You Are an Abstraction: Mistakes of Metaphysical Individualism

by Stephen T. Asma

Stick-familyHow can we fix all those lunatics on the other side of the planet? This seemingly fresh and pressing question is actually one of the oldest. All cultures have relished their barbaric “other.” Asking how we can civilize the foreign hordes is undoubtedly the wrong question, but it seems downright irresistible. Even liberal Western “doves” have magic-bullet theories that try to get at the heart of social violence and pathology.

Steven Pinker expresses a well-worn normative suggestion when he says that the world should move away from tribal or group thinking and feeling, and embrace the “rights tradition” of individualism. He argues, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence recedes as individualism rises. The rest of the world could profit from the recognition, Pinker argues, that we are individuals, and individuals are the ones that “really count” (they actually feel the pleasure and pain). “Groups,” he says, “are a kind of abstraction.”[1]

I'm going to disagree here and argue, somewhat counter-intuitively, that Pinker is the abstraction. I am the abstraction. You, gentle reader, are the abstraction.

The independent individual is a hero to WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and it serves as the starting place for both pessimistic and romantic theories of the social contract. Whether you're a Hobbesian who thinks the selfish ego must be constrained by the community, or a Rousseauian who laments such constraint (or even a Rawlsian), you still start from a metaphysic of individualism. But what if the individual is actually an ecological, developmental, and political construct?

The primacy of the individual is what philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) might call an “absolute presupposition” –an assumed principle that governs certain inquiries and ways of thinking. In fact, digging down to these deep presuppositions was the preferred way, according to Collingwood, to do metaphysics (without getting hung-up on ontology). So, in the spirit of Collingwood's metaphysics, let me suggest an alternative, wherein the collective group is primordial and the individual is derivative.

Just like other mammals, humans are born into families and share strong bonds with parents, siblings, various alloparents, and the local tribe. These are not cognitive but emotional bonds. Like primates, elephants, cetaceans, and even rodents, we are born into care-groups and our feelings are inextricably entwined with the experiences of our cluster. It is not clear to a baby mammal where she begins or ends, and she must learn the parameters of individuality. I am suggesting that social mammals have a kind of extended nervous system, which reaches beyond the skin barrier to include kin experiences.

Our ability to feel the suffering or deprivation of another person is part of our instinctual equipment, and we see versions of this sympathy in other social mammals. It starts as simple, almost mechanical, emotional contagion. Babies often cry, for example, when they perceive another crying baby. Emotions are highly contagious for mammals, and we observe that anger, joy, and fear (among others) can spread rapidly through a group, even when there's no cognitive awareness of what's going on. Mammal bodies can read other mammal bodies.

The recent discovery of “mirror neurons” suggests that our social brains are so sensitive to the feelings and actions of others, that my same neural pain-pathways “light-up” or activate when I see you undergoing some painful experience. I literally sense a little taste of your pain, just by witnessing it. The subjective wince that I feel at your suffering is neurologically underwritten by automatic brain processing (both my brain stem and anterior cingulate activate when I am poked with a pin, but my anterior cingulate also activates when I witness you getting poked with a pin). There is a “shared manifold” of feelings or even an “emotional atmosphere” that humans share with each other. It's not mystical or spooky, it's just an under-recognized perceptual ability.[2]

We don't come into the world as selfish Hobbesian mercenaries. Contrary to the usual social contract-theory, we mammals don't start out as self-serving egotistical individuals who then need to be socialized (through custom, reason, and law) to endure the compromises of tribal living. Rather, we start out in a sphere of emotional-chemical values –created by family care –in which feelings of altruistic bonding are preset before the individual ego even extricates itself.

Freud's famous assumption Homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to other men) not only tries to posit the isolated aggressive interests of the early ego phase, but also the artificial nature of morality itself. I'm suggesting that Freud didn't understand his own metaphor accurately because while wolves can be highly aggressive, their fierceness is for those outside their pack, outside their tribe. Inside their pack they are loyal, and even altruistic. Wolves (and we) are more tribal-centric than ego-centric. The us precedes the I.

Biology aside, philosophy has long proffered skeptical ideas about the self, and these ideas are entirely congenial to my claim that you are an abstraction. The Buddha famously rejected the reality of an individual self, calling it a delusion.[3] And Hume argued that Descartes had no right to think of the “I” as a metaphysical substance. The cogito ergo sum does not establish the existence of metaphysical substance –it only proves the existence of momentary self in each act of thinking. My self cannot be found as a discrete content of consciousness –it is always the knower and never the known. Hume concluded counter-intuitively that I am really just a bundle of experiences (memories, emotions, cognitions, etc.) and the individual self is a kind of fiction.[4]

Philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that our content-rich self is just a “center of narrative gravity” (Dennett, 1988). We use language to weave together a coherent story out of our disparate experiences. My individual self is nothing but this accumulating narrative. Antonio Damasio calls this our “autobiographical self” (Damasio, 2000). And as these names suggest, this self is largely composed in the highly discursive process of neocortical reflection. Language, together with frontal-lobe powers, allows us myriad ways to represent the world and represent ourselves. We make ourselves, at this level, through the stories we tell ourselves. We share an animal sense of sensory-motor location in space and time with other mammals, but beyond that low-level POV our feelings and thoughts are more extended or distributed throughout our social ecology.

So, what are the political implications of this metaphysical change-up? If Steven Pinker and progressives generally see individualism as essential for violence reduction and social advancement, then have I put us on the downward slope toward despotism? Asian cultures, for example, don't share the same absolute presupposition of individualism, so are they destined to fail in the human rights arena? Some Western pundits have suggested that Asian countries (built on values like Confucianism, or caste systems or tribalism), are uniquely suited for autocratic control, subjugation of citizenry, and the inevitable compromise of human rights. It's as hard to falsify this melodramatic claim as it is to prove it, but I'm not sympathetic. It rings to my ear more like Western hype than truth.

