April 20, 2010

Disappearance of the Social

Images that Alienate

Jean Baudrillard

Living in Abstract

French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) is associated with the study of post-modernism as the mode of consciousness of man after modernity. A major theme of Baudrillard’s thoughts on post-modernism is “the disappearance of the social”, that is, the disappearance of the social relations between people, and the meanings, significances, and values that they entail. In his thinking, we may have gone beyond the loss of the human self. The social relations between people have begun to disappear because humans have begun to disappear. Reality itselfi.e., what we have conventionally understood as realis in a process of disappearance. Post-modernism is a blurring of the boarder-line between humans and machines, a blurring of the line between reality and images. Post-modernism, in its fullest sense, is when machines, television sets, and computers unplug us, not the reverse. Baudrillard insists that we are witnessing the disappearance of the human, the social, and the real in the post-modern era. We are so enmeshed in this post-modern phenomenon that Baudrillard’s profound thoughts on this subject will not immediately penetrate the readers’ minds. In fact, some may even find his thoughts preposterous or just ordinary. Indeed, there is nothing extraordinary about this phenomenon anymore!

According to Baudrillard, in the post-modern world, the new reality is that which can be “simulated”. If reality cannot be simulated, then it is not real. This means that when an image is a copy, duplicate, reproduction, or simulation of what is real, then the image is construed more real than the reality it replicates. When what is real is captured in an image, then the image takes on a higher reality and a life of its own, independent from us. The image, which constitutes the new reality, simulates or imitates what we no longer deem as real. Baudrillard refers to this new reality as “hyper-reality” which has outrun reality. Is he telling us something about the pathological fascination with the “reality shows” on TV? Is there possibly a relation between this hyper-reality and the morbid American obsession with watching TV?

The aftermath of this paradigmatic hyper-reality is quite prolific. Blood is not real until we see it on a television screen or have it streamed to a computer monitor. Real, physical suffering is not real until we read about it in a magazine, hear about it on radio, see its images on a television screen or computer monitor. Actual suffering no longer evokes our pity or sympathy until it is editorialized, televised, or streamed. When we actually witness someone’s affliction out in a street, it often does not catch our attention as much as when we view it on the nightly news. For many people cybersex has already replaced actual sexual intercourse. The Facebook has replaced actual friendship with simulation of friendship on computer screens. Nowadays, political debates are simulated on television screens. Even shadowy images of presidential elections on television screens are more real than actual elections. Some even claim that George W. Bush did not actually win the second term presidential election in 2004, but that he merely won the simulated election on television screens, where images are more real and convincing. After all, such televised or streamed images are rendered more acceptable because these images reduce the complexity of our post-modern lives wherein one would be clueless as to what is really going on in the actual world if one does not watch television. The power of televised images is that they impose an order on the chaos of our everyday lives, making it more digestible and simpler to deal with. And, according to Baudrillard, that is where the danger lies. In one of his transcribed interviews, entitled “Baudrillard Live – Selected Interviews”, he stated:

“It is the disappearance of things that fascinates us. And for me the media are a place of disappearance. It is just as interesting as a place of production or a place of apparition. It is a place of disappearance; it is a place where meaning disappears, where significance, the message, the referent disappear. It is a way of making things circulate so quickly that they are made to disappear. And it fascinates us like a black hole. It is a place of disappearance. One is fascinated by the disappearance of things. And I think it’s much the same with politics, with the social, etc. Today I think it’s a society where we are haunted and fascinated by the disappearance of the social, by the disappearance of the political. But it’s a game, a big game. It can make a lot of things happen, but it’s no longer the Productions of things which interests us; production interests, but disappearance fascinates.”

Not surprisingly, nowadays children are socialized by and learn moral lessons from machines, computer games, and televised images rather than from their parents. Children are even more emotionally involved with their computer games than with their own parents. In fact, parents have delegated the task of raising their children to such simulated images seen on computer and television screens. Children do not seem willing or able to escape from computer games, movies, and television programs. Even adults are unable or unwilling to get away from television screens. These screens babysit our children when we are busy with other matters; they comfort us when we are in pain; they guide us when we are morally lost; they entertain us when we are bored; they sing to us soothing lullabies while we sleep at nights. If one misses one’s family, one can simply rent a family-oriented movie in order to simulate spending time with family, just the way we simulate friendship on the Facebook. These magical screens follow us wherever we go; these screens are on our cellular phones, iPods, inside our automobiles, on gas pumps at gasoline stations, at supermarkets, malls, airports, airplanes, day-care centers, schools, universities, hospitals, funeral homesthey are everywhere. I mean, everywhere! These screens will follow us from womb to tomb. They tell us what is worth living and dying for. In his “Dust Breeding”, Baudrillard stated:

“In this space, where everything is meant to be seen [on screens] . . . we realize that there is nothing left to see. It becomes a mirror of dullness, of nothingness, on which the disappearance of the other is blatantly reflected . . . . It also reveals the possibility that human beings are fundamentally not social. This space becomes the equivalent of a ‘ready-made’ just-as-is (telle quelle) transposition of an ‘everyday life’ that has already been trumped by all dominant models. It is a synthetic banality, fabricated in closed circuits and supervised by a monitoring screen.”

During the Gulf War of 1990, when the United States assaulted Iraq in order to have them withdraw from Kuwait, Baudrillard was asked to cover the war as a journalist on the ground in Iraq. Ironically, he decided to cover the war not where the war actually took place, but on CNNwhere the war was simulated and televised. During that war, even the Whitehouse was glued to CNN! The rationale underlying Baudrillard’s decision was that it was CNN that was ultimately going to tell us how the war was going to be carried out and who was going to win it.

During the Gulf War, there were reports of some U.S. soldiers saying that they received their best combat training as kids playing war games at arcades. A female soldier even related that she really did not get a feel for the war until she came back home and saw it on television. It is in this sense that Baudrillard points out that what is now considered real (i.e., the “hyper-reality”) is simply an image of what is real. Further, these images tend to go beyond and negate what is real. Hence, according to Baudrillard, in the Gulf War “the enemy disappeared” in the show business. He calls this the “ecstasy of communication” or of telecommunication, which is pure neural thrill, as in when children kill scary monsters in Xbox or Sony PlayStation games. Perhaps, such children are already being trained for more gruesome wars that are coming our way. Baudrillard wondered that in this highly simulated world where we are preoccupied with consumerism, video games, television programs, movies, and bigger-than-life imageswhat is left there to dream about other than playing another round of a game, watching another movie, another television show, and paying off our debts? Is there anything to live for when real life experiences no longer enchant us and have been replaced with cheap simulations of real life?

Nowadays, in the American society, if one is unable to simulate what is real, one will find living life quite difficult. For instance, if you are in retail business, you have to be able to simulate being polite to your customers. Heaven forbids if your true character bleeds through your simulation of being polite. The customers may get offended. However, as long as you fake politeness well, the customers will be pleased and you will get to keep your job and paychecks. In this nation, we value simulation (i.e., being fake) over being authentic; simulation is more real than real. Under the paradigm of this new simulated reality and the disappearance of social relations, we are no longer supposed to like each other, but to like “liking each other”! We are not to love a person, but to love “loving a person”. We no longer value being a good Christian, but we do value the “value of being a good Christian”. A simulated Christian does not love his enemy, but loves “loving his enemy”. It is all about behavioral simulations, virtualizing our behaviors. Virtual reality (sometimes dubbed “extreme reality”) has become more real than reality. In other words, we are preoccupied with abstract ideas which only imitate in thought the actions that these ideas represent. We live abstract lives, divorced from reality. It is all about simulating what used to be deemed real. This is a pathos of post-modernism, which has made us into poor imitations of human beings. As the Kierkegaardian proverb has it:

Once upon a time, there was a man so abstract from his own life that one morning he woke up and found himself dead!

Baudrillard insists that we have stopped being reasons of things, and things in form of images have taken on their own reasons. When capitalism promoted and reached a certain level of mass consumerism, consumer goods began to detach themselves from themselves and became living images as people detached themselves from their own concrete lives and became spectators of these abstract images. Hence, we show more emotion toward these images than toward people. Recently, I met a person who so diligently and paternally cared for his new iPhone that he purchased a leather jacket for his iPhone and a second jacket to protect the expensive leather jacket! So, his iPhone was protected by two covers. Upon further inquiry, I found out that he had no health insurance while his iPhone had one from AT&T! He treated his iPhone with more dignity than his own self. Such omnipresent images (Apple, BMW, Dior, Madonna, American Dream, and etc.) have powerfully alienated us from ourselves and others to the point of disappearance of the human, the social, and the real.

Baudrillard claims that our conventional conceptions of humanity, society, and reality have been in a process of disappearing. It may not be an overstatement that America leads the cultural trajectory of the world through the mass media, movie and music industries, commercial enterprises, and economic globalization that proliferate the germs of this phenomenon of disappearance around the globe. Perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisiswhich is said to have originated in the belly of greed here in the U.S.evinces this assertion. As it has been said, when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold. The U.S. government, at least under President George W. Bush administration, had an allocated budget for the purpose of spreading “American values” around the globe via various channels of mass communication. Such values seem to be mercilessly spreading around the globe like a virus, devouring the line between real and unreal. The deficit of genuine life experiences that have not been sucked into the system of images on television screens is painfully real.


April 17, 2010

Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas

Disentanglement of Reason from Terror

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is an ardent champion of rationalism in a period of philosophy wherein rationalism has lost certain credibility. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century Europe, the spirit of the time inspired many Europeans to believe that, for the first time in history, humans through the power of reason are grasping the expanding truths of science and natural rights of man, and that these truths will free mankind from ignorance, dogma, and tyranny. They firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are now equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to eliminate or reform the unjust social and political institutions. The vision of the Enlightenment was the reconstruction of the human world through reason in order to serve the natural law of “progress”. They looked ahead to a bright future for all humanity, which they thought is guaranteed by the necessary natural law of progress. They deemed the natural law of progress as the natural law of human reason to discover scientific truths about nature and turn this expanding knowledge into practice in the form of technology for the benefit of humanity. In addition, the natural law of progress entailed discovering truths about human nature and turning these truths into practice in order to remove or rectify fraudulent social and political institutions. Never before had human beings been so confident in their knowledge of the natural world and human nature. With a great sense of optimism, they believed they could rebuild the social and political world on a foundation of universal truths. They believed they were, or would be soon, in command of all the knowledge necessary to improve the world. But, today, we are less confident of having the knowledge to solve the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, energy, and et cetera. Have we lost our Enlightenment sense of optimism?

§1. Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas, as a great defender of the Enlightenment dream of renovating the human world through reason, ventured to reformulate a pre-existing theory known as the “critical theory”, a theory whose interest is in the practical, not just theoretical, emancipation of human beings. German philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), a pioneer of this theory, under whom Habermas had studied, stated in his Critical Theory that a theory is vital or critical to the degree it endeavors “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. Critical theory is based on and builds upon philosophy of Karl Marx. Indeed, the critical theory’s longing to liberate human beings in practice is reminiscent not only of Marx’s assertion “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, but also of the Enlightenment idea to reconstruct the human world. Habermas is critically interested in human liberation from unnecessary life sufferings. There is a significant difference between living a relatively healthy life and dying at an old age, and living in poverty and dying at an early age. In concocting his theory, Habermas asserted that the human species has three fundamental, or critical, interests in labor, communication, and emancipation. He insisted that these interests are so fundamental and vital that we cannot meaningfully subsist without them.

§2. Fundamental Human Interests: Labor, Communication, and Emancipation

The first fundamental interest of the human species is in reproducing their lives through labor (or work). The second fundamental interest of the human species is in communication (or interaction) with one another. For Habermas, the formation of human self takes place in the spheres of both labor and communication within social context. However, he construed the communicative dimension of human interactions as having a primary role in development of human self because he was of the conviction that we become selves in our interactions with other selves. In this context, if an individual is incapable of adequately communicating with others and is incapable of psychologically and morally benefiting from her or his productive activities, the individual would be self-deficient. Human development is significantly contingent on how human beings externalize their creativity in their labor and how they interact with others. Besides labor and communication, Habermas asserted that the human race has a third fundamental interest: the critical interest in human emancipation, in human liberation from unnecessary constraints to their psychophysical and moral development, the unnecessary constraints to the fundamental interests in labor and communication. Indeed, a society that does not embody these three rudimentary factors in its composition would be in a state of disintegration, and the members of such a society would become alienated from their own selves and each other. One wonders that to what degree the three fundamental factors have been incorporated in the fabric of the American society. Without these deeply seated interests in labor, communication, and emancipation, the social bonds would disintegrate and society would parasitically consume itself.

§3. Instrumental Rationality and Communicative Rationality

Next, Habermas made a distinction between “instrumental rationality” (or instrumental reason) and “communicative rationality” (or communicative reason). Each mode of rationality is governed by a specific set of values that defines its unique functions, operations, and goals. Generally employed in diverse ways in spheres such as science, technology, medicine, healthcare, human labor, legislation, social engineering, economics, and politics, instrumental reason is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specified, isolated result. For instance, in the realm of science, human reason has contrived investigative methods that are instrumental toward finding causes of natural phenomena. In the realm of politics, human reason has produced governmental agencies and policies that are instrumental in running the domestic and international affairs of the state. Or, in the sphere of human labor (where a current dominant value is efficiency for the sake of profit), human mind through use of technology has devised tools such as hammers or computers that are instrumental in producing certain products and services. In its obstinate pursuit of its objectives, instrumental reason is often insensate to moral, social, environmental, economic, and/or political concerns, just to name a few. Therefore, instrumental reason is characteristically unperceptive to the long-term consequences of its objectives. Further, instrumental reason is more monological than dialogical, and more unilateral than multilateral in its thinking process toward accomplishment of its individuated goals. (For a more thorough treatment of “instrumental rationality” see “Totalitarian Reason”.) On the other hand, communicative reason, commonly exercised in the spheres of the humanities and ethics, is dialogical and interactional. Communicative reason, with its own specific set of values, is a mode of human thinking geared toward interaction with one another and enlightenment.

§4. Communication and Labor

According to Habermas, the sentences that we utter fundamentally have built into them a desire or tendency for consensus or unconstrained understanding. When a person speaks a sentence (e.g., “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”), it has built into it the desire that others understand the person. In other words, our sentences already contain the “critical” impulse, i.e., the fundamental human interest in communication. Habermas insists that the fundamental human desire for clear communication, for the sake of understanding one another, is embedded in the structure of phonetic languages. Emphasizing the fundamental human interest in clear and unobstructed communication with one another, Habermas made a contrast between “undistorted communication” and systematically “distorted communication”.

§5. Undistorted Communication

Habermas laid out a series of stipulations for undistorted communication. According to the first stipulation, truly undistorted communication must have “symmetry conditions”. In political terms, it means that everyone must have an equal opportunity to talk and to listen, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey. This symmetrical communication is an egalitarian principle, without which the possibility of undistorted communication becomes problematic. When an employer holds power over a powerless employee, or when a government holds power over a powerless citizen—the inequality of power between them creates a condition for distorted communication. Unequal power distorts communication. This is why employees seldom get the undistorted truth from their employers, and employers seldom get the undistorted truth from their employees. The same also applies to marital relations; communication between a wife and her husband is often distorted by relations of unequal powers. To be communicatively rational, everyone must have the same right to speak and to be heard, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey.

Philosopher Socrates owned nothing and was virtually in no position of power in the ancient Athens. Yet, his charm was that when he engaged in an argument with an interlocutor who had power (either of political nature or of social status) over him, Socrates would compel him to depend solely on the force of his argument as opposed to his political power or social status. In other words, this was no situation where “might is right”. The only force that Habermas wants us to recognize is the unforced force of communicatively rational argument as opposed to money or power. A free human being is one who can change, without feeling any shame, her or his mind upon hearing a better argument. When a judicious argument has the force to make one see the weakness of one’s own argument and change one’s mind accordingly, this is the force that only a free human being can recognize.

According to the second stipulation, to achieve undistorted communication, one’s contribution in communicating with others should be true, sincere, and relevant. The third stipulation, in attainment of undistorted communication, is a moral condition, that one must try to make one’s contributions toward advancement of a right cause or what is right. Here, there is no theory of “right” other than being true, sincere, and relevant.

§6. Distorted Communication

The critical interest in human emancipation from unnecessary constraints to human development entails freeing ourselves from both the distortions of instrumental reason and the distortions of communicative reason. Is it the case that the American labor force, whose labor conditions are alienable, has managed to subsist in part because of the mass communication industry which actively distorts laborers’ perceptions of their own misery and compels them to pacify themselves with pacifiers such as consumer goods and services? In a nation where capital is of utmost value and where perpetual mass consumption of goods and services vitally sustain the heartbeat of the nation, there may not be any other way.

