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  • De-centering the Individualist Imaginary:Responding to Rosemont's Against Individualism
  • Ann Pirruccello (bio)

There's Crito, my contemporary and fellow demesman, the father of Critobulus. … [T]hen there's Lysanias of Sphettus, father of Aeschines. … [N]ext, there's Epigenes' father, Antiphon of Cephisus here … and there is Adeimantus, the son of Ariston, whose brother is Plato. …

Plato, Apology 33e

In his recent book, Against Individualism, Henry Rosemont takes up the modern notion of the free, autonomous individual and urges his readers to reconsider the central role it has played in moral and political thought.1 Arguing with a clear eye on the problem of social injustice, Rosemont lays out reasons why we should view foundational individualism as a barrier to relieving huge disparities of wealth and unjust global practices. He offers a Confucian alternative in which persons, not individual selves, are cultivated through role-guided relationships, and he argues that relationally constituted persons provide a proper basis for thinking about morality and justice. Rosemont recognizes, however, that the persistent and pervasive image of the free and autonomous individual makes it difficult to get a hearing for approaches developed around a non-individualistic view of what it means to be human. The present essay responds sympathetically to Against Individualism's challenge to re-think the bases of moral and political thought and argues for de-centering the individualist imaginary in the hope that different paths of the moral imagination will be explored more widely. Successful decentering opens a critical position that allows us to see that individualism is neither inevitable nor necessary as a point of departure for matters of morality and justice, and that relational approaches championed by Rosemont and others bring valuable considerations to the fore.


While there are rich opportunities for re-framing issues in Western morality and political thought along Confucian and/or Buddhist lines, individualism [End Page 40] continues to exert global influence through its vigorous presence in European-derived traditions.2 Rosemont writes:

This morally, politically and metaphysically fleshed-out concept of the self as a free, rational autonomous individual, has clearly been the foundation for virtually all modern Western moral and political theories, from Hobbes, Locke, and Kant through Marx, Bentham and Mill to Rawls and their champions, and extends even to most contemporary communitarians and/or feminists. …3

We might argue in concert with Charles Taylor for extending this lineage back even further to Descartes, whose "new conception of inwardness, an inwardness of self-sufficiency of autonomous powers of ordering by reason" flows from his epistemology to his ethics and establishes (instrumental) rationality as the source and ground of human dignity. In so doing, Descartes displaces the cosmos as the source of morality and value and locates it instead in the rational activity of the human mind.4 Moreover, we might extend Rosemont's account of individualistic systems to include recent and noteworthy attempts at working out meritocratic theories of justice in which, after the field has been leveled in terms of material and educational resources, it appears that merit is based solely on the efforts of the free individual, who is not relationally conceived.5 To some degree, all variations of individualism, Rosemont argues, "de-link human beings from their fellows, and from their culture."6

We learn in Against Individualism that the notion of the free individual has become ubiquitous to the point of structuring the self-consciousness of countless human beings.7 Taken descriptively and/or normatively, the free individual continues to have enormous appeal, and while ontologically it is a myth according to Rosemont, normatively it is a disaster. While he acknowledges that it may have been useful in the past in establishing constraints on the reach of fledgling governments, and millions of people have benefited from the notion of the free and rational individual, it is now "mischievous propaganda supporting the position of ruling elites and their minions."8

One of the reasons the variants of individualism retain a powerful influence on moral and political thinking and practice is that it has structured the philosophical and popular imaginations of generations. Whether we are talking about narratives, myths, thought experiments, or simply pictures painted with words...


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pp. 40-51
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