2/26/03

Are we ultimately "individuals" or "collectives"? Are we "collectives-of-individuals"?


No doubt these basic assumptions form the most important starting points of what later become libertarian or socialist approaches to questions about the just distribution social resources and opportunities. While it seems absurd to pitch one's tent with the libertarians--who, after all, has ever been perfectly isolated from interdependencies and socially-corroborated descriptions and explanations?--we recognize that there's something in this view of the self that is right.



But what is it? Surely, in most society-models, the outcome recommended by libertarians is unacceptable; compassion, equality, and the very conditions for the exercise of basic rights is largely precluded by the narrow version of "liberty" granted by the lib's. But the ongoing formation of our identity as individuals is driven--at the very least, "steered"--by something not collective. Figuring out what that is is one problem (if it is an "it" to begin with). Figuring out whether or not the answer to what "I" am is related to justice-- is another. (Philosophers have always assumed that what the self is and what is required for "justice" are closely related. Could this connection have been overestimated?)



I am my own engine, my painter-and-canvas, my self-revising-narrative-and-critic--some metaphors to run with. Where do others fit in? They're not simply "ingredients" nor "accidents" or "incidents" in my progress. A loss of an intimate rips a hole in one. This is not a metaphor for the feeling of loss; I'm convinced it is a description of one's very constitution. But what does that truth imply? That one's constitution is not one's own to begin with? We're back to the "collective" starting point.



If we're chased by these considerations away from all three starting points, seeing the self neither as a unit nor a collective nor even a combination, we may find ourselves taking the position that the self is an alteration, a shifting center that hangs together because of any number of items: its projects, its emotional habits, its possessions, its social nexus. Something about this is happier, logically, than the above alternatives. But then we have the uncomfortable job of pinning a noun on a process, and that makes one squeamish for other reasons. Is this where nausea comes from?


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