Habermas’ concept of distorted communication corresponds to Karl Marx’s concept of “ideology”: the ruling ideas are in every age the ideas of the ruling class—that the ruling ideas of the ruling class are ideologies that are purposefully devised to impoverish the masses and to maintain the elite in positions of power. Further, Habermas’ concept of distorted communication passes the test of ideology by asking: Is what you believe—in the interest of those who want you to believe it? For instance, let us consider democracy as it exists in the United States. The powerful—those who own and control the means of production, communication, information, and its dissemination—want the citizens to blindly believe that democracy is a present and immanent reality in this nation. Yet, American democracy and its exportation around the globe under the banner of freedom is an outstanding example of systematically distorted communication as our existing democracy gutlessly backstabs the principle of having a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Work ethics in America is another striking example of systematically distorted communication. In reality, work ethics in America is not so ethical at all—for it is an ideology or codes of conduct that are systematically designed to manipulate and deprive the working class for the sake of benefiting the capitalists. The American work ethics, which has been so cunningly and subconsciously embedded in the minds of the American working class, has deprived them of their leisure, dignity, humanity, family, health, and et cetera. Do you suppose a capitalist boss is ready and willing to engage in undistorted communication with his employees?

§7. Interpretive Basis of Communication

For his communication model, Habermas employed an interpretive base. One way the humanities employ communicative reason to advance clear communication is through interpretation of texts. Habermas highly stressed the critical role of interpretation in our daily lives. A great many people have suffered grim consequences because of interpreting a certain text in a certain way. Consider the Bible: reading and interpreting it in certain ways have sent a great many people to their deaths. Or, take the U.S. Constitution. According to the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What if one decides to exercise a religion of human sacrifice because the text says that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”? The Constitution must mean that; “no law” means no law! The point is that interpretation of text is quite indispensible and consequential in our lives. Habermas insists that we are interpretive beings, with the implication that interpretation is, perhaps, one of the fundamental conditions for formation of the human self. We are always interpreting our and others’ physical and mental states. Am I sad or cheerful, displeased or pleased, chubby or skinny? When we stop at a red traffic light, we are already engaged in an act of interpreting the color red. The color red can have many other meanings: danger, communist, sexy, or else. When we perceive smoke rising from behind a building, we immediately interpret the smoke as having been caused by a fire. People who have been married for over thirty years still keep interpreting each other’s moods and behaviors. This demonstrates the ubiquity of interpretation in human life. (And, one may add to this that, perhaps it is the television shows that interpret themselves to the viewers by bypassing their upper brain functions and directly injecting information into their subconscious minds. In other words, the viewers may not get to interpret the images on television screens; the images interpret or define the viewers.) Hence, Habermas’ theory of communication has an interpretive foundation.

In order to overcome systematically distorted communication, Habermas adopted Freud’s psychoanalytic method of removing problematic symptoms. Freud’s method of removal of symptoms was practiced in a setting where you have an analyst and a patient, wherein the latter “free associates” or reveals her or his train of thoughts while the analyst closely listens. In this setting, the goal is practical, that is, to cure the patient and to remove the symptoms. Further, for Freud, the way the analyst can bring the analysis or therapy of the patient to a conclusion is when the therapist intervenes by presenting a possible interpretation of the symptoms to which both the therapist and the patient are in agreement. In this manner, the psychoanalyst helps the patient to remove her or his own blocks to communication between his or her unconscious and conscious mind. This is the Freudian psychoanalytic method that Habermas adopted, with modifications, in removing blocks or ideologies that distort clear communication between various parties, let’s say between the citizens and their government or between those who own the means of productions and those who work for those who own the means of productions. A capitalist boss may never acquiesce to engage in undistorted communication with her or his employees; however, her or his employees’ enlightened consciousness of their own dehumanizing labor conditions would make it difficult for the boss not to submit.

§8. Distortion of Reason is not a Paradox of Reason

Habermas was cognizant of how instrumental reasoning led to mechanization of human life since the Enlightenment onward and the blow instrumental reason received as a result of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 20th century. Nevertheless, in his passionate attempt to defend human reason, he tried to mark off a sphere of undistorted communication that can serve as the basis for his concept of communicative reason. His purpose was to untangle the entwinement of enlightened thought and the paradoxical barbarity that has been unfolding since the advent of modernity. The grand vision of the Enlightenment—through its unwavering trust in human reason—was the emancipation of mankind from oppression, yet paradoxically the Enlightenment led to a new form of oppression, irrationality, mechanization of human life, bureaucratization of human societies, totalitarianism of governing powers, and dogmatization of sciences. The promoters of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, could not predict an outcome so contrary to human reason. To Habermas, the failures of reason in events such as the rise of communism, fascism, the Cold War, the U.S. war against terrorism, or the fall beneath the level of civilization reached by capitalism—are not indicative of hypocrisy of the Enlightenment dream and of human reason. He attributed such failures to the distortions of reason and communication. According to Habermas, the trick is not to give up on modern life, but to disentangle enlightenment from terror and barbarism. Undoubtedly, modernity has given mankind certain benefits; it is better to have toothache in 2010 than in 1710. It is not human reason that we must abandon, but its distortions.

In conclusion, Habermas insists that communicative rationality is a process of enlightenment that includes all, janitors and senators. In his Theory and Practice, Habermas stated, “in a process of enlightenment there can only be participants.” Money and power, as abstract systems, need to be harmonized with the rest of our social system before we can be in a position to truly communicate with one another rationally without distortions, and be in a position to find our way out of this entwinement of enlightenment and terror. Habermas thought that such a possibility exits.

April 14, 2010

Totalitarian Reason

Herbert Marcuse

One-Dimensional Rationality

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1798-1979) was a notable critic of modernity. He perceived a certain contradiction or crisis that has always been brewing at the core of modernity, of the modern Western world having been rationalized, technologized, and bureaucratized. Modernity grew out of the 18th century Enlightenment’s ideals to free the human mind from prejudice, superstition, church dogma, and monarchical tyranny. According to eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), daring to think for oneself or daring to use one’s own reason was the fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. The patrons of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to remove or reform the corrupt social and political institutions. The grandiose vision of the Enlightenment was to reconstruct the human world—through the use of reason, science, and technology—in order to serve the natural law of “progress”: that human reason can discover scientific truths about the natural world and human nature, and turn these bodies of knowledge into practice in forms of technology and social reform for the benefit of humanity. The Enlightenment excelled the rise of science, technology, secularization, industrialization, and capitalism to demystify the world. However, according to Marcuse, the attempt to make the world transparent to rational human reason was pregnant with a crisis, a paradox. The paradox of the Enlightenment project is that it has had inadvertent consequences: dogmatic scientism, totalitarianism, and irrationality.

The more science did housecleaning of the traditional religious views, the more technology innovated machines to make human life convenient, and the more industrialization and capitalism implemented technological innovations to mechanize production—the more convoluted and complex our lives became. Furthermore, the more refined and less dogmatic science became and the more people became convinced that science in service of technology can change our world for the better—the more dogmatic people became about science and its findings, for they neither have the time nor the knowhow to scrutinize them. Hence, this attitude, abreast of the idea of “progress”, gave birth to “scientism”: the belief that the investigative methods of science are applicable to various areas of human life. Here, of course, Marcuse’s point is not to depreciate the instrumental value of science, but to point out its limitations and ramifications.

According to Marcuse, we have constructed a human intellect powerful enough to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, but any intellect that powerful has a tendency to be tyrannical! While it is true that science and technology have helped us to procure the knowhow to deal with certain areas of human life (such as in the fields of civil engineering, medicine, and et cetera), it may not be a fair assessment that the progress of the Enlightenment project has made us less fearful and unsecure in the face of the modern problems. We are still wrestling with the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, and energy. What is paradoxical about the Enlightenment’s tenacious confidence in human reason is that, it has turned into a force of mystification of the human world. For instance, how is it that the Germans, who highly excelled themselves above many other people in science, technology, arts, literature, philosophy, civics, and industrialization since the dawn of modernity and became an epitome of civilization, how is it that such people, who have given Goethe, Beethoven, Einstein, and many more to the world—also gave birth to Nazism and brutality? They built a human intellect firm enough to withstand excruciating challenges and to ennoble man’s spirit, yet this intellect became totalitarian. How so?

Marcuse construed instrumental rationality/reason as a major cause underlying the crisis in the heart of modernity. Instrumental rationality, as a specific mode of human reason, is principally predicated on efficiency (in terms of time, cost, and procedure) in relentlessly reaching its individuated goals, which are not critically evaluated in terms of moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental considerations. In other words, instrumental rationality—governed by a specific set of values that define its unique functions, operations, and goals—is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specific, isolated result that is often shortsighted toward its far reaching moral, social, economic, political, and/or environmental consequences. In a sense, instrumental reason’s objectivity renders it insensitive to moral, social, or other vital concerns for the sake of focusing solely on the result it persistently pursues.

Generally, instrumental reason is employed in various ways in the spheres of science, technology, economics, labor, legislation, and politics. In the context of modern Western societies, the bigger an organization is, the more it is instrumentally rationalized compartmentalized, and bureaucratized. In addition, instrumental reason is highly informative toward our daily decisions and activities. Almost all workplaces in the United States, particularly large business organizations, instrumentally rationalize their business affairs and human resources. Often, this kind of mentality divests the employees of their individualities and brings them to conformity or drives them up the wall. As Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) stated in his essay “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious”: “Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity. Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall.”

The present problem of global warming may serve as an unforeseen ramification of instrumental rationality, as an unintended consequence of instrumental reasoning within the sphere of production of goods. Capitalists, motivated by profit, have instrumentally rationalized means of production (such as air-polluting factories) in order to produce goods (such as automobiles) that have contributed to emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and hence, contributing to the global warming. Use of rationality as a tool toward an isolated end—which is blind to moral, social, and/or other crucial considerations—may result in unanticipated ramifications.

According to Marcuse, because the Enlightenment focused upon reason as individuated efforts of individuals, it did not foresee that the overall effects of reason might be irrational. Individual, rational decisions of a people may lead to irrational results. For instance, after eight hours of work, workers make individual, rational decisions to leave work around 5:00 PM. However, the collective result of such singular, rational decisions produces an irrational outcome: traffic congestion. Economy is full of such paradoxes. The global stock market crash of 1987 (known as the “Black Monday”) is said to have been caused by computers, each individually making a rational decision, together crashed the market. In this sense, instrumentally rationalizing the constituent parts of a system in isolation from one another can bear irrational consequences.

For Marcuse, the point is not to abandon instrumental reason, but to lay bare its one-dimensional nature. Human reason has other dimensions besides this. The challenge is to find a balanced approach to reason. Instrumental reason, sharply focused on its isolated efforts and ends is blind to surrounding circumstances. Instrumental rationality is partly a result of self-absorbed individuals isolating themselves from each other in a fragmented, individualistic society where genuine social bonds are disintegrated and supplanted with materialistic values which dictate our lives. While the Enlightenment demythologized the world in a certain sense, it carried myth along with itself. It created new myths. The crisis at the heart of the Enlightenment seems to be fundamentally a crisis of human imagination or the lack thereof.

April 10, 2010


A Characterization of Modernity

Modernity, like individualism, is a socio-politico-economic phenomenon that gradually began after the Middle Ages subsided and the Enlightenment values and promise of “progress” through reason, science, and technology began to propagate in Europe. (Caution should be taken that there are distinctions between the terms “modern age/era”, “modernity”, and “modernism”. While these terms are essentially inter-related, they are conceptually distinguished.) The shift that was caused after the atrophy of the Church and socio-economico-political institutions of the Middle Ages called for a new system to supersede the old in Europe.

Modernity is not a cutting-edge technology, state-of-the-art product, latest trend of some sort, or the like. Modernity is a paradigm shift in human thinking and human relations that ushered in the advent of modern science, technology, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. This shift in human thinking and relations produced unprecedented socio-economico-political conditions that have drastically restructured our lives. Fundamentally, modernity is our post-traditional way of being; modernity is the post-Medieval consciousness that has left no human institutions untouched in the Western societies. And, scholars are of the conviction that the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650)which created a dualism between mind and body, and had a purely mechanistic view of the universewas a zygote of this new consciousness.

This article is an attempt to briefly characterize the complex phenomenon of modernity through Max Weber’s concept of “disenchantment”, Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts of “passion” and “despair”, Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “death of God”, and Karl Marx’s concept of “alienation”.

Franz Kafka and Max Weber

§1. Disenchantment

Max Weber (1864–1920), a German sociologist and one of the first major scholars who systematically examined the phenomenon of modernity, suggested that the Middle Ages, with all its disquietude, was somehow enchanted (from Latin incantāre, i.e., in [“affected by”] + cantāre [“to sing”]; defined as “to attract and delight” or “to charm”). Notwithstanding all the discontent and cruelty extant in the Medieval era, Weber felt that generally there was something qualitatively human about the age. Life of a meager serf meant something in the grand scheme of things. Everything under the sun signified a purpose and had an aspect of sacredness. Or, to employ the eloquent terms coined by Martin Buber, “I-Thou”, as opposed to “I-It”, mode of relations characterized the human relations and the relation between man and nature. In contrast, Weber thought that the modern Western societies have lost, to borrow Buber’s concepts again, the “I-thou” mode of relations, which have been supplanted with the “I-It” mode of relating to one another and to the world of nature. There have been objectification and degradation of “thou” into “it”.

This is the “disenchantment” (and impersonalizing force) of the modernity, according to Weber. Fundamentally, what has taken place is that, quantitative—as opposed to qualitative—relations have become the dominant norms since the rise of science, nation-states, money economy, capitalism, and industrialism in the Western societies. According to Weber, this is a world where scientific understanding has primacy over belief, where technology is believed to do away with the socio-economic problems, and hence where social processes are instrumentally quantified (akin to physics quantifying the objective qualities of objects) and ratio-nalized toward desired goals. Accordingly, the modern consciousness has undermined the traditional values (which are not quantifiable). The decline of the traditional valueswhich previously accorded Medieval Europeans a sense of purpose and social order—called for a new set of values (hence, rules and procedures) to bring about a new social order. The modern life is infused with rules and procedures, which are often indifferently and apathetically followed machinelike.

One can consider how robotically the modern man, as depicted in Franz Kafka’s works, follows rules and procedures from the moment he wakes up every morning: conforming to his morning routines with a clock hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, dragging himself to the workplace where he is faced with additional rules and procedures, and then dealing with the impersonal, bureaucratic institutions that generally reject or sanction him if he does not conform to their particular set of rules and procedures. Weber’s understanding of modernity entails rationalization and bureaucratization of the modern lifestyles and social institutions. The modern consciousness relates to itself and to others by standardizing, proceduralizing, reifying, and quantifying them—making them predictable. Modernity is a state of being whereby life is principally and disenchantingly lived in terms of standards, procedures, quantities, and bureaucracies—many of which are blindly unperceptive or intentionally disregardful to the ever-changing human conditions.

It is important to understand modernity and the concept of “disenchantment” within a proper historical context. In this context, the roles of traditional values on the one hand and the development of the sciences and their revolutionary discoveries on the other hand are quite significant. According to philosopher W. T. Jones:

“For the men of the Middle Ages the world was created by a supremely good power for the discipline of man, with a view to his salvation. Since the medieval men believed that God had created everything for this purpose, they held that the way to explain anything was to show how it promotes this end. The result was that medieval science was teleological in form. And since, of course, the underlying purpose was that of the one supreme and totally good God, the medieval sciences all pointed beyond themselves to religion. The universe was a vast sacerdotal system: It had no meaning or value in itself; its importance lay in the role it played—partly symbol, partly stage-set—in the drama of man’s salvation. Everything meant something beyond itself in this religious drama. Nothing was simply what it was. A tree was not merely a tree, a bird was not merely a bird; a footprint in the sand was not merely a footprint—they were all signs, just as the particular footprint Robinson Crusoe saw was a sign to him that he was not alone on the island. And what was true of the rest of the created universe was true of man. He was not merely man; he was a child of God. And his supreme task was to get back into that right relation with God that his first parent had lost.

“Beginning in the Renaissance, beliefs gradually changed. The one supremely important vertical relationship of man to God, which absorbed all the attention of men of the Middle Ages, was eventually replaced by a network of horizontal relations connecting every individual to his social and physical milieu. For modem men, the good life no longer consists in achieving a right relation with God, but in effecting an efficient relation with one’s fellow men.

“In this respect the modern view is similar to the classical [i.e., classical Greece], but there are also important differences. For the classical mind, the universe, if not sacerdotal, was at least teleological. If the classical mind did not conceive of everything as worshiping God, it at least conceived of all things as subserving some purpose and aiming at some good. Hence, for the classical mind, as for the medieval, purpose was the primary mode of explanation. In contrast—and as a result of the success of the new physics, which was rigorously nonteleological in orientation—the modern mind became hostile to the use of purpose as an explanatory principle.

