03 September 2007

Thinking for oneself

This is a letter I wrote in 1986 about 'individualism'. Since then, the particular version of individualism discussed here has become considerably more prevalent.

In a recent piece of writing I used the expressing ‘thinking for oneself’, and in the letter to you about Nietzsche there was some reference to 'individualism'. Now this is an area where terminology can be very misleading. The tribal ethic is in many ways very authoritarian and anti-individualistic. Above all it is anti-hierarchical (that is to say it will not tolerate any subsidiary hierarchies coming into being which are not actually determined by the tribe). Nevertheless, it will be asserted by upholders of tribal morality that they believe very much in people ‘thinking for themselves’, being allowed to ‘live their own lives’ and ‘doing their own thing’. This area requires very careful consideration because it is perfectly possible for someone to agree with you on the assumption that what you mean by the verbal forms you use is diametrically opposed to what you do mean.

For example, a fairly standard object of social approval at the time of writing is a person who has been in a convent and left [this was a reference to ex-nun Karen Armstrong]. Characteristically, such a person will say that she was expected to be uncritical of authority in the convent, but then she went (let us say) on a university course and was taught to ‘be critical’ and ‘think for herself’. This made returning to the convent unthinkable, and now she has a happy life ‘making her own decisions’. Actually this probably means being critical of certain ideas being promoted in the convent by reference (probably implicit) to widely accepted but unanalysed assumptions.

‘Thinking for oneself’ has a strong tendency to mean ‘identifying with the implicit assumptions which are fashionable at present and rejecting the ideas of any individual or minority which do not reinforce them’.

I saw this illustrated in the contrast between my convent school and the state grammar school I went to — which was far worse than the convent, so far as I was concerned. But on the ideological level (which was not directly related to how they treated me) the difference was between a very explicit set of beliefs, and one vaguely defined but actually equally emotionally loaded ideology. The nuns would give various reasons why you should believe in God and, having done so, why you should believe he was in favour of certain things and so on. I did not find the reasons convincing, but then the nuns admitted that ultimately it was a question of having faith, and they said (which was after all quite true) that you accepted all sorts of other things on faith in normal life. It seems to me that if you found their arguments convincing enough to accept their system, despite the extent to which it was authoritarian, this would be ‘thinking for oneself’ as much as is usually practiced, if not more.

The state school did not explicitly claim to be authoritarian, but one found oneself under enormous implicit pressure to behave in certain ways which would imply certain beliefs about the moral rightness of certain things. However, it was maximally easy for people to conform to these pressures without ever formulating what assumptions they implied. In fact, the indefiniteness of the situation was such that it would require very considerable intellectual powers to make a start on setting out the underlying assumptions with any clarity. The inconsistencies and weaknesses of the nuns’ positions were relatively open to inspection; those of the state school lay protected by the fact that they were not defined at all.

Incidentally, you keep referring to my speculation about the psychodynamics of human nature — viz. that what makes people able to tolerate their own finiteness is positive appreciation of the finiteness of others. Well, it is a speculation. All that is really open to introspection is that interacting with people, or thinking about them, is what makes it hardest to be aware of the shockingness of the existential situation. People derive security and meaningfulness from other people. But the speculation arises, not from introspection, but because one observes that while people ostensibly set great store by other people, they don’t really seem to mind about them much, at least about what happens to them.