A friend of mine posted this meme a while ago and I thought it was very interesting. The idea that the individual is nothing is a notion that is unfortunately taking hold in our society. I disagree with this on the basis that it is only the individual that can reason.
Let’s look at these claims in sequence.
First the author makes the claim that “individualism is rubbish.” There is no claim to what is meant by individualism. They go on to make the claim that the “individual is an entirely powerless unit.” I interpret this to be a clarifying statement of the first claim that individualism is rubbish. Therefore, it appears they are defining individualism as the belief that individuals are capable of every feat necessary for survival. I’m not aware of any definition of individualism that espouses this belief.
They then try to bolster this claim by stating that an individual cannot birth itself, raise itself, educate itself or change the world itself. Once again no one has claimed that is what individualism is. However, I will make a claim, it is entirely possible to educate oneself. In fact, we do it all the time. We’ve done it as a species since the beginning of our existence. We had to learn to use tools, hunt and gather, write, build houses and building…etc. This is just a silly argument that we don’t educate ourselves.
The claim that people are “entirely a product of the people and environment” is false, at least in the way that it is used here. They are now presenting us with a philosophy called determinism. Determinism is a philosophy that essentially states the people are a product only of their environment and the decisions they make are not a result of free will but of their surroundings and it is impossible that a person could have made any other decision or performed any other action.
The field of epistemology is the study of how we acquire knowledge. The basic premise of epistemology is that it is not possible to gain any knowledge whatsoever without external stimuli. Our basic senses allow for the ability to gain knowledge. While it is true that nature and other people provide this stimulus for our ability to learn we are not defined by these external stimuli because of the fact that we are able to reason. Reason is the main resource of man in his struggle to survive1. When someone touches a hot stove and realizes it doesn’t feel good they can reason that touching the stove is not a good idea.
Just because we are influenced by outside stimuli by no means is indicative that we are defined by the stimuli. Because we can reason and act we have the ability to change our surroundings. Individualism is the idea that “individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals.2” Only the individual thinks. This is not true of the collective.
Groups of people don’t reason, groups of people don’t act. Only the individuals within those groups act. Individualism is therefore not just a philosophy but a reality. The author in reality concedes individualism. He states that individuals cannot “change the world” but is actively trying to change a mentality that would change the world. He is not engaging a group of people but appealing to the individual who can reason.
A rather odd meme indeed.
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- Ludwig von Mises
- Von Mises