More Thoughts on Individualism and Cultural Embeddedness

by Mark English

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This post was prompted by some private discussion of a recent episode of my podcast, Culture and Value. The episode in question, entitled “Individualism and Cultural Embeddedness“, was centered – in fact the podcast in general is centered – around what you could see as the paradox of individualism: we are culturally embedded beings and yet we (or many of us) value individualism. At any rate, I thought it might be useful to set out in writing – as concisely as possible – some of my guiding principles. My assumptions, if you like.

I know I have dealt with these ideas before but they are difficult to pin down and important because they are so fundamental. Also, there are significant implications which I haven’t fully explored. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a currently-contentious social or political issue to which answers to the basic questions I am addressing would not be relevant. (This, to a large extent, is why these themes continue to interest me.)

Before I get to cultural embeddedness, let me elaborate briefly on another point I alluded to in that podcast episode: my scientific view of the world and ourselves.

Biology and culture. Culture and biology. That’s not all there is, but – with the inorganic world within which biological organisms evolved and within which they exist – that’s enough to make a human being.

Imagine growing a human fetus in a lab, doing whatever might be necessary to allow the body to grow and muscles to develop but not allowing social contact or cultural (e.g. linguistic) input. Such a being might look human and may even be able to perform some basic physical activities but how human would it be (except in a technical sense)? Crucially it would not (I am saying) be a person.

Now, if you believe in a spiritual substance which inhabits or animates the body you will have a different view from mine and may consider me to be disrespecting human dignity by even discussing such a hypothetical experiment at all. But my point is not to demean human dignity but rather to understand where it comes from.

The person is not just a body, but a body that has developed within a particular social and cultural environment. There’s no secret ingredient. There doesn’t need to be.

I recognize, however, that it’s natural for us to think in terms of embodied – and disembodied – spirits. Such ideas are widespread across many, unconnected cultures. The most concise and compelling account I have read of these things was by the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who, drawing on his research into African religions and on cognitive science, postulated a kind of universal mental template for persons which gives rise not only to our normal notions of embodied persons but also to the notion of disembodied persons, the notion of purely spiritual beings.

I am saying that we are culturally embedded biological organisms. Our personhood derives not from a soul or spirit but simply from the cultural matrix in which we grew up.

This is all very well, you might say, and widely accepted. But I am making two claims here. One is that there is no soul or spirit. One is that we are necessarily culturally embedded. It’s the latter point I want to emphasize.

People often talk as if one can or could “reject” or stand outside of one’s culture. I would reference here the Romantic myth of the rebel. Its hold within the cultural milieu in which I grew up always bemused me and I still see signs of it everywhere. Sure, you can reject aspects of your culture – but only by embracing and deploying other aspects of the cultural matrix within which you came to and continue to exist. An individual is always dependent on – and in fact defined by – this matrix and indebted to the other individuals, past and present, who have contributed to it.

This does not mean that individualism is impossible or is an illusion. The individualist simply seeks out and engages with a wider range of cultural elements than the unreflective conformist does.

I will finish with a few clarificatory remarks…

As I see it, neither cultures nor languages exist in a robust sense. Just as each of us deploys a unique linguistic system (idiolect) – different in various ways (scope and details of lexicon, maybe aspects of syntax, pronunciation, etc.) from others within our language group – so each of us embodies a unique cultural mix. This idea obviously relates to the idea of individualism and, I think, justifies taking individualism seriously as a potential way of dealing with social problems related to various kinds of identity politics and stereotyping.

Degrees of overlap vary between individuals but, because cultural elements are so diverse,  there is no single measure of commonality. Some cultural elements are easily isolated and compared but most are not.

Language is probably the most basic cultural element for two reasons: it bridges biology and culture in ways that other cultural elements do not; and it is the foundation and sine qua non of culture in the more general sense. I admit that, for practical purposes, it is useful to distinguish between languages (or dialects) even if this necessarily involves abstraction and simplification.

Religion is another fairly clearly identifiable cultural element, at least in the sense that the churches and sects and religious movements of the modern world can be defined and demarcated in both social and doctrinal terms. Complications arise, however, when you start to look at how participating individuals envisage and justify their participation. Congregations may be gathered together physically, but each individual will have a unique perspective on what they are doing and why.

