Saturday, March 19, 2011

Individualism and Modern Philosophy

In a very recent post, I cited Nozick's offered explanation for the opposition amongst the Intellectuals to capitalism. Nozick suggests basically a psychological explanation. But of course I had to press the issue to the question not just of capitalism, but of individualism. (In turning my mind to the subject of moral individualism in relation to the state of modern philosophy, I find that my thoughts keep expanding; an adequate treatment of the subject might have to be chapter-length, so I couldn't post in depth on the subject here and now.)

One might think that while opposition to capitalism among many philosophers is readily understandable psychologically, the decided lack of interest among philosophers on the subject of individualism is bizarre. If individualism extols as a primary virtue "thinking for oneself," you'd think the philosophers would be most interested in the subject. But what academic literature is there out there on the subject? Aside from Norton, and a few Rand-influenced ethical philosophers (Machan, Mack, Rasmussen and Den Uyl), and parts of Lomasky and Nozick, what literature have professional philosophers generated on the subject in recent memory? Why does so deeply American a subject as individualism interest America's intellectual class so little?

I came to these thoughts when working through possible non-psychological explanations for the widespread antipathy to capitalism among intellectuals. At some point during one of Peikoff's lectures, a short and simple philosophical explanation was given: the widespread acceptance of "altruistic" morality in its various forms (e.g., Christianity, Kant, Mill, Marx, Rawls). But I'm not really satisfied with that explanation. Among the intellectuals, the antipode of altruism is not capitalism or individualism, but egoism, and the intellectuals have been hard at work devising moral theories that work somewhere in between the antipodes of egoism (e.g. Rand) and altruism (e.g. Comte). They find such extremes unacceptable because (aside from any pathologically pragmatistic opposition to extremes) altruism runs up against problems of rational motivation (which Nagel's The Possibility of Altruism makes a thorough effort to confront), while egoism supposedly - supposedly - runs up against the problem of respecting all moral agents over and above their serviceability to the agent's own interests.

But what about individualism? The most widely accessible and widely-read "text" on individualist ethics is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. The theme is "individualism versus collectivism, not in politics but in man's soul." The political themes are there, but mainly by implication. The full implication would have to wait another 14 years. But aside from the supposedly "weird" characterizations and narrative that drive many a reader to miss the point, what about the Roarkian individualist ethos makes professional philosophers so uninterested? True, there are professional philosophers aplenty who openly oppose egoism, but I don't know of any that would dare openly oppose individualism, certainly not in America. Instead, on the subject of individualism, there's one conspicuous fact here: silence.

This might reduce back to some psychological explanations. The Fountainhead is, after all, about individualism and collectivism in the human soul, and provides certain archetypes of motivation. Roark finds himself in fundamental opposition to what, for a long time, he can only term "The Principle Behind the Dean." Keating embraces that principle; it's about the only principle a pragmatist, for all the pragmatists' opposition to principles, can willingly accept. One thing about Rand's style of writing is that she would directly confront, in the most extreme and oppositional terms, the psychology of her readers. The Roark-Keating opposition is pretty deep, and being more fundamentally a psychological rather than intellectual one, it carries more fundamental explanatory power about how people behave. (It would explain, for instance, why someone would turn toward a less intellectual life as such, as distinct from turning to an intellectual life that is, say, socialism-friendly. It also explains Ayn Rand's - the real Ayn Rand's, not the caricatured, distorted, misrepresented and smeared Ayn Rand's - behavior in regard to those who disagreed with her. She valued intellectuality above agreement as such. (There are rare exceptions, like with her treatment of Kant, but she simply did not get Kant or his context.))

This gets to something very fundamental, perhaps not as fundamental in Rand's philosophy as it was in her very soul and being: sense of life. One's views about a thing such as individualism are fundamentally conditioned by one's sense-of-life. Now, either you share Rand's basic sense of life, or you don't. (I like to think that I share her sense of life, and then some.) With Rand, on the subject of individualism, there is heroic and passionate affirmation and praise and benevolence. With someone who doesn't share Rand's sense of life, the response is one of so much indifference.

The logical conclusion to draw here is that the mainstream of the Intellectual Class does not share Ayn Rand's basic sense of life. The American People, on the other hand - the best within the American people, of course - well, they do share her basic sense of life.

And that's how modern "canon" philosophy has defaulted on its task and failed the people. Can I not help but think that modern "canon" philosophy's days are sooooo numbered?


[ADDENDUM: See any entry under "Individualism" here? For that, you have to go here. CASE CLOSED.]

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