“The modern mind also came, eventually, to differ from both the medieval mind and the classical mind in its attitude toward values. It never occurred to the medieval mind that values might not be objectively real. Although it certainly occurred to the Greek Sophists that values are merely the ways individuals feel about things, Plato’s and Aristotle’s reaffirmation of objectivity was for the most part accepted. The fact that men of the classical period and the Middle Ages agreed that values are objectively real is connected, of course, with the teleological conception of the universe that they shared. If the purpose anything subserves gives it value, and if purposes are objective, values will be objective. Anything will be good (really good, apart from some individual’s feeling about it) insofar as it consciously or unconsciously realizes its purpose; anything will be bad insofar as it fails to accomplish its purpose. The same consideration also yields a hierarchy of goods, for values can be compared in terms of the relative height and significance of the purposes they subserve.

“It follows that, in abandoning the teleological conception of the universe, the modern mind abandoned this easy way of establishing the objectivity of value. Moreover, modern men did not merely abandon the teleological conception of the universe; gradually they substituted for it a conception of the universe that seemed incompatible with the objectivity of values. This is, of course, the conception of the universe as a vast set of facts—facts that are indifferent to men’s values, facts that no one planned with any end in view but that just happen to stand in the sorts of spatiotemporal relations that can be ascertained by the techniques of modern science.

“The role that scientific instruments came to play in the accession of factual knowledge had an important bearing on this development. Where would astronomy be without the telescope? biology without the microscope? But these instruments, which have led to the discovery of innumerable astronomical and biological facts, throw no light at all on values. When a scientist dissects a corpse in a laboratory, he finds no evidence of the courage or magnanimity the living man displayed. Nor do microscopes or telescopes reveal God or Freedom or immortality. As long as men believe that these instruments give them the whole truth about the universe, it is difficult for them also to believe that God, freedom, and immortality, courage, justice, and piety are objective realities. It is difficult, that is, for them not to assume that what the instruments reveal—the facts in their spatiotemporal relations—is reality, and that what the instruments do not reveal—the soul, the forms, and the values that classical and medieval minds conceived to be constituent elements in the universe—is merely subjective feeling.” (A History of Western Philosophy III, 2nd edition)

Søren Aaby Kierkegaard

§2. Passion and Despair

Danish philosopher Søren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had his own peculiar way of characterizing modernity (a term that might had been an anachronism in his time). He insisted that we lack “passion” (cf. Weber’s “disenchantment”) in our lives. The word “passion”—which is popularly mistaken for “obsession” or “fanaticism”—is etymologically derived from the Latin word patī, meaning “to suffer”, which is in turn derived from the Greek word páschein (πάσχειν), meaning “to suffer”, hence, “The passion of Christ”. Passion or lack thereof is a major theme in Kierkegaard’s philosophy. In his The Present Age, he writes:

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection [cf. Weber’s “rationalization”], without passion. . . . In fact, one is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly. Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.”

To emphasize the significance of passion, Kierkegaard makes a curious contrast between a Christian and a pagan in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. First, he portrays the Christian who formulaically and with great “objectivity” worships—as a matter of course—the one and only true God. Next, he depicts the pagan who inwardly and with “all the passion of infinity” worships—as a matter of infinite commitment—an idol that we know is undoubtedly false. Then, he inquires, “[W]here, then, is there more truth?” In a witty manner, he concludes, “The one prays in truth to God although he is worshiping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshiping an idol.” The essential distinction between the two men is that the Christian’s worship is a matter of what (i.e., quantitative/rationalized), while the pagan’s worship is a matter of how (i.e., qualitative/passionate). As is prevalent in the present age, the Christian lacks a “qualitative” state of being.

Kierkegaard construed the modern age as an overconfident age that thinks it knows it all. He felt the moderners’ complacency, overweening pride, and false sense of security—need to be threatened, for they, as he put it in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “have forgotten what it means to exist”. He contended, “[E]xistence, if one becomes conscious of it, involves passion.”

Kierkegaard also signalizes the modern age with “despair”. In his The Sickness unto Death, he portentously warns:

“[T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself. . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

Moderners, Kierkegaard thought, suffer from despair even when they are not aware of it. Later, in the book, he idiosyncratically expresses that actual despair is the sickness in which one experiences “the hopelessness of not even being able to die”—even when one wishes it! In a very profound but discombobulating manner, he writes:

“This concept, the sickness unto death, must, however, be understood in a particular way. Literally it means a sickness of which the end and the result are death. . . . [However,] Christianly understood, death itself is a passing into life. Thus, from a Christian point of view, no earthly, physical sickness is the sickness unto death, for [physical] death is indeed the end of the [physical] sickness, but [physical] death is not the end [from a Christian point of view]. If there is to be any question of a sickness unto death in the strictest sense, it must be a sickness of which the end is death and death is the end. This is precisely what despair is.

“But in another sense despair is even more definitely the sickness unto death. Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”

The preceding passage epitomizes the fall of the human spirit or the lack of passion in the modern age. The modern state of being is despair, for what is worse than death? What is worse than forgetting how to exit? Ironically, the cure for this despair, metaphorically speaking, is to die!

Friedrich Nietzsche

§3. Death of God

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) dramatically characterized modernity by his provocative and often misunderstood concept of “death of God”. In a picturesque aphorism, entitled “The Madman”, Nietzsche, with an acute sense of despair and hope, writes:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ —As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? . . . Thus they yelled and laughed.

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? . . . Are we not plunging continually? . . . Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? . . . Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“‘How shall we comfort ourselves . . . What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? . . . Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; . . . ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. . . . Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.’

“. . . ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’” (Gay Science, book three, 125)

“Death of God”, either as a concept or as an event (metaphorically presented), has far-reaching, inexhaustible repercussions and implications in many spheres of human endeavor: values, morality, Christianity, culture, society, economics, politics, history, and so on. The death of God intimates the death of our belief in God or even the impossibility of belief in God (either as a conscious or subconscious impossibility).

“Who are we anyway? If we simply called ourselves . . . godless, or unbelievers, or perhaps immoralists, we do not believe that this would even come close to designating us: We are all three in such an advanced stage that one . . . [can hardly] comprehend how we feet at this point. Ours is no longer the bitterness and passion of the person who has torn himself away and still feels compelled to turn his unbelief into a new belief, a purpose, a martyrdom. We have become cold, hard, and tough in the realization that the way of this world is anything but divine; even by human standards it is not rational, merciful, or just. We know it well: the world in which we live is ungodly, immoral, ‘inhuman’; we have interpreted it far too long in a false and mendacious way, in accordance with the wishes of our reverence, which is to say, according to our needs.” (Gay Science, book five, 346)

Nietzsche’s concept of death of God is inextricably intertwined with his diagnosis of the fundamental problem of the modern era, namely, the “crisis of values”. The death of God is expressive of the fact that, the traditional values are on their way out. He was convinced that the collapse of traditional values will lead to despair, devastation, and “nihilism”.

“The greatest recent event—that ‘God is dead,’ that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. . . . But in the main one may say: The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means—and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our . . . morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm . . . is now impending. . . .” (Gay Science, book five, 343)

The death of God is a multifaceted, modern phenomenon that has been unfolding overtly and subterraneanly, with far-reaching outcomes for the entire Western civilization. For Nietzsche, the “death of God” is pregnant with unending significances and consequences, as they have been dismally unfolding and will continue to unfold in our time and thereafter. How much has to fall now that the foundation of Western values is in decay?

Karl Marx

§4. Alienation

Although German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) may not had utilized his concept of “alienation” to characterize modernity (a term that may had been an anachronism in his time), there would had been no other way if he actually had intended to do so. “No other way” because capitalism and the ensuing alienation, as upshots of consciousness of modernity, were two of his burning issues. Marx was a keen observer of how the Industrial Revolution and capitalism radically changed our lives and the course of history. He believed that the modern economic relations have created a battleground where everyone pursues her or his own private interests. This is a war of all against all, not excluding the subtle pecuniary/material tensions existing between family members.

