilson

This is the second part of the first section on Action of Kenneth Wilson’s thesis “A Social and Environmental Philosophy”

Let me open with an anecdote which briefly illustrates the position taken in this chapter. As an undergraduate I attended a laboratory session in which students were invited to inspect a human brain. It was a sobering experience. On the lab bench in a tray was the brain removed from its skull and severed from its body.


As I remember it, no one present had the wit to point out that that individual brain was what it was precisely because it was the outcome of a process of evolution with other virtually identical organs. It is not often noted that consciousness emerged very much in the plural. Thus the situation of the agent is that of many Others. The tendency in much philosophy to focus on the point of view of the individual subject, of the philosopher/analyst, can be seen as a metaphysical misinterpretation. The undeniable particularity of the individual subject has to be balanced by the context of many

other subjects. The relevance of this topic to the crisis of modernity lies in the potential of an excessively individualist world-view to undermine the essentials of civilisation. This arises due to the observation that so many of the great achievements of civilisation have been brought about through co-operation. An individual agent alone can achieve very little. Thus if a vibrant civilisation with long term prospects is what is required, the dominance of the individual agent is a phenomenon which must be tempered.

Thus, the subject of this chapter is a discussion of competing models of the agent, from the point of view of the individual and collective dimensions of action. At issue, in essence, is the importance of the connections a given agent may have with others. Particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, liberal individualism has played a key role in the development of the political philosophy of these countries, beginning in the seventeenth-century. The influence these countries have had in forming the modern, western world-view cannot be underestimated, and I take the great emphasis placed on the individual agent to be a key element of this. Such individualism is by no means universal even in the West, although it does tend to dominate.

This chapter is not a defence of communist political philosophy, rather it is an attempt to show that a liberal individualist conception of the agent, so dominant in American and British political philosophy, is deeply problematic, particularly in its more extreme forms. It is commonplace in the West to criticise the, at times, excessively communitarian modus operandi of the former Soviet Union and China, in which the individual rights of the agent are downplayed to the overall alleged benefit of the collective, the State. Nevertheless, though this view may have much to recommend it, it tends to go along with a view that there is little worthy of criticism in the western way of doing things – and it is this position which I am at pains to scotch.

A main assumption underpinning this chapter is that an unfettered individualism, so taken for granted in the United States and the United Kingdom, is a contributory factor to the presence of the modern crisis. Thus, the aim of the chapter is to argue for a reconsideration of the relationship between the individual agent and his or her social context. The previous chapter argued against the tendency to see the agent as insulated from the biosphere.

This chapter, moreover, argues against the tendency to model the individual agent as insulated from other agents. In these two chapters I aim to show fundamental elements of the context that the agent finds him- or herself in, which are normally ignored. The chapter which follows this adds another element of the agent’s context, which relates to the temporality the agent encounters.

Before turning to the main discussion, I would like to point out a connection this chapter has with other parts of this thesis. This is a general observation concerning the implications the agent’s social context has for rationality. Put briefly, what may be rational for one agent, need not be so for some given number of interrelated agents, that is to say, there is a basic non-identity between individual rationality, and what is rational for some group, community or population.

There are many examples one might cite to support this observation, but here I will restrict myself to consider one rather topical case. If there were only one motorist who had a full network of roads to use, this person could spend literally the whole of his or her life driving from place to place. This would not present any particular problem, and given that there might be some good reason as to why he or she might wish to do this, it would be quite rational. However, if every human being on earth did precisely the same, the combination of resources used and pollution caused, would surely lead us to question the rationality of this state of affairs. To emphasise this, as things currently stand only a small proportion of the Earth’s population use motor vehicles, and only part of the time, yet even this has now come to be seen as problematic, if not down right irrational.

Therefore what may be seen as a rationally justifiable course of action from the perspective of one individual agent need not be so when the perspectives of two or more agents are taken into account. In the past it may have been possible, in principle, for an individual to seek gratification in any way he or she chose. Now this is no longer possible, without bringing about deeply undesirable consequences, for example, the destruction of the biosphere. Seen in this light, individual actions condoned by liberal capitalism become inherently problematic, since our actions are in fact contingent on the continued well-being of the biosphere. No biosphere, no human agency.

This discussion begins with reference to conclusions drawn by C. B. Macpherson in his monograph The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.[1] This monograph examines the thought of, primarily, Hobbes and Locke. However, I will concern myself with Macpherson’s conclusions rather than treat of Hobbes and Locke in particular. This strategy is justified on the basis that Macpherson’s conclusions merit attention in their own right, since they provide a fairly clear description of what we might take to be the dominant model of the agent in the West.

Macpherson summarises what he terms “possessive individualism” in the form of seven propositions, which, for the purposes of the following discussion, I assume are a broadly accurate summation of the foundations of the seventeenth-century view of the individual.

This discussion will show the depth of the historical roots of the notion of the individual in the modern, western world-view, and also that the view of the seventeenth-century has changed little in many respects since then. What is more, this will provide a background to a discussion of the ways in which some conceptions of the individual agent have become profoundly problematic in the twentieth-century. In this way individualism is introduced as a basic constituent of the modern, western world-view and as a basic model of the agent.

