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My first post on qualitative individualism attracted several helpful comments, possibly drawn here by a link from Daily Nous. A couple of these commenters pointed out that that the ideal is not as “invisible” as I made it out to be – not even to philosophers. I hear it expressed relatively rarely in philosophical works now, but this would not have been the case fifty or sixty years ago, when the philosophy that was all the rage was: existentialism. Existentialism is not the only way for qualitative individualism to be expressed philosophically, but it may well be the most influential to date.

The most basic slogan of existentialism, and likely the one that gives existentialism its name, is that “Existence precedes essence”. Following Heidegger, who read Duns Scotus closely, existentialists proclaim that human beings’ existence as particular individuals is more fundamental than any universal category in which they can be fit. In Sartre’s words from his famous lecture “Existentialism is a humanism”:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.

This metaphysics has been appealing to qualitative individualists, especially from a feminist perspective. The existentialist feminist Simone de Beauvoir insisted, in ways that anticipate current ideas on gender, that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one”: womanhood is not a necessary biological given but a social construct. It is following Beauvoir, I think, that gender studies has often used the term “essentialism” to define the enemy to be fought.

I think, however, that existentialism’s embrace of qualitative individualism goes too far, at least in that most famous introduction to it. Sartre embraces an ideal of freedom and free will that I find naïve. He continues:

Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

Notice Sartre is not simply saying that we are what we imagine or believe ourselves to be: it is not that if I happen to believe I am a peanut butter sandwich, I suddenly am one. Life is a story here, something made; it is a process by which, as Nietzsche says, one becomes what one is. What humans are is what they make of themselves in the process of existing; it is determined by the end of one’s life, not at the beginning.

Even so, this passage greatly exaggerates the importance of individual will. To paraphrase Marx, men make themselves, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. That self-making therefore simply is not, and cannot be, an act of will. Every man and every woman still bleeds, still dies. No amount of will gets someone out of a wheelchair into the Olympic hundred-metre dash. The limits set by the world can even be within our minds themselves, as anyone who’s struggled with clinical depression knows: most depressives dearly wish to escape the prisons set by their minds, but no mere act of will can make it so, and the frequently given advice that it is a simple act of will, only serves to make the problem worse.

Sartre goes further than this. His embrace of self-determining will turns out, startlingly, to rest on a naïve and explicit Cartesianism:

there cannot be any other truth than this, I think, therefore I am, which is the absolute truth of consciousness as it attains to itself. Every theory which begins with man, outside of this moment of self-attainment, is a theory which thereby suppresses the truth, for outside of the Cartesian cogito, all objects are no more than probable, and any doctrine of probabilities which is not attached to a truth will crumble into nothing. In order to define the probable one must possess the true. Before there can be any truth whatever, then, there must be an absolute truth, and there is such a truth which is simple, easily attained and within the reach of everybody; it consists in one’s immediate sense of one’s self.

A significant amount of qualitative individualism does seem to follow in a Cartesian mode like this. Prince Ea’s video explicitly rests on a separation between a mind that constitutes self and a body that does not – a hallmark of Cartesian dualism. And the problem is, the Cartesian approach is entirely wrong. Even a passing familiarity with Buddhism should show us that Descartes’s unshakeable certainty in his self is misplaced; his approach leads us to a very naïve assumption of self-transparency. If this the ground on which we build our qualitative individualism, then our qualitative individualism crumbles.

This one lecture – which Sartre apparently later repudiated – is not enough to reject the entire existentialist tradition, which I expect will be worth my engaging with in other ways. But it does also lead me to look for grounds for qualitative individualism that are not explicitly existentialist. I will take these up next time.