Individualism & Society


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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48 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Tyler Durden

    OK, it was really Walt Whitman.Report

  2. Avatar RTod says:

    May well be your best post I have read.Report

  3. Avatar Ben says:

    “I don’t believe in denial of the self. I think we should learn to understand our selves in order to forget, like lines in a play or tying knots.”

    I’ve always understood “denial of the self” in a completely different way. You seem to use it like “deny self-knowledge, or exploration of the different parts of the self”. The only way I’ve seen the “denial of the self” thing advocated is in denying the concept of a “self”, or of a distinct individual entity that incorporates a person’s being/character/individuality. This is perfectly commensurate with exploring different aspects of that being/character; it just denies the concept of a single I which is running the show.

    What kinds of “denial of self” statements are you trying to deny? It’s always interesting to hear “self”-understanding.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Well I realize that everyone has their own opinion of how this works/what this means. I see denial of self as incorporation into a more important ‘oneness’ or universalism. I think we can have some sort of ‘oneness’ or widespread empathy, but in order to do that we need to come from a position of individualism and strength-in-self.Report

      • Avatar Ben says:


        This is getting far afield from your post, but denial of the concept of a “self” is usually said to help both goals – both a strength-in-self and “oneness”/widespread empathy. Psychologists have been finding evidence against a “self” for a long time (the idea goes back to Nietzsche), and one of the things that’s been empirically verified is that people with a greater acknowledgement of a lack of “self” usually are both more aware of their own characteristics and have a greater sense of general empathy. A lot of Eastern religions / cultural practices, too, take place at the intersection of denial of the self, “oneness”, and individualism.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          If I understand what you’re saying, it’s that learning who you are is like learning who someone else is: it requires observation. Introspection isn’t likely to be accurate.

          That makes a lot of sense.Report

          • Avatar Ben says:

            “[I]t requires observation.”

            Probably, yuhp.

            “Introspection isn’t likely to be accurate.”

            It all depends on what you mean by “introspection”. “Generating a rationalization for behavior”, probably not. “Observation of mental processes”, probably so. That’s one of the ways the Dalai Lama characterizes meditation, as extended personal observation.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              I’m trying to distinguish between “I observe myself behaving in this fashion” and “I think of myself as this sort of person.”Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                It’s hard to do the first.

                It’s easy to do the second. Even when it means that you have to ignore observations about yourself.Report

  4. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    To be great is to be misunderstood. But it doesn’t follow that to be misunderstood is to be great.

    Come to think of it, I’m not even too sure of that first proposition.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      Yes, I agree with a psychiatrist who once told me that the greatest teachers were the ones who can explain complex ideas with simplicity and clarity with consistent logic. Obscurantist posturing is often mistaken for greatness.

      Someone could also say a garbled inconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statists and moderate pundits and faux-elites. With inconsistency a potentially great soul has too much to do which signifies nothing.

      I mean, someone could say that. It really depends on how you justify either approach. I’m not being punchy, I’m just saying…Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      @Jason – I’m not sure. I think it depends on how you read the Emerson quotation. I think you can read it a number of ways. I don’t see Emerson as explicitly saying that the only way to be great is to be misunderstood, or that the opposite is true.

      @ Mike – I’m really bored with the drive by personal attacks. Cut it out or make yourself scarce. I don’t mind engaging your arguments. I mind the bullshit attitude which has no place at The League. I won’t ban you, but I won’t engage with you either unless you cut it out.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        Good lord, a personal attack? Excuse me? You really have something against me, don’t you? I wasn’t even thinking about you personally — I’ve always had problems with that quote, you are just a little self-centered and pettily defensive here, sport. I will save you the trouble of banning me. I hope you treat others better.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          Oh spare me Mike. At least own your contempt. Identifying your disdain is not self-centered. I’d you’re off in a huff again that’s done by me. You can dish it plenty but you can’t take it for shit.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

            My phone is lame and auto corrected much of that last comment. It can also bugger off.Report

          • Avatar MFarmer says:

            I still don’t know what you’re talking about. It wasn’t a personal attack. I was turning the quote around — statesman to statist (there are no statemen) — philosopher to moderate pundit (because they are often inconsistent) and divines to faux-elite who pass for divines and have no consistent set of idea, only what will maintain power.

