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The category-mistake implied by the opposition of individual and society

Danie Strauss

This was sent by Danie Strauss as an email on Thinknet 23 June 2010. I thought it so useful that I requested his permission to place it on the Dooyeweerd Pages. Summary and bibliography are found below. I have taken the liberty of making some of his words into hyperlinks for those who wish to understand some of his concepts better. A.B.

As a starting-point for our assessment the familiar opposition of "individual and state/government" is instructive. In this practice the state is identified with the government of a state and then opposed to the individual. Two serious mistakes are present in this view. The first one is that this opposition does acknowledge that the state is constituted by citizens and that only within this general category a distinction can be drawn between those citizens elected to function in the office of government and those citizens who are subjects of the state - in the sense of being subject to the power or authority vested in the office of government. Of course there are in all modern states a differentiation of governmental functions - of which the best known are the legislative, the judiciary and the executive functions. But even if these functions would have been performed by the same state-organ the requirement would remain that they ought to be distinguished. Furthermore, no person occupying a certain office - be it the president of the state, any minister, judge, military general or police authority - solely functions in this capacity. All of them are at once also subjects supposed to obey the laws of the state - no one is elevated above the constitution and the laws of the state. In addition being a citizen is just one amongst a multiplicity of societal functions of human beings.

In other words, the correlate of those citizens acting in some or other governmental capacity is not an unspecified and undifferentiated 'individual', but merely other citizens in their capacity as subjects to the government of a state. Given the sphere-sovereignty of the state, structurally limited through its qualification by the jural aspect of reality, this entails an all-important limitation, for it means that the authority of the government of a state is limited to the function of an individual within a state - and this "state-function" has to be designated as "being a citizen."

The multiple functions that an individual person has within other social entities, such as within the school, the nuclear family, marriage, a social club or a business enterprise, are falling outside the scope and limits of governmental authority. The public legal order of the state is supposed to protect the public legal interest of each citizen in the integrity of its body and possessions - explaining why theft and murder constitute offences against public legal interests. The domain of civil law is a coordinational sphere of law where persons and social entities are functioning next to or sometimes in opposition to each other (always on equal footing) - but it remains qualified by the jural aspect and it is dependent upon civil courts and an independent civil jurisprudence capable of administering an impartial system of civil law practices, backed up the sword power of the state for the official execution of juridical decisions.

It is only the legal interests involved in participating in non-state spheres of life that are integrated into the public legal order of the state and not those non-political collectivities and communities as such. For that reason there is a fundamental difference between public legal freedoms, civil freedoms and societal freedoms - for all these freedoms ought to be respected by a constitutional state under the rule of law. Yet this very idea of differentiated spheres of law within a differentiated society entails the insight that the authority of a government is limited and does not stretch over or encompass every facet of being human.

However, the moment the state is identified with its government this identification entails that being a citizen is equated with the undifferentiated notion of "an individual." In doing this we have squarely positioned ourselves (possibly against our best intentions!) within the legacy of a totalitarian and absolutist view of the state. For an unspecified and undifferentiated notion of the individual embraces every possible societal function of such a person - implying that the government indeed has authority over every facet of such a person's life.

Once this basic error has been made, namely the error of identifying state and government and the error of viewing as subject to this government not a citizen (in its function as subject within the state) but an "undifferentiated individual," then the 'individual' has to commence its battle against the conceded competence of the 'state' to rule over every domain (possible societal function) of being an individual. The tragic truth is that this struggle is lost before it started, because once, by implication, the government has been given authority over an 'individual' understood in an undifferentiated sense, it is no longer possible to revert this totalitarion perspective by whatever measures.

Right at the beginning one has to differentiate and distinguish between the different societal functions that an individual person may have within diverse, sphere-sovereign, societal entities, of which the state is just one amongst many others (see the sketch below).

The same point could be made in respect of the relation between an 'individual' and any other societal collectivity or communal relationship, because in no one of these forms of life within a differentiated society do we encounter 'individuals' - we only find in them specified typical functions of an individual - such as those highlighted in the sketch.

Since the term 'society' is usually meant to designate collective and communal societal entities, it must be clear that opposing 'individual' and 'society' boils down to a fundamental category-mistake. It is meaningful to distinguish between various social entities precisely because they fall within the same category - the category of social entities. But the individual human being is not a (collective) social entity. An individual does function within all aspects of reality, and owing to its functioning within the social aspect of reality such an individual has a differentiated multiplicity of societal functions within collective, communal and coordinational relationships. But this does not in any sense transform a person into a "social entity" on a par with states, firms, universities or social clubs.

Therefore the entire opposition of 'individual' and 'society' is based upon a category-mistake.

Summary of some of the main points employed in my argumentation

1) The dilemma between individualism and universalism (atomism and holism) dates back to Greek antiquity and is determined by a one-sided answer to the fundamental philosophic question regarding the basic denominator in terms of which the unity and diversity within reality is to be understood.

2) Ultimately these two ismic stances take recourse to the elevation of distinct modes of being employed in explaining the entire meaning of reality - respectively oriented to an over-estimation either of the quantitative meaning of the one and the many or of the original spatial meaning of a whole and its parts (sociologically also articulated in terms of the idea of an encompassing system - mostly thought of as society - and its subsystems).

3) Particularly since the Renaissance modern nominalism permeated the intellectual spirit of the West to such an extent that the human being was elevated to the level of rational autonomy (and eventually to a self-constructing autonomous freedom). This attitude has no room for ontic normativity.

