In this article I would like to examine a way of seeing the world that permeates much of modern discourse. Indeed, built into the foundations of enlightenment liberalism is the idea that analysis, whether it be philosophical or political, takes as its starting point a "brain in a vat". While enlightenment philosophers certainly put this more eloquently, the oft-ignored premise of much of their thinking was that our model of reality begins with the individual existing as some disembodied mind floating in the ether. From this self-evident basis we are then able to prove the existence of the world, of other people, of laws and morals, of meaning and even of God. The point is that we start on a totally individualistic basis and work our way out.
Since it is a material fact of modernity that individualism is the foundation on which our whole attitude to life rests, you might be asking yourself why it even matters to critique individualism. Maybe you’re an individualist yourself, or maybe you’re a critic of our current society but you prefer to focus on issues that seem more practical and less abstract. What I am going to argue is that our way of being in the world has its origins in ways of thinking about the world that were developed during the enlightenment. The way you think determines the way you act, and so your way of thinking becomes your way of being. To adopt a way of being without considering whether its justified is to invite all the unforeseen consequences it will produce. Thought in our contemporary society is totally dominated by an individualistic perspective, yet seldom does anyone question whether this is a good thing.
The goal of this article is to show that individualism does not correctly describe the human person or the social organism which men form to live collectively. Since individualism isn’t true, it gives us an incoherent understanding of the world, and as a result it will lead to an incoherent way of acting and being in the world. This is a crucial line of thinking, especially for right-wingers, conservatives, or really any people who can see problems with our current society. We cannot solve, or even understand the central questions of our time without having a clear picture of the world we live in and who we are within it.
If we look carefully we can see the consequences of individualism all around us. What is the role of government? It is to maximize the ability of individuals to do whatever they want. What is morality? Individuals define their own morality and anything goes as long as you don’t interfere with the ability of other people to do whatever they want. What is the purpose of anything? You decide, because everyone can do whatever they want. And of course we would expect you to come to these conclusions if your metaphysics says that the mere existence of everything else in the world is contingent on the individual. However, if we are going to base our entire society on this starting point, then we ought to be sure the edifice we’ve constructed is grounded in truth.
To do this we must first have a proper philosophical understanding of what we’re questioning. The idea of the individual as the starting point for metaphysics and epistemology can be traced back to any number of thinkers throughout the ages. For our purposes, however, we will look at a philosopher who presented what is perhaps the most famous version of this doctrine: René Descartes. Descartes was one of the first thinkers who can arguably be included in the enlightenment, and his thought influenced many thinkers and ideologies, ranging from John Locke and his liberalism to Karl Marx and his communism. Even people who haven’t heard of Descartes probably know of his famous formula: I think, therefore I am. It is precisely this formula, which is also known as the cogito, (originally it was written in Latin as cogito ergo sum) which he presented as being the foundational, self-evident truth on which all our knowledge must be grounded, and it will be the starting point of our critique.
The cogito was originally presented in Descartes’ book, Meditations on the First Philosophy. In Meditations, Descartes takes it upon himself to establish a solid basis for human knowledge through philosophical investigations. He begins by pointing out some basic facts about some of our perceptions, so as to put them into doubt. He notes that often our senses deceive us into seeing something one way, when actually upon further investigation we discover our first impression was wrong. For example, think of someone mistaking a stranger for one of their friends, or a time when you were dreaming but you thought your dream was real until you woke up. However, these issues all seem fairly trivial when one considers that the way to correct an erroneous understanding of something is to give it a second look, in more detail. At this point however, Descartes expands our skeptical questioning. What if we couldn’t trust any of our senses, ever? He asks us to suppose we had spent our entire lives fooled by an evil demon to such an extent that we couldn’t trust any of our experiences. In modern terms, this has been rephrased as, “what if you were a brain in a vat, and all your experiences had actually been simulations put by scientists in your brain?" Whatever hypothetical story we use, the point of this question is to ask: “Is there any knowledge at all of which we can be certain?” As we continue reading Meditations, Descartes thinks he’s got a solution to the problem of knowledge: even if everything one ever experiences is an illusion, the very fact that you are experiencing an illusion is undeniable proof that you exist because you are the one experiencing the illusion. In other words: I think therefore I am.
