Friday, March 06, 2015

Part 5 (Does the Individual Exist?): Dialogues on a Philosophy for the Individual

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2015)

With this post Flora Sapio and I (and friends from time to time) continue an experiment in collaborative dialogue. The object is to approach the issue of philosophical inquiry from another, and perhaps more fundamentally ancient, manner. We begin, with this post, to develop a philosophy for the individual that itself is grounded on the negation of the isolated self as a basis for thought, and for elaboration. This conversation, like many of its kind, will develop naturally, in fits and starts. Your participation is encouraged. For ease of reading Flora Sapio is identified as (FS), and Larry Catá Backer as (LCB).

We continue with the discussion with a consideration of a question that follows from the preliminary question (whose project is this anyway?) to consider the related question that gets us closer to the heart of our discussion--Does the individual exist?  If the individual exists are there more than one type or how do we deal with Aristotle's idea of the natural slave and the natural aristocrat? Flora Sapio starts us off.

Contents: HERE.

Does the individual exist?
If the individual exists are there more than one type or how do we deal with Aristotle's idea of the natural slave and the natural aristocrat?

(FS) There are such entities as human beings. The attempt to conceive of the human being in abstract terms (as individuals) can open up an unsurpassable and blinding distance between ourselves and all those who exist with us and around us.

The human being is not an individual, but an uncontainable multiplicity.

The human being is a multiplicity because each one of us is a manifold of attributes. We are so much more than just (animality + rationality) or (race + class + gender) or any other limited combination of attributes. Each one of us possesses several different qualities, that are physical, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, psychological, relational etc. We have different talents, temperaments, skills, inclinations, capabilities, aspirations, behavioral atavisms etc. At different times, different places and circumstances in our lives we perform various social roles. We are immersed in change every moment of our lives.

The sum total of human attributes, with their infinite variation and complexity cannot be represented and cannot be described. No two human beings will ever share exactly the same attributes.

The human being is uncontainable because no single category can capture all of the human attributes in all of their possible variations and in all of their possible combinations as these attributes change in time. Each one of us is unique. What uniqueness is and what it means can only be understood practically, through those concrete experiences which reveal how categories do not work. Sometimes, it may be a feeling of not belonging, not fitting in or being out of place where one should belong; or the opposite feeling of belonging where one should not belong; or the feeling of belonging to two or more incompatible places.

Uniqueness is not equivalent to the idea of diversity – diversity still relies on the categories of “inclusion”, “color”, “origin” etc. and is therefore a categorization under a different guise.

The human being as an unclassifiable unique entity is the human being we see once we stop looking through the glasses of stereotypes. Classifying human beings through categories means separating one (or a few) attributes from the manifold. Reducing what is multiple to a single attribute such as rationality, race or religion and forcing what is uncontainable into artificial categories is the easiest way to create monsters.

Each one of these categories is made by us and it is made of us - in a sense we are the ones who inflict violence upon ourselves. The moment when we accept categories either by:

(i) trying to fit into them; or

(ii) contesting them thereby inviting a defense of their legitimacy and usefulness

we become subjects. When we accept a category we try to achieve an ideal norm or an ideal form. We impose upon ourselves a function or task (the Aristotelian ergon), we strive towards an alleged “perfection” and thus we are led astray. We are perfect as we are here and now.

The principium individuationis is reinforced either by the acceptance or by the contestation of categories (what Foucauldians call “resistance”). Individuation occurs through commodification too, as it does a false de-individuation. By false de-individuation I mean all those practices of consumption and modern-day mysteries that ”free” the Dionysian Beast only to immediately re-capture it.

Disinterested gift-giving, sharing, bartering, “placing-in-common”, non-competitive sport events, really spontaneous gatherings and celebrations etc. occur in a dimension which is relational and non-individuated. Participation in these activities can contribute to unleashing the Dionysian Beast.

The figure of the Dionysian Beast is however laden with negative cultural references and symbols. Uncontainability, multiplicity-and-uniqueness convey a greater sense of optimism and have a cross-cultural and inter-religious dimension. The uncontainable man, multiple and unique at the same time, is the Übermensch 2.0 clad in a less threatening garb, and he exists here and now, rather than in a future state of being. This kind of human being knows which form of behavior (not rules!) fits its nature, therefore he no longer needs a moral system above himself or a moral law within himself.

There are those who live their lives trying to fit categories but, the existence of human beings who cannot be captured by categories and taxonomies (the so-called outsiders, the Snowdens etc) proves how systems of classification and catalogation do not work. If systems of classification cannot capture us in our entirety then we are already partially free. The possibility of a greater freedom and a greater state of happiness is very close to us and can be achieved if we make the final lift of turning our perspective upside down.

Is liberation relational?

The individual – or better: the part of ourselves which is still individuated varies from person to person.

Those who let themselves be fully or almost fully individuated are reduced to animate objects – they live their lives under a glass bell, are almost entirely prey of stimulus-response mechanisms and I have noticed how they normally relate to only one kind of people, always on the same level and in the same way, and using a single code of communication. They will reject any possibility to de-classify themselves, often out of fear and a lack of support from their community.

Those who are partially individuated and on their way to the greatest possible de-individuation exist in relation to other human beings, animals, plants and inanimate objects as part of the same ecosystem. They relate to different communities and kinds people [animals, plants and even objects] in different ways, using multiple codes of communication, and through such interactions they become who they really are and take responsibility for their lives.

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