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37 responses to “Are we ever more individual? Or is that the wrong question? A historical sociology of interiority and ascesis”

  1. Paul Norton

    A question, Mark. Jaspers’ Axial Age took place in the civilisations of the Persians, Indians and Chinese as well as those of the Hebrews and classical Greeks. Does Strouma’s “End of Sacrifice” also have Eastern manifestations?

  2. Roger Jones

    I don’t think we can ask these questions without seriously asking the same questions of say, China and the east. Using two large, and largely independent crucibles of civilization makes so much more sense, or else it’s just western, not worldly.

  3. Mark Bahnisch

    I’ll kind of answer both.

    Paul – no, although obviously Strouma is making a strong argument for the prefiguration of the ‘end of sacrifice’ and a different relation to interiority having its origin in post Prophetic Judaism, with the end of the Temple being a sort of catalyst. It could equally be argued, and people like Judith Herrin do, that Mohammed was the real innovator a few centuries later.

    Roger, the question is always the basic Weberian one – at what point did ‘the West’ come to dominate? There are a million answers to that. Some would deny the meaning of the question. But I am not sure, and I think Weber in a sense can be invoked here, that the belief that interdependence between different civilisational crucibles is as justified as we usually believe it to be.

  4. jules

    An emptying out of self, and a consciousness that’s more relational providing the content for the ascetic surface self?

    Are you talking about sharing and retweeting?

  5. Paul Norton

    One of the purported differences between East and West that is often commented on relates to the obligation of the individual to a wider collectivity. In China the dominant ethical system, Confucianism, emphasises filial loyalty and the extension of kindness, respect, obligation, loyalty, etc., to one’s family rather than to a wider collectivity, whereas the dominant ethical system in the West – Christianity and its wider influence – emphasises extension of compassion and ethical obligation to the whole of humanity (the Chinese school known as Mohism was, as I understand it, similar to Christianity in this respect).

  6. Tim Macknay

    Connectivity, I’d suggest, attunes us more to the other and to the others, or can. (Note that I am not writing normatively – I am not saying that is a ‘good thing’). Thus, we can be ever more conscious of what others and particular others are thinking, moment by moment. Is there an ascesis here? An emptying out of self, and a consciousness that’s more relational providing the content for the ascetic surface self?

    Jariod Lanier argues that many current incarnations of social media, like Google search, Wikipedia and so forth, promote a kind of de-individuating collectivism that he sees as destructive of originality and creativity. He calls it “digital maoism”.

  7. Katz

    Thus, we can be ever more conscious of what others and particular others are thinking, moment by moment.


    It is true that we know much more through connectivity about how others represent themselves. But is self-representation the same as thought?

    If it is, then the future looks bleak for con artists. But I’m not aware of any diminution of the success of grifters. Exhibit A: the GFC.

  8. FDB

    Are you talking about sharing and retweeting?


  9. wmmbb

    It seems that the concession might be made that animals have consciousness. The noises they have been making all along must have escaped somebody’e attention.

    So what is the relationship between consciousness, matter and energy? That answer should be a breeze given what is now known of the Cosmos does not subsist in the spectrum of visible energy. Then the usefulness of tools is understood before their social possibilities.

    What does it say about human beings that they seek to communicate with exterior worlds and projected life forms far beyond their own? These efforts seem to have been met with a stony silence? Could this be ground for self-reflection?

  10. Golly Gosh

    Thus, we can be ever more conscious of what others and particular others are thinking, moment by moment.

    Hence #Donglegate. Well, somebody had to mention it.

  11. Roger Jones


    after reading Confucius, its clear than what is regarded as Confucianism is a bowdlerised version of what he was on about. His writings shows he was very deeply informed in both human psychology and philosophy as a way of living. I was more thinking about how humans are regarded in different traditions. In the east, the interiorisation of the self is as strong or stronger than in the west and this goes back a long way.

    Religions are social technologies and are a combination of historical accident, social norms, and purpose defined as some vision or goal. So claims for an influence of Christianity or any other major tradition’s influence on human history can only be unique if they are – otherwise the reason lies elsewhere.

  12. tigtog

    Golly Gosh, you know that’s off-topic on this post. If you want to take it to Overflow, you might like to read this first.

