Individualism from a Hegelian Perspective
Individualism, the idea of prioritizing the individual over the collective within a society, is seen as a moral imperative in this day and age. In developed societies, the acceptance of individualism is seen as a benchmark of cultural progress. People should be free to commit as they wish, and should be given equal opportunities to do so. The issue of individualism has dwarfed perennial problems of the past century, such as racial and gender equality, freedom of speech, war and oppression, and many more. Not to say that the afore mentioned are no longer pressing issues for us; it is rather that all such problems are bracketed under a blind detest for the conforming “collective”, and their solutions seen to be mere universal acceptance of the idea of the individual. If everyone is to be treated as individuals, with their own sets of rights, the above issues would never arise.
But surely, things are never that simple. The mere assertion of an idea will never garner argumentative force. Today, when even misleading harangues can lead a particular individual to presidency, one cannot help but doubt the need for argumentative force to be of any practical aid. However, we have to ask ourselves carefully: do we really want this? Do we have to shout at each other because thoughtful arguments no longer win us anything? Are we really solving problems by mere assertions?
Individualism, at its very core, is only the foundation of self-identity. Crudely speaking, it is nothing more than parroting “I am I”, and wishfully thinking that the “I” one speaks of passes off as substantial. The “I am I” not only characterizes the lackadaisical approach that our generation takes to resolve vital issues, but has inundated popular culture, free idle talks, and even on purportedly authoritative stages, such as TED talks. It is as if the “I am I” induces a magical revelation of what the profound “I” is.
So what is the “I”? What makes “I am I” so strangely compelling and influential? And more importantly, why does the “I am I” appear sufficient to encompass issues from individual self-help, to prominent global issues?
Firstly, the proclamation is a staunch affirmation of one’s own self-identity. To identify oneself as “I” is to possess a self-consciousness. This means that I must be able to know that I am myself by some sort of reflective thinking. But to know that I am myself is not enough — I must be certain that I am, thus possess a form of self-certainty.
But how can I be certain that I am myself? How do I justify the claim that “I am myself”? What sort of reflective thinking do I have to undergo? Following Descartes, we can say that I am so far as I am thinking. But what identity exists between our thoughts? Thoughts are never static and self-identical, as we have no objective measure of thoughts to speak of, and neither do we see ourselves as superseding, static “I”s that pass as frames in time.
Here thus lies the fundamental problem of characterizing the “I”. As Hegel explores in Sense-Certainty of his grand work Phenomenology of Spirit, the “I” is a universal that is intended to target a plurality of particulars. Universals, such as properties, attributes, and qualities, cannot be reduced to one single particular, but can be employed to refer to one single particular. When I speak of “I”, I am referring to myself — this man sitting in front of his desktop, typing on a keyboard past midnight, and so on. But this “I” does not only refer to myself at this moment. The “I” can be used at other moments of my life, when I am no longer typing on a keyboard past midnight. The “I” can also be used to refer to an “I” outside of myself, namely other self-consciousnesses.
Presented in this way, the claim that “I am I” is not problematic simply because of its tautological nature, nor because of its pragmatic irrelevance — it is rather plagued by a lack of specificity, a brash use of words avoiding the need for reflective thinking required to assert its truthfulness in the first place. But we are still far away from understanding the claim — how does “I am I”, being shown to be characteristically superfluous, gain such widespread acceptance?
To grasp the concept of “I”, we have to relate it against a multitude of “I”s. Clearly, the “I am I” refers not to an equation of one individual to another — it is a self-assertion of the identity of the singular individual. Thus both “I”s in the assertion refer to the same particular, defined against the other “I”s given by the universal property of the “I”. How does the particular “I” define itself against the other “I”? It does so by positing those other “I”s as “not-I”, in the bustling mess known as Life.
So I am that which stands over and against the worldly phenomena, known as the “I”. This grants the individual “I” a strong sense of empowerment — I can effect tangible changes on the world; I am significant to this grand scheme of things; I am none other than the unique I. In this defining moment of self-consciousness, individualism emerges with an absurd power. The claim that “I am I” is no longer empty and tautological — it is now a reckoning of a force, a surging significance that is not bound to Life.
However, this process cannot last. In encountering other self-conscious “I”, who at the same time, assert that “I am I”, the individual “I” becomes aware that it is not itself recognized by the other “I” as an “I” proper, but instead as part of what it had defined itself against, namely, Life. In realizing that the “I” itself is merely part of Life of the others, the individual now struggles to win its own significance that it had conjured for itself; the right to assert “I am I” with sheer force. In order to do this, it has to eradicate the other “I” to be reckoned as the “I”. This very struggle; a fight for reckoning in essence, is known by the Life-Death struggle of the self-consciousnesses. In order for the individual to become the pure “I”, not subsumed by other “I”s as merely part of Life, the individual “I”s pit each other into a challenge for recognition.
At this stage, the assertion “I am I” is elevated as a champion trophy for the worthy survivor of a deadly Battle Royale for recognition. The individual seeks for others to recognise itself as something significant, which cannot be simply cast aside. This need for recognition for others to view the individual as an independent entity is the core of radical individualism — I demand that you recognise my individuality, and no one else can threaten its status. Thus, the individualist fights to protect their own individuality; to drag the “I” into its own embrace and no one else’s.
