The Individual and Society

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 15 Comments

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 –1831) was a leading figure in the movement of  German Idealism initiated by Immanuel Kant and Hegel’s philosophy  expanded on Kant’s theory of knowledge by adding a social and historical element.

Kant had recognized that human beings create knowledge by using laws of reason to incorporate new sensual information cohesively into their previous understanding of reality. The demand to maintain a coherent picture of what is real – a necessary transcendental unity – creates rules of thinking that shape our view of reality.

Hegel realized that not only must individuals maintain a cohesive picture of reality, but societies and cultures must also maintain a collectively held cohesive understanding of what is real. It is not enough for me to know that I am a doctor. If I am truly to be a doctor other people must also see me as a doctor and thereby give me the authority and demand from me the responsibility of being a doctor. Reality is not only individual, it is shared. Hegel further saw that the collective understanding of reality that is held in common by all human beings of particular societies of culture develops through the course of history. In his book The Philosophy of History Hegel outlines a theory of how this development occurs. .You might be able to imagine even from this brief description how Hegel’s ideas were in turn developed by Karl Marx. Marx started with Hegel’s philosophy and added to it his insights about how oppression and class struggle are the drivers of history.

John Dewey was the third great American Pragmatist along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, but unlike Peirce and James, Dewey started his philosophical career as an Hegelian. John Dewey was not associated with Harvard as Peirce and James were. He attended the University of Vermont. The University of Vermont’s first president was James Marsh who was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the central figure of what is known as Vermont Transcendentalism. Marsh was a Kantian and ran a very liberal philosophy program at the University of Vermont. By the time Dewey was an undergraduate in that same philosophy department the philosophical alignment of the program had moved from Kant to Hegel. Dewey’s thinking turned toward Pragmatism after reading William James’ The Principles of Psychology.

Dewey’s version of Pragmatism maintained a Hegelian flavor in a number of ways. For one he wrote much more extensively than the other major Pragmatists of social topics. John Dewey is perhaps the most influential philosopher in American history. During his long career Dewey made major contributions in the areas of logic, ethics, sociology, democracy, and most famously education. Dewey saw the individual as inseparable to society. Society is what defines the individual. Without society there can be no individual. If the individual is the foreground, society is the background. If the individual is the object, society is the context. Without a background there can be no foreground. Without a context there can be no object.

I see Dewey’s thinking as typical of the advancement on German Idealism that the American Pragmatists were exploring and that advancement was process thinking. Having the advantage of Darwin’s remarkable theory of evolution and over a century of remarkable scientific advances, the American Pragmatists were beginning to see things in terms of whole systems . Dewey saw the relationship of the individual to society as a system and Peirce and James saw evolution as an evolving whole system.

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Nishad
Nishad
11 years ago

Yes, if Kant realised that “there are no perceptions, only perspectives” (in the words of Ken Wilber) then Hegel realised that those very perspectives evolve, and Peirce then realised that this very evolution of perspective is itself part of the evolution of the universe, since our perspectives are part of the universe, not apart from it

Using the language of Spiral Dynamics, we could say that Kant helped to initiate the green meme, Hegel the yellow meme, and Peirce the turquoise meme

So this progressive understanding of evolution was itself evolutionary

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Very well said!

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

Awesome Nishad!!!!
The relationship of Individual to society as a system and our evolving perspectives as an evolving whole system.
Then I ‘m thinking the experience I have the relation with each others are mostly based on feeling and emotion so as our perspectives.

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

As I have been reading more about philosophical criticism of the scientific worldview one of the things that science to date is unable to fully account for is the collective nature of understanding. I am interested to look into this more in the coming weeks.

Carl
11 years ago

Jeff, can you say more about what you mean by “the collective nature of understanding?”

My understanding of it is that Skinner’s Verbal Behavior perfectly describes how language and understanding emerge from the collective, cannot possibly come from an individual, and are part of culture. So I have a sense that you mean more by your statement than that, and I’d like to understand what you are thinking.

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Dear Jeff, how do the change of perspective actually happens in the society ? My view is quite naive. Let’s go back to the cave man. It is the use of tools which leads to the first evolution from the monkey to the man. Then the use of tools and the up station makes the brain bigger. Then the use to the brains gives more free time to humans to develop the capacities of abstraction. The we come to the homo sapiens sapiens, who knows that he knows. If we look very naively to the past what do we see;… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

I am now reading some interesting work that was done by the phenomenologist’s. In many ways they were exploring an Integral view of reality, and Charles Peirce and William James were in many ways early pioneers of this view. Essentially they are all exploring the co-arising of inner capacities and external behaviors and forms. They didn’t see that there was a distinction between inner and outer, they were two different perspectives on reality. This kind of thinking has been largely incorporated into Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. In my next few posts I want to spend some time developing this view,… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Carl, I think I probably mean something similar, although my thoughts are forming slowly. I am thinking about all this in the way that Heidegger described his phenomenology. Heidegger would say that a hammer that is laying on the ground in a village in which the culture has no knowledge of what a hammer is or what is used for, is not a hammer. It is just an object. A hammer only becomes a hammer in the midst of a culture in which that meaning is held. These are ideas I am only recently encountering, but they are obvious extensions… Read more »

Shizuka Mori
Shizuka Mori
10 years ago

Jeff, You described in previous post “Hegel realized that not only must individuals maintain a cohesive picture of reality, but societies and cultures must also maintain a collectively held cohesive understanding of what is real.” So my conclusion is the scientific world view which you summarized” The scientific worldview that results tends to have certain fundamental characteristics. It tends to be materialistic in the sense of seeing the world as made up of only those things that can be observed and measured. It also privileges the third person, objective, external perspective of reality to the first person, internal, subjective perspective… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

You don’t have to be a theist, flying saucer fan or Tinkerbell devotee to engage in magical thinking. You can concoct conjectures of historical determinism or “world-spirits”. I don’t see any more evidence for any “direction” to history than I do for any “direction” to evolution. Humans, en masse or individually, change because of the influences of the current environment. The current environment does not provide directive impetus. Technically, our psychophysical changes always “lag” the environment; the psychological lag-time is far less than the physical (hence the current human advantage over other species). The current environment “tests” our various genes:… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Was it Plato who said that learning is about remembering what we already know? Can we say that collective knowing, agreeing on what is known?Signing on to that accepted knowing continues till subsequent disclosures of findings and info persuade acceptance of the new findings, on and on as the inquiry into the unknown goes on.

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

I believe it was Plato – or at least Plato saying that is what Socrates said. :)

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

“It’s nice to think that there is a historical or evolutionary direction that life – most particularly us – is going, but I don’t see any evidence to support that conjecture.”

Actually as a scientist I agree with this. I love the idea of Evolution but I don’t see any evidence of the fact that we are going “somewhere”. What is “somewhere” anyway ?

For sure there is evidence that human abstract brain has evolved fort he animal one. Now where is all this going …?

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Catherine, re: Where is evoution going? It’s like watching cosmic paint dry and the modifications and developments are undetectable given our measures of time and observations. What seems true is that the changes being wrought evolutionarily are going on more interiorly in our brains and psychically collectively. I also consider the turning away from belief in organized religions to a spiritual stance that recognizes we can be good without embracing a belief in God is perhaps an evolutionary development. Evolutionary consciousness by it’s mere existence being recognized as a human attribute is manifesting itself with and by the energies… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Evolution seems to have been a very gradual modification of species taking centuries, milleniums. If I may submit, I believe physical modifactions are now less apparent than what is going on in our minds, that evolution is progressing in a collective cultural/social way. This may be happening in a speedier way, given how technology has influenced humanity’s way of living for the most part. Those still living in centuries old ways are being exposed to modern life and this can have profound effects. This is not to say the progress of evolution will always be favorable to political, religious and/or… Read more »