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Why individuality, metaphysics, nature and society do not exist


1. Individuality cannot be represented

Initially, one could say that the representation of individuality is relatively easy, for the I is defined by only two features: uniqueness and freedom. Precisely because of this, however, the I ends up being extremely difficult to represent in texts. An example may help to clarify matters: let's say you are unique because you have a unique talent for playing football. If we enquire further what your talent consists of, we could say it's either

A similar thought experiment could be performed with freedom. In the end, whichever characterisation we use for the individual, we will always arrive at a different dimension from individuality. So real individuality* is very difficult to locate in a text.

2. Metaphysics is overabsent

The characteristic feature of metaphysics is that it does not have any characteristic feature. Metaphysics is after all that which is beyond physics, beyond what we know, it's the mystery of the world and life. Which is the answer to these mysteries? What is there beyond death? What is evil, where and how does it originate? Why do I have to suffer? How different do other people feel and perceive reality as compared to me? Since there is no 'objective answer' to these questions, some famous philosophers, like Wittgenstein and Levinas, have even said that we should not talk about metaphysics. This is not necessary, but we have to live with the double fact that metaphysics exists, and we just don't know what it is. Since metaphysics exists but is in a way nothing, it makes the same move as individuality, which is so specific as to also approach nothingness: it becomes something else, preferably nature, but also society.

3. Nature is overpresent

From a more philosophical position (I am no philosopher, but some things are just basic), being cannot be represented. Well, it can, but then it stops being and becomes something else. Since we have defined nature as that which is, we find ourselves in trouble when we try to represent it.

We can, however, also leave philosophy and start from the perspective of Western culture since Modernity. One of the first Moderns, the French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, called nature "Le grand tout". This is an indication that nature is 'overpresent' in our contemporary understanding of reality. This overpresence basically has to do with the human capacity to partially solve the mystery of reality from just one perspective: that of scientific rationality.

Science alone has proved able to understand reality in such a way as to make the movements of nature predictable and controllable (or so we like to think). Through science and the technology it creates we have been able to dominate nature. The feeling that nature responds to our scientific questioning in a way society, metaphysics or the individual never can has resulted in our belief that the other dimensions are all reduceable to nature as understood by science in its bio-, electro-chemical, physical and other variants. There are sufficient studies which show that the reduction of mind to matter is not the most scientific or rational option (see Jonas & Nagel),* yet the impression remains that everything boils down to nature.*

Since Einstein, that presence of nature has become even more ubiquitous, for Einstein's physical theories are based on an understanding of nature which unites all the possible physical dimensions of the world, one in which the three spatial dimensions necessarily join the temporal dimension. Where possible, contemporary Western culture has driven that presence of nature to excess: nature is everything. But this creates a problem: by being everything, nature becomes nothing.

4. Nobody likes society

All our four dimensions are worth the same, and yet every culture favours some dimensions and dislikes others. In contemporary western culture, society is dislike candidate nr. 1. To explain this dislike we can start with the vast difference existing between pre- and post-industrial societies (contemporary western society counts itself as one of them):

Pre-industrial societies: in pre-industrial societies,

  1. people led a precarious existence: the overpowering force of nature was strong and little understood, and the threat to physical well-being part of everyday-life in a way we can only imagine (death, for example, was omnipresent).
  2. human communities tended to be small, wherefore social bonds and obligations were much more firmly tied to a known 'you', rather than, as happens nowadays, to an unknown, abstract and institutionalised entity, an 'it'.

Given these circumstances, the need for individuals to feel part of a community with rules which sustained its members materially, morally, and affectively, and in which they played a role which sustained others was paramount, as was their necessity for metaphysical support. These same circumstances also made radical forms of individualism, or over-positive evaluations of nature senseless. There was thus a reason for society to exist and be experienced as not only positive, but downright natural.

Post-industrial societies: in contemporary modern societies we tend to feel there is no immediate physical threat to our existence. We experience that science and technology help us dominate nature. To the extent that this happens, our desire for individuality flourishes, and so does attention to our primary physical wants (our nature). On the other hand, our concern for metaphysics and our liking of society tends to diminish (as regards metaphysics, for example, neither are we born nor do we die in our bed. The mysteries of birth and death take place in an anonymous, sanitised environment). As regards society,

  1. its anonymity spreads, mainly in the following two ways: [1] human communities become larger, and increasingly desire privacy (see above); [2] society presents itself to the individual as an infrastructure, a set of institutions, an 'it' rather than a 'you'. We pay for it (with taxes) to offer the security that cannot be had through science and technology.
  2. the security it guarantees often limits our desire for freedom. The more security we are offered, the more freedom we want (see module 1.3).

The consequence of such a view of society is the following:

  • we do not feel affectively tied to social institutions
  • when something bad happens (e.g. a car accident), and beyond immediate causes (e.g. a mad driver piled in on me), responsibility is ultimately sought in the social institution which should prevent the disruptions of normal life (e.g. did the relevant ministry have or enact effective rules to prevent mad drivers' piling-in-activities?)
  • morality is experienced as part of the social 'it', and therefore as oppressively unnatural. It limits our desire for freedom.
daniel.candel@uah.es ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann