01 October 2008

Particularism: an articulation

The French philosopher and writer Paul Nizan declared that he rejected ‘all humanist mythology that speaks of an abstract man and ignores the real state of his life.’ I will add that this real state is the particular state of any individual’s existence. Idiosyncrasy is what defines each member of the human species. To appraise one is to appraise him alone. One must guard against the common tendency to reference generalities and refrain from extrapolating a larger, but fuzzier, idea from the known details. One should strive for accuracy.

In counterpoint to Nizan, his more famous compatriot Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that ‘every human endeavour, however singular it seems, involves the whole human race.’ Now here we have an example of the ‘abstract man’ myth Nizan rejected. So every single act of the individual involves the whole human race? And on what empirical evidence did Sartre base his grand statement? It’s a poetic declaration but one hardly demonstrable by a rigorous scientific method.

Particularism acknowledges the inescapable condition of existential aloneness. For all the cultural, technological and linguistic means of communication we possess, there is always a gap, often a chasm, that we bridge in every communication. There is no escaping the fact that as solitary beings existing in time and space and possessing a mental life, each one of us is an island. We can build walkways to other islands, even swim or sail to them, but all these islands remain so. From our birth to our death, our inner reality is watertight and never bleeds out into the external world for others to know it as we do. Every attempt at communicating, at describing one’s subjective experience to another necessarily involves a leap across the existential gap separating two minds. Not every communication makes the leap and those that do are inevitably modified by the subjectivity of the other person. Any intimate knowledge one may have of another person can only ever be approximate. Each of us irrefutably keeps a private sanctum of secrets in the mind, consciously or not. And what we do choose to share is inevitably corrupted through the fragile process of translation (from thoughts to words) and interpretation (from words to thoughts). The message we earnestly send to others may not be the one they receive. We are clumsier than we care to admit.

My life, like that of others, is a series of experiences, thoughts, emotions and sensations particular to myself and to any given time and place. The abstract structures underpinning my lived experience – economics, politics, law, media, social norms – are indeed present, whether I am conscious of them or not, but I am affected by and engage with these structures in a particular way, a relationship that is distinctive to my unique mental reality. To refer to any individual (or group of individuals) in all-encompassing abstract terms like ‘economic man’ or ‘social animal’ is to obliterate his particularity. It is to murder a life for the sake of a concept.

With our individual existential aloneness as a premise, it becomes obvious that any abstract, general concept of humanity is tenuous and presumptive. Given our personal limitations and finite resources, much of the ‘big picture’ of humanity that we have in our heads is necessarily cobbled together from second, even third-hand information. We construct an idea (or ideas) of humanity and our place in it based on mere trust; we gamble on the assumed veracity of writers, thinkers, scientists, artists, politicians and preachers. Our knowledge of others and of the world is largely the processed product of experts, authorities and personalities.

A particularist view of people sees their individual exceptionalism; each human being, each personality encountered, whether directly in the flesh or indirectly through reading or hearing of them, is approached as the singular entity that he is. There is no attempt to subsume a person’s particularity into a convenient stereotype or generalization. Complexity, circumstance and nuance are taken into account when evaluating a fellow human being. By this act one grants dignity to the other.

Master narratives and grand theories tend to rob the individual of his particular value by sweeping him into a giant dust pile with all the rest of his supposed kind. The certainty claimed by many ideologues is a false one; the only certainty is that I am my particular self, with my specific thoughts, emotions and sensations, living my idiosyncratic existence, being it. For each and every human being, this is irrefutably true for themselves.

How is particularism compatible with the validity of universal values? Does it even acknowledge such a thing as 'universal values'? Yes it does, for particularism isn’t relativism, and to answer the first question, universal values that draw their validity from humanity’s biological, psychological and social constitution (that is, values not arbitrarily created or supposedly prescribed by a higher authority) do apply to those particular circumstances where such values, whether truth, justice, integrity, compassion, courage, imagination or reason, are at issue. The point is to focus on that specific scenario and all its components without any superfluous recourse to generalities. Judge that man, appraise this situation, call to task this ignoble act without accusing a whole swathe of actors who have only a tenuous connection to the matter at hand.

Particularism is an approach to life that can remedy ills blighting humanity such as bigotry, racism, herd mentality, nationalism, collective scapegoating, stereotyping and the existential angst that comes with having too diluted a view of ideas/values and their importance relative to one’s life. Particularism advocates a much needed focus on the details, both in one’s own life and in the interaction with other individuals. It is not a philosophy of self-absorption, but one of cultivating an awareness of idiosyncrasy and complexity, of developing a sensitivity to specifics and context. Particularism acts as a moral guide that cautions us to beware the tempting convenience of generalities; it warns us against succumbing to the lure of ego-satisfaction at the cost of accuracy, even truth. To adopt a particularist view of others and of situations is not to deny that ‘commonness’ exists. There are indeed such things as popular culture and tastes, common denominators, shared ideas and interests, and solidarity. Yet as mentioned earlier these structures are engaged with by individuals in a manner particular to each one. No two minds will have an identical response to a specific stimulus, no matter how great the degree of their ‘resemblance’.

Our lack of omniscience imposes limits on what each of us can correctly know about any given subject. To be particular in one’s approach to knowledge, whether about the stranger you’ve just met or about the laws of thermodynamics, is to be honest. It is to rightfully declare that all I can know is based on the facts and specifics of the situation available to me. All else is simply conjecture masquerading as absolutes.


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