Some have blamed the acquiescent nature of Buddhism, for example, on the rise of Maoist repression in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Such a strong view asserts that Asian kinship communalism contributed to the disastrous social experiments, famines and mass murders in 20th century Asia. I'm rather doubtful. It seems more likely that Confucian tribalism, for example, would have been an excellent barrier against the excesses of Maoist egalitarian ideology. Confucian filial tribalism was exactly the sort of bourgeois value system that could have protected families against the overreaching “science” of the State Party. Asian tribalism failed to protect against autocracy because it was systematically and explicitly rooted out early on. Blaming the Asian social disasters of the late twentieth century on a lack of individualism is convenient for some Western ideologues, but not more true for that convenience.

The metaphysical status of the individual (primordial or derived) wanders under the clash of civilizations like a tectonic faultine. For the Far and Near East, group membership and tribal affiliation cannot be taken off the individual like some ill-fitting cultural jacket. For many people in the East, it constitutes the very meaning of life. The organic cohesion of your kin is primary, and the individual is slowly abstracted out of that original unity.

Contrary to Pinker and the individualists, a healthy politics and ethics can be built on a group or tribal foundation –it is not all violence and vengeance. The Buddha argued, for example, that giving up the individual self made you more compassionate because the other's suffering is also your suffering. But even our homegrown Western tradition has produced the feminist project of “care ethics” against the paradigm of individualism.

From Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) to Carol Gilligan (1936-), women have noticed that the ideal of rule-based Western ethics has been the “autonomous man.” But what about the “communal woman?”[5] Feminists noticed that the typical model of the ethical man was an utterly detached, impartial self. This autonomous self was supposed to have pulled himself out of the subjective quagmire of emotions and biased attachments, in order to view the objective distribution of goods and duties with a disinterested eye. “Bollocks” said women philosophers, who knew full well that this “autonomous self” was a total fiction (or a twisted pathology). Moreover, women pointed out that social praxis itself must be particular, not universal; concrete, not abstract; and emotionally weighted, not just mathematical.

Care is an alternative to individualism ethics because it acknowledges the inextricable intimacies of human social life, and it places emotions at the root of those intimacies. But the intimacies of care also create special obligations and duties that constrain us, and act as quasi-laws (more particular than universal, but still binding). This is the kind of ethical framework that can acknowledge special cases of group or filial, or even tribal preference. And care-based ethics is poised to make a big comeback in light of increasing affective studies that tie ethics to emotions. The aspect of care-based ethics that still needs theoretical explanation is how to build a large-scale social justice standard from these perspectival roots.[6] But the other half of the globe has already shown us that it can be done, even if philosophers, psychologists and social scientists haven't gleaned the logic yet.

So, you are an abstraction. But that's not bad news. You are part of an organic emotional matrix. The group, then, is as real as the individual –it “really counts” too, and we forget this metaphysical truth at our own peril.

[1] YouTube has just released a series of interesting interviews called “Experts in Emotion,” curated by Yale psychologist June Gruber. The Pinker quote here is taken from his interview with Gruber.

[2] Mirror neurons were first discovered by a team of Italian neurologists in the early 1990s, and are commonly believed to be one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. One of the original researchers, Dr. Vittorio Gallese, has written (together with N. I. Stamenov) a fairly comprehensive story of the discovery and implications, called Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language (John Benjamins Publishing, 2002). I adopt his helpful term “shared manifold,” which he articulates in “The ‘Shared Manifold' Hypothesis: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Vol. 8, 2001).

[3] See the Buddha's arguments in the Potthapada sutta (DN) against the metaphysical notions of atman and also against the notion of a separable consciousness –a res cogitans. In the Mahatanhasankhaya sutta (MN), he likens consciousness to fire, and fire exists only on the fuel it burns –never in some pure disembodied form.

[4] Hume says: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception of other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said to not exist.” (Treatise I, iv, 6,)

[5] See Rosemarie Tong's Feminine and Feminist Ethics (Wadsworth, 1993) for a good contrast of the autonomous man and communal woman paradigms. Carol Gilligan's important work on care-based ethics arose out of her critique of masculine models of developmental moral psychology. See her In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Harvard, 1982).

[6] Carol Gilligan and Grant Wiggins address this in “The Origins of Morality in Early Childhood Relationships” but the full construction remains a promissory note. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg criticized Gilligan's care model on the grounds that it could not solve conflicting social justice claims –there was no relevant “moral point of view.” Gilligan responded to Kohlberg, saying her morality of care “represents not merely the sphere of ‘personal decision making,' as he puts it, but an alternative point of view from which to map the moral domain and reveal ‘the laws of perspective' (in Piaget's phrase) which describe a relationally grounded view of morality.” See The Emergence of Morality in Young Children, edited by Jerome Kagan and Sharon Lamb (University of Chicago, 1987).


Asma headshot 2013

Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is a founding Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture.

Asma is the author of seven books, including Against Fairness (Univ. of Chicago Press), On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford Univ. Press) and The Gods Drink Whiskey (HarperOne).

In 2003, he was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, and in 2007 he lived and studied in Shanghai China. Asma has also researched Asian philosophies in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Laos. And in 2013, he won a Fulbright award to teach in Beijing, PRC.

Asma has been invited to lecture at Harvard, Brown University, the Field Museum, the Newberry Library, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, University of Macau, and many more.

His website is: