On the Competition for Recognition Part II: Dummitt and Fukuyama: Individualism in the Modern Age


This blog will deal only with the first of the dozen questions I asked in my last blog:

Is the conflict between an inner authentic self and a socially imposed outer self the defining characteristic of individualism in the modern age so that what is required is social change, not an alteration to the personality and values of the individual?

Dummitt, echoing Fukuyama, claimed that the beginning of modernity was rooted in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of a conflict between an inner authentic self and a socially imposed outer self that defined individualism in the modern age or even just modernist thinkers and writers. That meant that social change, not an alteration to the personality and values of the individual, was prioritized.

I believe there are many tributaries that flow into the larger stream of individualism that marks modernity and not just or even primarily the Rousseau stream. Though I will later add a contribution from the ancient world, I offer three others associated with three other modern philosophers, all British:

Thomas Hobbes – individualism, survival and security

John Locke – possessive individualism

David Hume – individualism as a product of custom

Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan argued that individuals by nature possessed liberty, and in such possession, individuals were all equal in the state of nature. However, unlike Rousseau, they did not possess an individualized authentic self, differentiated from others, but, rather, their own particular instinct for survival. They were unbounded and free to take any action needed to survive. The result – conflict with others and, thus, fear. Without an overarching sovereign authority, flight and fight would be the two dominant expressions of that fear. The historical task, therefore, was to create a sovereign authority that protected those included under its safety net. Thus, to survive, individuals had to surrender their liberties as necessary and as long as the surrender of that liberty contributed to self-preservation.

John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government put forth a different starting point rooted in economic rather than political man. In nature, the individual was driven not just by a need to survive, but by a need to express himself (excuse the gender bias, but it is inherent in the material) by expanding his somatic self in the world. Only there was no way to do this. All he could do was be a hunter/gatherer collecting food to survive. However, money was invented, that is, an abstract way to give permanent value to what was accrued to the individual. That money might be the number of sheep or camels in a herd or pieces of a standardized metal representing the value of such accretions. With such a system, men could accumulate material goods ad infinitum. The individual became a possessive individualist rather than a defensive individualist. It was the conflict over possessions that led to political and violent conflicts. Thus, to keep the peace, one merely had to arrange a transactional relationship between the individual and the state – the state protects me and my ability to engage in commerce through orderly laws and I pay taxes for that protection. And the state provides protection against other states, preferably by treaties, but, as a last resort, war.

David Hume disdained both ahistorical accounts of the origins of the body politick rooted in either a natural predisposition for survival or an inner predisposition to acquire possessions. Locke had offered a form of individualism that was economic. Hobbes, with his foundation in self-preservation, put forth an individualism that was incorporeal rather than somatic; it was rooted in a moral intellectualism or an intellectual moralism in which individual autonomy and self-sufficiency morphed into unique contributions to the intellectual wealth of the world. David Hume, though he generously hosted an unstable (and unappreciative) Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his home, held a very opposite view to that of Rousseau. Humans were not unique creatures who had to throw off the accoutrements of history and society to express their individual authenticity. Or, à la Hobbes, their intellectual rationalism or, à la Locke, their self-interested somatic calculations. Humans were often and customarily irrational and, versus Rousseau, very fallible creatures. Thus, their individualism was best expressed in a historical context which emphasized individual self-expression – in many forms – but in a historical and social context which valued such self-expression, but recognized the need for those expressions to be boundaried and limited by custom and law.

These are very different ways to emphasize the moral worth and primacy of the individual, the prevailing characteristic of modernity. They oppose the reductionism of Dummitt and Fukuyama. To make each of them clearer, it is helpful to place them within an ancient context that emphasized kinship genealogical and contractual ties where communitarian values seemingly trump individualism in its various expressions as having moral priority.

The reading of Toldot this past Shabbat offers a case in point. It is the story of Isaac and his relationship with his wife, Rebekah, and his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, though also of Rebekah’s relationship to Isaac, her favourite. Each is individualized both genetically and in terms of socialization. Isaac, according to most rabbinic commentators, is weak, a nebbish, a fearful, timid and passive individual who follows the patterns of the past and is easily manipulated by his more forceful wife who had a clearer understanding of the destiny of the Israelites. This timidity and passivity may have resulted from the fact that he was the second-born son of Abraham whose mother forcefully displaced the first-born and her son. It could have been exacerbated because of trauma, his father’s willingness to sacrifice him on an altar to give proof of his father’s loyalty to God.

Whatever the reasons or combination of factors, Isaac is a unique personality. He is the first figure portrayed in the Torah who actually loves another. He did not choose her; his father via his servants did, but, in the tale, it is Rebekah who chooses the smitten Isaac. It is ironic, but also rings true, that this same nebbish would favour the son who was an outdoorsman, a hunter who easily expressed his immediate urges and lived in the moment rather than being swamped by the heritage of the powerful personality of his father, Abraham. Esau seemed to be everything that Isaac was not.

Isaac followed God’s instructions to the letter (in contrast to his father, Abraham, who finds a way out of his conundrum). “Don’t go down to Egypt,” God instructs him. He obeys, even though it seems clear that the only friend he has in the land of the Philistines is the king, Abimelech.

No sooner is the matter settled than Isaac follows in the footsteps of his father, Abraham, and says that his wife is his sister so the Philistines will not try to seduce or rape her given that she has the protection of a man. If she were his wife, they might kill him to collect his beautiful bride as a concubine. Clearly, a Hobbesian form of survivalism is in play.

But a flawed one. For he allows himself to be seen by the king fondling Rebekah. Abimelech, the king, the sovereign authority, kicks in and reprimands him, reminding him that Isaac did not think of a third option, that someone might have tried to seduce or even rape Rebekah, especially given that Isaac was the furthest thing from a warrior that anyone could imagine. The consequences feared, would not be what Isaac would do in revenge, but what the gods might do and the guilt that would accrue from dishonouring their own Philistine mores.