  13. Golly Gosh

    [Moderator note: now is the time to take ALL further mention of this side-discussion to Overflow]

  14. paul burns

    But for the exemplary figures of ancient and then early medieval Christianity, the martyr and then the monk, the self was to be annihilated. In that way, the self would be filled with the Divine.

    I f I remember rightly – I haven’t taken the books out of my bookcase to check the exact quotes and its quite a lengthy hypothesis that he expounds, I think in at least 2 of his works – Peter Brown suggests that this concept of annihilation of the self was restricted among the early Christians to what we nowadays call the Church Fathers, though I think he is interested in a broader phenomenon as well. This is probably because our main sources for the Church in Late Antiquity and the early early Middle Ages are drawn from the Patristic writings. (I wouldn’t include historians like Gregory of Tours or Paul the Deacon etc, who belong to a slightly later period of the early Middle Ages.) But you know the mob I’m referring to.
    I do note that you have covered the exclusivity of the phenomenon with ‘exemplary’.
    It was not an attitude necessarily felt in the wider Church. Augustine is a good example of the wider church in his Confessions where his early life seems to be an amalgam of Christianity, Manicheanism (which I read as an early Christian heresy under Persian influences), and Neo-Platonism, plus a smidgin of paganism (with all the difficulties inherent in attempting to define the latter).

  15. alfred venison

    actually, his name is spelled: “Stroumsa”.

  16. jules

    Given the internet is turning into more of an echo chamber all the time, and the people who have access to the internet and other connectivity devices are from really what is a pretty homogenous group, usually defined by language. (eg how many of us were reading tweets in arabic during the Egyptian uprising 2 years ago?)

    How attuned is connectivity making us to “the other” (whatever that is) and others? How attuned are connectivity people to the people Henry Okah claims to represent (for example)?

    Traditionally some of those axial movements approached the other by a serious examination of the self and what it actually was, leading to some bizarre, and in many ways “religious” conclusions. Some involved serious physical disciplines aimed at things like dyhana – union with “the other” an object allegedly outside oneself, or samadhi – union with all things allegedly “outside” oneself.

    Modern connectivity isn’t quite the same thing.

    Although there probably are similarities between mantra based meditation and mindless retweeting and sharing of stuff. Mantra’s are sposed to shut down the “conscious” mind and its non stop chattering by drowning out conscious thought with a repetitive rhythmic series of words that lose their meaning with continued repetition. usually they’re religious or sacred terms, while sharing “memes” or nationalist bullshit isn’t quite the same thing the process looks pretty similar, at least to me.

  17. faustusnotes

    Japanese still do sacrifices, and I think it’s a significant part of their cultural expression, not just in religion (where sacrifice is bog-standard) but in work and play too. Even suicide here can take on an element of sacrifice. So I’m not sure that they can be said to have moved past this pre-axial age. Though it’s worth noting that Shinto is a fundamentally pagan practice, so it’s not surprising. But I think the discussion of axial ages might be a little too christian-centric.

    Also, do we really know to what extent “inner” devotion existed in the pre-axial age? For example, there is basically nothing written about pre-Roman Britain, we have no idea to what extent they did sacrifice vs. interior reflection. It could be that there are no great ascetic theorists because there is simply no history from that time. Furthermore, much of Christian ritual in Britain and western Europe simply incorporated pagan ritual – so maybe it is still sacrificial, just doesn’t appear that way to those inside it?

  18. Brian

    Jules, I speak as one who in the 1980s attended weekly yoga classes, and practised in between. We learnt a number of mind exercises and meditation techniques. Around that time I also did a study of meditation techniques as part of a uni assignment.

    I tried the mantra thing myself, but it didn’t work. In TM the mantra is assigned by a guru. I selected my own and was constantly distracted by wondering whether it was the right one, or the best.

    In 2001 I attended an 8-week series (2 hours each week) ‘introduction to yoga’ course run at the Wesley Hospital as part of my post-op rehabilitation from major heart surgery. We tried watching a flame without blinking until the tears roll down you face and then some. One night we also chanted “ommmm” in unison.

    None of these techniques stop you from being aware of yourself. It’s the other way around if anything. What they do is concentrate attention on a single point, or activity, to the exclusion of the restless wandering that is typical. In particular, meaning is evacuated. You are very aware of what you are doing, but not thinking about it.

    The result is a more centred and able self, able to transact the world in a more relaxed and effective fashion. When my wife and I were both doing yoga in the 1980s (in separate courses) it was very positive for our relationship. Then we had a child…, but we’re still all good.

