H51060 INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY
What are we really? Are we essentially social creatures, with our various sets of interpersonal and social relations going to the core of who we really are? Or are we on the other hand essentially individual creatures who undergo various adventures and enter into various relationships, but are what we are pretty much apart from all these relations and adventures? Is society and community essential to us as human beings and human persons? Or are they at best a more or less necessary nuisance?
Which communities are the most important for you?
Think of occasions where you felt very much a part of some community (if there were any).
Are there any occasions where you felt you could have done without a particular interpersonal or communal relationship? Where it was or felt much more trouble than it was worth?
Could you live for long on a desert island? Would you like to some times?
In what circumstances, if any, would you approve a person giving up his/her nationality for purely economic reasons?
Our problem or problems fairly obviously depend on 1) what the nature of the human person actually is; and 2) what communities including 'society' really are, whether they have any reality anyway beyond the individuals which compose them. These are both rather difficult issues, and between them go to the heart of social and political philosophy: various political solutions often express both different conceptions of human nature and different conceptions of what communities really are.
The notion of the human person as essentially a social or political animal is fairly old, in 'Western' philosophy going back to Plato and Aristotle. It is only in society, for Plato and Aristotle the ancient Greek polis or city-community, that we can realize our full potential as human beings. Communities in practice can be less than ideal, sometimes even to the extent that a wise person might be better off withdrawing from them for a while. Still, good communities and human fulfillment essentially go together. For this very reason, it is essential for human happiness to try to get our communal structures right.
This view was in its essentials taken over by the medieval doctors and also the medieval monasteries. Indeed, it is to be found in lots of contemporary christian social theory. While the individual person, made in the image of God, is crucially important, it is usually recognized that human persons are communal and social by nature. Precisely for this reason, we need just and participative social structures. Governments exist for the ‘common good’ and should do their best to facilitate circumstances in which individual persons and families and other such natural communal groups may thrive.
Hegelian philosophy, Marxist social theory and much 20th century Sociology (including structuralism) goes one step further. The human being, for all intents and purposes, is no more or not much more than the ensemble of his or her social relations (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach). We are essentially social in a rather deep sense. Even the very notion of a human 'individual' is a social and historical 'construct', something that could only exist in a particular kind of society. A particular human person may be subjected to all kinds of local causal influences that make his or her individual behaviour difficult to predict in practice. But such individual peculiarities typically balance out. Statistically and in large enough samples, once we understand the social forces at work it is all pretty predictable. This is because human beings are socially and historically determined, even if we can’t always access all the determining factors.
Much liberal political theory since the Enlightenment, however, has gone in precisely the opposite direction. For Hobbes and Locke and their liberal individualist descendents, it is the individual which counts, not society. For convenience and for the sake of a modus vivendi with the others, the individual enters into society via a kind of social 'contract', and submits him or herself to government. But beyond providing security of life and property, playing the role of a good night-watchman so to speak, we should not expect too much from governments or indeed from our membership in society as such. This conception, then, is taken over and taken for granted in our economics, wherein human beings are reduced to individualistic consumers of products and services.
These three families of views we will see mapped again in respect of our other question. This second question meanwhile will allow us to explore our problem or problems at a somewhat greater depth.
Statement of problem: people, including ourselves, engage in lots of talk about Humanity, the Human Race, Australia, New Zealand, the German race, Israel, the Arab Nation, History (as in 'the march of History'), the Universe, the State, the Commonwealth, the College, the School, Society, the community, the family. To what do these refer? Do they refer to any reality apart from or in addition to the individuals that compose them? If so, what? Is there really such a thing as the Commonwealth of Australia, or only lots and lots of Australians?
This in philosophical jargon may be usefully construed as a sub-problem of what since the middle ages has been called 'the problem of universals', = to what do 'universal' or 'general' terms refer. We might, eventually, decide on different solutions for different terms, but as with other varieties of 'the problem of universals', we can define certain general positions:
I: Communities, societies etc. have a reality in their own right: "EXTREME REALISM":
follows: What the terms above refer to, are realities (thus
'realism') in their own right, over and above the individuals with compose
them, to which the individuals may relate in various ways. E.g. "
People living out of such a view sometimes more implicit than explicit may incline to a kind of "TOTALISM" or "COLLECTIVISM" in practice. The individual is for the most part subordinated to the institution or totality to which he or she belongs, these being considered as a kind of reality in their own right and a superior reality at that, to which the membership should sacrifice their particular interests. On the other it may manifest itself, by reaction, as estrangement from or rejection of or rebellion against the entity or entities in question as something alien and alienating. 'It' inhibits us, or pressures us, and we can't stand it any more. If this feeling is strong enough, we might include to the diametrically opposite of totalism, i.e. some version of 'ANARCHISM', involving a rejection of all authorities.
II: Communities, societies etc. do not have any reality whatsoever in their own right: "EXTREME NOMINALISM":
This is the view that the State, etc. have no existence apart from or in addition to the individuals which compose them. There are no general things, only general names (thus ‘nominalism’). There are only individuals, concrete, individual physically real human beings. All the above are names for numbers or groups of individuals who get into such associations for mutual benefit but are what they are apart from the social 'units' to which they happen to 'belong'. Membership in such groupings may be useful, and perhaps even necessary (political society) but they have no more to do with our inner nature than e.g. our freely chosen membership in clubs.
This option theoretical-explicit or practical-implicit manifests in practice as SOCIAL ATOMISM or INDIVIDUALISM. This is very common nowadays especially. All the emphasis is on individual rights. Everyone has rights, no one apparently has obligations, and there is a demise of public spirit and concern for the collectivity or for other members of the collectivity. Cf. Margaret Thatcher, who is reported as saying: there is no such thing as Society, the highest and only social unit is the Family.
In addition to these two extreme or groups of extreme positions, we may define an in-between family of positions, which by analogy with other sub-problems in the problem of universals, we might dub 'moderate realism'.
III: there is a basis in reality for our talk of 'communities', 'societies' etc., even though they are not precisely realities in their own right: "MODERATE REALISM".
This is 'moderate' in so far as it does not require the substantial existence of 'things' like States, Churches, Colleges etc. It is still a 'realism' however in so far as there is still a basis in reality for our use of these terms.
The big problem, of course, is to specify what exactly this basis in reality might be.
One variety of this position might be defined as follows:
1) Human beings are by nature relational, communal, social and even political animals (cf. Aristotle for the last). Which is to say, 'individuals' are characterized by what Karol Wojtyla calls "participation": they are such as by nature to need, and to find their fulfillment partly by, interaction with others in communities of various kinds. Furthermore, they define their identity as the people they are and want to be, to a large extent in terms of the ensemble of their social relations. This makes communal and social structures and care for communal and social structures quite important.
2) In spite of this, human beings are not entirely determined by their social memberships. That would get us into another form of Totalism, reducing people to nodes or junctures in overlapping systems. They are individual self-products taking more or less creative account of what they receive. Eventually, society exists for the sake of these individual self-products, rather than the other way around. It is just that self-production, intrinsically and necessarily, is very largely a taking into account of social and natural environments.
3) The State, the Church, etc., do have existence in so far as the parts or units of which they are composed are not the same as what they would be in isolation apart from membership in the large units. The 'whole' in this sense is greater than the sum of the parts, yet it is nothing other than the parts in their togetherness, each of the parts determined to some extent by its social environment to which environment it in turn contributes.
These three points can be easily made sense of in terms of 20th Century Process-Relational metaphysics: each individual, indeed each actuality in the universe, is in and of it's very nature a more or less creative taking into account of its total environment, to which environment it in turn contributes. The individual is not reducible without remainder to the composition of forces in the environment, however, because (a) an important part of the past environment is the past of that particular individual, and (b) the taking into account of the total past environment is always a little bit creative. These communal and social 'environments' are nested one inside the other, sometimes with a degree of overlap.
4) The State, etc., may be said to have existence in the further sense that the ensemble of units-in-togetherness will frequently be of such a kind as to maintain its structure of modes of relating and its forms of organization largely as it is through more or less drastic change of the parts, though not completely. But at no stage is it a reality apart from some set of units or parts in their togetherness. It is just that certain structures or habitual modes of relating seem to have a sort of bulkiness and survival value.