            Where in all this did I attack you?Report

            • Avatar MFarmer says:

              Actually, if you read back over this, you will realize that it was you attacking me personally rather than the other way around. I have always disagreed with this quote, because I can’t imagine a learned man contradicting any important idea that was earned through study from one day to the next. Great men have always had ideas that they held consistently, and they changed their minds only through much evidence to disprove their orginial ideas. Their strength was consistency, not inconsistency.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Funny, I can think of great men who changed their minds. In fact, most of the cases I know did so. They had to, when confronted with a truly great idea. So Newton discovers gravity and the calculus, Kant reads Hume, Kierkegaard leaves Regine, etc. Once they’ve got the great idea, they tend to stick to it, but that’s because it’s really hard to let go of an idea that good, and that productive.

                I believe what he’s suggesting is intellectual experimentation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I think that’s how great ideas come about.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                Very well said, Chris.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      To be great is to come to the attention of many people. Most of them will misunderstand you, because that’s what people do.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”

        Uncle Bert said that.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          Of course, he was as mad as a hatter.

          The other thing I was thinking is that people tend to understand the stuff they spend a lot of time with much better than they stuff they come in slight contact with or hear about in passing. If you’re great, there will be a fish of a lot of people for whom you’re in category 2 or 3.Report

        • Avatar MFarmer says:

          Jaybird — what is this in reference to?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            The thread, dude.

            (For what it’s worth, I imagine that Erik will soon get home to a real computer and be able to read all kinds of comments that got posted today and then be somewhat taken aback at the timing that resulted in you being the guy who got yelled at. With that said, I don’t think that you should be as thin skinned as you are. Life is tough and misunderstandings take place. Better to swallow pride and make clarifications and allow conversations to move forward than to get into a fight that nobody remembers a year later. If nothing else: HAVE A FIGHT THAT PEOPLE REMEMBER A YEAR LATER.)Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko says:

          I did not. I said “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Actually, I think Napoleon beat me to that one, but he’s not around to take the credit, so I will.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      He means a great intellectual. In that sense, I think history proves him right, even beyond his examples. What’s the apocryphal Schopenhauer quote? All truth passes through three stages: first, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third it is accepted as being self-evident? That’s not quite true, but it’s got more than enough truth in it.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      One more thing about this. Great ideas, which are what make great intellectuals, are bound to be misunderstood, because what makes them great is that they are radically new. For the most part, human ideas, even when they are new, stick pretty close to what we know. Creativity is, in the vast majority of cases, dependent entirely on the known. What makes an idea great is that it goes a little bit further, it strays a little bit more from the known. This makes misunderstanding inevitable, because we have only the known with which to understand them.

      This is not to say that everyone will misunderstand them. There were people who got Copernicus and Kepler right away, and Darwin’s ideas were accepted by some very quickly, either through the force of his reasoning or because those who were accepting were inclined to appreciate his particular innovations. But most people misunderstood them, and in many cases, such as Copernicus or Darwin, many people feared them as a result. I don’t think Emerson means that everyone, everywhere, will misunderstand great intellectuals, but great intellectuals will be misunderstood, and widely so at first. This is the price one pays for giving the world great ideas.Report

  5. Avatar MFarmer says:

    Oh, and I wasn’t suggesting that I’d leave because I can’t take the heat, but because you brought it up and you are the owner — I don’t want to be where I’m unwelcomed.Report

  6. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Mike – my apologies if I took you the wrong way. Your comment – including the refernce to punchy, etc. – seemed directed at me, and my embrace of this quote. If you did not mean it that way I was obviously mistaken.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      I made the “punchy” comment as a joke from the last time I disagreed with you and you thought I was picking a fight. I’m honestly not picking a fight — I just speak straightforwardly most times. I thought the “punchy” comment would send a signal of humor to lighten up the disagreement. But to futher explain, I think it’s the opposite of what Emerson said, and that inconsistency/lack of principles is why statesman have become statists, philosophers have become squishy pundits and divines, well, that was a stretch, but faux-elitists seemed to fit my theme of modern society’s fixation with the pragmatic and expedient over consistency in principles and ideas.Report