Macpherson’s summary propositions are as follows:

  1. What makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the will of others.
  2. Freedom from dependence on others means freedom from any relations with others except those relations which the individual enters voluntarily with a view to his own interest.
  3. The individual is essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society.
  4. Although the individual cannot alienate the whole of his property in his own person, he may alienate his capacity to labour.
  5. Human society consists of a series of market relations.
  6. Since freedom from the wills of others is what makes a man human, each individual’s freedom can rightfully be limited only by such obligations and rules as are necessary to secure the same freedom for others.
  7. Political society is a human contrivance for the protection of the individual’s property in his person and goods, and (therefore) for the maintenance of orderly relations of exchange between individuals regarded as proprietors of themselves.[2]


Proposition (i) expresses the idea that to be human, a human being must be independent from others. Two immediate thoughts arise from this. Firstly, we are struck by how similar this idea is to more modern, liberal conceptions of the individual. Secondly, this says nothing about duty towards others, or that any freedom we might have is ultimately bounded by our duties toward others. Thus proposition (i) is a clear statement of the idea that to be human a person is ultimately autonomous from other agents. If there are any linkages between agents these can only be a source for the debasement of the self. Against this view it may be pointed out that human beings are by their nature dependent upon each other.

Particularly in a modern, industrial and technological society, characterised by specialisation and the division of labour, members of the society rely on each other to provide the essentials of existence from food to transport. Moreover a society perpetuates itself through its offspring, and children are crucially dependent on their parents for many years. That virtually all societies have a well defined kinship structure may be taken as further evidence of inter-dependence. Thus against what might be called the traditional liberal view, as expressed in proposition (i), the agent inherently depends on others. Independence and autonomy require that the agent be isolated from his or her context. Having argued that the agent is far from isolated from his or her social context, we therefore have to rethink what degree of independence and autonomy is possible.

Proposition (ii) encapsulates the idea that any relations into which we enter with others are primarily a consequence of self-interest. This is also a proposition which is readily recognisable in the world of more recent thought. It implies a certain view of human nature which raises the importance of the individual above all else. This point of view is deeply disturbing, since a coherent world-view which may be shared is perhaps the sine qua non of civilisation itself. There are many human ends which are only achievable through co-operation.


If we are powerfully in the grip of our own particularity, then this subverts the co-operative activity which is constitutive of civilisation. Civilisation is powerfully tied up with shared, common goods. Yet in the western tradition, one of the most powerful of influences has been that of Hobbes – in the guise of the idea that all human intentions serve self-interest, however it may be disguised. Shared, common goods also entail organisation. If Hobbes’ account of human nature is to be believed then civilisation is ruled out. Have we inherited a philistine tradition, to the extent that Hobbes’ ideas have played a role? It may be accepted that self-interest, as a characteristic of human nature, is important.

But, however, to then go on to claim that this represents a total, exhaustive account of human nature, is to commit a fallacy; namely, to attribute complete, total properties to that which is in fact incomplete and partial. This idea of self-interest as being an all-defining characteristic of human nature is commonplace. This idea has an almost never spoken of converse. Perhaps all human intentions serve altruism, though it may be otherwise disguised.

One can see that, despite the difference in the frequency with which these positions are held, both are equally implausible – yet each contains an element of truth. In principle, what is wrong with the idea that in some circumstances humans act self-interestedly, while, in others, they act altruistically?

Bearing in mind that Macpherson’s conclusions serve as a description of seventeenth-century thought, we can see just how deep-seated this model has become even in the late twentieth-century. Propositions (i)-(iii) all clearly show how this early form of liberal accentuation of the individual agent tends to deny, or at least severely play down, the causal connections between one individual and another. Although it is not evident in Macpherson’s conclusions, an often attendant aspect of this position is to deny the causal force of the past on the human present. For, if one accepts in any way a strong causal, determinist influence of the past, then the autonomy and independence of the individual agent must be brought into question. This is a topic which is dealt with in the following chapter.

Turning to proposition (v), we see here that society, and by implication the individual, is defined in economic terms. The individual is who he or she is as a result of what he or she is the proprietor of – what he or she owns. So, here we have a conception of the individual which is consonant with what later became known as liberal capitalism. Macpherson goes on to remark,

It may be argued that the continued existence of liberal democratic states in possessive market societies, since that time [the seventeenth-century], has been due to the ability of a possessing class to keep the effective political power in its hands in spite of universal suffrage. But while this may suffice to keep a liberal state going, it savours too much of deception to be an adequate basis for a moral justification of liberal democracy.[3]

Here then we have a conception of the individual which has been only partially modulated and revised by universal suffrage. Members of liberal democratic states ultimately became equal before the ballot box, but the real power remained with the possessing class – their property rights being strongly protected by the law. It is this line of analysis that led Marx to the view that liberal democracy was but a veil for dictatorship by the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, this is no excuse for the dictatorial methods used by the Asiatic communists.

Further, underlying Macpherson’s analysis is the view that individuals are to be sorted, with the aristocracy at one end, and the peasantry at the other. The seventeenth-century model of the individual fitted with the prevailing class system, and certainly did not aim to overthrow it. And history tells us that the peasantry was the last to be enfranchised, because owning nothing, it had no power. Again this is a model in which agents were classified (sic), some being inferior to others. If one were rich, wealthy and powerful, by whatever means this came about, one was superior to one’s servants and so on. It is rarely noted in the extant work on action theory that historically some agents were treated as slaves – other people were treated as mere possessions by a powerful class. In this instance power relations of a malign sort result in agents being treated as objects or possessions rather than agents in their own right.