However, in reality, no one does that. Besides getting into law and jurisprudence issues, there lies a huge irony within this struggle for life and death — the lack of recognition after the struggle. By negating the existence of the other, I also negate the very basis of recognition that I require to affirm my individuality. Fighting others to their death means that there is no one to recognise my individuality, because ultimately, recognition is two-way. In order to be independent, I have to be dependent on the others’ recognition of me as an independent being.
As such, the natural solution is for the individual not to negate the existence of the other, but to subordinate its existence to mine. As far as we are both individuals, my individuality is has greater independence than yours. And here we arrive at what is perhaps one of the most momentous Hegel’s self-consciousness — the Master/Slave relation.
Having went through the life and death struggle, the Master is the one that emerges with greater independence as compared to the Slave. In staking one’s life to fight for recognition as the independent “I”, the Slave renounces the need for that recognition in exchange for his own physical life. The Master naturally takes up the recognition by tasking the Slave to Work. The Slave thus works to satisfy the Master’s needs and desires, by working on the Object of the external world into products that fit the purpose.
The Master/Slave relation is one of one-sided recognition and exploitation. In this stage, the “I” belongs to both Master and Slave, but the Master gets the main call of the “I”. While each individual Slave calls him or herself “I”, this “I” of the Slave has a lower status of the “I” of the Master, for the Slave is always dependent on the Master to give recognition to its independence, which is simply another form of dependence to being with.
This certainly rings true to many people out in the world. In hierarchical workplaces, the presence of the executives are felt as much more domineering than that of the workers. While the executives have much more opportunities to express themselves as an independent “I”, the workers are always bunched and termed within the collective “we”. As such, this lack of recognition for the fundamental independence of the workers lead to a form of fascination of the “I”: what does it feel like to be the “I” of my boss? As the workers are conscious of their own renunciations of their independence, they see the “I” of their bosses as more independent than theirs.
This form of fascination for the true “I” in form of alienation leads the workers to seek ways to express their individuality in various ways. They flock to self-help gurus, churches, and some go to the length of intellectualising around their own being in order to live their fantasy of being the true independent “I”. Here, we finally see why the assertion “I am I” bears such a significance for many — it is an escape of the alienation that the workers found themselves in, having given their independence over to their executives. The thought of the profound “I”, the infinitely potent “I” that they fantasise their Master as having, tranquilizes the Worker’s feeling of dependency and leads him/her to believe that he/she can be that “I” that they dream of. This usually takes the form of engaging in little reveries of the infinite potential they have within them, seeking to express themselves as patiently advised by the gurus.
But this is clearly an act of self-deception. The “I am I”, in which the “I” is fantasized as an infinite potentiality, is merely asserting the status of the “I”. The gurus, as underhanded as we may now take them to be, are in no way deceiving the workers, but are in fact, stating a matter of fact. What are they truly asserting then? While “I am I” is indeed a fact, it is shrouded in a beguiling vagueness that leads the workers into their lively fascinations. The true significance of the “I am I”, as of the assertion, lies in its affirmation of the independence of the workers that has been assumed to be lost. In other words, while the Slave took the true “I” as that of the Master’s, it forgets that the true “I” still addresses the Slave as an independent self-consciousness. Thus, we can now see that the fascination is ultimately a deception put up by the Slave for itself, caused by a momentous forgetting of its own status as an independent self-consciousness.
Why is the Slave independent, when we had established above that it is the dependent consciousness? The Slave, as we recall, works on the objects of the external world into products that fulfil the Master’s needs and desires. In this creative process, the Slave engages directly in transformation of objects and shapes the structures of the objects by itself. Thus, as an independent consciousness, the Slave is directly aware of the nature of the objects it is working on, and gains specialised knowledge that the Master would never obtain. More importantly, the Slave learns to exert its own will on the objects through its own independence, which is, again, a process that the Master is not engaged in.
What we have now is a beautiful reversal of relations — the Slave turns out to be the true independent self-consciousness, while the Master turns out to be dependent on the Slave for the latter’s service. The Slave could very well revolt against the Master, and render the latter helpless at its own will. Thus, we can say that the fascination of the Slave with the “I am I” is a self-deception caused by the forgetting of its own independence. The Slave, by itself, has always been and is already independent in and for itself.
As we have seen in this Hegelian procession, the “I am I” is not simply a tautological assertion of individualism, but contains within itself a complex dialectic of the relations between the individual consciousness and others. “I am I” is compelling to us not because it is an affirmation of our individuality, but rather due to a forgetting of our fundamental independence as individual self-consciousnesses. “I am I” is not an assertion — it is a statement of the radical individualism that we already possess; a sly reminder of our fundamental condition as human beings.
Let us now return back to our main issue: is the “I am I” sufficient to resolve global issues that we are facing now? The answer is a definite “no”. However, as I have suggested above, our fascination of the “I am I” is a form of self-deception that we put up for ourselves, as Slaves of what we call “society”. If we can realise this fundamental error and found individuality on the Work that we had initially rejected, we might find that perhaps this world isn’t that bleak after-all — individualism has always been the very core of our beings, and there has been progress driven by this very individualism that we’ve forgotten. What we need is not more self-intoxication to chase an illusive, ever-escaping ideal, but a fundamental appreciation of our endeavours as self-willing individuals.