4) Some of the most prominent scholars operative in the shaping of sociology during the past two centuries by and large did not succeed in transcending the impasse between atomism and holism - as illustrated in our analyses of the positions of sociologists such as Comte, Spencer, Tönnies, Von Wiese, Durkheim, Spann, Weber, Parsons, Sorokin, MacIver, Alexander, Münch, Sztompka, Habermas and Giddens.

5) On the way to an alternative approach attention is required for the uniqueness and irreducibility of the various modal aspects of reality - first of all in respect of the numerical and spatial aspects, because atomism and holism (theoretically) attempted to come to an artificial separation of the two aspects in order to elevate one of them to an encompassing ontological principle of explanation.

6) On the basis of accepting the coherence of multiple irreducible modal aspects also sociological theory is confronted with the necessity and inevitability of employing analogical basic concepts - such as social order, social stratification, social constancy and dynamics, social differentiation and integration, social consiousness, social sensitivity, social identification and distinguishing, social power and control and social significance, symbol and interpretation.

7) In addition to these elementary (analogical) basic concepts sociology also has to operate on the basis of complex or compound basic concepts, constituted by alternative configurations of elementary basic concepts resulting in modal totality concepts, such as the concept of a principle - a universal, constant starting-point for human action that can only be made valid by a competent organ with an accountable free will capable of giving a (normative or antinormative) positive shape to such a principle in varying socio-cultural circumstances, and the modal totality concepts of coordinational, communal and collective societal relationships.

8) Once the elementary and complex basic concepts are articulated it is possible to move to an explanation of typical basic concepts - entailing a specification of the unique foundational and qualifying functions of societal entities.

9) Implicit in all the foregoing considerations lies the basic insight that the existence of an individual human being transcends the multiplicity of functional modes conditioning being human, for if individual human beings function in all facets of reality, including the social aspect, it entails that no connection between individuals and society is required. One cannot "connect" individuals to that which already is constitutive for their existence, namely their functioning within the social dimension of reality! [Without articulating it in terms of basic ontological distinctions, Luckmann and Berger stress the same perspective: "Solitary human being is being on the animal level (which, of course, man shares with other animals). As soon as one observes phenomena that are specifically human, one enters the realm of the social. Homo sapiens is always, and in the same measure, homo socuis" (Luckmann & Berger, 1967:51).]

10) Giddens is sensitive to the extreme consequences of sociological holism by saying that "societies" are "not necessarily unified collectivities" (Giddens, 1986:24). We may support this cautiousness from a different perspective: "society" could be seen as the interdependence of diverse social collectivities and social processes without requiring the supposition that it functions as an all-embracing totality. One implication of this alternative is the recognition of the fact that the "unit of comparison" in an analysis of society should never be sought in "individuals" stripped from their social function. And as soon as we include the "ontically constituted" social functionality of humans in our analysis of society, the primary focus becomes the different social spheres in which human beings take on different roles.

11) Everyone of the different societal functions, societal ties or societal roles of the human person is by definition always partial in the sense that it never encompasses all the societal activities of a person totally. Being a colleague, being a friend, being a citizen, and so on, are simply ways in which we designate the diverse, differentiated, societal functions and roles of persons.

12) Since no single individual human person as such is to be seen as a societal collectivity or entity, it is meaningless to compare and juxtapose an individual (which is not a societal entity but merely has a social function) with society or with any societal entity (such as the state, the firm, the nuclear family, and so on).

13) The implication of the preceding insights is explored by the idea of integrated spheres of life with their "own inner laws" which is the equivalent of the idea of sphere-sovereignty. Althusius for the first time realized that one has to acknowledge the limitations of the whole-parts relation in order to arrive at a proper understanding of the nature of a differentiated society - where only municipalities and provinces are genuine parts of the state - and not also every non-state societal collectivity as well (such as business enterprises, schools, families and sport clubs.

14) Ultimately the opposition of individual and society is therefore a serious "category-mistake." The broader Western heritage tends to identify any societal collectivity with its office bearers (for example, the term "state" is frequently simply understood to refer to the "government") without realizing that the state is constituted by the 'public', i.e., by citizens (albeit in the role of government or as subjects).

As an overall summary we may say that since the human person functions in all aspects of reality (including the social) and because an individual plays a distinct role in diverse societal entities without being fully absorbed in any modal function or any social role and without being transformed into a "sphere of life" on its own, the distinction between 'individual' and 'society' turned out to be untenable and in fact is burdened by a serious and misleading category-mistake.

Articles on "Individual and Society" - by D.F.M. Strauss

During the past decade I have published 4 articles on this issue (in sociological journals).

Is it meaningful to juxtapose "individual" and "society"? Society in Transition. 2002;33(1):96-115.

Transcending the impasse of individualism and universalism in sociological theory, Society in Transition. 2004, 35(1), pp.165-182.

Beyond the opposition of individual and society, Part I, Acknowledging the constitutive social function of being an individual and 'de-totalizing' the idea of 'society', South African Review of Sociology, 2006, Vol.37, No.2:143-164.

Beyond the opposition of individual and society, Part II, The 'category-mistake' entailed in this opposition, South African Review of Sociology, 2007, Vol.38 No.1:1-19.

Copyright (c) 2010 D.F.M. Strauss. Used with permsision.

This page is part of a collection that discusses issues that arise as a result of Herman Dooyeweerd's ideas, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

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Created: 23 June 2010 Last updated: