I’m currently at work on the final chapter of this book project.  There may be further revision to do, but I expect the draft to be complete before Thanksgiving.  At that point, I expect to be working on revision, proofreading, formatting…and figuring out how and whether to publish it.   So I likely won’t post much more about this project, except perhaps part of the conclusion at some point.

At the outset, I got considerable useful feedback on my posts—although, as one should expect, interest faded over time.  I Thought I’d take one more shot at seeking feedback on the issue that concerns me most: clarity.   To that end, I’m posting here one of the short chapters from the second half of the book, in which I briefly explore many conceptual impediments to a correct understanding of ideology.

This particular chapter seems to me to have reached the level of lucidity I’m working for.  My question is: does it seem as “accessible” (not crazy about this term) to others as it does to me?  Keep in mind, of course, that I do refer to some arguments made earlier in the book—but overall, regardless of whether my concept of “mind” is thoroughly convincing, is it clear what I mean by “mindedness”?  Will readers be able to grasp what exactly I am asking them to at least provisionally accept?

For purposes of feedback on this post, I will not be “monitoring” comments—all comments on this particular post will be automatically approved.  (Of course, I will likely later delete anything that seems obscene, irrelevant, or to be spam.)

This is the chapter, exactly as it appears in my draft, minus only the “suggested further readings.”


Chapter 8: Mind

What do I mean by the term mind?  

It is clearly a key concept in everything I’ve argued here, and understanding this concept will be necessary to developing a more complete explanation of ideology.  But to understand this concept it will be essential to reject two assumptions that are fundamental to most discussion of mind, and to our common sense understanding of what a mind is.

First, we will need to reject the idea that minds exist on a kind of continuum in all living things, from insects to dogs to humans.  What I mean by mind is something unique to humans, something that no other species on Earth has.  

Second, we will need to consider that a mind is not even something we “have” at all.  Perhaps a better way to put it is that we have the capacity for “mindedness,” as a kind of activity only humans can engage in.  

Beginning from there, we can dissolve the seemingly intractable problem of whether the mind is “in” the brain or somehow separate from it.  This perennial problem, so puzzling to most philosophers of mind, will become yet one more example of a misguided question.  

I am going to try to to advance the position that:

  1. Engaging in ‘mindedness’ is something only humans can do, because it depends on the use of language (although language is not sufficient—it requires other kinds of capacities as well).
  2. Mindedness is always collective: it is an activity that requires the participation of multiple human individuals.
  3. We are only fully human when we participate in mindedness. 
  4. There are many kinds of mindedness, and some are better than others in that they better suit our basic human nature. 

Let’s begin with the standard problem of the philosophy of mind.  This is Edward Feser’s statement of the fundamental problem:

How could any material thing—including the grey, squishy lump of matter that constitutes your brain, which seems as brutely physical as a thermostat—have feelings, smells, tastes, and qualia in general?  How could it be conscious and aware of itself and its surroundings? And how could it think rationally about itself and its surroundings, or have intentionality?  After all, a thermostat’s existence surely involves nothing more than the passage of electrical current through wires, the motion of a needle across surface, and so forth; there is no consciousness there, no meaningful and rational thought, only crude mechanical processes.  But how different, really, are the electrochemical signals sent between the neurons of the brain?  How are these any less intrinsically meaningless and unconscious than the electricity passing through the wiring of a thermostat? (16-17)

This is the problem most of us face when we try to think about how a mind could exist.  Often, we wind up assuming there must be some kind of “consciousness” separate from the brain, a sort of ghost in the machine.  Or, we wind up with the kind of self-contradictory reductivism we talked about in Chapter Two. 

What we want to do here is not to come up with a full and complete theory of minds, but simply to shift the founding assumptions from which we begin to think about the problem.  What if, instead of assuming the mind must arise atomistically, from individual brains, we were to consider the mind as something that can only be enacted by a group?  What if the paradigm for mindedness is not reacting to a change in temperature, but something like playing a game of volleyball?  Something we can only do as part of a group working together, giving reasons and making rules, cooperatively.  My point is that beginning from there, we run into none of the dead ends that have been run down over and over for centuries now.  Instead, we begin with a problem that can be worked on and solved.

The usual assumption is that we all have minds first, and then begin to become social. But what if the mind is an inherently social thing?  We can reserve the term for only species that have the unique capacity to communicate in language.  

This may seem shocking—even seriously troubling to most people.  And we will address some of the more common objections later in this chapter.  First, let’s try to get clear what exactly I am asking you to entertain as possibility. Once again, if you can entertain this even provisionally, it might be possible to get a good sense of exactly what Althusser means by ideology.  

This idea is not something I came up with. It is argued for by many of the greatest thinkers throughout history.  In every case, the inability of most readers to even provisionally accept this assumptions has made those thinker seem impossibly difficult.  Let’s consider the example of Hegel, one of the most notoriously difficult thinkers of all time.

In his wonderful, but difficult, book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Robert Pippin explains how “mindedness” helps resolve, or perhaps it is better to say dissolve, the endless struggle between materialism and idealism.  He explains that what Hegel means by the German term “Geist” is something we cannot quite capture with either of the words usually used to translate it (“mind” or “spirit”).  What Hegel is trying to describe for us is “an achieved form of individual and collective mindedness, and institutionally embodied recognitive relations”(39).  I cannot do justice to Pippin’s entire argument here, so let me try to explicate just this one essential sentence.

The point here is that mindedness is not something we inherently possess as biological beings.  For Hegel, a human that is not part of a social group is not fully human at all, is a mere animal.  We must achieve mindedness, as a way of acting collectively.  It is something only humans have, so far as we know, because only humans have language.  We can therefore create what Hegel calls a “space of reasons,” in which we give an account of what we ought to believe and what we ought to do.  Our goals are language-dependent, created by human social practices, by institutions.  We can aspire to become a doctor or a musician only because we are part of a social group in which these roles exist.  At the same time, we can feel shame or pride only because we are part of a social group which has created, in language, reasons for behaving in certain ways and not in others.  

This of course depends upon recognition.  We need to be part of a group in which we are recognized as members, and so can contribute to shaping the collective desire.  We don’t bring our preformed desires into the social.  Rather, desires are those kinds of intentions that are socially produced. Even an amoeba has the drive to go on existing in the way it is; but only humans can have desires to be, say, a good person, or a friend, or a professional athlete.  Recognition is essential to human desires.  We become “individuals” only when we are part of a collective.  I put the term “individual” in quotes here because later, in explaining ideology, we will use the term somewhat differently, to refer to the bodily organism that does in fact preexist ideology; what Hegel and Pippin have in mind here is what we might call, in our fully developed theory of ideology, a subject.  

To try to grasp this point, the difficult idea that the collective precedes the “individual” subject, consider the metaphor of the human body.  A hand has some kind of “individuality,” in that it is distinct from a knee or an ear or a kidney.  It can do things they cannot, can detect the presence of things in the world your pancreas or your femur could not, and so may seem to be an individual “part” that joins to make a whole. But we need to remember that the form of the whole body precedes the role of any individual part, and there could be no hand unless all the other parts were functioning.  If we worry that we are somehow subjugating the hand to the body when we make it do the things it can do—put it to work every day producing what the body needs and caring for the body—then we have missed the bigger picture. On the other hand, it is essential that we “recognize” the needs of the hand, and not subject it to damage for the benefit of the rest of the body. The needs of every part must be considered in determining the goals of the whole. So, for instance, we should not smoke despite the pleasure it gives because this is a failure to recognize the essential role of the heart and lungs.  

Applied to the mind, this is a need to recognize that the abilities and functions of one subject must be considered in creating the intentions of the collective.  But, of course, there is no need for any assumptions of sameness. All subjects need not be identical; they must only be recognized as playing an essential role in the functioning of the whole.  

To be minded, then, is to participate in the production of reasons for the kinds of actions we want to make possible in the world.  To the extent that one cannot participate in this, one is not minded at all, but become something closer to the unthinking automaton that the reductivists we discussed in Chapter Two want to argue we all really are. 

This understanding of mind is essential to grasp the full meaning of ideology.  To clarify this point, let’s explore how humans have minds, and so can have ideologies, while bees do not, and so cannot.  Bees are a good example because it is often assumed that they communicate, and so have a language.  They are sometimes used, then, as the phrase “hive mind” suggests, as an example of what the dreaded communist society would look like: a world in which there is only one collective mind would reduce us all to the state of worker bees.  But bees do not have a symbolic language, in the way humans do.  

When a bee locates a source of food and returns to the hive, it does a “dance” that indicates the direction, distance, and concentration of food it has discovered.  Why exactly is this not a language?  The short answer is: because the bee could not have “said” anything other than what it did.  That is, the response is one that is genetically programmed into the bee, and cannot be changed.  The other bees, seeing the dance, can only go to retrieve the food. There is no other response they can have.  As a result, the bees can only live in the one way: playing their role in the hive.  Bees cannot decide to alter their way of collecting food, or their relations to one another in the organization of the hive.  Only humans can do this. We can do this because our language is symbolic, unlike the communication of the bees which is an automatic response.

Think of language as a kind of map. We create a symbolic representation of things in the world, because of an intention.  We begin from wanting to know the closest source of water, and then create a map to make it easier to get to it. The map can be better or worse, and so we can then have a second-order symbolic representation, in which two people draw different maps and debate which is actually the best route to water. That is, in discussing the relative merits of the two maps, we are creating a symbolic representation of a symbolic representation.  We can then get more accurate ideas about the nature of reality, about what the surrounding terrain is actually like apart from our immediate goal, as we debate which of multiple means to the goal will work best.  Further, we can begin to construct new goals, to debate whether it might be better to move closer to the water source, or whether the threat of flooding makes traveling to collect water worthwhile.  To engage in such symbolic discussions of goals, of how to achieve them, and of the nature of the Mi world by means of which we achieve them, is what it is to be minded, to participate as a subject of a collective mind.

The problem Feser raises, then, is dissolved. There is no longer a need to explain how a purely material brain could have things like intentionality and qualia.  The problem is now how do a group of brains interacting perform mindedness.  Qualia, then, are not so hard to explain. What philosophers mean by qualia is the sense of the quality a thing has beyond its mere physical properties—like the qualia of redness or of sweetness.  But this is not much of a mystery once we have altered our sense of how things have meaning. Redness is then a feature of the role that a thing plays in our socially constructed intentions; it is something over and above the particular frequency of light wave not because our brain adds something to it, but because our collective mindedness adds something to it, assigns it a function, and so a meaning, in our social practices.  

The standard opposition to all of this talk of collective minds is that it all sounds so suffocatingly oppressive, that it denies or destroys our unique individual selves.  But that objection just assumes the existence of a mind full of thoughts, full of concepts and intentions, and so full of language, that exists prior to entering into the collective language.  What we need to entertain as a possibility, if we hope to get an understanding of how ideology works, is that even the very idea that your desires and intentions are uniquely individual is in fact something that is socially produced.  Read that last sentence again.  Underline it.  Try to think as if it is true, even if you don’t yet believe it: what we take to be our deeply held and personal desires and intentions are actually produced by our participation in a collective mind, made possible by uniquely human language.  

Most people, faced with this idea of the social nature of the mind will immediately make an argument of the form: sure, I agree, our mind is socially constructed; but how exactly does that social construction succeed in altering the already existing individual mind?  This is sort of like saying to Galileo: sure, I see you’ve proven that the Earth moves around the sun; now explain how it does that while remaining at the fixed center of the universe.  This is a difficult concept to fully grasp, and we need to be attentive to our tendency to slip back into assumptions of an atomistic mind that preexists the social.

This collective mind must be understood as not oppressive, but liberating.  Unlike the bee, we are free to create a new kind of social organization, one which is not completely determined by our biological evolution.  We can do this only collectively, in cooperation with other humans.  

My guess is that the reason this feels so oppressive is that as things work now most of us have no say at all in the collective intentions of our society. We assume, therefore, that any participation in a collective must be like it is now, under global capitalism: intentions are decided by the powerful few, the rest are, in fact, subjugated by them.  But just because this is the form the mind takes under capitalism does not mean it is the only form it can take.  Mindedness can take good and bad forms.  Right now, it takes a form in which most humans are denied recognition, denied participation in determining the goals of society.  In short, we have a collectively distorted and repressed mind, an unhealthy mind, in which most humans are not actually acting fully as humans at all.  

We are not, however, able to just choose to become a healthier mind.  Even once we understand what I’ve been explaining here, we are not restored to full human mindedness.  We must produce the mind in institutions, which is to say in social practices that enable us to actually engage fully in the production of our collective intentions.  What such practices might be is something we will need to discuss in the final section of this book.

It will probably occur to some readers that this idea of mindedness eliminates one of our most cherished beliefs: the idea that we have free will.  So it is to that problem that we will turn next. 

So, that’s the level of “accessibility” I’m working for. What do you think folks? Will it play in Peoria?

Leave a comment


  1. Hi Tom! You have been hammering on the same point since the early days of SNB. If someone that has read you more than a couple of times still doesnt get it, it is bc they dont want to. As far as whether it is understandable, or clear enough…it is to me! I think you do a great job at putting this uncomfortable truth in the simplest of terms. Who is your intended audience? You definitely dont need to be well versed in philosophy to understand your thesis…I think

  2. Imo

     /  October 15, 2019

    Hi Tom,

    I think that what I said last time applies here as well: your writing does appear as clear and lucid as it gets by itself, but for that very reason I can’t say for sure whether it will be as “accessible” to other people as it seems to be to me; writing just isn’t the kind of thing that can give you any easy guarantee about communication. Lucidity is a matter of form, and the form looks fine to me (and I’m not even an English native speaker), but that is never sufficient to really force or ensure any specific interpretation. Clarity is opaque to certain people, and they find less things and meanings and order in a tidy room than they would in a chaotic one. I don’t think it’s much use worrying about it, once you’ve far surpassed the threshold of decency and minimal requirements. Instead, you’d be much better off starting working on a following book (or text more generally, or any kind of project), because meaning gives itself and unfolds through successive and diversified waves of relations: all the work you could ever do on this one book would probably not be as clarifying as it would providing any second one – or better still, any other kind of separate text or project – as a counterpoint of continual reference and confluence and interference. No one book, no one thing or person, is ever enough. That’s also one point of mind being inherently social, isn’t it?

    I don’t agree with some things you write here, but as I said, I think you’re doing already a very good job of explaining yourself, and that’s enough. There’s probably no point pointing out now, as I did last time, that you might be actually understating instead of understanding individuality, even though it could obviously be seen as a way of emphasizing and clarifying your position (which would be great if most people wouldn’t reject the whole argument as soon as they find themselves compared to some neatly identified bodily organ). I wonder, for example, what do you make of the ontological distinction that Collier and critical realists more generally maintain between the social and the human proper, the latter surely being a particular realization-trasformation of the former, but without ever turning their dynamic reciprocity into static coincidence (but neither just degrees of un-coincidence, as in Badiou’s subject theory)? It’s not like I’m not understanding what you want to convey – in this specific case, a fully social “mindedness” is something you can’t even get started without in my main field of research, that is semiotics -, and it’s something I deeply value and work for as well, but I again feel you’re missing something here, and that will probably be much more of an obstacle for your readers than any formal issue. Also related to that, you cut the animal-human link too unilaterally and unproblematically (do you explicitly address the issue elsewhere?), and while it’s true that the human mind and life more generally is something unique because of its social and cultural production – human beings are born naked and helpless, and need to be culturally sculpted again and again in a very much literal way -, that doesn’t make us any less animal and living beings, and our concrete minds do have continuity and common features with other animals which shouldn’t just be discounted. I don’t believe there’s any need to dismiss or neglect either individuality or animality to meet the requirements of a project like yours. On the contrary, it will surely make it more difficult to many readers to see how you’re arguing for liberation instead of oppression (again, I do understand you on that point and I have not the slightest doubt or hesitation or suspicion about it).

    That being said, even if you agreed with me on these and other points – and I imagine you do not -, I still wouldn’t go from there to suggest making any change or adjustment in your book, since it is already in its advanced stage. I think it’s fine as it is – from what I’ve read on the blog -, and it will probably be very useful and challenging to me and many other people if it gets published or become available in other ways (in fact, it has already been useful to me, even just from posts and glimpses and references). So I say, go on and finish it. Some people will understand it, some others won’t. It will never be enough by itself, but it doesn’t have to.

    I hope this is good enough as a feedback. Good luck for everything!, and thanks for your words and efforts.

  3. This is NOT a personal attack, just an attempt to clarify my point, Imo. I love Tom’s style bc it clarifies difficult concepts in a very straight ahead and down to earth manner. It is pretty jargon free. that is why I wonder if your book is directed to philosophers (or semioticians, sociologists, etc), or to people without such a theoretical background. Just as an example, I am no philosopher, but definitely no doofus either. I understand 100% of what Tom writes, but Imo’s sentence: QUOTE: “what do you make of the ontological distinction that Collier and critical realists more generally maintain between the social and the human proper, the latter surely being a particular realization-trasformation of the former, but without ever turning their dynamic reciprocity into static coincidence (but neither just degrees of un-coincidence, as in Badiou’s subject theory)? [END QUOTE] is just too incomprehensible to me, it assumes too much lingo for those not in the know.

  4. I recommended your book at a colloquium that took place in my yoga club. Everyone understood your thesis, though it created controversy. The yoga teacher btw has stopped teaching yoga altogether. But had I begun to speak in the terms Imo uses, I would have lost 95% of the people there immediately.

  5. Imo

     /  October 15, 2019

    Hi. I’ve never said that Tom’s style should change in any way at all, and even less that it should be similar to the long-winded sentence of mine you’ve quoted. Where did you get that impression? In fact, I’ve explicitly said that Tom’s writing is as clear and comprehensible as seems formally possible to me. I myself don’t like pointless jargon at all: if I have formulated that sentence the way I did, it’s because I was only speaking to Tom – not to you -, and I know for a fact that Tom is very much familiar with critical realism (in fact I’ve first come to know about it from him!), and of course, with Badiou as well; so I can take for granted lots of things that I wouldn’t if I was speaking to someone else, or to a generic reader. I might be wrong, and he might ask me to expand on it, but it’s not at all an unreasonable assumption I think.

    I mean, if I had to write a book myself about such things – and I might one day -, I would never write it the way I’ve written that comment or that sentence. So I was not suggesting that Tom should, or more generally that he should write or edit his book keeping philosophers, semioticians and the like of us in mind. My question was one of meaning and content, and even that I wasn’t really questioning after all, because as I said, I think the book is okay as it is and should be published as it is now, even though there are some things I don’t fully agree with, because it seems to me to be a very good and clear exposition of Tom’s position.

    I hope I cleared the misunderstanding.

  6. I know you didnt say Tom should write in the style you mention. I never meant to imply you did. And I also use jargon when addressing my musicologists colleagues, and that is fine, it saves us time, as long as we are fully aware of the fact that 90% of what we say is incomprehensible to the man in the street. But obviously most of us here know that! So Tom, your style is fine, and i never meant to say Iwo wanted more jargon!

    I am also a bit confused about this animal vs humans divide…Would you say monkeys have an ideology, despite having no ability for symbolic language?

  7. Imo

     /  October 15, 2019

    Okay, now that’s clear, thank you.

    As for monkeys: no, I don’t think they have an ideology in any proper sense, though I believe some animal species have already been shown to be capable of producing and reproducing simple cultural forms, i.e., of sharing and transmitting some local, non-genetically determined behaviour, capacity or information through some kind of education among themselves (in short, they can learn from experience and teach that to others, creating traditions).

    In the anthropological framework I’m working with, culture is meant to be a zoological possibility that precedes human beings, and in fact co-developed with us and through us. It’s exactly through our increasing reliance to the cultural way of reproducing ourselves – which is also an intrinsically social way – that we human beings, and our predecessors before us, have slowly emptied out our very “nature” (that is, our strict genetic programming and informations), ending up with a very minimal and open-ended one, in fact an insufficient one that wouldn’t allow us to survive infancy at all, if we weren’t progressively constructed and cared for – after birth – by other already-formed human beings.

    So we’re exceptional in having entrusted ourselves to a road that though precarious proved extremely flexible and powerful and expansive – not that it is without its pains and also its many dangerous counterindications, as we know from history! -, but it’s not like we just “invented” it at some point and immediately imposed an abyss between us and other animals. Language is very misleading for that matter, because as an arbitrary semiotic system – that is, one in which there’s no motivated link between expressions and contents (these words and their meanings, for example) – it is what’s most fully cultural and therefore most characteristically human, and taking that as our standard of meaning-making has always made it so pleasingly obvious that we’re totally different beings from other animals; but it’s just one of our semiotic systems, and though fundamental it presupposes and cooperates with all others, which include analogical and indexical ones – and these are continuous with biological perception, cognition and action in animals, too. Both society and culture are much more than language in its strict sense. So monkeys and other animals could have simple cultural forms without having language, while our minds, on the other hand – and this was my point -, are not necessarily totally alien, different and unrelated from those of other living beings.

    I’ve thrown a lot of other long-winded sentences at you, I’m sorry! And that’s not even a comprehensive or even good-enough explaination, I fear. There would be a lot more to say about it. I just hope it gives you some idea of what I meant.

  8. On the matter of “jargon”: I myself do understand that sentence from Imo’s comment—it raises a good point. And I sometimes do write, and speak, like that when addressing a particular audience. My goal here, though, is to try to be clear an accessible to an interested college graduate who might not understand such a sentence yet. Someone without a PhD in Literary Theory, or Semiotics, or Philosophy…or anything. I’m hoping to avoid the level of obscurity I know I am sometimes capable of when speaking to those who share my particular specialized knowledge.

    On the human/animal issue, and the problem of individuality: These seem to me completely related. My point is that we do not have “individuality,” in the sense we mean it when we are really talking about ourselves as unique individuals, until that individuality is produced by our social formation. It is important not to mistake slight physical differences for what we mean by “individuality” in an ideological sense. Such individuality is a socially produced thing—never in competition or “reciprocity” with the social, because it is a product of the social. Growth and change originates in the dynamic of the social, never from some supposedly pre-social “individual” that can be in conflict with sociality.

    Think of how we think about animals. Do we ever consider the “unique individuality” of a particular fish or bird when we examine animal behavior? We may think of “types”(as in, that species of dog is more trainable than this, or these lions are better hunters than those), but we are concerned with their place in a spectrum of behavior we think as species-wide. With humans, we think of our own special uniqueness as individuals, because we are ideological animals and part of our ideology is to produce such uniqueness. I can’t really make this whole point here—it might be an interesting subject for another book! (But I won’t write it.)

    So, yes, I do think we need to focus on what makes us distinct from all other animals—what makes us distinctly human. There is a tendency, for the last half century at least, to ignore this, or pretend there is nothing distinct about us. Human communication is really different in kind, not just degree, from all other species. This is what makes us the distinct species we are, and so not another kind of chimpanzee, for instance. (No, chimpanzees could not have an ideology, in the sense I mean the term, because it depends on having a symbolic language.)

    That said—and these are points that probably cannot be argued for in a comment very successfully—I do want to say that comments like Imo’s are the kind I would hope to promote with this book. Not the stupid disagreement I have grown used to, but intelligent objections that can be argued against and produce real knowledge. The only things that have ever changed my mind have been arguments like these, where I need to defend my position against a serious objection—and if I cannot, my position needs to change. Progress requires serious and intelligent opponents, willing to drop easy rhetoric and offer reasons and evidence. My hope with a book like this would be that it would lead to some progress, where I too often see superficial thought.

  9. Richard Daley

     /  October 15, 2019

    I have read a few of your posts, and this is very easy to understand. As long as one has some base of understanding and acceptance of the collective imagination of humans. Many people do deny this “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake” thing but I agree and I think this is very accessible. I would read the book!

  10. Imo

     /  October 15, 2019


    I totally agree when it comes to pre-social individuals, of course: that’s total nonsense. Still, when it comes to produced or post-social (in a logical sense, not a chronological one) individuality, I do see that gap and reciprocity, and it doesn’t seem to me that you can write it off without losing whole regions of human life, along with their corresponding possibilities for your very argument and project. Society does produce individuals, and these never come up fully as intended nor wholly and necessarily in alignment or sinergy with its own trajectories. With animals we’re concerned with species-wide characters and behaviours because they’re mostly stabilized in their genetical heritage (though this also should be problematized from an ecological point of view), while the point with human beings is exactly that they’re greatly lacking in nature, so they’ve got to be culturally produced – and that’s a process that always implies a drift and multiplicity, that is, unique deviations, diversification, stratification in both space and time, confluences and cumulative pressures etc. etc.

    The individual human being that results from such a process – though there’s no real ultimate end to the process itself but death – is surely dependent on society for his/her sustenance, and even more so for any fully human life, but s/he does so in different senses: the dependance s/he’s got on actual social relations – and all that comes through them, like food and protection and debates and rock concerts – is not just the same than her/his dependance on what s/he has appropriated from society, like habits and inclinations, languages and desires, skills and models and capacities etc., because the latter would be partly avaiable to him/her even if every other human being on the face of the Earth would vanish the very next day; it would probably not be enough to survive or reproduce most of what made his/her preceding life fully human – s/he wouldn’t be able to play tennis for sure -, especially depending on what tools and objects and materials are still available, but it would surely be enough to imagine doing so and even come up with some innovative, desperate solutions or alternatives or compensations (which would be individual results, most likely deviant to some extent, of the combination of her/his previously socially-appropriated means and resources).

    In other words, among other things (like drift), there’s inertia in individual human beings, which makes them also – but not solely, of course – stand to society and culture in the same relationship that churches, texts and other artefacts do, that is, as partly autonomous products: if all human beings would die tomorrow, churches would still stand – they wouldn’t be fully “churches” anymore, because a whole lot of what it means to be a church depends on it being interpreted and lived out as such (though a lone human being would have much less of this problem, being other to him/herself), but still they would stand in nature as something quite distinct from both inorganic mountains and organic trees and living beings, and they would keep doing so for a very long time before they finally crumble down with no one to repair them or reproduce them. The same goes for any human being, which is literally and not metaphorically a product of society.

    This is just one way to see the ontological distinction I was referring to. I hope it’s clear that it’s not at all about a pre-social individuality. In fact, recent talk in the kind of cultural anthropology I’m interested in speaks of “condividuality”, from Italian “condividere”, that is both “sharing with” and “dividing with” – an attempt to further develop the “dividual” concept advanced in some past anthropological works against individuality, which saw the so-called individual as the mere combinatory sum of discrete subjectivities, with no real confluence nor deviation or the like. I believe there’s still a lot of work to do in that direction, but also that it is important to recover a sense of explicitly post-social – though originally and continually social in a chronological sense – individuality, whatever way it gets named. I might be wrong, of course, but I’ll need some years to find out and tell you.

    Anyway, I don’t think that your position and project are at all incompatible with what I’m saying. It’s probably a matter of focus, indeed. It might very well be that I’m mistaken, and that for example your book would turn out to be much less clear-cut and challenging (or perhaps too opaque and challenging) if it also tried to include and explore individuality in its various meanings. I don’t know. As I said, I wouldn’t change it at all. You’re rightly focusing exactly on what makes a church the kind of thing it is: language and other continuing social practices. That’s what your project – our project, I’d say – surely needs the most. But, I still think that reducing “mind” to the social, without clearly and explicitly distinguishing within it the socially-produced human, might be a weakness or a blindspot in the long run, and a source of misunderstandings. The same is true, I suspect, for the animal-human gap, if cut off from any background consideration about their continuity and the origins of culture as a natural phenomenon. But you’re right, that’s not something that can be properly argued and followed through in a comment section, and there’s no need to, as long as it’s clear enough to both what the respective perspectives are generally like. The rest is up to your book.

    Finally, thank you for your appreciation, that’s really encouraging. I’m only starting out with my studies and my PhD, so I’ve got a long and quite uncertain road to walk. I hope other people will start doing some real thinking from reading your book, too.

    Good luck again! We do need it.

  11. Imo,

    I agree with much of what you’ve said—but I would draw different conclusion from it. Ultimately, I think a rigorous debate between your position and mine would be enormously useful to both sides—because, as I said, you do have a good argument. My own approach would be to get out of abstraction, and try to engage with some concrete example—which theoretical understanding makes the most sense of some real example? That would be an interesting and useful exercise, I think. But, of course, not one we can conduct in comments.

    Good luck with your studies—it is a long road.

  12. This is very well written Tom, and I think it is clear and lucid enough that most people with an undergraduate degree would be able to understand it. As usual, whether they will be able to accept it is another matter, but there’s nothing obscure about your argument. This is good, because you’re stuck here in a catch-22: You want to convince people, through rational argument, that their “deepest” beliefs and desires can/should be subject to alteration by way of rational argument, and yet in order for such an argument to be successfully convincing, people must first be open to having their beliefs altered by rational argument!

    On the point of the social preceding the individual, are you thinking of providing a close reading of Althusser? Or is this planned for the chapter on ideology? In my experience, the idea that ideology precedes the subject is one of the most difficult things to grasp, let alone accept, from Althusser. It simply runs counter to every “instinct” (I use quote because this “instinct” is of course socially produced) we have today, and is extremely dangerous to the ideologies of capitalism. I think Althusser explained it well, but we’re living in a different time, and this point is more pertinent than ever.

    On another note, I’m no expert in this stuff, but I’m fairly certain I that if every human but myself were die tomorrow, my “individuality” would actually be pretty quickly destroyed, and I would simply go insane within a matter of days or weeks. I would not be trying to figure out how to play tennis by myself–I would be losing my mind entirely, and would eventually be reduced to an animal.

  13. Chaim,
    Yes, this is the hardest point to make. I’ve seen any others try to make it, with just as little success as I have, despite often being much smarter and having the weight of prestigious academic positions behind them. So I’m not sure I can convince most people. It’s sort of a “parable of the sower” strategy: throw it out there, and hope those who are prepared will get it.

    I’m not sure a close reading of Althusser will help—although I do discuss “On the Reproduction of Capitalism” as well as the ISA essay in my penultimate chapter. Althusser clearly does say this—but whether he says it isn’t the problem, it seems to me.

    I’m hoping that that challenging people to use their own examples might help some. What is one of your “deepest desires”? Does it make more sense to understand it as a socially produced response? How could it possibly exist otherwise? Is the the Lacanian/ideological account of why you fall madly in love a more convincing explanation than the “soulmate” account, for instance?

    I would say that Imo is probably right that there is some continuance of habitual behaviors and beliefs beyond the condition that gave rise to them. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is what causes depression. But this in no way suggests that those habit precede the social conditions that gave rise to them—this habit, or hexis, is what we think is the ‘individual,” but it is produced by the social practices the bodily individual is interpellated into.

    We do, of course, need to participate in multiple ideologies which may be contradictory—Althusser is explicit on this point. Our family, education, and work ideologies may be in conflict at key points. This is another factor that causes people to believe they are “individuals’ first and “ideological” afterwards. The feeling that I don’t fully accept the ideology of the workplace makes me think I am an individual being coerced—because I might forget that my distance from this ideology results from my also participating in another, conflicting, ideology.

  14. Imo

     /  October 17, 2019


    One of the two main reasons I’ve suggested reconsidering “individuality” – in an (onto)logically post-social sense – lies precisely in the resistance that an argument like Tom’s is most likely to encounter in lots of people (the other reason being that I think what I argue is true).

    As a rule, I try never to morally blame other people for not understanding what I say or write, as I think such an attitude follows straight from any real awareness of our social production (and from the radical rejection of any merit-talk in Shinran). That’s not to make myself feel or look like I’m some “good” person, of course – that would contradict what I’ve just said -, and it’s not even the case that I think that a neutral, serene or even lovely tone of discussion is always the best way to go in talking to other people and convincing them of anything, or generally in producing some change (I’m with SNB on this principle or, if you know him, Raymond Geuss). Also, I very often feel frustrated and bitter and irritated at people or society, just like anyone, and I’m still quite young, so I guess that such feelings will only grow more and more deep and exasperating in time.

    Still, as long as I’m five – or ten, or twenty – minutes away from any stupid thing I’ve read or heard or seen, I really can’t see how I could ever blame others for that, or for not “accepting” what I’ve said. Why should they just “accept” it? What would be so rational in that? What is “accepting”? And what transcendent force should they appeal to in order to accomplish it, beyond my words and our discussing and interacting more generally? In our world, one couldn’t really choose to either accept or not the idea that water is fundamental for living, even if s/he wanted to (and not knowing that we’re socially-produced beings is just as basic and therefore absurd and dangerous, in a sense). “Accepting” means skipping over a gap in understanding by means of something else which is not understanding at all – authority, for example, or trust, or temporary suspension of inquiry for a lack of a better alternative, or momentary compliance. If they can still choose whether to accept your argument or not, then they haven’t fully understood it yet; there’s a gap somewhere, whatever it is. I think it’s a mistake to assume people first open themselves up to change and then change. And specularly and correspondingly, I’d say, if you feel all they should do is just “accept” it, then there’s probably something that you’re missing or repressing or ignoring as well (alongside many other unmet and mostly unknown conditions).

    That’s what I’m arguing is the case for “individuality”: it’s not at all a way to forcibly make an argument like Tom’s more palatable, and so have an easier way cheating people into “accepting” it, but rather a way of filling out some actually missing links and layers and sides and details. It could turn out to be a mistaken hypothesis and suggestion, but that would only mean that the gap is elsewhere, I think. Because whether people will be able to accept an argument or not is never just “another matter”; it is all just one complicated and multilayered matter that’s beyond us personally. Thinking otherwise is thinking one both possesses and has already provided everything that was possibly needed. But one book or person is never enough (and that’s fine: as I said, I wouldn’t make any change or addition to Tom’s book – it’s a seed very much worth sowing already, even if my arguments proved reasonable enough).

    I say this only to better frame my thoughts and motives, because I think it would in fact be very useful if the three of us debated this stuff seriously (though I think I’ll still need some time before doing that). It’d be interesting to hear why and how exactly you think that being the last human on Earth would turn you into a mindless animal, for example. I agree with Tom that the best way would be to engage some concrete examples, although I should perhaps point out – but I won’t explain it here since I’ve already written so much – that I’m not at all claiming that my rethinking individuality by itself constitutes any alternative theoretical understanding tout court to Tom’s, even less a more analytically useful one: to my eyes, it’s just a correction, expansion and/or specification starting from other sources (cultural anthropology and semiotics mainly, other than the ones we already share). In fact, the last paragraph in Tom’s comment – the one on the multiplicity of ideologies – is something I totally agree with, and one of the starting points of rethinking and reconfiguring “individuality” as “condividuality” or confluence. But for now I’ll leave it at that. I hope one day we’ll have our discussion.

  15. I would say it’s a mistake to think that people DON’T “open themselves up to change and then change.” It seems to me that this is always how it happens—they reach an impasse, and then become open to something new.