    Anyway that’s my tuppence-worth.

    The teacher also told us about a two-week retreat available at the time at Eumundi, I think, the centre-piece of which was 10 days where you said nothing at all, but meditated in company with others all day.

    From memory he told us that people typically did a lot crying, but at the end were more in tune with themselves and ready to tackle the world. The social setting was apparently an essential part. I don’t have any knowledge of the meditation techniques used in this case.

  19. Paul Norton

    The Japanese practice a ritual of public self-immolation known as karaoke.

  20. Brian

    faustusnotes, I understand that ancient Sanskrit has many, many terms for states of mind, but if we know about them they would date from around the first axial age at the latest or we wouldn’t know about them.

    One trick would be to look at linguistic studies to see whether common terms show up in different language groups but I doubt you would get much joy out of it as there aren’t all that many words to go on. In the book I read there was said to be a single male, sky-god in proto-IndoEuropean language, dating from about 3000 – 4000 BCE.

    Others might know more.

  21. jules

    None of these techniques stop you from being aware of yourself. It’s the other way around if anything. What they do is concentrate attention on a single point, or activity, to the exclusion of the restless wandering that is typical. In particular, meaning is evacuated. You are very aware of what you are doing, but not thinking about it.

    Cheers Brian. That is a far clearer description of what I was trying to convey. And that is the point of those exercises, becoming aware of how you are aware of whatever is going on.

    We tried watching a flame without blinking until the tears roll down you face and then some.

    I had one experience doing that exercise that was profoundly strange. It was the only time I managed to keep up the staring past all the distractions etc etc – lost track of time during it, but not of the candle flame or the process of staring. I can certainly see how the idea of Dhyana came about.

    I also have a friend who did the 10 day silence retreat. It was a Vipassan? movement one iirc. The changes in my friend were noticeable and 15 or 20 years later, definitely lasted and were definitely for the better. Noticeably clearer, calmer and more able self as a result of it. He’s much more pleasant to be around, and incredibly considerate.

  22. Brian

    jules, thanks for that. Re the retreat, he told us about a woman, could have been his mother-in-law but don’t hold me to it, who was a fairly fundamentalist Catholic who complained to her priest when she heard about it. The priest recommended that she take the course, which she did, became more flexible and considerate in her approach and went back for a repeat!

    I thought about it, can’t afford the time and also my lower back is in the kind of shape that would get me excused from jury service.

    The flame exercise was a bit problematic because we were in aircon and you don’t get a steady flame.

  23. paul walter

    The thread was building nicely till after #11; I really get the feeling Roger Jones is someone I’d like hear more of as to the topic.
    No more comment from me, too much of epistemology, metaphysics, ontology and other ologies involved over a long time span involving various civilisations within civilisation to even begin to know where and how to comment, without some sort of further lead-in from someone brighter.

  24. Katz

    Roger @ 11

    So claims for an influence of Christianity or any other major tradition’s influence on human history can only be unique if they are – otherwise the reason lies elsewhere.

    But the fact is that Hobbesianism and Lockeanism, the two great expositions of possessive individualism, arose in a context of Protestant Christian intellectual ferment. Such thought would have been inconceivable in any other contemporary or prior cultural setting.

    These ideologies stirred up Christian cultures but they profoundly disrupted other cultures.

    Possessive individualism became the prime engine of political, social and cultural change worldwide, especially in how it provoked a rethinking and a reframing of its corollaries — novel forms of collectivism.

    It cannot be argued that Christianity was the unique setting for the upsurge of possessive individualism.

  25. jules

    So the free market is Jesus’ fault Katz?

  26. wmmb

    Just a comment.

    Our awareness of fundamental change in the relationship to our selves, and to others, may be muted, but nonetheless there is supporting objective evidence. Experience with “spiritual practices”, such as mediation and mantras, might suggest that market relationships and dynamics, with their supporting physical and social technologies, have disconnected people from older mystical traditions.

    Are mystical experiences real? Are they validated by the realization of a true self? Can objective materialism, and by implication a disconnected individualism, subsist in modern scientific understanding? One specific example is the discovery of mirror neurons.

    Even if we do not understand the underlying science, we understand what the science does. For example, our perspective for those of us alive was transformed by the photos of the Earth from the Moon. Connectivity and communication increases the speed of change. So this new and qualitatively different Axial Age, if we human beings survive it, will not take a leisurely 600 years.

