I’ve been marking passages in Inventing the Individual that show the emergence of liberal traits. I’m making a list of these traits in the back of the book, with the goal of distilling a set of liberal family resemblances which, when viewed together as a gestalt, might give me new ways to understand liberalism or reveal new kinds of liberalism that better suit the needs of this moment in history.
But this post is not about that project. It is about the circle-L symbol I have been using in the margin to mark the proto-liberal passages. I like this symbol. It is the anarchy circle-A’s elegant cousin.
In these days of rampant illiberalism on both the right and left, where liberal ideas are more likely to inspire doubts, cynicism and scorn than consent, maybe it is time to equip liberalism with a re-revolutionary symbol. Because liberalism is revolutionary, and on the grand scale of history nothing could be more prosaic than a collectivist relapse, however intense the overturning feels.
When there is no light and we see only blackness, we think we see nothing.
We look out into the emptiness of space and we see blackness, we think we see nothing.
We see nothing when we look out at the world and cannot see what is outside the periphery of our vision. We see nothing when the scotoma in each of our eyes fills in the hole in our seeing with nothing-missing. That is what nothing looks like, and it resembles blackness only in that it deprives the eye of objects.
I think this is why I have gradually rejected the phenomenological metaphor of horizon. Nothingness is not distant. No vantage point, however high, can reveal it. Only movement, memory and thought makes nothingness known.
Peripatetic philosophy is a redundant phrase.
Isolation makes existent things seem to not exist.
Mass delusions make nonexistent things seem to exist.
Demographelia is the preference for thinking in terms of social categories over encountering the uniqueness of individuals. And of course, since categories are features of our own minds, this signifies an impulse to reduce individuals to oneself — a solipsism strategy.
The world seems to be losing its taste for individuality. If you believe, as I do, that encountering personal individuality penetrating the screen of our own ideas is our most reliable transcendence, this is an alarming development.
I will say it again. The proper terms of transcendence are not a mundane world below and a spirit world beyond. That is how a mind trying to resist the reality of God sees it. No, the true terms are the world as I know it below and the world as I can come to know it beyond. And beyond that is the world as it is which we can never know and which is the source of being and knowing. Our challenge is to be a unique I toward infinite Thou (known to us as “everything”) composed in part of beings who are each themselves a unique I, each of which inhabits another unique everything.
Magical thinking, abuse and exploitation, intuition worship, illiberalism, preference for viewing people as instances of demographic categories (culminating in demographic essentialism) — it all goes together.
There is good reason the Enlightenment was both social and scientific: these are indivisible components of individuality, the two highest commandments which are one. They are complements of the same discipline of knowing-toward. They are antidotes to the containing comprehensions of solipsism.
“Explanation, when regarded as the only goal of inquiry, becomes a substitute for understanding. Imperceptibly it becomes the beginning rather than the end of perception.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
Here is a list of random thoughts that have occurred to me while reading Inventing the Individual:
- When you realize how deep the connection was between family and land, and what it meant in the ancient world to lose these fundamental connections, the history of the Jewish people becomes both more familiar and more miraculous.
- The history of humankind could be told as a story of evolving relationships between immediate and transcendent realities expressed in terms of interpretations given to these relationships.
- I’ve been drawing my asterisk symbol for close to a decade now. I think I have been wrong about the nature of the subject present at the nexus. The subject rarely singular.
- Slavery in pre-individual times might have a meaning inaccessible the imagination of an individual.
- “Now is a small town.” Yes, it is. These days historical cosmopolitanism is damn near nonexistent.
This old post warrants an edited re-post:
A person’s attitude toward science tells us much more about his attitudes toward his fellow human beings than it does with his attitudes toward nature.
Science is a multi-generational collaborative unfinished accomplishment of the most intelligent, inventive, scrupulous and industrious people humankind has ever produced.
To place one’s own gut feelings on truth at the same level as the knowledge produced by science, or to refuse to understand and contend with science’s accounts when they conflict with one’s own sense of reality — this violates two of the highest laws of reason, which might as well be one and the same: 1) respect reality with all your mind, heart and effort, and 2) respect your neighbor’s truth as you respect your own.