    I expect that with experience you’ll eventually realize that whether something is accepted or not is not a matter of the evidence or the cogency of the argument. Especially among academics (at least in the U.S.), no amount of evidence or argument will shift a college professor off the position he has gotten a grant to defend. Most Americans still do not believe in evolution, and most do believe in psychics and ghosts. It seems to me dangerously naive to think that if an argument hasn’t been accepted it is because it is incomplete or unconvincing. That just isn’t how most people work. I think it was Upton Sinclair who said that it’s very hard to convince someone of a truth when his paycheck depends on defending the lie. Certainly, Galileo made a good case for his position—the pope didn’t reject it because it was unconvincing or incomplete. In short, no argument is too obvious for most people to reject—and “experts” are usually better than average at finding ways to reject the most obvious things.

    That said, I would say that surely if my position leaves “gaps,” then I personally would want to alter it. I don’t see what those gaps are, though—you haven’t pointed them out, just asserted that they are there. That’s where we would need to get into some empirical example, I suppose.

    But I cannot agree that “accept” by definition means to ignore gaps or lapses. That’s just not what most people mean by the word—it could also mean “accept reality,” or accept what we have been denying or trying to ignore. Most people, most of the time, refuse to accept arguments even when the evidence is overwhelming—if they think it is in their interest to deny it. I was a graduate student in psychology, and a research assistant at a medical school, and in my experience ignoring evidence or inventing false evidence is the norm in most academic research. I think in everyday life, people are even worse.

  16. Imo

     /  October 17, 2019


    Yeah, I’ve phrased that one wrong. That’s in fact what happens; what I meant is, demanding it is not necessarily – and most often it’s just not – how you make it happen: if someone has not reached that impasse, it’s surely not by urging him/her to be more “open” – or appealing to “openess” as some general/universal rational principle – that you will push him/her toward it, unless there’s not already some authority, trust or other similar forces working on your part; insisting on it may or may not be a good idea depending on the concrete case, blaming – as far as I can see – is just incoherent (not that I don’t do it, as I said). So as a normative rule, “openness” only works for people that already are on their way toward a certain openness, which means it’s usually an useless rule. Moreover, moving through an impasse already IS change, not merely a preliminary stage, and when one finds him/herself in an impasse that means s/he has already mostly understood what you said in the sense I meant above, though s/he has multiple and conflicting subjectivities still going on and battling and negotiating among themselves.

    Experience will make me bitterer, I have no doubt about it. But even now I don’t believe at all that evidence or cogency is enough to make people accept an argument: if those “unmet and mostly unknown conditions” are not in fact met, you’re speaking to walls (and you don’t blame walls); a small part of those conditions lies in evidence, cogency and other features of the argument itself, so it’s generally a good idea to be as careful in making it as possible, but it won’t be nearly enough by itself – and then there are many other kinds of other partial actions, interventions, projects etc. that one might try out with other people to produce more and more of those conditions, but of course, even that will be an uphill struggle. That water is fundamental for living is not an obvious argument, it’s not an argument at all. That’s what we’re striving for, as impossible as it is. What I mean here is, I’m young but I’m not naive, and I know that trying to act on common sense is like trying to split an atom in half. It’s precisely when I’m reminded of it that I really see I cannot blame no one, not myself nor others.

    Also, if you give someone overwhelming evidence that you’re right and they still reject your argument because “they think it is in their interest to deny it”, there you have your gap: if that was really and ultimately in their interest, why should they “accept” your argument?, what would be “rational” about it (or alternatively, why would “rationality” be even valuable or desirable in this case)? Either you think that it’s not really in their interest for whatever reason, and therefore, as I said, there is a gap and they haven’t really understood all you’re saying – since at the very least they haven’t understood how it’s also in their interest -, or you think it’s really in their interest, and then you’re just talking to the wrong people. I myself believe that human beings more often than not have an interest in knowing how things really are, which includes their being socially produced and all that follows from that – including what follows for an academic blindly defending her/his grant and pretending s/he’s doing groundbreaking scientific research -, and so I assume that whatever interest certain people are trying to defend, if it’s in contrast with reality and human nature then there’s probably a gap somewhere, which might very well be entirely on their side, but not always so, and not entirely and unilaterally so – I think – in the case of their defense of individuality.

    So yes, I think that “accept” is usually quite a misleading verb to predicate on others. If there’s something in someone that effectively denies or resists or ignores a reality that otherwise s/he fully understands, then it’s first – and if you’re really lucky foremost – an understanding of that something that’s lacking in him/her, along with the conditions of that understanding (and possibly other related and perhaps unmanageable conditions still, of course). Urging such a person to “accept reality” might still be a way among others of pushing him/her forward, if s/he’s already in an impasse, as it’s especially helpful in the first-person negotiation of a new subjectivity, but demanding acceptance of reality assuming – on one’s own or others’ part – a full understanding which just isn’t there seems either pointless or self-righteous to me.

    Anyway, none of this is really that relevant or important. If it’s us, I think there’s no doubt we’re all “open” enough to have a greatly productive and engaging discussion. I look forward to it! And I’m looking forward to reading your book as well. Thank you again for your remarks and encouragement.

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