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Individuality and society

Individuality and society is the title of a fine, but hard to find article (1981) by the Polish sociologist Jan Szczepanski (1913-2004). Here I want very briefly to state what increasingly seems to me clear and crucially important (and of which I think Szczepanski would probably approve).

Szczepanski begins his article by stating his credentials, including having lived under five different political regimes, beginning with the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy under Emperor Francis Joseph, thru, most recently, the post-World War II Polish communist regime. He then gets right to the heart of his argument: the distinction between individuality and individualism. Individualism is wanting to be different just to be different. Individualism also tends to be greedy: Each individual strives to get as big a slice of the social pie as he or she can (generally with the result that others get less). Individuality, on the other hand, is the flourishing of a person's creativity. Each new idea is genuinely unique ("individual"), because nobody else has ever had it. Individuality is generous: A person wants to share his or her new idea with others. One person having a new idea takes nothing away from anyone else. Even better: Each new idea increases the size of the social pie, so that there is more for everyone.

Szczepanski sees capitalist America as a model of individualism, where everybody competes to get more for him or her self ("selfishness"). Most societies throughout history, in contrast, have subordinated the individual to the group ("altruism"/"collectivism"; see my notes on Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents). Either the individual wins and society loses (the U.S.A.) or society wins and the individual loses (e.g., the so-called Communist countries at the time Szczepanski was writing).

[ Find out about mystical experiences in engineering offices! ]Szczepanski argues that a society based on individuality: each individual's unique creativity, is a third way, in which both the individual and the group can win. He observes that such a society has never yet existed, and may seem impossible. But he believes such a new form of social organization in which each individual's creative uniqueness is nurtured, could solve the dilemma of respecting the individual without giving rise to the socially disintegrative dynamics of individualism; it would thus preserve the good and eliminate the bad parts of both individualistic and altruistic/collectivist ways. Szczepanski concludes his article by stating his belief that such a society based on individuality not only is possible, but that we must transform our present societies, both individualistic and altruistic/collectivist -- both capitalistic and communistic --, into this unprecedented synergistic form if our civilization is to survive.


Individuality can only grow out of society. In its most rudimentary form, this is obvious from the fact that an infant must be nurtured by others or the infant will die. Beyond this, all the diverse variations of individuation depend on education and a supportive environment (physicists need to be taught physics and have access to research laboratories; entrepreneurs need workers and customers; celebrities need communication media and fans...). I think that, in our reaction to the often stifling constraints of traditional group-oriented forms of social organization, we have lost sight of this: We fancy that, simply by freeing ourselves from constraining social enmeshments, we can be free for [whatever we want to do]. Obviously, the lifeworld of Paolo Freire's Brazilian peasants who think themselves "less than animals", the closed peasant village community of "The Return of Martin Guerre" where blood is thicker than genuine social commitment, and Galileo's and others' persecution by The Roman Catholic Church which enforced obedience over truth, etc. are, "at best", painful to persons whose social experience has led them to become aware that life need not be so constrained and potentially has more to offer the individual.

The problem is that just throwing off one's chains generally leads only to an unsustainable form of freedom, where the individual (or some number of individuals) can do what they want only because the base of that older milieu continues to function in the background. Freedom is sustainable only when it reproduces its individual and species life "from the ground up", without being parasitic on others who have not signed up for it.

The point I wish to make here is simply that we must not lose sight of the dependence of individuality on society, and, therefore, we need to turn back to focus on the re-formation of that traditional base. Old forms in many cases do need to be discarded (e.g., all traditions of mutilatory "initiation rites"). But even in these cases, we must remember that new institutions find their place in an existing social matrix of persons socialized in the old institutions, so that the need to maintain meaningful connections is always exigent.[fn.9a[ Go to footnote! ]] The persons affected need to see for themselves that the old ways had problems which they had not recognized, or which they mistakenly thought they were stuck with as the price for being able to have good things they did want.... The persons need to become disappointed by their old ways, and come to freely desire the new ways as a better form of life for themselves and their children.

[ Find out about mystical experiences in engineering offices! ]Of course all this is "obvious" (so that a student writing it on a course exam would earn little course "credit" for it...). But it seems to me so often forgotten in planning schemes, be they for "the free market" or more humanistic forms of social organization, that it needs to be recalled to attention. We need to cultivate "close knit" communities which encourage individual development, authenticity and fulfillment. Of course that is difficult, since the greed of individuals is exceeded (and perhaps in large measure caused...) by the greed of society to use up individuals. To use a Winnicott phrase, surely such a facilitating environment is something which, in each case, can only be achieved provisionally, and which then we must ever again re-fresh[en] and re-new. One needed change -- and this is the "message" of Szczepanski's essay --, is to get persons to focus pervasively on substantive creativity, which brings new goods into the world, as opposed to focusing primarily on what already exists. Of course everyone needs enough to eat (etc.): but it is quite a different matter, once one's belly is full, to aspire to wealth, or to aspire to creative accomplishment. And the group's demand for conformity in inconsequentials ("Keep America beautiful, get a haircut", etc.) generally accomplishes no significant gain for anyone.

Ars longa vita brevis. History goes on, but your and my personal chances in life are fleeting. My hope is that focuing on substantive creativity will, in the present moment, give us relief from, while simultaneously, over the long duration, really overcome, causes of conflict between two things which, in fact, need each other: individuality and society.

If, as I think, a Polish sociologist who lived through everything from the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian empire to post-World War II East European Communism, Jan Szczepanski, is right, then by cultivating the creative process, we can gain ever richer personal satisfactions in the very same activities which will make life better for all. (Would you really rather try to develop a more aggressive marketing image for Fruit Loops or try to sell junk bonds on Wall Street, than try to find a way that "barefoot doctors" could compound a cure for AIDS from plant and mineral substances cheaply available in their own impoverished villages, presuming that you could do the latter on an NIH grant that gave you enough income to buy a modest house in the community where you work and pay two children's college tuition?)


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