On the meaning of “individualism” in China, a discussion of Erica Fox Brindley’s <em>Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics</em> (Part 1, Introduction and Chapter 1)
This post is the fruit of a small cooperative reading project that a colleague and I began recently. We are reading an interesting book that discusses the historical salience of the concept of the individual in Chinese thought. Our plan is to proceed chapter by chapter and exchange thoughts as we go. Hopefully others will be inspired to chime in from time to time, or to read the book. My early impression is that it is a sophisticated scholarly engagement with the relevant materials and concepts and, therefore, a worthwhile read. In this post, I’ve included the comments of my colleague (her real ID may be forthcoming) and my own. As she was the first to step up to the plate by sending me her comments, mine make reference to hers, but not the other way around. Perhaps when we come to Chapter 2, we’ll reverse the order. I hope you find the discussion useful.
My colleague’s thoughts
It’s clear that she distinguishes herself from preceding scholarship on the Chinese self and personhood by boldly choosing to use the word “individual.” She acknowledges that such a term would smuggle foreign meanings into the Chinese context, but argues for its use anyway so as to facilitate cultural translation, particularly regarding “fundamental issues of human concern” (xviii). It’s hard to really evaluate what she’s doing with the Mohist material not being an expert in this field, and one wonders just how radical (or groundbreaking) of an interpretation she is making. But it is pretty remarkable that all the themes we commonly associate with individualism can be found in Mozi – i.e. choice, moral autonomy, self-determination, freedom, and will. And I think her account presents a wonderful little irony: as much as the authors of the Mozi advocate allegiance to an ultimate authority, as much as all worldly phenomena and all appearances can be read in light of the will of Heaven, it is up to morally autonomous choice-making human persons at all levels of society to bring about social and cosmic order. And while this early Mohist ideology serves the justify those who already occupy positions of power, the common people “possess” the capacity make judgments about right and wrong, and can offer or withhold compliance. It presents a rather different picture of how an individual can simultaneously be both the object and subject of power.
Beginning on p. xviii, there is an extended discussion about the distinction between “self” and “individual.” I recall in Kipnis (2001) reference to a distinction made by Hoffman between identity and self-formation. My understanding is that the former is a more agentic (is this the word we use?) process and the latter more socialized. On this same page, it seems she is hinting at a critique that I made of Kipnis when he looks for Western-style expressions of school counterculture in error. The western mode is the norm. It’s absence in China is, perhaps, inevitable.
On page xx, she arrives at two criteria to frame her conception of individualism: “(1) a belief that individuals possess any number of positive prerogatives or powers in the world by virtue of their existence as individuals, and (2) a belief that individuals can achieve their ideals through the use of their own autonomous, or self-inspired, authority of some kind.” Interestingly, this strikes me as similar to the criteria used by Archer (2003) to ground her argument for human reflexivity, i.e., that they engage in “internal conversation” that is irreducible to other explanations/phenomena and that it is causally efficacious.
On page xxi, I appreciate the historicist approach, i.e., the way in which she situates that emergence and submergence/sublation of ideas within socio-political contexts. However, I would like to see a similar historicism in the comparisons to the “Western” individual. For example, how is the emergence of the disembodied individual related to the emergence of liberalism or capitalism?
On page xxii, the comment on how in the Warring States period, social and physical mobility through meritocratic advancement was associated with greater individual agency. It reminds one of the link between social status, meritocracy, and perceptions of agency in the present. In another vein, the emergence of intellectuals’ interest in agency reminds one of the tendency of intellectuals in general to universalize their own sense of personal agency (p. xxiii).
I like the way she distinguishes her discussion here from those in action theory by retrieving the more “passive” sense of “agent” as one who acts under the authority of another: “conforming” and “individual agents” (p. xxv). The distinction turns on the location of motivation to act, the former external, the latter internal.
In Chapter 1, I’m quite interested in the discussion of the Mohist concept of “upward conformity” (上同), which “advocates universal and uniform allegiance to a single higher power–mediated through a political hierarchy” (p. 2). I’m interested for a couple of reasons. First, because this notion might be read as part of a genealogy of conformity in political hierarchies in China. Second, because, cast as a critique of this concept, it bears resemblance to notions of methodological individualism in, for example, Geertz (1973) and Archer (1986). Archer poses a dual critique of extant social theory by pointing out the fallacy of individualism (upward conflation) and structuralism (downward conflation). Geertz advocates for interpretivist analysis of culture based in “thick description” in opposition to both subjectivist and objectivist views of culture. Such “third way” thinking is, of course, a strong theme in nominally postpositivist social theory. I’ll have to return to this thought when I get a better sense of where Brindley is going.
I’m curious about the possible congruence of Kipnis’ (2011) “literary masculinity” and the Mohist concern with the “acheived man,” which encapsulates both the religious ideal of self-cultivation and preservation of notions of political hierarchy.
Overall, I’m with you in admitting that I know nothing of Mohism and am, thus, incapable of commenting on Brindley’s thesis. That is why, I suppose, my comments and interests tend toward illumination of my own present concerns. That approach isn’t really fair to the author, but it’s what I’ve got for now!