The case which is made here then is that the model Macpherson describes is also consonant with a rigidly stratified society – “social mobility” was virtually unheard of. Moreover it can be pointed out that liberal individualism, supported by the protection of one’s private property rights by the law, is a marvellous doctrine if one is a member of the powerful ruling class. By contrast, if one is a member of the ruled class, liberal individualism is but a mirage, since the freedom of the rulers is contingent on the oppression of the ruled. As was made clear at the beginning of this chapter this is not a defence of communist political philosophy. However the observation that most societies are class bound, is important for action theory since it implies that the agent always exists in the context of power relations – whether malign or benign. It is no accident that those who sought to overcome this iniquitous system normally made an appeal to collective responsibility. In spite of this figures such as Richard Rorty continue to support the status quo.[4] As Farrell notes,

As in Locke’s notion of a calling, Rorty praises bourgeois liberal society precisely because without it, “people will be less able to work out their private salvations.”[5]

Here then we see from the mouth of a living philosopher support for the private world of the individual subject. The argument made here is that there are important trans-individual issues against which the viability of such “private salvations” have to be assessed. (Although I have not discussed propositions (iv), (vi) and (vii) I have cited them for completeness.)

We can see then the almost ineluctable power of the notion of the individual agent in western thought. Indeed, I think modern, contemporary society may have found itself in a sort of metaphysical and historical trap. The form of the trap lies in how we normally approach our notion of our ontological individuality. What I mean by this is that the roots of the usual way of constructing this individuality, as described by C. B. Macpherson, run deep in our tradition and they have an extremely powerful grip on us to-day. The experiment of Asiatic communism was an attempt to escape the jaws of this trap.

From the outset, it has to be said, the prognosis was not good. Nevertheless, in full view of the experiment’s demise, we are even more powerfully faced with the necessity of escaping the trap of our historically conditioned sense of our individuality, when we bear in mind the obligation for social justice and environmental well-being, about which more below. The trap I speak of may be thought of as a sort of metaphysical prison in which we appear to be denied the intellectual resources to think our way out of it – such is the binding power of this aspect of the modern, western world-view. The paradox is that, given the importance of the individual in the modern, western world-view, our world-view may in fact be an anti-world-view. Our world-view is that we do not have a world-view; rather we have the individual. Skirbekk makes this point clearly,

Can there be found anywhere a bearer of that conspectus, that overview, in which the wholeness wins its own perspective? Each individual view shades over into others, and so into a totality, but how can the individual, from one confined perspective, reach over into comprehensiveness? Once we admit that the view is bound up with the agent, and that the social sum-total finds no agent identity, we seem at a loss to make the total overview do any real work.[6]

In other words there are as many world-views as there are individual agents. It is from this that the much vaunted attribute of pluralism arises in modern, liberal societies. The pluralism which is a concomitant feature of individualism, though much vaunted, has a problematic side. Put simply, it does not matter what one says, there will always be someone, somewhere who will disagree. This state of affairs is both liberating and destructive. It is liberating in the sense that freedom of speech and thought are defended by pluralism. It is destructive in the sense that pluralism cannot sustain meaningful consensus. It is in this context of pluralism that most western philosophy is written. This has the benefit of a high degree of intellectual freedom. The malefit is that when a consensus is required, it is almost ruled out.

vitruvian man

The points made so far have focused criticism on liberal individualism. The discussion now turns to a more positive attempt to defend the social or collective dimension of agency. In the course of describing the nature of human consciousness, Feuerbach describes how in his view this emerges in interrelation, that the most essential sensuous object for man is man himself; that only in man’s glimpse of man does the spark of consciousness and intellect spring…Even the certitude of those things which exist outside of me is given to me through the certitude of the existence of other men besides myself.[7]

This is a fine expression of the view taken here, since it reminds us that generally action, even though it be individual, takes place in relation to others and the biosphere. While we are clearly individuated creatures we exist in a web of interrelations with others and our environment. This introduces a dimension of action which arises as a consequence of social reality. Any individual or group must act in accordance with norms which may be explicit or implicit.[8] A norm then is a convention, explicit or implicit, which governs the actions agents may undertake. In support of this Rüdiger Bubner defines norms as follows:

In our ordinary understanding, norms represent the fact of intersubjectively regulated courses of action in all societies of which we know, and history provides the explanatory framework for the changes in the conditions which govern such social rules.[9]

The collective dimension of action comes into being as a consequence of human beings existing in close relation. For many thousands of years humans have been acting together to achieve a wide variety of ends. The main implication of the collective dimension of action is that the individual alone is not sufficient as an explanatory locus of action. While humans are ontologically individuated, nevertheless there is a large category of actions which require the consideration of at least two people to be accurately understood.[10] For example one could not understand the actions of a football player during a match without reference to the actions of the other players involved. The example of an orchestra with its conductor also comes to mind.

An important aspect of the normative nature of the collective dimension of action is what I call semiotic actions. (A fundamental condition of their existence is that social reality exists.) These are acts which have meaning associated with them in some way. Here meaning is understood very broadly to include all signs functioning in a given culture. So semiotic actions include the use of language, as well as phenomena such as body language and traffic signals. A key condition for semiotic actions to have meaning for us is that they express some shared convention.

