Problems and Benefits of Using Individuality as an Analytical Concept

A critique of the Western intellectual self-image, with its assumption of the exceptional individualization of the “modern age,” might seem to suggest that we discard altogether the concepts of individual and of individuality, of individuation (the biographical process of fully acquiring a member’s role in a society)[1] and individualization (the social structural process of institutional or discursive changes allotting more space for individuality) in the history of religion. Such a course is not, however, recommended by the very different configurations of individuality I have outlined in the preceding section. The polemical stamp of “individuation” and “individualization” helps steer our attention toward phenomena that have received too little attention within the usual collectivizing perspective. Of course, it is necessary to clarify these concepts along with their complex associations by differentiating forms, types, and phenomena, and by verifying such incipient typologies with the help of further material; examples will be given in due course. First, however, we must examine the concepts more carefully.

In everyday speech, individuality is an idea that marks distinctions and differences: the differences between a human being and others, but even more so, those between a human being and the society in which she or he lives. The concept has two dimensions: first, an objective dimension. “Individuality” addresses differences between individuals and between individuals and societies to the point of deviance and societal rejection; a deviant individual’s actions are judged to violate generally binding norms. Second, less dramatically, individuality can be understood as the perception and practice of choices. Here, the norms of a tradition and a group do not determine actions as “individual.” Understood as such, individuality can even be perceived within mass phenomena. Differences between individuals can even result from the fact that each individual combines different social roles and represents different intersections of different overlapping networks.

At this point, we should revisit the ideas of the sociologist Georg Simmel.[2] He associated the historical development and distribution of individuality with an increase in the number of social circles touched due to the increased density of contacts in towns. One could develop the follow-up hypothesis that phenomena of individuality can be found in towns and urban centers rather than in villages and face-to-face communities. As a consequence, ancient Rome would be an especially interesting case. With regard to social hierarchy, individuality should then be most pronounced among local elites, who are embedded in supraregional communications. It should also appear among immigrants rather than in small stationary populations. All this without denying the banal individuality that is the genetic property of every human.

This last sentence points to a fundamental problem: At what point are differences simply expressions of variability without consequences? At what point do they make a difference for the relationship of the individual to society at large? Such variations do not necessarily impede the reproduction of society or successful socialization, that is, the biographical integration of a person into society. As a consequence of this difficulty in evaluating objective differences, the criterion for individuality is frequently located in the sphere of subjectivity: thus, a significant individuality would be ascribed only if the agent, the subject, enters into a relationship to her or his Self and reflects upon his or her difference compared to the group, traditions, or the various obligatory roles. It is by contrast to all these norms and situational variations that the individual would then attain identity and coherence. Such concepts of the self can be further combined with different concepts like “soul” (frequently employed in antiquity)[3] or “inner being” (hardly employed in antiquity).[4] Imagined communication with the divine or the perceived presence of the divine within or for oneself would be of great importance in the religious stabilization of such subjective individuality.[5] Historical sources, however, only rarely attest to such processes.

A solution might seem to be provided by the contents of source material for historical inquiries, but (as I will show) this “evidence” happens to be rather problematic. One could, obviously, make the diagnosis of individuality dependent on its explicit textual confirmation. Already in antiquity, starting with Plato, philosophical reflections on the Self played an important role.[6] Important lines of such thought can be traced from the philosophy of the Hellenistic schools of the Stoics and Epicureans, through the biblically inspired ideas of Jewish thinkers of the Hellenistic epoch (particularly Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus), into Middle and Neoplatonic philosophy (and its reception in Christianity).[7] These reflections, however, are frequently interested, not in a single, unique person, but rather in a generalized individual.[8] What seems to be an interest in the situation of the individual turns out to be a reflection on duties that arise from clearly defined social positions.[9] At the same time, apparently conventional behavior does not force us to assume a lack of reflexivity. Traditional behavior might be a conscious choice, as fundamentalist movements demonstrate quite sufficiently. How can we solve this dilemma?

Ancient reflections on the generalized individual lead to an impasse. Could autobiographical texts that offer reflections more intimate than mere narratives of events provide a solution? The late ancient bishop Augustinus has, for example, time and again been identified as the locus of the beginning of autobiography and individuality.[10] But this criterion for a qualified individuality is also problematic. The assumption that an autobiographical reflection grants an unaltered or at least privileged access to the individual, since the object and subject of the examination are identical, is in itself a topos of the typology of modernity.[11] From a literary perspective, autobiographies are, furthermore, constructions of a self that are offered by the author and not simple undisturbed glimpses into the psyche of the subject. The self thus produced is first and foremost a literary fiction. The only empirical datum is the fact that such fictions are composed and read—and this is indeed an interesting characteristic of the respective epoch or discursive space.

If access to past individuality via textual subjectivity therefore proves difficult, ancient discussions of objective individuality, as described above, do not open any ideal way either. Simple deviance is insufficient an attestation of greater individuality (and hence individualization), even if it indicates intentional individual variation and discourses about the legitimacy and limits of socially accepted variance.[12]

  • [1] See Musschenga 2001, 5 for these terms.
  • [2] Simmel 1917.
  • [3] Bremmer 1983, 2002.
  • [4] Markschies 1997.
  • [5] See Rupke and Spickermann 2012 and Rupke and Woolf 2013 for examples.
  • [6] E.g., Brakke, Satlow, and Weitzman 2005.
  • [7] Arweiler and Moller 2008.
  • [8] Gill 2006, 2008.
  • [9] Gill 1988.
  • [10] Misch 1969.
  • [11] Radke-Uhlmann 2008.
  • [12] Rupke 2011c.
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