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  • Against Individualism, For Individuality:The Emersonian Henry Rosemont, Jr.
  • Roger T. Ames (bio)


Henry Rosemont, Jr., in his Against Individualism (2015) has mounted a compelling argument that foundational individualism in its various iterations has become a malevolent ideology implicated in and aggravating many of the pressing problems of our time. The overall thrust of his thesis can be stated rather simply. The industrial democracies and most of the rest of the world are dominated by a corporate capitalism the interests of which are served largely by a procedural justice grounded in a foundational individualism that compounds the benefits of a few and marginalizes the possibility of realizing a distributive justice for the many. Hence, the more that academic and political forces are successful in defending and indeed championing the morality that grounds individualism and procedural justice, the less likely we will be able to make gains in social justice. Or put another way, when viewed from a perspective that gives primacy to distributive justice, individual freedom for an elite and privileged few is being purchased at the expense of social justice for an increasing number of the world's peoples.

I join Rosemont in common cause here in accepting his argument that a default individualism constitutes a major underlying and entrenched [End Page 7] conceptual problem that is exacerbating our current human predicament. Indeed, this default individualism is appealed to first in defining what it means to be a moral person, and then is extended as determinate of what it means for this putatively moral person to act justly. This foundational individualism with its roots deep in the Western philosophical narrative dilutes our sense of moral responsibility by allowing us to an important degree to describe, analyze, and evaluate individual persons—psychologically, politically, and morally—in isolation from others. The presupposition that defines persons ideally as free, autonomous, rational, and properly self-interested individuals is ubiquitous in much if not most of modern Western moral and political philosophy. And yet this putative foundational individual is not only an ontological fiction, but moreover, because an individual so defined provides the moral and political justification for an increasingly libertarian economic and political system, this fiction has become an insidious one. Indeed, it can fairly be argued that it is this same libertarian economic system justified as it is by appeal to individual liberty and autonomy that, far from being the cure for the world's ills, has come to aggravate and to exacerbate the disease itself.

Rosemont quite rightly rails against this now default ideology of individualism as a noxious fantasy. But his project, far from being simply negative and deconstructive, offers us a robust Confucian alternative: he avers that the Confucian notion of a role-bearing, relationally constituted person provides us with a substantially different way of conceiving of the human social, moral, and religious experience. In introducing the notion of Confucian role ethics Rosemont rejects the idea that human beings are in any way complete outside the association they have with other people. But does he go too far in claiming that apart from our roles we are nothing? This claim is easily and often misunderstood as a negation of the individual. But as we will see with the Confucian conception of relationally constituted persons, to say that persons are irreducibly social is not to deny the integrity, uniqueness, and diversity of human beings; on the contrary, it is precisely to affirm these conditions. Such individuality, far from being exclusive of personal roles, is the emergent identity one has consolidated through the virtuosity achieved within these relations.

In order both to clarify and again to reinforce Rosemont's advocacy for the Confucian relationally constituted conception of person as an alternative to a foundational individualism, I want to bring John Dewey's radical conception of an emergent, irreducibly social "individuality" into the conversation. An exchange between Confucianism and Dewey on what it means to become fully a person will hopefully bring some illumination to both. We will find that for both Dewey and Confucianism, while mere association is a given, flourishing families and communities are what we are able to make of this facticity as the highest human achievement. [End...


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pp. 7-20
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