5) The maintenance of structures of modes of relating and forms of organization may be facilitated by the existence and even architectural qualities of certain physical invariants, e.g. college buildings, parliament houses, churches. Also the existence of certain documents and meaning structures, e.g. 'constitutions' and institutions or accepted forms of organization. But the State, the School, the Church is not the buildings: it is the units-in-their-togetherness habitually maintaining a certain structure of modes of relating to other membership and to individual people and other units in togetherness outside.
6) Something might be said also of the importance of habitat and the influence of the environment in the biological sense of the word. We are an interacting part of nature, and are not what we are apart from the physical and biological environment to which we belong. It is intrinsic to us, where we are, where we come from, where we live. This is something very important to indigenous peoples, but also to many a farmer and many a homemaker. Also to members of older cultures: but even nowadays to us Australians. The land determines us and who we are, intrinsically, though not totally. We belong to it, quite as much as it 'belongs' to us. This is also the case with features of climate and natural flora and fauna, or lack thereof.
7) Structures and forms of organization and physical and natural environments have effects that are independent of the will of the participants. This is just another illustration of the fact that participants are determined by their place as much as vice versa. It does not mean that there exists anything other than various participants relating to each other in various ways.
Points 4) to 7) might be worked out differently. The important idea is probably 1),the relational view of a human person, the conception of the human person as characterized in his or her inner nature by what Karol Wojtyla one-time philosopher present Catholic pope calls 'participation'. Which is to say, it turns out that our two questions are fairly closely related. If human 'individuals' are by very nature social, then they are not what they are in isolation from the various social units to which they might belong. It is this that gives a basis in reality to our talk of social units. Individual fulfillment and interpersonal, social and even natural commitment are no longer opposed where the 'individual' is intrinsically relational or characterized by 'participation'. Indeed an appropriate interpersonal, social and environmental commitment is required for individual fulfillment, and it may be that in certain cases the more intense the interpersonal, social and environmental commitment and involvement the more intense the individual fulfillment.
It should be obvious from the above exposition that the present writer prefers some version of the so-called 'moderate' position. He finds it difficult to avoid the feeling, however, that at least some of the communal structures we are subjected to have a reality in their own right independently of us. Is this feeling really nothing more than a kind of 'social construct’?
In conclusion and by way of a little bit of critique of one of the assumptions of our moderate position, there are at least two ways of working out the idea of the social nature of human beings:
(i) Being kind to widows and orphans (or whoever) meets a need in me towards self-development or fulfillment - compare the above; and
(ii)The intention to self-development or fulfillment or happiness is eventually self-contradictory, in the sense that aiming for it in any direct fashion is the surest way not to achieve it. In which case we need to move beyond self-development to something like 'solidarity', for its own sake. We eventually need to get to the position of love of neighbour and dedication to the social good for their own sake. Paradoxically, solidarity gives personal self-development and fulfillment, but if life is to be gained one has to give up seeking to gain it. Compare the Christ: "Who seeks to gain their life will lose it..." Compare the Buddha. Or even the original Plato/Socrates: the philosopher, having emerged with difficulty from the cave of illusion and prejudices and found the life of sunshine and true reality, has to go back down into the cave for the sake of his/her fellows. True fulfillment requires, paradoxically, that we give up on the very idea…
In contemporary philosophy in support of the latter idea, see especially the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas subsumes much of our social interaction under (i). (i) however shows itself to be unsustainable; we are called out of it by what he calls, "the face of the other". Only then do we paradoxically find salvation. The call of the face of the other (Other) however is unconditional, not part of our drive for self-fulfillment.
the drive for self-fulfillment is finally self-defeating is worked out by
others as well. For example, Herman De
Dijn and Arnold Burms at the Katholieke Universiteit te
This is really thinking things through at a rather deep level however. Whatever else it does, it does not take us back to either of the other more extreme positions.
This lecturer’s input will be accompanied by a Video, all being well.