The cult of the individual permeates so much modern thinking about society, equality and democracy that, when combined with the romance of individualism (heroism, glory and vanity all wrapped into one), little space is left to consider the alternatives. Whatever space is left is normally colonised by shouting matches ‘debating’ structural deficiencies versus personal morality. It seems that the collective understanding of society and what it means to be human have moved on little in modernity, a state of affairs that should provide more cause for concern than it actually does.
The poverty of this position is highlighted by the fact that the cult of individuality was a
target of philosophers well over 200 years ago, most notably in the work of Georg W. F. Hegel (pictured above). First published in 1807, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (or Spirit, depending on how you translate the German word ‘Geist’) was designed to lay out Hegel’s own philosophy while also acting as a critique of the Cartesian philosophy of consciousness so beloved of the likes of Descartes – a philosophy that must shoulder some of the blame for the modern devotion to the monadic self.
To be fair, this historical oversight isn’t helped by the fact that Hegel’s work can be a ‘challenging’ read. So much so that the concept normally associated with the Phenomenology – the dialectic in the form of thesis-antithesis-synthesis – never actually gets a mention in the book. This is why interpreters of Hegel’s work are so welcome, with a special mention going to the work of John O’Neill. Of particular interest in the present context is O’Neill’s brilliant article Oh my others! There is no other, which defends the principle and reality of civic recognition via the theories developed in the Phenomenology.
According to O’Neill, Hegel viewed the aim of the Phenomenology as “the restoration of the middle principle of the intersubjectivity of subjectivity.” For Hegel, the unavoidable interconnectedness of individuals was the starting point for the development of consciousness, a notion that flew in the face of the popular concept of the state of nature:
[t]he two idioms of otherness and selfness belong to the impossibility of the state of nature, i.e., they are subcultures of a regressive politics of arbitrariness and unknowability from which ‘we’ have already existed.
For Hegel, the concept of the sovereign subject, isolated, monadic and impermeable, was an ‘illusory idiom’, an illusion that he famously illustrated via his fable of the Master and Slave (alternatively Lordship and Bondage). As O’Neill puts it,
The heart of the matter is reached when the predatory self realises that, by projecting every other thing as its thing, it is condemned to a fate that is always potentially its own death or enslavement … human independence lies not in its origins but in its ends which we come to realise in society and history. Human nature, therefore, is second nature.
This secondary quality of human nature – a borrowed, modelled, copied, translated, communicated quality – lies at the very centre of the ‘intersubjectivity of subjectivity’. And it is this concept of second nature that has gone on to influence the likes of Sartre, Buber, Fanon, Marx and many others (including Nietzsche) – a level of influence that sometimes gets forgotten in the rush to cast off Hegel in the slipstream of postmodernism. Hegel’s logic provides a worthy adversary to the modern fixation on selfhood and otherness, a mutuality-free zone that, as O’Neill so eloquently puts it, ‘neither relieves loneliness nor shortens the shadow of death that it drags along with it.”