In the context of the time in which Descartes was writing, this type of thinking was revolutionary. Previously, the whole of life in Catholic Europe had been grounded in the teachings of the scholastic theologians. Famous theologians like Saint Thomas Aquinas had taught a model of knowledge put forwards by Aristotle which saw all knowledge as beginning in experience. From our experiences, we gain access to the knowledge of things which we can then use to reason about the world. In opposition to this, Descartes was putting forwards a doctrine known as rationalism, which teaches that the basis of all knowledge comes from a purely intellectual perception. In other words, all our foundational knowledge must come from logical deductions within the mind. Indeed beginning with his cogito, which he argued was self-evident and necessarily true, Descartes endeavoured to prove the existence of God, of the real world, and of other people.
In many ways, this approach to philosophy was crucial to the development of humanism and the Enlightenment. From now on, intellectual activity would not take as its starting point God, or the church, or the government, or society. From the advent of humanism onwards, everything implicitly accepted as its starting point the individual, abstracted and separated from everything and everyone else. The influence of this way of seeing things can be seen in everything from liberal political theory, which begins with arguments about individuals in the state of nature (John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau), to total free market economics, which begin with individual rational choice (Adam Smith, the Austrian school), and modern theories of justice that begin by imagining all people as existing prior to any of their defining characteristics like social class, ethnicity, religion or gender (John Rawls).
To critique this individualism, our first step must be to ascertain whether Descartes' cogito is actually a sound argument. The first thing to note is that Descartes’ argument is predicated on the idea that “I think therefore I am” is a self evident statement. This is central to Descartes’ project because he holds what is known as a classical foundationalist epistemology. This view holds that since all knowledge must be justified, any statement we make is justified by another statement, this however leads to an infinite regress where we can never arrive at an ultimate justification that doesn’t need to be justified by a previous statement. As a result they argue that there must be some self-evident concept which serves as the basis for all other knowledge. This concept must be obviously true to anyone who considers it without needing to appeal to other concepts or evidence to explain or justify it.
Yet if we consider the statement “I think therefore I am,” it becomes clear that it is not actually self-evident. For one thing, consider the use of “I”. Remember that Descartes is arguing that foundational truths can only be known through purely intellectual perception. This argument is built on the assumption that reason is a faculty that Man possesses which allows him to interact with reality, its structure, and objects that exist. Moreover, this interaction between your mind and reality must occur free from any interference from your past lived experiences or any sense experience in the present. Effectively, we are establishing a clear division between your mind and your body such that only your mind is capable of providing real knowledge. Remember, however, that knowledge ultimately comes down to your mind reflecting upon its own being (I think therefore I am). In this state, what individuating characteristics does your mind actually possess? Since we are not allowed yet to accept any life experiences or sensations or even the existence of our own body as valid, we are only left as a disembodied mind in the ether whose only characteristic is being. No predicates can be made of it whatsoever. In fact, there’s nothing really to distinguish your mind in this state from the rest of existence; the entire universe in this state can only really be said to contain your mind. Since there is no difference between the totality of existence and your mind, the universe essentially is your mind.
Even though Descartes goes on in his book to prove the existence of other things outside the mind, our foundational starting point is a disembodied mind that amounts to universal pure reason, free from any individuating characteristics. Even in terms of your “mind” we are not dealing here with "mind" as anyone experiences it–with memory, emotions, or even other thoughts. An issue that arises here is whether it is coherent to talk about thinking separated from the world. This will be dealt with more thoroughly later, but for now suffice it to say that it is not possible to think without anchoring our thinking in the world outside our minds. Returning to Descartes’ argument, the I doing the thinking is simply a mind, with no unique characteristics that would make it any more yours than someone else’s, thinking about its own existence. Descartes is establishing an epistemological hierarchy wherein the starting point is a state in which all of existence is reduced to Mind thinking of its own being. Yet when he says “I think therefore I am,” he means that he, René Descartes, the man, is thinking and being. When you, the reader considers the cogito, it is you, the particular person reading this article, who is thinking and being. Is René Descartes the man the same as some purely intellectual thought process? Are you the reader equivalent to pure intellect? Obviously the answer is no, but this issue is not resolved within the cogito.
While it is true Descartes develops what is called cartesian dualism, his appeal to pure reason as an epistemological starting point, we find something I would argue approaches the monistic way of thinking. Several religions and philosophies, including everything from neoplatonism to hinduism and buddhism, use monism as their ontological basis. Monism postulates that all of reality as we ordinarily experience it is an illusion and that in fact all distinctions as we experience them are a false consciousness. All reality is one–in fact, we are all part of the one. We are all actually not distinct individuals; rather, we are all part of an abstract unity. From a consistently applied monist perspective, the cogito does not actually prove the existence of any particular person, since all thought is part of the one, all the cogito proves is that the one contains all thought and being. The point here is that Descartes was already assuming the veracity of the thing he was meant to be proving in his argument. Descartes presupposed, without acknowledging or justifying it, an understanding of personhood which was a product of the Christian European society in which he lived. Moreover, this belief in a real distinction between minds is ultimately at odds with monism. Indeed, if we don’t begin with Descartes assumptions about personhood, then all the cogito would prove is that thinking is happening, without telling us anything about who or what is involved in actually thinking.
