TL;DR: Collectivism sees entities holistically, looking at them as rock solid units or “atoms”. Individualism sees most entities as being made up of smaller subunits, and looks to the behavior of these subunits for answers, although this does not deny the role of the collective. In reality no one is a perfect collectivist or a perfect individualist, but rather somewhere in between. We must decide what level we want to begin our analysis on. With reference to human society, most individualists take human individuals as being the primary starting point of analysis, although human psychology may also be referenced as a subunit. A collectivist will start with class, race, or nationality.
Out of all the misunderstandings that persist in our day, and of all the discussions I think need to be had, the most central of all of these is a fundamental discussion of individualism and collectivism. My definitions here might be somewhat nonstandard, but I believe that generally they fit in with broader intellectual trends. Much of what I believe I do in this blog is to “unfurl” and make explicit ways of thinking that are often implicit. This is simply another case of that.
My discussion will come in two forms. The first, is an individualistic and collectivistic “understanding” of the world, a way of viewing the world. This is effectively the philosophical views of “reductionism” and “holism”. The debate’s incarnation when applied to society, however, is something that I take very much from the economist Friedrich Hayek. The second way in which I use the term “individualism” is a value system, a case of what we value in society. This is a more standard use of the term. This article will introduce collectivism and individualism as ways of understanding the world.
Collectivism is an ideology that sees the world in terms of generalities and units or “groups”. This can take place at a variety of levels. A collectivist might see the world on a racial, social, or economic basis. Indeed, one of the things that I hope to show in future is the wide variety of ways that collectivism manifests itself in our thinking and in modern political and social trends. Meanwhile, individualism is contrasted with collectivism by seeing groups as made up of individual smaller subunits. It “breaks down” collective systems into substrata and analyzes things on a smaller level than collectivism. This does not mean, however, that an individualist is unable to see the forest for the trees. Groups certainly do exist, and behave in a variety of different ways, but to be able to better understand the behavior of groups, there is much to be said about understanding their subunits. One might think that I am being unfair here by giving individualism the “the best of both worlds”, but I believe that this is precisely what tends to happen. Individualists in their different fields within the social sciences are able to explain collective phenomenon with reference to their particular units. Far fewer and less coherent are the collectivist attempts to explain the many nuances of individual behavior with reference to the group.
It should, of course, be noted that effectively there is no such thing as a pure individualist or a pure collectivist. There is no way that is yet known to describe the exact functioning of the brain with reference to the atoms that make it up, so when it comes to how people behave. Therefore, it is hard to be an individualist and go many more subunits down than parts of the brain. This is not inherently bad, there is clearly much that can be explained at this level of analysis, just as oftentimes collectivists can have a quality understanding of certain events. Yet there are times when this breaks down. For instance, it’s all well and good to see “nations” on the world stage as autonomous units that function as a singular whole working towards one set of goals. Yet when strife arises within a nation, the most obvious being something like a civil war or a great betrayal, it is clear that a nation is not a rock-solid unit, but instead it is made up of a milieu of different individuals and subgroups, each with their own set of interests. The various allies at the end of World War I were of very different minds as to how to treat the losers of the war, one side simply won out.
To what extent one is an individualist or a collectivist is based upon a spectrum. Rare is the pure collectivist who makes no reference to the nature of smaller components. A pure individualist would somehow have to make sense of the world with reference to extremely small particles that we barely know anything about. Most common is a confused understanding where one unevenly skips from the collective to the individual. The key is always to try and choose the level of analysis that can be easily used while not losing too much from the abstraction.
Yet when it comes to what we might call the “human realm” of the political and social, it is nearly impossible to make sense of the world except with reference to individual human beings. Individuals make up a wide variety of different subgroups: families, neighborhoods, associations, and from there make up larger communities of towns, cities, and cultures. This in turn spills over into the actions of states, provinces, and nations. It is clear that individuals have a very real effect on the rest of society. Many function as relatively “normal” members of the group, but community leaders, thinkers, and vocal members of the community clearly help to set the tone of how the rest of the community functions. Even passing remarks by relatively average people can influence how more influential members of a community behave which then has a knock-on effect to the rest of a community and larger events as a whole. The choices of individuals matters, and not just those at the upper echelons.
For indeed, as I indicated above, it is foolish to consider almost any human group to be a whole unit that is not influenced by many different desires and perceptions of the world made by the people within the group. Any serious examination of something as small and as simple as a normal family can show how these differences can play out in something far more complicated than a collectivist vision of something as simple as “the family unit”. This is, of course, not to say that groups do not exist or do not matter. Our entire sense of “normal behavior”, what we become interested in, and much of what we know about the world is highly dependent upon those that we have contact with. A large number of similarities among one group can be called a culture. Yet none of this prevents changes in behavior by several individuals starting a general trend among broader society. None of this changes the fact that “rebellious” or “innovative” individuals spark trends that are emulated by others and are eventually adopted by a much broader group of people. As an example of this, all of our words had to arise from somewhere. There was no sudden flash of inspiration that made “lol”, or an infinite number of other slang terms common phrases. One person, or perhaps by chance a few people, must have started the trend, and those around them must have adopted it. Otherwise the trend would not have been used.
What I have laid out here is so simple and common sense that it is almost difficult to argue with. I have a hard time envisioning any sensible viewpoint that is able to perform any clear social analysis that could disagree with what I have laid out. So a fair question might be to ask: why does it matter?” I would say that little matters more than having this kind of a bedrock methodology for understanding the world in general, but particularly human society. Yet I believe that in common discourse today this is not at all prevalent. Modern discourse is highly collectivistic, but worse than that is highly unhinged. That is to say that in many cases people don’t have any conception like “I am analyzing the world from a collectivist viewpoint”, or anything remotely similar to that using different terms. The choice of analytic starting point is often random, arbitrary. The example above of viewing nations as singular entities is just one applicable example. Many others can be found in our day when it comes to race, religion, and economic class, as well as many other areas. In large part it is the goal of this blog to expose these cases, show why they are intellectually insufficient, and provide an alternative.