One could not convey meaning by one’s actions (speech acts) unless at least one other person understood one’s intended meaning. Thus semiotic actions exist in a domain of reality which is shared between individuals. Semiotic actions (speech acts) are conditional on other agents.[11] This idea is key to Wittgenstein’s model of language. Moreover, the link between action and language is well established in the speech act theory of Austin and others. The general sense of linguistic context for the agent which I wish to make clear is well indicated by Wittgenstein’s “ancient city” metaphor of language, to be found in his Philosophical Investigations.

Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new burghs with straight, regular streets and uniform houses. [12]

So the ontology of action given above profoundly influences how language is realised. What is true of action in general is also true of language in particular. That actions have a historical dimension is clear in the case of language. In addition, no speaker of a language knows the entire lexicon nor the entire grammar, yet a language is something which has a finite lexicon and grammar. Thus language, while being exploited by individual speakers and listeners, is in its essential nature distributed across large assemblies of speakers; and, derives many of its most important features from human inter-action.

Since the agent is a semiotic creature he or she is strongly defined by the semiotic and is thus immersed in a cultural context. Semiotic actions are but one aspect of the agent qua cultural agent. In general, the agent is immersed in a cultural context which is constructed from complex sets of norms which govern most forms of actions the agent may undertake. G. H. von Wright in his book Norm and Action notes that, “Customs determine, or as it were “define,” ways of living which are characteristic of a certain community.”[13]

This statement serves as a good starting point for the consideration of those shared norms which are constitutive of a particular culture and indeed world-view. If we face the spectre of cultural relativism, we may ask: Is there a global custom or norm observed by all cultures? Could the normative domain encompass all human beings in a coherent way? Hume spoke of human nature being much the same in all times and in all places. This is a position which it is important to defend, if one wishes to repulse relativism. At the same time, it is important to note that it may be too simple, given the reality of the important cultural differences we find on Earth. Therefore I would suggest that one takes the view that while there is an important “common core” to human nature, this can be qualified by saying that there is also room for cultural difference. In order to make this qualified notion of a “common core” work one has to distinguish between biological realities and normative, cultural ones.

“Ways of living” are composed of actions, if I understand von Wright correctly. One implication of his observation is that norms are finite[14] phenomena which extend only as far as the culture itself. The finite extension of norms may explain, in part, the origin of cultural diversity. It seems there is no norm which is always observed, while there are many which are frequently observed. One could assign a probability to a given norm which would measure the chance that it would be observed. The larger the number of people who participate in the norm, the less likely it will be that all participants will observe it. If this is correct then population expansion could lead to a breakdown in a given norm.

Allow me to clarify the concept norm as I intend it here. A norm is a conscious or unconscious convention which defines which actions are permissible, for example, fashion is an expression of transient norms; while the institution of law may be said to be a developing set of norms which are in important respects static. Norms and the semiotic are closely related. Norms are distributed across a population much in the same way the semiotic is. Indeed the semiotic is composed of an extremely complex set of norms regarding what counts as meaningful. To argue meaning is conventional or normative need not relativise it. Once a semiotic norm of action is established it has an absolute validity. Von Wright explicitly asks, “Are all norms language-dependent?”[15] Clearly all norms are not language-dependent. Codes surrounding dress or cuisine would serve as examples, though even these may be influenced by language dependent norms.

The existence of the types of norms I have described establishes crucial inter-dependencies between agents. On this view, the agent is not an isolated actor, an isolated subject. Rather, the norms which connect agents are constitutive of society, in spite of the individualist paradigm discussed above. The enculturation of all agents begins in childhood with the internalisation of pre-existing norms which govern how things are done in that society or culture. Norms are then the system of rules, both linguistic and non-linguistic, which govern any given modus operandi. Cultural variation is evidence that such systems of rules are malleable, that is to say, there is flexibility in how any given culture constructs its norms.

Linguistic variation in particular serves as powerful evidence that norm structures can not only vary greatly, but also that any given language is extremely precise in what counts as a meaningful utterance. Moreover, in addition to this sense of precision in semiotic actions, there is also a strong sense of the great complexity of systems of norms. (Another key locus of norms, at least historically in the West, is religious practice. The diversity of religious traditions is further evidence that such are normative, cultural realities. To be a practitioner of some religion is to be a member of a community, large or small, which agrees as to what counts as legitimate forms of worship and so on.)

The collective

The existence of the collective dimension of action raises issues in relation to intention. As usually conceived, an intention is a property of an individual mind. This is a well established model which is however incomplete. This incompleteness arises because it is quite within the limits of reason to suppose that a given set of individuals could share an identical intention. Indeed this is consonant with the position taken in this thesis. When a community acts under the influence of some given norm, the important principle behind this idea is that that community also shares some set of mental “contents” with respect to this norm. This then, is an extension of the traditional model that that-for-the-sake-of-which an action is carried out, resides only in the head of just one individual. Many individuals may share an identical goal. If an intention can be expressed in language, then this is further evidence that the intention goes beyond simply the individual. This is an important idea in that the cultural expression of a community is shared by its members, and this is also important for the idea of world-view which has been made use of.

Norms may be valued diachronically. That is they are considered important due to the fact that they represent traditional conventions which may have their origin in the distant past. For some, usually anti-Enlightenment thinkers (such as de Maistre and de Bonald), the (great) age of a norm is sufficient justification for its continued existence. Of course what the Enlightenment clearly perceived was that traditional ways of doing things cannot be justified only because they are traditional.

