Philosophy of Civilization: Pt 5, The Individual and society and a bit of Hegel

24 August 2014

In the next few posts I’m going to go over a few main points of what Schweitzer builds into his sort of proposal, or his ethic, or his way out. There is so much good stuff in this book it is hard to strip so much out but I’m going to try to touch on some of his main points. Here I want to share something he brings up again and again about individuals and society, and relate/contrast it to some ideas in Hegel.

The collapse of civilization has come about through ethics being left to society. A renewal of it is possible only if ethics become once more the concern of thinking human beings, and if individuals seek to assert themselves in society as ethical personalities. In proportion as we secure this, society will become an ethical, instead of the purely natural, entity, which it is by origin. Previous generations have made the terrible mistake of idealizing society as ethical. We do our duty to it by judging it critically, and trying to make it, so far as possible, more ethical. (p. 328)

Schweitzer points to a basic conflict between society and individuals. This tension is seen not only by looking back on history, but it is a sort of fundamental one.

Hegel puts interesting words to this conflict in Phenomenology of Spirit. It’s a bit abstract, but if you can track with it, it gives some interesting perspective on this.

To have understanding we need to be able to distinguish between things. We give things names, and by doing so, we create separations in our mind. It allows us to reason with things. We can think about one thing and relate it to another. Doing this is perhaps what allows us to think about… well, anything. But, by doing this and by making and having these separations, you end up not including something else (e.g. the words society and individual).

We do this with external things in order to reason with them, but we also do this with ourselves. And this is what Hegel calls consciousness, which builds into what he calls the “Spirit” (also “mind”). A spirit, is something that has, or is out for, self-certainty. The forming of a consciousness, the forming of an individual, the forming of any idea really, is this distinguishing process of this and that, I and another etc. And a spirit (as I understood it) can come from anything—a person, group, language, idea—that does this. Once a word is formed, for example, and it leaves a person’s mouth, it floats off and becomes its own sort of spirit, flies away and, just through the simple fact that there formed a word, or words, or concept around something, it begins to assert itself, and in a strange way take on its own spirit, out for it’s own self-certainty by the fact that it simply exists. So there’s a tension—a simple tension created simply by the naming and having ideas formed around certain concepts, but also through a struggle of a thing or person or group to keep or retain it’s own sort of existence and certainty about itself.

There is a simple and natural side of this that happens with us because we all have different perspectives, and there is also a more sort of dysfunctional side of this. In a natural sense, I have my own perspective which I make decisions from, and my own self to protect, as does any other person or being or in a more abstract sense idea/group, which causes these to clash. So just through individuals having their own lens they look through, or a group having its own name or idea it stands by, there’s going to be an ongoing difference/clash, which is normal. And in the more dysfunctional sense, as a person is maturing (or in Hegel, coming to more full consciousness) he often struggles to find himself. One can find a need to either exert himself over others and take advantage of others because he see the world only for himself or needs to gain more of a sense of self, or if a person does not see himself as his own person, he may latch onto an idea or another person because he doesn’t see himself as his own person. You can see this perhaps in the whole “opposites attract” thing, or perhaps in a more intense way in codependent relationships, or neurosis, or even with charismatic leaders and the odd way large groups of people get magnetized by them. This conflict is part of Hegel’s famous Master/Slave dialect, which also takes other forms throughout Phenomenology.

There interestingly comes a point where Hegel talks about this ideal where there is no longer this struggle for an individual or a spirit to assert itself, but understands it’s relation to the world, that it works not just for-itself, but for-others, in more interdependence, or I think more precisely a unity.

Could you have society be both for itself and for it’s members? Made for, by, and on behalf of it’s members? Perhaps that is the goal. And I think in Hegel this is more of an understanding than an actuality. There is always a tension here. There is always a “force,” Hegel says, or back-and-forth between the two. By definition, by naming a society or any other collective group, its purpose ends up being for the collective, it ends up not including the individual—or if it does it is only supra-individual, it’s above the individual. By simply having a name, it’s concerned for something bigger than the individuals that it’s supposed to contain. Even if it’s “concerned” for the individual there is still a continual and constant tension between the two, even if ever so slightly.

You don’t necessarily need that Hegelian explanation to see the tension, but I think it’s interesting to look at it in those terms—to see it as a very fundamental one.

Schweitzer never actually mentions Hegel when he repeatedly makes a point about this conflict, or about the importance of the individuals own conviction when it comes to ethics. This is probably because Hegel ends up building this conflict ultimately into his idea of Spirit which, as others have criticized him for, may be more about the continual progress of history through thesis/antithesis than anything else. Schweitzer actually criticizes Hegel for this obsession for progress, as Hegel and other idealists like him were perhaps part of this problem which Schweitzer saw before him.

He is the creator of that confident feeling for reality with which Europe staggered into the second half of the nineteenth century without becoming aware that ethics have at some point or another been left behind…. In Hegel originates the spirit which borrows its ideals empirically from reality and believes in the progress of humanity more than it labours to promote it. He stands on the bridge of an ocean liner and explains to the passengers the wonders of the machinery in the vessel that is carrying them, and the mysteries of the calculation of its course. But he gives no thought to the necessary maintenance of the fires under the boilers. Hence the speed gradually diminishes until the vessel comes at last to a standstill. It no longer obeys the helm, and becomes a plaything of the gales. (p. 220)

The maintenance and thriving of progress and civilization, Schweitzer believed, was ethics, and ethics that sprang from basic individual conviction, not by declamation from a group. This included a healthy skepticism of societal pressures on individuals.

Even a society whose ethical standard is relatively high, is dangerous to the ethics of its members. If those things which form precisely the defects of a social code of ethics develop strongly, and if society exercises, further, an excessively strong spiritual influence on individuals, then the ethic of ethical personality is ruined. This happens in present-day society, whose ethical conscience is becoming fatally stunted by a bilogico-sociological ethic and this, moreover, finally corrupted by nationalism.

The great mistake of ethical thought down to the present time is that it fails to admit the essential difference between the morality of ethical personality and that which is established from the standpoint of society, and always thinks that it ought, and is able, to cast them in one piece. The result is that the ethic of personality is sacrificed to the ethic of society… .

The morality of ethical personality, then, and the morality which is established from the standpoint of society cannot be traced back the one to the other, and they are not of equal value…. Ethical progress consists in making up our minds to think pessimistically of the ethics of society. (pp. 294)

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