Let us consider the following scenario, a scenario that is a ubiquitous reality in the United States. Consider an average American worker, who works one or two jobs that are often monotonous, meaningless, and self-humiliating—although the worker may not be conscious, as is commonly the case, of his own woeful situation. The moment he leaves home and hits the road to go to work, the war of all against all nauseatingly manifests itself right there on the road! While at work, he has to deal with workplace conditions that are often hostile and dehumanizing. So, he grows weary and numb at work. Since his job is the principal source of his livelihood, he is chained to the job, which, by and large, pays just enough (i.e., subsistence wages) to keep him alive (if profitable) and to spur him to return to work. His dehumanization, self-humiliation, and lack of self-respect are what he pretends not know about himself, so he grows numb. Inasmuch as he is not able to support himself and his family without the job, the job—whether he likes it or not—defines, regulates, and proceduralizes his life both in and outside of the workplace. Unavoidably, he will be socially defined by his job and income level. Since labor is commonly valued by the wage it makes, the less money he makes the less his life is valued. After leaving the workplace with a sense of emptiness and unfulfillment, do you suppose he will be in a favorable spirit to go home and meaningfully interact with his spouse and children? In all likelihood, his spouse is already experiencing the same wretched conditions. So, for dinner the couple, feeling physically and mentally drained, expediently resort to buy fast food for everyone rather than preparing a healthy meal. Hence, the poor labor conditions of the couple, which is the same labor conditions under which millions of Americans find themselves, pave the way toward the degradation of their psychological and physical health, for which the healthcare industry is awaiting with open arms! Later, after watching their favorite television programs, the couple may suddenly feel that they can find a sense of fulfillment, or even a sense of identity, by going to a mall and shop. Tragically enough, there are those who think that shopping is a great “therapy”, which is in fact a poor substitution for the happiness they seek. As long as the legal, political, and economic structures of capitalism keep the working class uneducated, depressed, and spiritually impoverished, the shopping therapy—and the ensuing consumer debts—will continue to turn the wheels of U.S. economy which is significantly based on the senseless consumption of goods and services.

Here, my point is that, as Marx thought, our present economic conditions (of which the labor conditions are an integral part) create a social environment that the more one participates in it—the less human one becomes. As he expresses it in his Paris Manuscripts:

“Money . . . transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy.”

In the case of the American worker and his spouse, their jobs—or, more generally, the prevalent politico-economic conditions—deprives them of their health, self-identity, and meaningful relationship with one another, with their children, and with their coworkers. In his Manifesto, Marx wrote that the capitalists as “leaders of whole industrial armies” have overturned the traditional human relationships of the feudal age, leaving no other relationship “between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’” Furthermore, under capitalism, the institution of family itself, along with its traditional values, have been degraded to a mere pecuniary/economic affair, wherein members of family relate to one another via materialistic values. In addition, “family values” have mendaciously become a tool in the hands of politicians to arouse fervor and to manipulate the masses. As Marx puts it, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . . .” Since in capitalism capital is of utmost value, other values—such as friendship, love, marriage, family, decency, mercy, honesty, fairness, justice, truth and so on—become subservient to the value of capital.

Marx fundamentally construed humans as adventurous and creative beings, with faculties geared toward externalizing their creativity through productions of cultural artifacts, such as tools, buildings, artworks, literature, science, and et cetera. However, under the modern conditions, specifically under capitalism, laborers’ work products have become alien to them because, according to Marx, their productive activities are done in servitude to the money-God, rather than in serving their own human potentials and fulfilling their own creative nature. Therefore, per Marx, the history of human creative production has been a history of alienation from our creative nature. In his essay entitled “The Jewish Question”, he writes:

“Money is the jealous one God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand. Money dethrones all the gods [cf. Nietzsche’s “death of God”] of man and turns them into a commodity. Money is the universal, independently constituted value of all things. It has therefore deprived the whole world, both the world of man and nature, of its own value. Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and his being. This alien being rules him and he worships it.”

For Marx, the modern commercial world is a religion of money worship, which disunites and alienates members of society, including family members, from one another. In accordance with his Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844, human alienation takes on four forms:

1. Alienation from work products: Capitalism alienates workers from their work products, which exist as things estranged from the workers who create them, and which also exist as objects of pleasure for somebody else.

2. Alienation from productive activities: The money mania of capitalism alienates the workers from their productive activities—activities which are turned into “forced labor” because the activities of the workers are not of personal interest to them, who are compelled to perform them just to keep alive.

3. Alienation from human qualities: The modern money economy alienates the workers from their human and social qualities, such as love, sympathy, kindness, leisure, and et cetera.

4. Alienation from fellowmen: At last, capitalism alienates the workers from their fellowmen. Marx called this “the estrangement of man from man”, whereby we all compete against each other.

April 5, 2010


“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix

A Brief Exploration of History of Western Individualism

With the dusk of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era, individualism gradually began as a way of adapting to the new social, economic, and political conditions in Europe. And, henceforth, it evolved into social, economic, political, and philosophical doctrines expressive of one’s independence, self-reliance, self-determination, and, hence, individuality. In general, individualism gives primacy to the individual over what opposes her/his individuality, be it a social institution or the state. This new way of adapting to life under the new circumstances found diverse expressions, not always in agreement with each other, in the philosophies of the French philosophes, Immanuel Kant, W.G.F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and et cetera.

The word “individuality” (derived from Latin word indīviduus, meaning “indivisible” or “inseparable”) is commonly stipulated as the state or quality of being an individual who exists as a distinct entity and possesses sum total of qualities and characteristics that form the individual’s identity and distinguish the individual from others. However, the concept of individuality and the doctrines in which it has been embodied are not easy to unravel. They have been viewed differently in various historical periods, and they can be examined from different perspectives, such as that of psychology, sociology, political science, and ethics.

Here, we are faced with an important distinction between the two concepts “individualism” and “individuality”. From a technical viewpoint, the former is often depicted as social and ethical phenomena of human relations and conduct, while the latter is often depicted as a psychological phenomenon of mental growth. In this sense, not without exceptions, individualism is a proper subject matter within the disciplines of sociology and ethics while individuality is an appropriate subject matter within the discipline of psychology. Nonetheless, each discipline has its own distinct concepts of individualism and individuality. Moreover, each discipline can examine these concepts in interdisciplinary fashions. For example, a sociologist can examine the sociological concept of individualism under the light of psychology; conversely, a psychologist can examine the psychological concept of individuality under the light of sociology. In addition, a sociologist can examine individuality within a sociological context, and a psychologist can examine individualism within a psychological context.

The nature of relation between the individual and society or state has been a recurring theme in history of individualism. Should the individual have primacy over the state? Or, should the interests of the state have priority over the interests of the individual? Or, should there be a symbiotic relation between the two? This article is an attempt to briefly explore the complex phenomenon of individualism mainly within a historical context, starting with the Greece of antiquity.

§1. Age of Antiquity of Greece

In his The Origins of European Individualism, historian Aron Gurevich (1924-2006) asserted, “[T]here seems to have been no awareness of individuality in ancient times [which includes the classical Greece].” Although some scholars dismiss this assertion, they acknowledge that the Greeks, unlike the contemporary Western societies, probably did not have high-ranking value for individuality. Within the socio-political context of their society, it is said that the Greeks of antiquity did not seem to have a word for “individuality”; they reportedly did not appear to understand it. Our contemporary Western lifestyles, in many ways alienated from the life of our societies and their institutions, would have been appalling to the classical Greeks. To them, our contemporary individualism would have been an unconscionable act of social division—estranging ourselves from each other and the society. The Greek polis (i.e., the Greek city-state), especially during the Golden Age of Pericles (448-404 BC), was not just a guarantee of citizenship; the Greek polis made it possible for a man to become a human. Fifth century BC Athenians were interested not in the rights of man as an individual, but in the rights of Athenians as a whole. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles, the statesman-ruler of the democratic Athens, declared to the citizens:

“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the polis] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.”

The Greek city-state functioned as a civilizing force by collectively creating social conditions necessary to development of good life for its citizens. The Athenians would have found our cult of egocentric individualism incomprehensible. To the Greek thought, even our cherished ideal of privacy would have been a scandalous failure of human maturity.

To the Greeks, the Delphic Oracle’s maxim “know thyself” did not mean to individuate or dissociate themselves from the society. For them, one’s livelihood, well-being, and personal developments were essentially dependent on the communal life. This is manifest in life of Socrates when he, out of respect for the laws of Athens which had condemned him to death, chose not to escape from his own execution when he had the chance. He argued that individuals who disobey the laws of their own society tear away at the foundation of communal life.

The Greek sense of community is also exhibited in their intellectual activities. For the Athenians, the pursuit of philosophical truths was no private, individual affair; truth was not something that could be attained individually and monologically, but something that could be achieved collectively and dialogically. As demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues, the directive “know thyself” was not carried out in private, away from the public forum. For Socrates, in accordance with Plato’s dialogues, truth is achieved by way of dialogue and dialectical interaction with others. This Greek disposition, in the realm of politics, is deemed to be a contributing factor to the unprecedented birth of Athenian “democracy”, which is a Greek word (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā) meaning “rule of people”—not individual.

While the Greeks did not seem to comprehend or highly value individuality, they did emphasize the cultivation of human character (ēthos*) and virtues (aretai*). In general, the Greeks ideally valued the life of “excellence”, which entailed the development of human potentials such as “beauty” (as evident in their works of art), “courage” (as indicated in their myths and tragedies), “justice” (as obvious in their invention of democracy and how the polis existed for the good of all), “intellect” (as shown in their pursuits of theoretical disciplines such as geometry and philosophy), “wisdom” (as evident in the characters of their thinkers), and et cetera. The Greek city-state placed great value on and made possible the cultivation of human character and virtues, which were not deemed as individualistic pursuits. In general, their view of ethics (derived from the Greek word ἦθος, ēthos) was mainly character-based, emphasizing the pursuit of “excellence”, whereby one actualizes one’s potentials within the social context.

§2. Medieval Age

During the Medieval Age in Europe (roughly from 476 to 1517), Christian beliefs and values dominated the scene. While some of the legacies of the Greek and Roman civilizations were retained by the Roman Catholic Church, many of their intellectual and cultural achievements were pronounced unworthy. The Church charged them with being pagan and immoral. For centuries, Christianity shaped the entire cultural, social, and political life of Europe. Social institutions, economic relations, arts, literature, philosophy, and science were put under the strict control of the Church. The free, rational, Greek-style speculation was brought to an end by the Church and was not to be restored until the advent of the modem era, beginning around 1650. The Medieval Christianity put an end to free thinking, and replaced it with dogmas and authoritarianism, enforcing strict obedience to the authority of the Church. As a general rule, anyone who dared to challenge the dogmas or authority of the Church was tortured and/or put to death. Consequently, individualism found no significant expressions in the Dark Ages of Europe. However, there gradually developed a growing sense of doubt and mistrust toward the Church, its authority, its worldview, and its political control. Hence, the conditions were ripe to gradually give birth to the age of individualism. History seems to demonstrate that when religious, social, and political institutions are untrustworthy and lose their legitimacy—and no longer function for the sake of the common good—people individuate and break away from them to shape their own fragmented lives. (Of course, another contributing factor seems to be an unprecedented development of complexity of social life, which can have alienating effects.) In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle deemed this mode of social existence as sub-human.

§3. Renaissance

The 15th century Renaissance (which is a French word for “rebirth”) in Europe brought about a revival of Greco-Roman art, literature, philosophy, and humanism. The Greek man-centered view of the world (cf. Protagoras’ statement, “Man is the measure of all thing.”) inspired them and brought about an intellectual and social revolution, which reaffirmed the dignity, worth, and powers of human beings. Renaissance is deemed as the rediscovery of the human—that man is a capable being, with the power to direct one’s own destiny. This emergent view, of course, undermined the influence of the Church and weakened the structure of the Medieval feudalism. The new ethical posture of the Europeans, coupled with the invention of the printing press, Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and the discovery of new trade routes via water and land, gradually promoted advent of a new social order.

§4. Protestant Reformation and Cartesian Thinking

With the authority of the Church having been undermined and the faltering of the Medieval institutions, the phenomenon of individualism gradually began to unfold in Europe. A substantial blow to the authority of the Church was the rise of Lutheranism and Calvinism (collectively known as the Protestant Reformation, from 1517 to 1648). These movements ideally put the emphasis on the individual to read and interpret the Bible for oneself without the interference of the Church. One may narrowly construe the two movements as a sort of individualism within the sphere of Christianity itself. In due course, Christianity gradually became less of a communal affair than a personal matter. This progressive shift from the communal life to the individuated lives is still present in our time more pervasively and cynically than ever.

The sense of incertitude and mistrust was also projected in philosophy, which was not impervious to the unfolding phenomenon of individualism. In fact, the sense of incertitude and mistrust seems to have instigated an unprecedented shift in the way of thinking as exemplified by French mathematician, philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy. Modern philosophy is recognizably different in many ways from the Greek philosophy. While the Greeks of antiquity philosophized dialogically and outdoors in the public, Descartes (and many subsequent thinkers) philosophized monologically and in seclusion away from the public view. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, with the self thinking in solitude, becoming conscious of the false and doubtful ideas one has accepted so far in life, and deciding that the time has come to overthrow all of one’s beliefs. In the first paragraph of his “First Meditation”, Descartes wrote:

“Everything must be thoroughly overthrown for once in my life, if I ever want to establish anything solid and permanent in the sciences. . . . Today I have freed my mind from all cares. I am quite alone. At last I shall have time to devote myself seriously and freely to the destruction of all my former opinions.” (Meditations)

His problem was: Can I, by my own reason, establish solid and permanent truths? Unfortunately, for Descartes, the historical conditions of his time, when the Church was authoritative and intolerant, had no mercy on free thinking; therefore, he had to take refuge in the safety of seclusion.

§5. The Age of Enlightenment

Following the footsteps of Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770), celebrated human reason and reawakened a sense of self-confidence and self-discipline. Having observed how human reason had managed to discover the natural laws of nature under the hands of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the Enlightenment figures applied reason to human nature and society to infer natural rights of liberty, equality, and property for all mankind. French philosophes, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), charged the Church and the political establishment with having conspired together to fetter human reason and to keep the masses ignorant and impoverished. Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), another Enlightenment philosopher, stated, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” (The Social Contract) Eventually, such Enlightenment ideas contributed to the French Revolution (1789-1799), which put an end to the dominance of the Church and monarchy in France. Thereafter, the Enlightenment gospel of independence and freedom spread throughout Europe, paving the way for the modern individualism, which was concurrent with the rise of secularization and bureaucratization of the social and political structures of European societies, adding to the complexity of the modern life.

The Enlightenment—invigorated with the truths of science and of human nature, and with its daring spirit to challenge the authorities and the longstanding traditions—brought about a paradigm shift in human thinking and relations. This paradigm shift, which is part of our psyche today, can be characterized with what they referred to as the “natural law of progress”: human reason can discover scientific truths about the world and human nature, and in turn this body of knowledge can be put into practice to improve human societies and living conditions through history. About a century later, Karl Marx reflected the same idea of progress in his dialectic of history.

§6. The Modern Age

With the diminution of the power and influence of the Church hand in hand with the cessation of the Medieval age and its feudal socio-economic structures, the modern age gradually took form as a result of many factors, among which are: the new Cartesian mode of thought, the scientific understanding of the world, the Enlightenment values and their applications, propagation of money, and the formation of the nation-states accompanied by secularization and bureaucratization of their social and political institutions, and the advent of capitalism and industrialism. With the rise of “modernity”, a new ethical view of human conduct—which put the accent on the individual—emerged in the Western societies.

The Greek ethical view of human conduct, often referred to as “virtue ethics”, valued cultivation of character and virtues, such as strength, courage, prudence, justice, and moderation, in a society that principally functioned for the common benefit of the citizenry. In contrast, the Medieval ethical view was principally “authority ethics”, that is, the right conduct was prescribed by whoever had the authority within the hierarchy of power, such as the Church, prince, feudal lord, or community. In contrast to the Greek and Medieval ethical postures, the modern ethics is generally based not on “character” or “authority”—but fundamentally based on “autonomy” of the individual in choosing her/his own conduct. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) put forth noteworthy, ethical theories based on autonomy of the individual.

Today, our Kantian and Millian legacy is that the individual’s autonomy is central in making ethical decisions. In principle, the modern ethical view is a narrow inquiry, on the part of the autonomous individual, into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose. And, in choosing, the individual applies a formula to judge the action. Kant’s celebrated ethical formula is, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals) In other words, do not lie or cheat if you do not like to be lied to or cheated. And, Mill’s ethical formula is, “One should always act so as to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” (Utilitarianism) Since the French Revolution until present, the authority that has been most recognizable has been fundamentally that of the autonomous individual.

In the modern era where individuals are estranged from one another in a society where social bonds are fragmented and not as fundamental anymore, ethics has become formulaicinstrumental, and considerably quantitative. For the most part, the new ethical view of man does not seem to put high value on the cultivation of character or virtues. As mentioned earlier, the existing modern ethical view is principally a narrow inquiry into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose, a choice that is often predicated on safety, pleasure, expediency, profitability, efficiency of time, and/or minimization of hardship.