When the collective dimension of action and its associated norms is considered, it can be seen that these in important ways constitute the world-view itself. It is a necessary condition of social reality that agents act to some degree in concert with each other, that is to say, there must of necessity be some minimum threshold of conformity. (For some the notion of conformity of action is anathema. The point made simply indicates that for some given society to exist there must be some minimum degree of coherence, co-ordination, or conformity of action or the result would be anarchy.) This also gives rise to a largely commonly held world-view.

If people did not act in concert with each other one could not meaningfully speak of a world-view at all. The view taken here is that a world-view is in effect a metaphysical model. World-views have an inter-subjective reality. Thinking is predicated upon the existence of interiority in us. Ontologically humans are dynamic structures and if we wish to understand ourselves we have to do more than examine our surface. Action can be construed behaviouristically by only considering the surface. Of course a real understanding of how and why we do what we do requires consideration of our interiority. Language allows us some access to the interior world of the subject and as such the subject is far from isolated.

There is a clear distinction between human beings as physically individuated and individualism. Individualism is an ideological position rather than a purely ontological one. The ideology of individualism cannot be justified in ontological terms since, given the sorts of connections described above, there are real and important linkages between agents. Witness the quotation from Feuerbach above. One might also consider the following remark by J. D. Mabbott, “We think of Robinson Crusoe, but we forget that he landed on his island with the influences of a hundred million men and five thousand years of social life stamped on him.”[16] Thus the ideological denial by individualism of the agent’s social and historical context amounts to a distortion of the agent’s true Being.

Much of what follows makes the case that this sense of the imperious autonomy of the individual is in fact but appearance. For a society or civilisation to function and develop requires an essential degree of coherence between its members – in spite of the prevailing ideology of the individual. I take the view that an excessive individualism would be a key factor in the destruction of any society or civilisation, and this comes about because so many of the achievements characteristic of civilisation require organised co-operation to achieve many types of ends. This point is particularly relevant when we return to consider the crisis of modernity. If the problems we as a species face are to be overcome, it will certainly not be the achievement of any one individual’s world-view. As Skirbekk comments:

Religious leaders have no doubt been taken to be bearers of the real conspectus. And haven’t just such claims been under bombardment ever since the Enlightenment? The idea was once current that the absolute monarch – in full sail – simply was the functioning community as overview-endowed agent. We all know how this claim has been unmasked.[17]

Thus the status of the individual agent has been battled over by the forces of religion and those of Enlightenment. The term ‘individualism’ was not coined until the early nineteenth-century.[18] At this time it was something which was attacked by thinkers on both the Left and the Right. On the Left were the early socialists who tended to identify individualism with the worst excesses of the industrial revolution; while those on the Right such as de Maistre and de Bonald – both Catholic ultraroyalists – equated individualism with the worst excesses of the Enlightenment, which tended to valorise a conception of the ideally free, autonomous individual. (Interestingly, de Bonald actually talks of impiety and democracy marching in “lock-step.”[19] )

More recently the debate around the role of the individual agent has become rather more formalised and is often described in relation to the doctrines of methodological individualism (MI) and methodological collectivism (MC).[20] MI denies reference to social facts. It argues that the individual agent is the sole necessary locus of explanation. MC is the converse position. As the opposition between these two doctrines is normally framed they are mutually exclusive – one has to choose one or the other. The position taken here, by contrast, is that each of these doctrines ought to be seen as a different perspective on human reality. At the same time it should be noted that in recent years MI has been the dominant model, certainly in disciplines such as psychology and economics. From a philosophical point of view the opposition between MI and MC is a key feature of the philosophy of social science, that is to say, the opposition between these doctrines is played out very much at a theoretical level. As such, it is one area where an element of the world-view is very much argued over. Further to the idea that MI and MC are different perspectives, it may be helpful to think of these doctrines as different ends of a spectrum, with several intermediary positions interposing.

Predictably, given the ground already covered, the position taken here lies closer to MC than to MI. This is explained by the necessity of countering an excessively individualist world-view. One need only cite Descartes’ cogito, and its influence discussed above, to support this. On the one hand, in its favour MI has clear advantages, in that, the individual agent is taken to be an entity which is easily definable, he or she is visible and has well-defined boundaries; on the other, one has to work quite hard to understand an apparently intangible social or collective dimension for the agent. (A key concept which has already appeared frequently in this thesis is ‘world-view’. Underpinning its use is the idea that a large number of agents may share common elements concerning their interpretation of the world and their role in it, and this is seen as constitutive of any given culture. So while human beings are unquestionably ontologically individuated, there are nevertheless important linkages and connections between agents. In a manner of speaking, agents are both separate and together.)

An argument is now given which at once connects with the concerns of the Introduction and suggests a line of thought which tends to force us to lean in the direction of MC as opposed to MI. The assessment of the relative importance of these doctrines is put into a different perspective when we add environmental concerns. Admittedly, small parts of the biosphere are privately owned by the individual, nevertheless, for the most part no one owns it – although this is changing with the recent patenting of genetically modified organisms. If it were said to be owned at all then it must be publicly so. Obviously ‘ownership’ is not the term we are looking for here. We all exist in existential dependence on the biosphere. It may be said to be humanity’s sine qua non. Since no one owns it, and yet we are dependent on it, we all share in our involvement with it.

