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  • Community and Individuality
  • Patricia H. Werhane (bio)

The Enlightenment, with its roots of liberalism, has become identified with the thesis that “the fact of living with others is not . . . necessary for man.” 1 Enlightenment thinkers have been accused of a preoccupation with the individual and individual rights, and with a striking lack of interest in the community, tradition, social practices, and culture as playing any role in individual development and flourishing. Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, writes,

[according to] the Enlightenment project . . . the individual moral agent, freed from hierarchy and teleology, conceives of himself and is conceived of by moral philosophers as sovereign in his moral authority. 2

What the Enlightenment made us for the most part blind to and what we now need to recover is . . . a conception of rational enquiry as embodied in a tradition, a conception according to which standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are a part of a history. 3

The early Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in particular, is singled out as the “enfant terrible” of radical individualism. His version of individualism and its alleged concomitant implication that rights are manifesto claims, prerogatives that one has without deference or obligations to others (at least in the state of nature), has left its mark. Enlightenment philosophy, rights theories, liberalism, and classical economics are often identified with this Hobbesian point of view, and each has been accused of being atomistic, asocial, and egoistic in the worst senses of these terms.

Linked to that accusation is a stream of critiques of rights theory as perpetuating these ideas. For instance, in her book Rights Talk, Mary Ann Glendon writes, “rights talk is set apart . . . by its exaggerated absoluteness, its hyper-individualism, its insularity, and its silence with respect to personal, civic, and collective responsibilities. . . . [This] tendency to frame nearly every social controversy in terms of a clash of rights impedes compromise, mutual understanding, and the discovery of common ground.” 4

Tzvetan Todorov’s essay “Living Alone Together” challenges us to [End Page 15] rethink the thesis that each of us is a purely autonomous individual, and that individuality, not community, is humankind’s highest achievement. Going back to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, Todorov demonstrates that the roots of what is often called radical individualism do not rest in the Enlightenment, as is sometimes alleged, and in fact that thesis is contradicted by the work of two of its greatest philosophers. As Todorov demonstrates, both Rousseau and Smith argued that human beings are neither merely egoists nor asocial. While defending a form of individualism, both put forth a definition of humankind as constitutively social beings. The importance of Todorov’s conclusions cannot be exaggerated in light of an accumulation of secondary literature arguing to the contrary.

Without distracting from this careful, clear, and largely accurate analysis, in what follows I shall expand Todorov’s conclusion. I shall argue that even the work of Thomas Hobbes, the accused “father” of asocial theories, has been sometimes exaggerated. This being the case, the alleged radical individualism of contemporary rights theories which trace their origins to Hobbes (as well as to Locke and Smith), is simply wrongheaded.

In the second part of his essay, Todorov concentrates on Hegel’s master/servant dialectic in the Phenomenology of Mind to present a sustained critique of Hegel’s treatment of constitutive sociality. Todorov replaces the role of the master/servant dialectic as constitutive of the evolution of human relationships with the mother/child relationship. This is a challenging proposal. It is not evident, however, that the mother/child relationship, important though it is in myth and tradition, is enough, by itself, to explain the richness of human sociality which includes both the development of individuality and adult one-on-one equal and reciprocal exchanges, dialogue, and long-term relationships.

The problem can be stated as follows. An allegedly Enlightenment and in particular, neo-Kantian theory postulates the notion of an autonomous self as the substantive ground for one’s ability to exercise one’s right to be left alone, to comprehend what it means not to coerce others, and “form and follow one’s own conscious choices.” Such a notion of...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 15-24
Launched on MUSE
1996-02-01
Open Access
No
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