On Individuality

To be an individual is to have irreducible complexity.

What do I mean by that? When people are viewed as groups, details about the individuals within the group get lost or ignored. Those details, those individuals, matter. They’re what define us as ourselves and what we derive meaning from.

Being an individual doesn’t preclude being a part of society; that would go against a fundamental part of being human. But to be at once an individual and also a part of society is a challenge. How does one interact with the people around us, themselves individuals, while remaining full in the nuances of who we are? It’s easy to think in terms of groups; to aggregate people loses those details of who they are, and doesn’t force us to contend with information about those people that would possibly go against our assumptions. Our minds see a pattern as it wants it see it, instead of seeing someone as themselves, a full individual. It is the individual within those groups that has value, not the group per se.

There are many terms that characterize me: Christian, male, introvert, depressive realist, artistic, etc., but no single one of them is me. I am a sum of all of those things, and more, more than I could even find words for. Furthermore, just as no one trait of mine could be considered “me”, to remove one would be to artificially reduce the complexity that encompasses my individuality. I am a whole person, however broken in an eternal perspective. “I”, is irreducible.

But if “I” is irreducible, how does one function in a group, or society at large? Groups are based on several characteristics that its members share, which defines the group from others that don’t share those characteristics. Groups, by their nature, minimize the individual by seeking to place value on those characteristics, rather than the people within them. They attempt to reduce the irreducible complexity of the individual, of “I”, and homogenize the individuals within them, replacing the “I” with “We”.

“We” is not a substitute for “I”. “We” is where individuality is lost, experience is lost, and truth is lost. “We” is unthinking, the poor replacement for the discernment of “I”. “We” does not have value apart from “I”.

“I” has irreducible complexity. “I” has value.

I am an individual.


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9 responses to “On Individuality”

  1. Kevin Burgess says :

    Agreed. I chat online with a bunch of Christian anarchists, mostly of the anarcho-socialist variety. I am often put off by how focused they are on groups, the importance of community, etc. I agree that community is important, but the effect of such focus too often includes a near denial of the individual, even to point of incurring a groupthink mentality.

    • The Existential Christian says :

      Yes, I think particularly online, where interaction is based on a common interest, and differing interests generally aren’t shared with the same person online, groups can be especially domineering. The economic school of thought that I most agree with, the Austrians, can almost sound like a pep-rally, where the economist simply points out the superiority of his own point of view and denigrates his opponents- who of course, are not of the Austrian school.

      Community IS important, but it is often seen as the culmination of society rather than just a part of it. To the degree that those groups and communities are voluntary and beneficial, I am supportive. When they become self-sustaining for their own sake, I get very uncomfortable indeed.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. necessaryandpropergovt says :

    Isn’t it politically ironic that people like you and me view our individuality as one of our most important values in the face of today’s statist-oriented attack on our traditional values….yet our individuality makes it more difficult for us to join forces in enough numbers to defend our values at the ballot box consistently?

    – Jeff

    • The Existential Christian says :

      Jeff, this reply is obviously extremely tardy, but it prompted quite a bit of thought in me. The catch 22 that you describe is indeed a problem.

      A while ago I read Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit, where he describes in detail the “spontaneous order” of markets and human culture in general. The parallels to evolution are clear in his mind, and from his view the collectivists are acting on instinctual impulses as to what is moral, while individualist ethics and the intricacies of markets are the culmination of an evolutionary, invisible hand process.

      With that in mind, it makes me wonder if the individualists are at a evolutionary disadvantage currently. If Hayek’s theory of the origination of markets and individualism are true, and given that no one person knows the full scope of their role in society, then is the instinct towards collectivism going to grow stronger as the “extended order” (as he calls it) grows and people become less aware of their own individual role?

      It doesn’t make the desire for individualism any less noble, or any less moral, but the thought kinda scared the crap outta me!

      • necessaryandpropergovt says :

        I think we (conservatives) need to STOP thinking that our ideas are static, motionless things, just waiting for moderates and undecideds to stumble across them on their own. We need to get more active. We need to add a delivery service. We need to coach market economics in every forum and naturally receptive venue we can find. Speaking of find, we need to understand how to go where our efforts can pay off, by seeking out community events in previously unreached segments of voters. No we won’t everyone over in those venues, and it may take awhile…but if don’t try then we don’t appear to even care about reaching them. In summary, we can act like we CARE to bring these opportunities to folks that crave them (whether they know it or not), rather than sit around and act laissez faire is the answer to everything. I have posted several articles this year on this theme. (#1, #2, #3) And I have a couple more rattling around in my brain.

        – Jeff

  3. The Dandler says :

    The Dandler approves. The Dandler is.

    But seriously, excellent point. You are nearing the central theme of all philosophical thought: who am I? I think that’s why so many people in America sense such a lack of meaning in their lives; facebook, twitter, smart phones, they have us all connected to everybody else and things like social networking force people to put on a front, a “character” or avatar on these networks that interacts with everybody else. But it’s not really them. Modern technology simply expands the crowd one gets lost in. People don’t contemplate themselves. They don’t contemplate God, and their individual place in the Universe. They don’t know what silence is, and the art of developing the inner life. They’re disconnected from their emotional state.

    In Christianity, developing the contemplative “inner life” through meditation, study and prayer, is done in order to “know thyself” in the light of the Creator. It unifies Christianity’s truths and internalizes them, contemplates them, prays them, and understands them, thereby helping to build our identity in light of who we are in THE identity, the universal absolute: God. If the being that IS defines us and tells us who we are, then His voice is what anchors us to the truth of who we are, despite the many voices in our own head. I believe people seek that kind of anchored self-actualization.

    Descartes began Christian meditation on the premise that “I think, therefore I am.” He built a case for God starting at that point and working up. He was on to what you are hinting at. Kierkegaard meditated and wrote about what he considered the ONE MOST EXISTENTIAL VERSE in the enter Bible: “I am what I am” or “What I am, I am.” in the book of Exodus. It is the name of God. In that name comes the revelation of absolute individuality, absolute indivisibility, and absolute causation. Even God “cannot” explain Himself; He simply exists. We could ask, what are WE or why are WE, but eventually we’ll come to the same conclusion: ultimately, we simply are. Any attempts to find one specific answer cuts out all other answers that would be equally valid. It’s like when you try to describe yourself, you depressive realist, you. After a while of spouting out characteristics, you just have to say, “I just am” and hope that somebody out there knows what that means.

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