Once we start looking for implicit presuppositions we’ll find Descartes’ argument replete with assumptions for which he provides no justification. As I mentioned earlier, Descartes wrote his book in Latin. Latin, with its grammar and rules however, is by no means self-evident or universal. In fact no matter what language you want to translate the cogito into, you’ll find that the meaning of “I think therefore I am” as a sentence is contingent on the coherence of a language that only makes sense in the cultural and historical context in which it developed. Just like the concept of personhood, the language you speak and its rules are by no means universal or self-evident.
It is language as it was understood by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein which I believe offers us a path forward. Wittgenstein in his book, Philosophical Investigations, delved into what is known as the private language argument. In his critique of the idea of a private language, Wittgenstein demonstrated the need for a transformation in our thinking away from an individualist understanding of man and towards an understanding of man as a member of a community.
On the surface, Wittgenstein’s argument might seem very simple, and maybe even obvious to many people. He is going to argue that it is impossible for any language to be private because language by necessity is contingent on the community which develops and uses it. The reason Wittgenstein is devoting such rigorous analysis to critiquing this seemingly obscure and uncontroversial argument, is that in individualism the individual person is our starting point and the community comes about afterwards as a secondary consideration. If Wittgenstein’s understanding of language is true, which I will argue it is, then we cannot logically think about the individual separate from his community, ever. Individuals are like cells in a social body: there is no community without the individual, but there is also no individual without the community. The fact that many Enlightenment philosophers deny the collective nature of language comes down to their implicit and maybe even unconscious assumption that it is somehow possible for a private language to exist. If language is inseparable from community, then so is the individual.
The private language argument begins with Wittgenstein considering what it would take for a language to be totally private. This language would have to be used and understood only by its creator and never by anyone else. Accordingly, Wittgenstein argued that a private language could not be composed of outward signs. For example, if we were trying to come up with a word, symbol or sign to describe a sensation of pain we could never do it with a gesture, facial expression or a sound because then anyone who studied our language long enough would be able to learn it, thus rendering it no longer private. Any private language would have to be impossible to learn because any man using it would not share the use of a common set of symbols with any other person, and thus there would be no overlap between their languages which could be used as a starting point for communication and translation.
To come up with new words for referring to things would also be impossible because any new word in one’s language would have to be defined by other words in one’s language, but those words would have to be defined by other words as well. This would leave us in an infinite regress of trying to define meaningless words with other meaningless words. Moreover simply inventing a new word for every word in English would just mean that the meanings of one’s words and the structure of our grammar and syntax would all be based on English, which is a public language because it is widely known and available for anyone to learn. So ultimately, the private language would not be private because it would just be a very convoluted form of English.
The next possibility is to create an ostensive definition. This would mean one would create a connection in one’s own mind between a sensation and a term. At first however this ostensive definition would be meaningless. The meaning of a word is established through practice over time as the same word is used to describe the same thing; this means that the coherent use of a word is contingent on one's memory. But in the present, as one creates a connection between a term and a sensation in one’s own mind, there is no fixed criterion to judge whether or not we have applied the term correctly to the correct sensation, thereby making any immediate attempt at establishing meaning arbitrary.
However, any attempt to fix the meaning of a term within one’s memory by repeated use would not work for a private language. For example, if one were to establish a connection between a word and the sensation of being sad and use it several times throughout the period of a month in order to fix the meaning in one’s memory one would still need to verify that we are applying the word correctly. One would need a criteria of verification outside one’s own head. The name of a sensation is a label that attempts to group together a huge group of distinct experiences we might have across time. Applying this label therefore is an exercise in grasping the meaning of the word and comparing a particular sensation to the meaning to see if they match. In our daily lives we appeal to other people or to a dictionary perhaps in order to verify our use of terms. To apply terms which only exist in our minds, using meanings that only exist in our minds, to our inner experience and then verifying this process by appealing to our memory of all our prior uses of that term is not tenable.
Our usage of terms would be inconsistent and shifting–we would have no understanding of their meaning. What I am referring to as verification, is the process by which we decide if an experience fits within the scope of a term and can therefore be accurately described by it. A related issue is that internal sensations are by their nature something very difficult to pin down. In regular life we know what sadness is because we watch characters be sad on TV, we learn as children to recognize the facial expressions a sad person makes, and we compare our own experiences to the way others describe how they feel when they’re sad. Putting together all these data points we construct for ourselves an understanding of sadness that we can apply to our own feelings. But taking sensations in themselves leaves us only with how we feel in the moment, without the benefit of a public language in which we can contextualize or think about our sensations. By trying then to start from nothing and categorize our internal sensations into distinct categories, we would find it very difficult to say whether our current sensation should be categorized as x or y based on how similar it was to past internal sensations. In our lives we get heaps of social proof and guidance for how to use language. The issue with having this process occur completely in one’s head, based on one’s memory, is that there’s no standard for reference. This use of language would be like trying to verify the accuracy of a schedule for flights at the airport by printing out a second copy of the schedule and comparing the two side by side.
Thus, the meanings of words and the rules of one’s language would have to be available inside as well as outside one’s mind. This of course means that a private language is impossible since as soon as the meanings of words and rules of a language exist out in the world (written down in a dictionary for example) then it is possible for anyone who is able to study these meanings and rules to learn the language. The very possibility of language necessitates the prior possibility of there being other people who could learn it, thus making all language public.
This is of utmost importance for our purposes. Returning to Descartes we can ask: what is implied in asking if everything is an illusion created by an evil demon? What would it actually mean to be a brain in a vat? The answer is that this is not the type of question that we can coherently ask. To have the capacity to ask these questions, to be able to think at all, to have a coherent understanding of our experiences requires the prior possibility of other minds existing in a world outside our minds. The existence of your inner world, of your thoughts, is inseparable from the social world of which you are a part. In other words we are an extension of our community, and our community is an extension of us. We are only fully ourselves when we are active participants in our community.
In light of this new understanding, we ought to reflect critically on the nature of groups in a more practical sense. The general view you find among Enlightenment thinkers (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) is that people begin as individuals in some prehistoric state of nature, and then out of some rational calculation or in pursuit of self-interest they band together with other individuals and form a society. However, any truly consistent social thought must reject these premises outright. It is totally absurd to begin in some mythological state of nature because we ought to recognize (especially as right-wingers) that man is not social by choice or by accident—he is social in his very essence. It is a law of nature that we exist in communities as social beings. We are not atomized individuals floating about in the ether, but rather we are cells in a great social organism.
It is only in this context that many of our other beliefs make sense. For example, socially conservative values and policies only make sense when we recognize that they are attempts to secure the common good. If you consider your own self, and then peel away layer by layer all the parts of your identity that are contingent on a social relation—being a son or daughter, father or mother, sister or brother, friend, church member, worker—what are you left with? Not much. Even your soul itself, your subjective consciousness, which one might wish to say is independent of other persons, is the result of your relationship with God who created and sustains you. We are in a very important way the sum total of our social relations.
It is for the preservation and prosperity of the social body and, by consequence, all of the individual people who are part of it, that we hold a socially conservative ethical view on questions about the family, sexual morality, the relationship of the citizen to the government, etc. Considered in this light, liberal arguments like “my body my choice” or “let me do whatever I want with my life, it doesn’t affect you” make no sense. All of one’s actions have an influence on the people who are part of our lives. A drug addicted father will have a deeply negative impact on his wife and children. A ruthless and exploitative capitalist will hurt his workers. A mother who aborts her child is not only hurting the child itself but also taking away a member of the national community in a country where our future is already threatened by low birth rates. Being necessarily part of a vast web of social relations, our actions have vast reverberations that impact countless people. The core and often unspoken principle of our social views is that each and every member of our national community has an ethical duty to contribute to the social good, and that because the state is responsible for the leadership and protection of the social body, it is its ethical duty to enforce policies which promote the common good.
The final thought I want to leave the reader with is this: In the 21st century, any coherent system of philosophy or politics, any worldview whatsoever, must begin with an understanding of Man as an inherently social being who is inextricably linked to his nation and its history. The individualistic starting point of philosophy and politics developed during the Renaissance and Enlightenment is ultimately incoherent. In many ways, this obsolete worldview served as the foundation for modern day liberalism and many of its errors. If conservatives and the right wing in general want to be a real alternative to the failed neoliberal paradigm then we must be willing to think in terms of community and the collective. We cannot succeed by thinking like liberals in the way that we frame our understanding of society and politics. If you start with liberal assumptions, you come to liberal conclusions, and your country will face the consequences of your liberalism.