This involvement is something all humans have in common, thus the biosphere is a collective good. What is more it is not perfectly accurate to describe the biosphere as a resource. Our part in the overall processes of the biosphere is not one to be understood solely in economic terms. Yet recently, relative to evolutionary time-scales, human economics has come to intervene increasingly in our relations with the biosphere. Now, interestingly, as C. B. Macpherson has pointed out, the basis of the liberal economics of capitalism, lies for one thing in the tenet that civil society is defined by means of market relations. So for the liberal economist, society is defined in terms of the biosphere treated as a resource.

In addition, the biosphere qua resource is seen as being privately owned by individuals. Indeed modern capitalism feeds on the satisfaction of the appetites of individuals. The individual appropriation of elements of the biosphere, when carried too far, subverts our natural relationship with it. Similarly, society’s understanding of success and status is widely equated with material acquisition. When private success is based on this paradigm, environmental disaster can be the only result.

Of course there are certain essentials which we must have private, individual access to, such as food and shelter. Yet the individual’s alleged right to, in principle, infinitely extend his or her acquisitions does not square away with biospheric well-being – since the biosphere is finite. So we are faced with the criterion of simplicity rather than extravagant excess, as a yardstick for success. Also, if goods are held in common there is less pressure for their endless replication. Infinitely extendible private property, goods and services is a chimera, which, if left unchecked, will destroy the biosphere. That there are, in principle, no limits to private property is an idea that has not only been long held, it has also had a proportionately powerful grip. Yet this is a paradigm which we must escape if the biosphere is to survive with integrity.

The type of prosperity which has been achieved in the modern, industrialised world has, on the one hand, been based on an extremely individualistic paradigm of ownership; and, on the other, has developed by feeding our passions, which is another reason why it is difficult to escape it. The industrialised world has manœuvred itself into a “culture of contentment” (J. K. Galbraith) from which few of its members wish to extricate themselves, despite the environmental imperative of doing so – we have become victims of our own psychology. The relationship the individual agent has with the biosphere is a relationship between the individual and a common good – not a privately held or owned one.

What is more, every living agent has this relationship in common with every other. Thus, with the well-being of the biosphere in mind, collective, public goods are imperative, as opposed to private, individual goods. As I have already indicated, the dominant emphasis on the, in principle, infinitely extendible private acquisition of individual goods cannot be squared away with a finite biosphere. Thus the individual agent has a relationship with a global, public good and each individual shares in this relationship. Everything the agent’s existence so crucially depends on, from the air he or she breathes, to the food he or she eats, in an important sense owes its origin to a realm which no individual could meaningfully own. This environmental argument against the priority of the individual, points out that agents are ineluctably immersed in a living context which is only subverted by attempts to individually own it. This is then one means by which the status of the individual agent can be reconsidered: I now turn to a second avenue.

We may ask: Just how unique is the perspective of each individual observer? We may suggest that each observer embodies something which belongs uniquely to them such as their personal identity; also, on another level of Being there functions a part of the observer which is social, as evidenced by, for example, his or her use of symbols. If one labels the private element A and the social element B, the individualist would normally argue for the priority of A (MI), while the collectivist the priority of B (MC). This way of looking at the problem suggests a way forward. We can ask: How do the causal relationships between these elements/levels operate? Here the best solution, I would argue, is to propose inter-action.

ecology network

On this model the individual observer is a focus in a network of other foci. The network exists because of the foci, and conversely. Human reality seen in this way can be filled out by noting that, for example, personal memories have a private existence, even while we may choose to communicate them. Of course, this is not always easy, as the communicative and private realms do not map one-to-one. The relationship is one of mutual influence. This mutual influence may be thought of as being supported by the semiotic world of symbols which intervene between us. (This topic is discussed at further length in chapter 8.) The rise of the individual subject, as the locus of reason, can be explained by the possible answers to the following question: Is what human beings have in common more important than those respects in which they differ? A characteristic of modern culture, of modern reason, is that the dominant answer has been to emphasise individual differences as opposed to commonly shared aspects or properties. Thus, we have the atomic individual opposed to the molecular society.

In addition to the arguments already given, I now outline another which argues that the reductionism inherent in MI is misplaced. The argument makes use of a form of level ontology which sees reality as composed of a large number of inter-connected layers or levels. The argument begins by considering the similarities and differences between diamond and graphite. Diamond and graphite exhibit quite distinct properties, the former being hard and the latter soft. According to the atomic model of matter this arises out of the different atomic structure of these substances, graphite being a planar macromolecule and diamond a tetrahedral crystal. This allotropy is well established in scientific theory.

The point I wish to make here is that these two different substances exhibit discretely different properties, which cannot be meaningfully reduced one to the other, although each allotrope contains the same element, that is, carbon. We have then a story of similarities and differences: same element, combined in different ways, producing different properties; and the similarities and differences appear and disappear depending on what level one looks at these substances.

Looked at from the point of view of the carbon atom, and the ways in which it may combine, we may reduce our understanding and explanation of these substances to the types and number of bonds which carbon may form. Nevertheless, looked at from the point of view of a diamond and some graphite on the bench top, the differences we know between them then cannot be reduced one to the other. What this example shows, is what I take to be a general principle, namely, that reality is layered and depending on how one looks at it, often one property cannot be reduced to another. The reductionist approach is limited in what it can achieve.

One may put this argument more abstractly. Consider a set A with a number of members. To describe this set, it may be said, we describe the members of which it is composed. Against this, we may add the proposition that the set exhibits some property, p, which none of its members exhibits. Now suppose set A is a human individual and the members of the set are all the atoms of which the individual is composed. Thus if the advocate of MI is to be consistent in his or her application of reductionism, he or she would be able to provide a description and explanation of human behaviour in all its various forms in terms of atomic physics. Of course, this turns out to be the positivist programme. The positivist doctrine that the epistemic domain can be rendered isotropic does not add up. (This is a point which was made in the Introduction, p. 19-20.) Thus if the advocate of MI admits that the positivist programme is impossible and knowledge cannot all be of the natural scientific kind, then he or she is also forced to admit of a whole, that is to say, the individual. Thus the MIist turns out to be a crypto-holist!

By extension, some given set of individuals may be said to exhibit some property which no individual member of the group could. The prime example of such a property is language. Thus, the supporter of MI unnecessarily restricts him- or herself to fewer ontological levels than pertain by denying, for example, the social reality of language. This, then, is a debate not only about what reality, the cosmos, is like; it is also a debate about what are the best types and methods of explanation. (As far as the cosmos is concerned, some things are large and others are small. Of course, this is a relative observation, but the point is that the difference is absolute once one has set one’s standard of measurement. For some purposes it makes perfect sense to consider the Sun as a unit, a whole, such as when we wish to calculate its mass. On other occasions it makes sense to consider the micro-structure of the Sun, such as when we wish to explain why it emits light.)

Further, consider a human community which has a large but finite number of members. Sometimes states of affairs in the community can be reduced to what individuals get up to. On other occasions, this is just not possible, since it makes sense to describe the properties of the community. A real property that human communities exhibit is that they communicate. This would not be possible if there were only one person. This, in summary, is the line I take against MI. In the world of human reality there are units which are larger than any single individual. As I have said it can be very useful to reduce things to what individuals get up to, however, this is just not always possible. One of the attractions of MI is that it apes what it believes goes on in the hardest of hard sciences.

As I have suggested above, scientists do not always seek to reduce phenomena to the behaviour of atoms or even sub-atomic particles, though this does often go on. Scientists are forced in many different areas of their activity to assume the existence of entities or processes and treat them as wholes, although for a different scientist interested in a different aspect of the cosmos, the aforesaid wholes may be treated as smaller elements. To reiterate, it is by means of the line taken here that I seek to justify my treatment of collective action; and a key concept here is that human inter-action is synergetic.

I would like to point to a basic limitation of reductionism when it comes to understanding human consciousness. Imagine a neuro-scientist so fiendishly clever that she could have access to my private subjectivity; and that this neuro-scientist was so sophisticated that she could provide a complete, second by second account of every single process taking place not only in my brain but also in my entire body – perhaps by means of some sophisticated computer. However, herein lies an infinite regress.

As the neuro-scientist monitored my brain activity, though she would know my every thought and feeling, she would also have to take into account her own brain activity, since being so clever he or she would wish to ensure that he or she was not reacting to my processes subjectively – this would be rather like putting two brains in one. Being so clever, the neuro-scientist decides to engage the assistance of one of her colleagues, and discovering that one more colleague does not suffice another is engaged – ad infinitum. I conclude that private subjectivity cannot be reduced to objective terms, consequently, science can never conquer consciousness – at least by itself.

To return, in the light of this, to recent philosophical theory, it is fair to say that much twentieth-century philosophy of language goes rather against the grain. To reiterate, Wittgenstein denied private language, while Merleau-Ponty thought the “life of the self” to be an illusion. At any rate, the importance given to the individual subject in the modern period, has both an upside and a downside. The downside is that a coherent, shared world-view is made impossible by the plurality of individual atoms. On one view, some may go so far as to say that there are as many world-views as there are individuals – such is radical subjectivism. The upside is that the attribution of rights to the subject is conditional on the importance given to the individual subject. What tends to be ignored, particularly in liberal political philosophy, is that individual rights have to be correlated and balanced by duties towards others.

Imagine, for the sake of simplicity, a small community of natural language users, containing say five members.[21] Now the individualist would seek to play down or completely deny any connections between these beings, while the collectivist denies the importance of each individual member. Against these views, I argue, one must try to develop an account which attempts to establish the true role of these elements. This involves not falling into either of the camps mentioned; rather, the individual agent has an important status, just as his or her role in a community is equally important, and it is this latter point which is all too often ignored.

Nevertheless, it is a matter of historical fact that individualism has been the dominant interpretation of ourselves at least since the Reformation (Weber). This in mind it is not surprising that the lack of a sense of community is often bemoaned. Social stratification has undergone many changes since the Reformation and the main opposition to the status quo has been the political theory of the Left, which tends to advocate the importance of the collective – and sometimes to the detriment of the individual agent. The paradox of this analysis of the role of individualism and collectivism is that the individualist rightly points out the importance of freedom; without however, noting that it is socio-economically conditioned; since some acts of will are conditional on access to technological infrastructure. (This is a topic I discuss at further length in chapter 9.)

