Geoffrey Holland speaks with Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison about their latest book, The Theoretical Individual
Geoffrey Holland: You write that the myth of the human individual is etymologically, psychologically, and emotionally ingrained in who we are, yet every minute this myth is violated by humans. What is this myth of the individual?
Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison: From Plato and Aristotle, Euclid and Leibnitz, to 19th century Boolean algebra, and 20th century existentialism, there have been wide-ranging human discussions about laws of identity, all coming down to the self-evident: “Whatever is, is.”
This individuated being was first articulated in the Chandogya Upanishad sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries and translated from the Sanskrit (“Tat Tvam Asi”) as either “You are That,” or “That Thou Art” or numerous variations of this. More recently, in 1912, the assertion was delineated mathematically by Bertrand Russell (in Chapter VII of his The Problems of Philosophy, as well as by Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their remarkable three-volume Principia Mathematica 1910-1913). This mythic “is” – “Whatever is, is” – goes well beyond any simple reconciliation of the one and the many, which was core to ancient Greek philosophy, translating into pure paradox. Which is to say, what are the characteristics of an individual within the collective, and vice versa? Every community, species, and individual comprises a bewildering array of dangling biochemical, and we like to think, spiritual modifiers, whether in the social and natural sciences, or the arts, or religion or any other sphere of human consideration. Our emphasis, our vantage, our hopes, dreams and choices evolve and emanate from every conceivable and primeval source, all coming down to our humanity. Our being human. But this is merely “our” individualism, as we habitually think of it, even in our most generous reveries.
This “our” is a nosism, a pluralis maiestatis or royal “We”. And it is utterly corruptive. It defines the nature of over-reaching, of presumptuousness that claims a distinct sovereignty for humans. It is the myth of human superiority over all other species; of humans over each other – class and racial warfare – actionable and absurdist claims tantamount to the superego. Every human science is invested in perpetuating the point of that ego’s pivot, whereby the observer holds the power, defines the activity, claims authorship over all encounters, outcomes and informational content. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) was the SuperLotto of vanity, in this regard.
The sad fate of this historically rooted fancy is its lethal hegemony, a bully’s man-handling of metaphysics and philosophy in general. The cartography of our power; our rage for conquest of all “others” that has, most obviously, brought upon the world a livid Anthropocene, the violation you reference. We recognize others (e.g., biodiversity) economically, politically, and in least degrees, morally. And of course, we can all point to cultural traditions throughout time and geography that have revered lions, trees, coyotes and cows, to name but a few. Added to that, we live with hundreds-of-millions of companion animals, and there is no doubting our love of these separate beings who have mingled within our households.
But with the advent of serious empirical observations, whether in the strict rubrics of a Linnaeus, the contradictory evidence brought to bear by Darwin in terms of individuals, varieties, hybrids and species, or the poetic sciences mastered unequivocally by a Thoreau, we have been increasingly struck by the perceived similarities and differences binding an interdependent whole. The myth, like the word, the principles of divine reason, e.g., the Logos, has turned into a flesh of confusion. Many people figure that they’ve nicely worked the equations out: conservationists who strive to save habitat and endangered species; animal rescue workers; but equally so, those who control and collaborate with, slaughter houses, animal control, and all those industries, stockholders, and human activities, in general, that are rapaciously destroying the biosphere.
We see this chaos coming at us from different worlds and levels. In formal taxonomies and zoological nomenclature. We take great pains to delineate barriers and constraints to reproductive success and distribution, Tree of Life definitions, family trees, species and individuals. With quantum physics, operating upon principles of uncertainty wherein human observation alters sub-atomic relationships, we have anthropic considerations that, again, thrust the human perceptual category by definition not just into the mix, but at center-stage, the zenith. We think of ourselves as the conductors, but this time a Verdi’s “Requiem” is the entire planet. With regard to our evolving theories of justice, particularly of intergenerational justice, humans have only recently spoken of, and advocated for the rights of other species. Each of these cornerstones of the human story confounds the fundamental confluence and expressions of this great dilemma we face in our time, namely, the nature of individualism. Its duties and responsibilities to others. Is it really possible for us to get inside ourselves, and see how we are behaving on an Earth that is only too willing to present our reflections before us at every nanosecond?
This is why we have phrased this book, and the many axioms teased forth herein, “the theoretical individual.” The book, and the calculus behind it mean to question the individual’s ontology, and her/his/its fate in the environment, and what we can conceivably know about it in the deepest sense. We discuss several crucial propositions, hypotheses and theories throughout the work, many of which will be deemed to be rather provocative. For example, with respect to sub-atomic relationships, if Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty is relevant to waves and particles and human beings, imagine the exponential levels of uncertainty when we begin acknowledging and recognizing observations of the universe by every bird, ant, worm and so on… Read More
Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison are ecological philosophers and animal liberation activists who have worked for decades to help enrich our understanding of ecosystem dynamics and humanity’s ambiguous presence amid that great orchestra that is nature.
The Theoretical Individual is available in hardcover and ebook formats directly from Springer, or it can be found through Amazon.com, Google Play, and eBooks.com. It might also be available through your local bookstore or library.
The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to email@example.com
MAHB Blog: mahb.stanford.edu/blog/new-nature/