I am conceding that identifying and drawing cultural distinctions within certain defined areas is not only possible but inevitable and necessary. But defining and drawing distinctions between cultures in a general sense is difficult, and perhaps impossible to do in a rigorous way.

The notion of a national culture is particularly problematic. Where there can be said to be such a thing, it is of necessity imposed and artificial – in contrast to regional cultures, for example, which are shaped over long periods of time by local conditions and practices.

19 comments

  1. Some questions and comments:

    (1) Imagine a bunch of hominids — homo sapiens — who lived, let’s say, 200,000 years ago in a small community of 100 individuals. If they didn’t have a language (and I don’t know that they would or wouldn’t … I don’t know when language emerged), would that mean that they didn’t have a culture? If so, would that mean that none of them was a person?

    (2) I think there’s individualism as a kind of conformism and individualism as a kind of nonconformism. Individualism as a kind of conformism is the person who buys Nike shoes because Nike tells him that doing so makes him more individualistic (this would be a consumeristic conformist-individualism); or it’s the person who starts saying off-the-wall thing to other members of his (physically) local community because he joined a Facebook group where the other members are saying the same things. So, he looks like someone who is rejecting his culture from the perspective of his physically local community, but he’s really just someone who is conforming to his online culture (this would be a communalistic conformist -individualism).

    I would think that individualism as a kind of nonconformism would be someone who tries to think about the justifications for the practices of all the communities within which he is a part. Now, you might say that such a person is really just conforming to his culture in two ways: (a) the fact that he even questions things to begin with is something he does because of the culture he is in; were he in a different culture, it wouldn’t even occur to him to question; and (b) the way he goes about questioning is a way he does it because of the cultural resources available to him; were he in a different culture, he would question his culture in different ways.

    Now, assuming you accept (a) and (b), I agree with you about (b), but I disagree with you about (a). I think there are some individuals, in every time and place, who are so constituted that they just question things. And there is no culture such that these individuals can’t even think about ways to question it. And I would say that such individuals are so constituted that they are genuinely nonconformist-individualists.

    (3) Imagine someone who is raised in one culture but then suddenly finds himself in another culture. Perhaps his parents move him, perhaps his job moves him, perhaps he is drafted or shanghaied. Would this person, simply due to this sudden transfer, be an individualist (at least from the perspective of this new culture) on your view? If so, then I would disagree with you about that. If not, why not?

    1. Robert Gressis,

      You say:
      a). I think there are some individuals, in every time and place, who are so constituted that they just question things. And there is no culture such that these individuals can’t even think about ways to question it. And I would say that such individuals are so constituted that they are genuinely nonconformist-individualists.

      I agree. Where does Socrates come from? What were the influences on him which led him to question his culture?
      I don’t know of any, although I’m not an expert on classical Greece. Maybe there were proto-Socrateses who disappeared without a trace. I guess you could see Socrates as a “truth-seeking” sophist, that the influence of the sophists led him to question everything. However, there does seem to be a break, a leap, between what came before Socrates and Socrates himself.

      Buddha might be another case. How about Spinoza?

      Nietzsche, I guess you could trace much of his questioning to his Lutheran background, as has been done and post-Nietzsche, questioning everything could even be seen as just another social role in Western society.

      Still, someone did it first, someone invented the game of questioning everything and they are genuine non-conformist individuals. Probably, those who know more than myself about the history of feminist thought can
      point out the first women who questioned being the second sex (long before Simone de Beauvoir). That was a big leap and break too.

      1. S. Wallerstein wrote:

        “Still, someone did it first, someone invented the game of questioning everything and they are genuine non-conformist individuals.”

        My guess is that the practice of questioning things began with the dawn of humanity. But I wouldn’t be surprised if people who work closely with chimpanzees and other intelligent animals could identify individuals who are predisposed to being more skeptical than others. (Certainly some dogs or horses are particularly contrary, but this doesn’t involve skepticism. Could such traits possibly be seen as evolutionary precursors to nonconformism/skepticism, I wonder?)

        As I conceded to Robert Gressis, some of us are no doubt more predisposed (through our genetic inheritance as well as other factors) to question accepted truths and conventions.

    2. Robert, thank you for your thoughts on this.

      Personhood is not necessarily an all-or-nothing concept.

