151. John Dewey on The Tragedy of the Lost Individual

When we try to diagnose the many social ills we have in our country it is easy to get bogged down with specifics that lead us to treat symptoms rather than causes. One way to gain some vision is to consider philosophical models that might illuminate trends on a more fundamental and general level.

One model that I think deserves some serious consideration comes from the American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey argued that early liberalism had a theory of mind which “advanced beyond dependence upon the past but it did not arrive at the idea of experimental and constructive intelligence.” This theory of mind assumed that intelligence was an individual possession that did not need to be developed in conjunction with social institutions. Therefore once the individual was freed of certain political and social constraints she would be in a position to realize her inherent potentials. But exactly the opposite turned out to be the case. For once these constraints were lifted there was very little enlightened social organization upon which the individual could rely for the development of creative habits. As a result, unenlightened substitutes for vital social organization appeared which generated inequality, conformity, and exploitation. Early liberalism, far from liberating individuals, had set up the conditions for the dissolution of individuals. Dewey refers to this situation as tragic: “It is the tragedy of earlier liberalism that just at the time when the problem of social organization was most urgent, liberals could bring to its solution nothing but the conception that intelligence is an individual possession.” Indeed, the failure to address the problem of social organization has led to a phenomenon which Dewey, in his book Individualism Old and New, calls “the tragedy of the lost individual” or the fact that the loyalties which once gave support, direction, and unity of outlook to individuals have almost completely disappeared. He elaborates:

“The tragedy of the ‘lost individual’ is due to the fact that while individuals are now caught up into a vast complex of associations, there is no harmonious and coherent reflection on the import of these connections into the imaginative and emotional outlook on life. This fact is of course due in turn to the absence of harmony within the state of society. There is an undoubted circle.”

Dewey published this in 1930 but it could have been yesterday. Are there not many individuals who, despite being enmeshed in the “vast complex of associations” of our global village, despite being free in so many ways, are divorced from enlightened forms of social organization that help, rather than hinder, their self-actualization? For more and more people traditional models of the family, education, religion, politics, local community, and even meaningful love affairs have, if they exist at all, ceased to offer meaningful direction. To be sure, there are plenty of people who find traditional modes of social organization meaningful and prescribe them to us. But clearly many people would rather turn to escapist entertainment, virtual worlds, social media, drug culture, pornography, and so on to assuage their troubles as they flounder in alienated labor, cultivate bad habits, and become examples of “inequality, conformity, and exploitation.” Perhaps many of these people simply need help connecting, or reconnecting, with traditional modes of social organization. But given all our issues, it would be dangerous to say the least to overlook new possibilities for the “development of creative habits” outside the confines of the past. Perhaps both tradition and experimentation should be kept on the table.

Whatever the case may be, I think it is important to keep in mind Dewey’s dynamic vision of, on the one hand, individuals contributing to forms of “vital social organization” and, on the other hand, such forms contributing to the development of individuality. Dewey’s wholistic assessment offers us a helpful philosophical model which, when combined with more specific analyses from the social sciences, might help us understand why some actors in the tragedy of the lost individual create tragedies of their own.

For a few of my other posts on Dewey, go here.

One reply on “151. John Dewey on The Tragedy of the Lost Individual”

  1. Skinny JG on

    American philosophers and social critics that have a lot to say on the topic are often too under-represented in leftists discussions. Reminds me of Dave Wallace’s thoughts on post-modernism and irony (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XCptwAUbco). New Sincerity seems to be a big response to these kinds of observations.

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