In passing, it is worth mentioning that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had a negative view of political individualism and found it detrimental to the state. Inspired by the classical Greek city-state, in his Philosophy of Right, he gave primacy and power to the state over the individual. In the book, he insisted that individuals exist for the sake of the state, not the other way around. In fact, according to Hegel, nation-states are the true individuals of world history. As he put it in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “[T]he Individuals of World-History are nations.” Furthermore, for Hegel, individualism does not make possible one’s selfhood. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, he wrote, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” In other words, one would not know that he is a self until he is looked at by another self, acknowledged by another self. Other selves act as mirrors through which one can become conscious of one’s own self.

By the time German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), an heir to the promise of the Enlightenment, appeared on the scene, he lambasted the Hegelian idea of state. For Marx, the state only serves the interests of the ruling class through ideologies that are designed to impoverish the masses. By seizing upon Hegel’s own statement, “what is rational is real”, Marx claimed that Hegel never meant to defend the state’s status quo—that only what is “rational” has a claim to be called “real”, and the most important task is to mercilessly criticize the government and the social institutions so that they are compelled to become more “rational” and, therefore, more “real”. “Criticism” became the slogan of Marx. “The philosophers”, Marx wrote, “have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In his Manifesto of 1848, he wrote: “The communists . . . openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!” It is dubious how critically we have inherited the Enlightenment ideals when we, as a nation, actually desire our “chains” and are senselessly absorbed into materialism (in spite of our revered Christian values) while the government directly or indirectly condones this irrationality.

At last, it is worth briefly mentioning that, according to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), if we think we are always consciously in control of our decisions and conducts, we might be mistaken. The faculty of consciousness is invisibly enslaved to the subconscious impulses. So long as our conscious mental activities and unconscious impulses are not integrated, the illusion of self-control, hence “autonomy”, may subsist.

§7. The Post-Modern Era

What is the post-modern ethical outlook in the Western societies? Perhaps, it is too premature to make a well-founded evaluation. The perpetual scientific, technological, economic, and political developments keep transforming our lives and social environment at such a fast pace that one can hardly make a full appreciation of what is happening. Things are changing too rapidly to be able to pause and think. It seems to me that even ethics itself is undergoing changes, developing new modes of thinking, categories, definitions, and concepts (such as “hyper-ethics” and “hyper-individualism”) in order to be able to deal with the pace of change and new complexities of human relations. The post-modern ethical view of man seems to be inverting (markedly in the spheres of business and politics) truth and lie, right and wrong, good and bad, and so on—with the implication that such normative judgments, in addition to the time-honored ethical values that have proped them, are losing their traditional meanings and standings. On this ground, the post-modern individualism seems to be buttressing itself. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had predicted the collapse of the traditional values which, he warned, will lead to a crisis of unparalleled magnitude, which he coined “nihilism”: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] ‘why?’ finds no answer.” (Will to Power)

A Heideggerian may make an observation as follows: Within the context of our post-modern lifestyles in the contemporary Western societies—where our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination; where being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate; where, hence, we are inauthentic (alienated) and do not trust one another; and where, as a result, our socio-politico-economic institutions are fraudulent and untrustworthy—, individualism (i.e., detachment from others and the society) has become a way to survive, as opposed to live. In this sense, individualism—which is oftentimes associated with cynicism, narcissism, pretentiousness, fanaticism, facile nationalism/patriotism—is a dead-end. If, as the classical Athenians reckoned, human relations in a socio-political setting which functions for the good of all is a necessary condition for the cultivation of one’s humanity, then individualism as it stands is a reductio ad absurdum. The Greek polis provided the conditions that made it possible for the citizens to develop as humans. And, in turn, this made possible the citizens’ contributions to the polis.

But the Greece of antiquity, which never ceases to mesmerize our imaginations, comparatively had a small population, and life was simple and devoid of the modern complexities. According to literary critic and essayist George Steiner:

“A mass democracy never inspired the ancient Greek thinkers with much confidence. They did not think it could work. Then, under Thomas Jefferson and under the great figures of the Enlightenment, they tried to bring together the ideal of a true mass democracy with that of a high culture of debate, of freedom, and of openness in the discourse of law, of public affairs, and of government. And, the two have not lived very comfortably together. The dream of Jefferson, and of Lincoln as well, that somehow the ideal of ancient Athens could be extended to a continental scale has proved illusory.” (Oliver Taplin, Greek Fire)



*Ēthos: According to the definition of “ēthos” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

ēthos (Greek, character, one’s habitual way of living, one’s moral motivation or purpose) 1. the character, tone, disposition, values, and sentiments of a person, community, or people. 2. in Plato, one’s ēthos is the character produced by habitual responses. 3. in Aristotle, one’s ēthos is the character produced by moral as opposed to intellectual habits. Aristotle describes different ēthoi (plural) found at different stages in human development. . . . 4. in Stoicism, ēthos refers to that which motivates behavior or conduct. (This is reminiscent of Heraclitus’ saying that the ēthos of an individual is his daimōn. )

*Aretai (plural for aretē): According to the definition of “aretē” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

aretē (Greek, the goodness of a thing, that at which a thing excels) in Greek literature, when applied to persons it signified qualities such as valor, prowess, courage, and strength. In a moral sense it meant virtuousness, meritoriousness, and goodness of service. It is often translated as virtue. (See entries under VIRTUE)

The philosophic meaning of aretē has to do with the functioning excellence of a thing. When something performs the function it is designed to perform and it does it excellently, then it has aretē; it is virtuous in that respect. Example: The aretē of a pruning tool is to cut branches. It was intended for this purpose. It does this better than anything else. Insofar as it performs its function well, it has aretē.

To determine human aretē, the Greeks asked: “What is unique to the human? What functions does a human perform that no other thing performs as well?” It is not locomotion, not growth, not sensation, not procreating; these and many other functions are shared in common with other beings such as animals. The aretē of humans will be found in that which they can do uniquely: reason. The use of the rational faculty is that which distinguishes a human from all other beings. A human’s aretē consists of the development and use of reason to the utmost level of functioning excellence. (And, for Aristotle, in this consists also an individual’s ultimate happiness.)

*Virtue: According to the definition of “virtue” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

virtues, cardinal the highest ideals or forms of conduct in a given culture. All others are of secondary importance to them and are derived from them and/or depend upon them for their existence. Greek culture stressed four basic (cardinal) virtues: wisdom or prudence, courage or fortitude, justice or righteousness, and moderation or temperance. . . .

virtues, moral (Aristotle) those functioning excellences (aretai) of human conduct that are controlled by the rational part of humans. . . . Some of the main points in Aristotle’s ethical philosophy: 1. moral virtues are achieved by means of a consistent practice that creates a habit of action. 2. the principal ingredient in this process is the following of the means between extremes. . . . Extremes are to be regarded as vices. For example, the moral virtue of courage is the mean between two extremes: that of foolhardiness (rashness, stupidity) and that of cowardice (being overwhelmed by fear). 3. an action is not in itself a virtuous action merely because it follows the mean. An action is a morally virtuous action because it conforms with, or is controlled by, reason. Insofar as the action conforms with or is controlled by reason, it will automatically involve a mean between extremes.

virtues, dianoetic (Aristotle) also called intellectual virtues (dianoetic, form Greek, dianoētikós; from diánoia, the intellect) 1. the intellectual (rationally thought-out) virtues or values. 2. in Aristotle the phrase aretai dianoētikai refers to the values inherent in the awareness (and acceptance) of the rational principles which guide moral conduct. This is contrasted with the moral virtues . . . , which have to do with the everyday reasoned control of our sensitive and appetitive life. According to Aristotle, the rational part of the soul has two parts: (a) that which contemplates the unchangeable, universal, eternal principle of things; and (b) that which contemplates objects that are subject to change. The aretē (functioning excellence) of the first is the intellectual virtue of sophia, abstract wisdom (theoretical intelligence); The aretē of the second is phronēsis, practical wisdom (prudence, thoughtfulness, ability, and intention to do the right thing).

virtues (Stoics) the principal or cardinal virtues in Stoicism are: reason, courage, justice, and self-discipline. . . . For the Stoics, the virtuous life is the only good but is unattainable without knowledge. The end of the virtuous life is the ideal of complete self-sufficiency and self-mastery of the individual living according to the harmonies of his or her inner rational nature and the corresponding universal rational necessity in the cosmos.

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