We seem to be in Hobbesian territory, but with an overlay of historical and customary customs and norms, especially since Isaac’s safety is only ensured by the protection of the sovereign, King Abimelech. The tale then takes a Lockean turn. Isaac becomes rich with herds, flocks and servants. But the richer he got, the more envied he was by his Philistine neighbours. After all, this nebbish had a beautiful wife and lots of money to boot. What did his neighbours do? Out of a competitive zeal, they filled all the wells that he had inherited from his father with rubble. Isaac faced economic ruin.

Abimelech stepped in. “I can’t protect you from my own people. Their envy over your wealth is too strong. If I tried, they might go to war against me. But go into the countryside where there is a lot of land and dig new wells there for yourself and your family.” Isaac did not protest but followed Abimelech’s instructions. To no avail. He restored a well that his father had dug. The surrounding Philistines filled it with rubble claiming the water belonged to them. Isaac called the well Esek, a well of contention. Two different expressions of possessive individualism, but now clearly rooted in ethnicity, were in play, and the more powerful won.

The same thing happens to a second well he dug, but this time Isaac names the well Sitnah meaning enmity. Isaac clearly saw that the conflict over the well was not just driven by different self-interests in conflict, but by a deeper hatred that would later be labeled antisemitism. This was not just a battle for survival needing the protection of a sovereign, in this case a sovereign too afraid of an uprising by his own people to provide protection. Nor was it just a battle for competing Lockean self-interests. But neither was it merely a battle between different customs of the tribe of Abraham versus the Philistines, for Abimelech seemed to imply the two tribes shared the same customs.

If neither Hobbes nor Locke nor Hume were sufficiently in play, what was the source of this visceral jealousy and hatred? Justin E. H. Smith in The Stone wrote about the roots of the “race” problem in our contemporary world in an essay, “The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours.”

In 1734, Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former chamber slave of Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled “On the Impassivity of the Human Mind.” (T)he rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus praised “the natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning,” and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things.” Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.

Yet, David Hume, ignorant of accomplishments such as that of Amo, and ignoring a number of his intellectual forbears, wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” Immanuel Kant would echo the same sentiment. Kant dismissed the citation of a black author because “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” Donald Trump remonstrating three female black and very professional reporters for asking “stupid” questions echoed these same sentiments.

This is not individualism where people are recognized for what they do and for what they achieved either as soldiers in defence of their country or intellectual inventors behind start-up nations, nor as capitalists engaged in personal wealth accumulation. This is racism, bold and simple.

A former student of mine, Cecil Foster, has a book coming out in the new year called, They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada. It is a book about how pullmen on the passenger trains of an expanding Canada not only influenced the development of trade unionism, a concept of a community of communities, as well as how travel enlightens and how trade is and should be conducted, but shaped race relations and human rights in this country as well as Canada’s dominant motif as a “multicultural” nation. These are some of the superlative preview reviews:

  • unforgettable – Toronto Star
  • equates the coming of age of his protagonists with the coming of age of the nation – National Post
  • an evocative book about black men – Vancouver Sun

As U of T professor George Dei wrote, “Foster brings historical depth to his work and shows that the social and political recognition of blackness and multiculturalism is itself a contingent moment in history.”

The struggle in the Enlightenment was not just rooted in stark individualism of either the Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke or even Hume variety, but in an individualism rooted in black (and Jewish) communitarianism in a struggle which is cultural as well as somatic, intellectual or merely rooted in competing systems of customs.

Isaac opts for flight rather than fight, since he clearly is vastly outnumbered and digs his own well rather than digs up one of his father’s that was filled in. Out of necessity, he becomes his own person. He calls that third well Rehovot, where he finally had space and air to breathe free of the threat of persecution.

But then Isaac’s servants dug a fourth well, but only after he built an altar to the sovereign God, the one God of all nations. Only then was Isaac’s tribe accepted as a sovereign entity with which Abimelech could make a treaty, not one between states with defined borders, but between and among ethnic groups within a single kingdom, as happened in the constituency nomination meeting that I wrote about last week.

In my view, Dummitt and Fukuyama have a very truncated view of individualism and modernity, for modernity is both informed by and informs group identities.

Last evening, after going out to dinner with friends, we listened to a jazz band at Koerner Hall, Still Dreaming, with Josh Redman on sax, Ron Miles on cornet, Scott Colley on base and Brian Blade, the percussionist. Though the first two tunes were explicitly written by Josh and Ron respectively, the evening was a tribute to Josh’s father, Dewey Redman on tenor sax, and his exciting and innovative band of the 1970s and 1980s, “Old and New Dreams.” That music was lyrical but cerebral; it was neither visceral nor emotional. The energy and passion were translated into daring innovation and novel structures.

The sophisticated playing last night, however, went beyond that tribute. The band offered a structured architectonic of different tunes so that the whole program came off as if a drama was unfolding rather than just an assemblage of numbers. At the foundation was the rivalry between the sax and the cornet expressed in different form and expressions of beauty as they riffed on the same chord in the first two tunes. Then the music travelled through conflict, reconciliation, a semblance of unity and ultimately, in the call-back, a unique complementarity. The genius was not only in the quality of the players but in how they combined their talents and their instruments to provide a whole evening of both aesthetic and dramatic excitement. Throughout the evening, the base always returned to keep the different approaches to melody intact as the percussionist provided a steady but varied beat to keep the others on track.

Still Dreaming offered a suitable metaphor for my thinking yesterday and my blog this morning, of how different expressions and tributaries come together in the modern world to flow into a major stream that goes back to the past and even the ancient world. And all the time, contingency is in play.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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