      It’s reasonable to assume that language developed slowly over time with other aspects of culture. Technological advances (tool-making, etc.) may well have been dependent on improved methods of verbal communication but nobody knows exactly when human language as we know it developed. (Known human languages (apart from pidgins) all have a more or less equivalent level of complexity.)

      You talk about a group of anatomically modern humans living 200,000 years ago and ask two questions: If they didn’t have a language, would that mean that they didn’t have a culture? And, “If so, would that mean that none of them was a person?”

      This is only a problem if you see personhood (and having a language and having a culture) as yes-or-no, all-or-nothing questions. Evolutionary history is all about subtle differences and gradations. Up until about 30,000 years ago, and maybe even later, archaic human species still existed and in fact interbred with anatomically modern humans. Neanderthals and Denisovans, for example. There has been much speculation about the linguistic abilities of these people. Did they have their own languages? Did they adopt (versions of) the languages spoken by their anatomically modern contemporaries?

      I called them people. Of course they were people. But maybe we would be less sure about homo erectus, say. There doesn’t need to be a clear determination or demarcation, in my opinion.

      Animal rights activists sometimes claim that pets or farm animals “are people too.” This is an extreme position and one which (I think) is both silly and dangerous.

      Orangutan translates as “person [of the] forest.” But the original Old Malay term apparently referred to forest-dwelling *humans*, not the animal species. Even so, these great apes have “language” of a kind. They make various vocalisations but their gestures are just as important.

      From Wikipedia:

      “Mother orangutans and offspring also use several different gestures and expressions such as beckoning, stomping, lower lip pushing, object shaking and “presenting” a body part. These communicate goals such as “acquire object”, “climb on me”, “climb on you”, “climb over”, “move away”, “play change: decrease intensity”, “resume play” and “stop that”.”

      [Will respond to the rest in a separate comment.]

    3. “I think there are some individuals, in every time and place, who are so constituted that they just question things. And there is no culture such that these individuals can’t even think about ways to question it. And I would say that such individuals are so constituted that they are genuinely nonconformist-individualists.”

      If your point is simply that certain individuals are genetically more predisposed to question things than others, I would agree with you.

      “Imagine someone who is raised in one culture but then suddenly finds himself in another culture. Perhaps his parents move him, perhaps his job moves him, perhaps he is drafted or shanghaied. Would this person, simply due to this sudden transfer, be an individualist (at least from the perspective of this new culture) on your view?”

      Not at all. From the perspective of his hosts, he would simply be a foreigner.

  2. The American notion of individualism is a bit of a puzzle for me.

    I grew up in Australia, and came to USA as a grad student. And I noticed this emphasis on individualism. It seemed that everybody wanted to show their individualism in the same way as everbody else. And that did not seem at all individualistic.

    Of course, we are all individuals and have our own characteristics. But the emphasis on individualism seems to actually be counter-productive.

    1. Neil

      Both you and couvent2104 seem to be making a similar point about the self-defeating nature of individualism.

      My point is that one can acknowledge the paradoxes of individualism and at the same time recognize that an awareness of the fact that each of us is a unique individual, both biologically and culturally (i.e. embodying a unique cultural mix), helps to counter groupthink and many currently fashionable and simplistic notions of group identity.

      1. Well, yes, we are all individuals. I was just noting that “individualism” often become a term for a kind of group think, which does make it self-defeating.

  3. I feel that individualism is a bit of a contradictio in terminis. There’s no society made of individualists. Nothing would get done. Sure, one could negotiate with all the other individualists about everything but the transaction costs would be enormous. Can you imagine designing a traffic code with all the other individualists?

    Of course, you only could deal with people who share your values etc., and form groups etc., but then you wouldn’t be an individualist anymore, at least not in your group. In your group you would be a conformist.

    Individualism is side-effect made possible by the fact that most people aren’t individualists in most circumstances, and by the fact that the resulting society is solid enough to permit a certain degree of individualism (a certain degree, because the police is not going to negotiate with your individualism when you were doing 70 km/h in your car in a zone where only 30 km/h is allowed).

    Individualism is only possible in a society that’s sufficiently conformist and that accepts, permits and perhaps even values individualism.

  4. couvent2104

    I agree with the gist of what you are saying. I would want to emphasize, however, a distinction between thinking one’s own thoughts and doing one’s own thing. The distinction is not absolute, of course, but my main concern is with independent *thinking*.

  5. Mark,
    You are indeed touching on themes that underly the fundamental issue of how to order society. As you said we “would be hard pressed to find a currently-contentious social or political issue to which answers to the basic questions I am addressing would not be relevant.” The existing confusion about the true nature of society and the individual is bound to make it very difficult to make progress. I have to admit that it was a casual comment of yours years ago regarding the nature of culture – it closely parallels our thoughts – that inspired me to do some of my own research. Our conclusions now diverge somewhat, but then, we have had markedly different cultural exposures.

    Like you, I am a ‘materialist’ – biology and physics could one day explain the world – but that does not mean that anything is ‘simple’. The fact that we are here represents a ‘miracle’ because there is no reason why we should be here at all in the first place after the big bang of 13.8 billion years ago. Life inexplicably appeared about 5 billion years ago and I believe that consciousness in some form is an essential part of life. My subjective experience of consciousness also suggests to me some sort of ‘miracle’, especially since there is no intuitively acceptable explanation of how it works. My point here is that science has shown that life is extraordinarily complex and it should not be surprising when people come up with magical explanations.

    Indeed, we are exquisitely social animals, biologically triggered to learn at prodigious levels, mostly through copying. Like many other animals, we also have the ability to innovate, but I agree with you that language is what really sets us apart by making direct teaching possible of complex skills. Each of us has a vocabulary of between 30 to 150 thousand words that can be recalled almost instantaneously.

    These powers of learning and communication are what makes our ineffable culture possible. Every single human exists in their own cultural niche since no two individuals can exist in the same space. In order to flourish one is required to innovate, especially now with about 8 billion other competitors. Some may decide to conform as best as they can while others make a living out of being different. But here is the crux of the matter: each individual has no choice, they must interact with the society around them, and how they do that depends on their own, and only their own, calculation. All leads from others first undergo a personal evaluation by the individual before being accepted, rejected or modified. Culture does not think, society doesn’t either. Only individuals can do that.

    We are all individuals because of an unique genetic make-up and different culture exposure, and therefore are individualists, to some degree. A society that encourages the best form of individualism will obviously flourish more. It seems clear to me that we haven’t quite figured it out yet, perhaps because ‘our culture’ has not figured out how to encourage individuals and to improve thinking.

    1. “A society that encourages the best form of individualism will obviously flourish more. It seems clear to me that we haven’t quite figured it out yet…”

      Agreed.

      I also agree with you that there is a lot which is mysterious, but it is notoriously difficult to address these sorts of “big questions” while maintaining focus and clarity. Science works via specialization and there is no obvious way of integrating the different kinds of knowledge, of putting it all together. To an extent you can do it. E.O. Wilson talked about consilience and this is what I aspire to. But I often doubt whether it is possible (given our current state of knowledge) to make any significant progress in this direction.

      1. Mark,
        Thanks for your response. I agree, “there is no obvious way of integrating the different kinds of knowledge, ..” By my definition of knowledge and information, artificial intelligence will ‘never’ be able to capture it all. And even if it could, individual human beings would have ‘to make sense of it all’ – not going to happen.

        It is beginning to dawn on me that the way around this ineluctable problem is to abandon the generally accepted idea that a single, comprehensive and all-inclusive ‘true’ narrative is the standard by which we should guide our conduct. Narrative is a very important part of consciousness and culture, but a single narrative cannot satisfy everyone because all narratives spring from an individual mind. Political narratives are mostly empty.

        Rather, it seems to me that all members of the human race should focus on improving their own individual conduct in the best way they see fit. Each individual will then find themselves in a position where they have to integrate all the information that they have access to and then act accordingly, to the best of their ability. This is sort of what we do already, but it wouldn’t hurt if we all cleaned up our act…

  6. “Imagine growing a human fetus in a lab, doing whatever might be necessary to allow the body to grow and muscles to develop but not allowing social contact or cultural (e.g. linguistic) input. Such a being might look human and may even be able to perform some basic physical activities but how human would it be (except in a technical sense)? Crucially it would not (I am saying) be a person.”

    So is a newborn baby a person? If so is that because it has had enough social and cultural input while in the womb to be a person? If a pregnant woman was not with other people and did not speak for the time of her pregnancy after the fetus’s brain developed – so no linguistic input to the fetus. Would that newborn not be a person?

    1. Joe

      As I pointed out, personhood is not necessarily an all-or-nothing concept. You can see this by looking at the evolution of humans. It seems absurd to suggest that there was some magical point where brains became big or complex enough or culture rich enough and suddenly… people!

      Similar (but not identical) principles apply in relation to growth and development in the womb. In this case the embryo/fetus is “one of us” from the start, you could say, at least genetically speaking. But biological factors alone are not sufficient to make a person.

      “If a pregnant woman was not with other people and did not speak for the time of her pregnancy after the fetus’s brain developed – so no linguistic input to the fetus. Would that newborn not be a person?”

      There are many ways the pregnant woman interacts with her child. Also, note that when I said that language is a sine qua non of culture (and culture of personhood) I was thinking of the development of human culture in historical terms, of language as a prerequisite for the development of complex culture over time.

      I don’t deny, however, that following through on some of what I am saying may lead to some confronting conclusions.

      1. Thanks for the response Mark

        I was asking these questions because I was genuinely curious if those were conclusions you were intending to reach and if not what your thoughts were about them.

        At the outset I will say I am one of those people that believe in God and souls. And although I think these questions can present difficulties for people of my view I think they are exacerbated for those that want to do away with those ideas. For me I could never quite find a way to keep my views of how we treat human life as sacred consistent with a view that does away with religion. But that is in part why I am genuinely interested in learning how others try to do it. Please take my questions as genuine questions even if they seem more like comments because perhaps the concerns underlying them are obvious.

        “There are many ways the pregnant woman interacts with her child.” I am talking about brand newborns just after birth. I suppose it is true that the mother can interact with the unborn fetus in many ways. Some pregnant women will sing to the unborn others will get an abortion. But for those pregnant women that give birth, for the most part I don’t think there is all that much culture imparted during the pregnancy. So there would likely be very little culture as opposed to a lab baby that was newly removed from an artificial womb.

        Your analogy to evolutionary development might suggest you think there are “partial people” as opposed to “fully people or not people at all.” (spectrum versus “on off switch”) I think our laws seem to say there is a sort of on off switch at the moment of birth. But there seems some obvious departures when we consider double homicide laws when fetuses are killed along with the mother. I wonder where you put these brand-newborns.

        1. Joe

          “I was asking these questions because I was genuinely curious if those were conclusions you were intending to reach and if not what your thoughts were about them.”

          Let me try to clarify on a couple of points.

          I am not making a direct analogy between ontogeny and phylogeny. Different principles apply to the development of an individual human in the womb than to evolutionary developments. Nonetheless, our evolutionary history needs always to be borne in mind.

          On abortion, etc…. Four decades ago, Michael Tooley wrote a controversial book called Abortion and Infanticide in which (as I recall) he drew some very “permissive” conclusions based on philosophical arguments.

          I would prefer not to offer conclusions. This is partly because such conclusions are often taken as moral advice and partly because morality is not just about reason and rational arguments. In my view, difficult moral questions need to be addressed in the context of, and need to take account of, the specific details of the situation, including cultural and personal details. The trouble with purely philosophical and purely “rational” approaches to moral questions is that they ignore or are tone deaf to feelings and cultural factors.

          I am not attempting this here, but I think that you could make a persuasive, moderately-conservative case on the abortion question based entirely on general cultural and feelings-based factors, and without drawing on religious or metaphysical ideas at all.

          And you could make a stronger case of a similar kind against infanticide. (The new-born may not have absorbed much in the way of cultural input, but the infant necessarily exists within a rich social and cultural context.)

          1. Mark
            Thanks again. I agree moral constructivist/subjectivist could “….make a persuasive, moderately-conservative case on the abortion question based entirely on general cultural and feelings-based factors, and without drawing on religious or metaphysical ideas at all.

            And you could make a stronger case of a similar kind against infanticide. (The new-born may not have absorbed much in the way of cultural input, but the infant necessarily exists within a rich social and cultural context.)”

            Views of morality that are not constrained by objective reality have very few limits at all. I could never seriously embrace moral subjectivism. As someone who is attached to moral realism I found it difficult to sort these questions out without ending up with contradictory, or what I considered, ad hoc views. So it seems the battleground is at the meta-ethical level (second order moral questions).

            You mention Michael Tooley. Peter Singer also promoted some ideas on these topics that forced me to think through these arguments.

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