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Democracy
7 September 2012

Heresy of the week: Individualism is not conservative

Today, the Deep End brings you an in-depth review of a major new work of near-impenetrable German philosophy. What better way to lift the spirits as summer gives way to autumn?

Our reviewer is Joshua Mostafa writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books and our German philosopher is Peter Sloterdijk, whose 1998 book Blasen has finally been published in English translation. The English title is ‘Bubbles’, which makes its sounds like the biography of some frivolous socialite – but there’s nothing lightweight about this 600 page volume (itself just the first part of Sloterdijk’s monumental ‘Spheres’ trilogy).

The author is a leading public intellectual in Germany and a controversial one too, as Mostafa explains:

  • “…recently, his attack on the welfare state as “state kleptocracy” — which may seem an unremarkable piece of right-wing capitalo-libertarian rhetoric in the ears of post-Reagan America or post-Thatcher Britain — stirred up controversy in Germany, where a broadly social-democratic consensus encompasses the center-right as well as the left. Sloterdijk called for the abolition of income tax in favor of voluntary contributions.”

From the above, you might conclude that Sloterdijk is an advocate of “rugged individualism”, a sort of Teutonic Ayn Rand. Not a bit of it:

  • “Sloterdijk begins Bubbles with an explicit rejection of individualism. Before considering the startling ideas he posits in its place, it’s worth briefly considering the radicalism of this move, and why anyone might think it necessary to make…
  • “The conception of the human subject as an individual whose fundamental and essential state is solitude, who is born alone and dies alone (a phrase attributed both to Orson Welles and to Hunter S. Thompson), is pervasive in contemporary thought… Contemporary ideology has such a strongly individualist outlook that the word ‘individual’ has come to be used almost interchangeably with ‘person.’ This conflation posits our separation from others as an essential quality of being human; it precludes other notions of personhood, in which togetherness, not individuation, are foundational to our humanity. It is therefore difficult to contemplate individualism, as such, when our thinking is so thoroughly steeped in it.”

Sloterdijk is not, one presumes, a conservative. Many of his musings are decidedly un-conservative – as one might expect from someone so steeped in contemporary academic philosophy. And yet, his “rejection of the idea of essential loneliness… [as] an inherent characteristic of the human condition” must surely lead one in a conservative direction.

While the concept of personhood is central to philosophical conservatism, so is the connectedness of each person to other people within the organic institutions of family, community and nation, each of which of which stretch out beyond ourselves not only in space, but also in time through the traditions that sustain a living culture. 

It is fascinating to see what had happens when philosophy slips the constraints of modernism and post-modernism and drifts, however erratically, back towards eternal truth.

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