Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Individual as Socially Constituted

I've been thinking a lot recently about how we form our sense of what we are. There are certain things about being an individual, a person which we view as inalienable. But this very concept of personhood is not, I think, innate - rather it is something which we infer from our environment and interactions, the way the world treats us. Thus, selfhood seems to be intimately related to socialisation. The construction of the individual is therefore a socio-metaphysical process. It happens in the spaces between people, in the space between a word and its meaning; in the fabric of society that gives meaning to gestures, that establishes bonds between people and confers property, rights, responsibilities.

We now live in a very 'self'-centred world - the self is seen as the basic unit of society, rather than the family, the tribe, the kingdom, etc. We are conditioned to think of ourselves as highly autonomous, having a wealth of rights and priviledges which constitute the functions of an individual in this society. Because we are treated like this, as a legal and moral Person, we internalise that notion: we become an autonomous individual. We can only be free, autonomous selves to the extent that society guides us into that role - it does not emerge naturally, which is why it has taken five thousand years of evolving culture to reach a state of such high autonomy and individuation. Humans 100,000 years ago had probably the same neurological capacity that we do to think and operate as we do, but without the cultural acclimatisation which provides our root concepts, and the relatively recent millennia which have developed the concepts we think with, without this we would be as feral, primal and undistanced from nature and its cycles as any animal.

For, an animal, in the wild, is never treated as an individual; it is never given the opportunity to develop a dynamic sense of selfhood. A domesticated animal will often develop a much more sophisticated (at least in the human sense) awareness of itself in relation to other beings, as a social entity. Because such an animal is treated as an individual with the dignity, respect and duties that entails, it will approach an understanding of itself as such an individual.

Some animals (humans, for example) have greater internal capacity for such an understanding - but it is still only a capacity. Such an intricate sense of self and what that means can only be inferred very very subtly from the environment, by society. One must be treated as an individual in order to become one. One does not begin having all the functions and mental processes which determine an autonomous control over oneself and ability to locate oneself within the matrix of sociality; rather, we develop this because we are embedded in the social matrix from the moment we are born. Now, in the 21st century west, our world is almost entirely human: we have very little space outside the world conditioned by human culture, very little contact with a de-individualised nature (or even other social models). So, the intricacy with which our selfhood is articulated is very high. But we would be very wrong to think such an intricacy (or such a sense of individuation) is the natural state; rather, it is a product of the dense interactions which inform our atmosphere, the air we breathe all our lives, the concepts inculcated into us by society (i.e. automatism; self-determinacy, etc). These are brought out of us by a society which subtly infers and emphasises them - we absorb this understanding of ourself, and a sensitivity to our own boundaries and roles, by a process of osmosis.

This is what gives us our freedom, our sense of freedom, and our moral responsibility. The culturally provided metaphysics we are indoctrinated into reaches into the very root of our being. We as individuals in fact seem to be largely constituted from outside; we are formed in the moist air of society, the pattern of our thoughts are generated by the culture we are born into. We do not realise how much of our self is formed outside of us, in the spaces between ourself and other people. This runs counter to a certain way of looking at consciousness as a highly individual process, reducible entirely to brain-states. I am not proposing an ethereal spirit-mind or ghost in the machine. But it seems to me that we have to and can only understand the self as a continuum which is completely integrated into society. A single individual has no meaning. They exist as an individual only to the extent that they operate within society. Personhood happens from the outside in, and not the other way around.

Of course, the gestalt is only one way of priviledging structure. We must understand a whole and its parts as interrelated. To view the whole as the focus, and the overriding determiner of its elements is just as wrongheaded as to view it as merely a conglomeration of elements, with these latter being the important determiners. The level of viewing must be flexible. We can view an individual and their neurology as different orderings of the same information; but we would be committing a heinous crime in reducing the individual to just brain operations; we would be performing a category error. Likewise, we can view society as constituted by individuals yet society does take on a life of its own which often seems to override individuality. This is neither good nor bad, but a simple admission of fact. We would be naive to ignore this fact solely for ideological reasons.

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