We are now very much aware that we live on a finite planet with a biosphere which shows many sorts of large-scale inter-connections. These are processes which cannot be managed by any individual – rather it very much matters what large networks of people do. If we cannot generate the rational intersubjectivity required to organise and co-ordinate such networks, then the future of the planet looks uncertain. That life on Earth could continue harmoniously for a long time to come, embodies a very positive set of values. If one denies the fundamental value of wishing the continuance of life on Earth, then one paints oneself into a nihilistic corner.

collective goods

Thus, the position I take is to beg a reassessment of the relationship of the individual to other individuals – particularly in the light of the likelihood that the best possible relationship humankind might have with the biosphere will depend on the realisation of the importance of collective goods. Individual human rights is an important principle, which has to be balanced by a sense of responsibility which may be meaningfully extended from responsibilities due to members of one’s immediate community, to the planet’s population, and to future generations.

Clearly this position goes against the classical liberal doctrine that if there are any responsibilities to be met, these only pertain to one’s immediate community. It is by this restriction in the applicability of responsibility that classical liberal doctrine denies any responsibility the wealthier nations might have to the poorer. Nevertheless, while the classical liberal theorist wishes to restrict responsibility in this way, as opposed to the cosmopolitan, there is a nascent sense in which we may speak not only of the global economy, but indeed of the global human community.

For the liberal individualist, the extension of responsibilities from one’s immediate community, to the planet’s population, to future generations, amounts to restrictions on his or her cherished bourgeois freedom, and he or she is right about this. What he or she is wrong about is that such freedoms are sacrosanct. This arises because the sense of western freedom with which we are so familiar amounts to little more than “I’m all right Jack.” In other words, had the western liberal conception of the agent emphasised responsibility toward others, rather than freedom from others, perhaps humanity would not be facing quite such a serious crisis.

In conclusion, and I think that this is the very heart of the argument, the two competing models which have been discussed begin from different premises. Individualism begins with a single agent, while collectivism considers agents in the plural. The individualist tends to deny the importance of connections with others, while the collectivist tends to deny the role of the individual. A balance has to be struck between these positions. One cannot but consider agents in the plural – I take this to be an elementary given. At the same time the singular individual is important – but only the context of Others.


[1] C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962).

[2] C. B. Macpherson, Op. Cit., p. 263.

[3] C. B. Macpherson, Op. Cit. p. 274. Indeed, this is not a novel observation. Adam Smith put the point in the following way, “civil government in so far as it is instituted for the security of property is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (Oxford: OUP, 1926), p. 715.

[4] See Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), especially his essay entitled Postmodernist bourgeois liberalism, pp. 197-202.

[5] Frank B. Farrell, Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the World in Recent Philosophy, (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), p. 146.

[6] Gunnar Skirbekk, Op. Cit., p. 21.

[7] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Philosophy of the Future, Sec. 41 pp. 231-2, quoted in Axel Honneth and Hans Joas, Social Action and Human Nature, (Trans. Reymond Meyer, Cambridge: CUP, 1988), p. 16.

[8] The definition of ‘norm’ I use here is broader than, but consistent with, that used in the philosophy of law.

[9] See Rüdiger Bubner’s essay Norm and History in Essays in Hermeneutics and Critical Theory, (Hereafter EHCT), (Trans. E. Matthews, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 196.

[10] See Axel Honneth and Hans Joas, Op. Cit. pp. 48 and 62.

[11] On the question of the “sharedness” of the semiotic, modern, visual art raises some interesting issues. In much modern, visual art any sense of narrative can be rare. Also a realistic interpretation of reality is not considered necessary. Without these two elements where does the semiotic element reside? I would argue that much modern art is in fact non-semiotic. Frequently it invites the viewer to engage in a personal, individual and often emotional relationship with the work. As is often said it can mean one thing to one person and something quite different to another. Perhaps modern art has succumbed to the ideology of individualism. Who can say what any given work of Pollock actually means? On the other hand, it is of course possible that this denial of the semiotic may be a comment on established, shared conventions and Norms.

[12] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, New York: Macmillan, 1958), §18.

[13] G. H. von Wright, Op. Cit., p. 9.

[14] My use of finite here indicates that norms never include every member of a culture.

[15] G. H. von Wright, Op. Cit., p. 94.

[16] J. D. Mabbott, The State and the Citizen, (London: Hutchison, 1967), p. 38.

[17] Skirbekk, Op. Cit., p. 22.

[18] This term owes its origin to early nineteenth-century France, from where it was borrowed into English. See Steven Lukes, Individualism, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973), p.1. Gregory Claeys notes that this term was introduced to British audiences in the context of the Owenite movement, “Individualism, Socialism and Social Science: Further Notes on a Process of Conceptual Formation, 1800-1850”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, 1986, pp. 81-93, p. 81.

[19] W. J. Reedy, “The Traditionalist Critique of Individualism in Post-Revolutionary France: The Case of Louis de Bonald”, History of Political Thought, Vol. 16, no. 1, spring, 1995, pp. 49-75. p. 54.

[20] Examples of the extensive literature in this area are Torbjörn Tännsjö, “Methodological Individualism”, Inquiry, Vol. 33, 1990, pp. 69-80, Susan Leigh Anderson, “Natural Rights and the Individualism versus Collectivism debate”, The Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 29, 1995, pp. 307-316, F. B. D’Agostino, “Individualism and Collectivism: The Case of Language”, Phil. Soc. Sci., Vol. 9, 1979, pp. 27-49.

[21] The larger the number of members become, the more tenuous become the relations between individuals, consequent upon our ontological finitude. To be more precise, the larger the number of members becomes the more unrealistic is the possibility that all individuals can communicate with each other equally effectively.



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