  27. Brian

    wmmb, I don’t understand all that, but on mystical experiences, I can’t speak from experience but I’ve always understood that mystical experience can’t be communicated in language. But I’ve heard it described as an ‘oceanic’ experience.

    Recently the New Scientist had a special issue on the self, including an article When the self breaks (may be paywalled, I’m logged in right now). It includes this:

    One of the most reliable – and reversible – ways to alter your sense of self is to ingest psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

    Alongside sensory distortions such as visual hallucinations, a common psychedelic experience is a feeling that the boundary between one’s self and the rest of the world is dissolving. A team led by David Nutt of Imperial College London recently discovered why: psilocybin causes a reduction in activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain thought to be involved in integrating perception and the sense of self. It was assumed that psychedelics worked by increasing brain activity; it seems the opposite is true (PNAS, vol 109, p 2138).

    I think that research may be described here.

    So in short, we have a centre in the brain that is thought to be involved in integrating perceptions in a way that constructs our sense of self. When this centre is chemically inhibited people experience an oceanic experience. Here is a personal account.

    So this perhaps mystical experience involves inhibiting a sense of self forming rather than going beyond it.

    To me it’s a fair bet that what’s happening in meditation and mystical experiences is different, but I wouldn’t know.

  28. Brian

    Another article by Michael Bond in the New Scientist special issue made a lot of sense to me. It suggests that a very basic activity, which starts virtually from birth, is connecting with other people. Through connecting and relating we build a sense of self. So the self is created and invested in meaning within the social context.

    So if you are in a culture that emphasises individuality, that will inform your sense of self. Individual autonomy is a central concern in the early childhood stage. The suggestion is that in cultures where where individual autonomy is emphasised, there will be more difficulty in the “terrible twos”.

    I think an important point is that where ‘interiority’ is emphasised, the content of that interiority may not be individualism so much as a social/historical orientation. I think Roger Jones may have been saying something similar @ 11.

  29. wmmb

    Sorry Brian if I my comment unintentionally lacked clarity.

    I attempting to suggest that the adoption of mystical practice was evidence that the mystical tradition in the West had, if not fully lost, been marginalized, and that it was more accessible in other cultures. I was merely supporting the underdogs from the ravages of the Enlightenment, whose disciples included among others Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

    You may be interested in this paper, which suggests on the basis of reports from mystics that the brain chemistry of LSD experience is similar. It is observable that avatars such as the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad put them through themselves through extreme physical trials. It seems that LSD would have worked just at well – or maybe not.

    Could the practice of meditation have a more prosaic purpose, such as an ingredient in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence? Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999), who founded The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in California, wrote of dealing with anger, and similar emotional reactions. The self-transcendent aspect of meditation in this frame is the claim that negative emotions can be channeled to positive ends.

  30. Paul Norton

    Katz @26, I’m inclined to think that possessive individualism as manifested in the economic behaviour of the emergent bourgeoisie of northern Europe predated Hobbes, Locke and the dissemination of those gentlemen’s ideas to the extent necessary to substantially affect social behaviour. Jules @27, Jesus was a Wobbly.

  31. Katz

    PN it is doubtless that pioneers and outliers existed pre- H and L.

    It is simplistic and naive to imply that H and L simply copied down what was already being practised in Northern Europe. And I don’t think that is what you are implying. But it is necessary to recognise what to their contemporaries was truly shocking and novel in H and L’s ideas.

    The important feature of Locke’s ideas is how thoroughly they were incorporated into construction of the political economy of Britain and the colonies and later states and the Constitution of the US. This intellectual and institutional revolution took place peacefully in the white, Protestant communities of Britain and America. Their consequences for the colonised and the enslaved were, however, dire.

  32. Brian

    wmmb, I haven’t kept up with her, but some years ago Susan Blackmore was out here on a tour. She spent a couple of decades exploring various psychic states. I recall that one of her big messages was that you could artificially induce most if not all psychic states, but the content of the experience was unique to yourself and could not be predetermined.

    In this article she talks of using LSD. There is far more to using it positively than just popping a pill. Basically you need guidance or you might do yourself serious damage.

    Her take is that in forming your ‘self’ you build it up through snatches of memory and reflection, comparison with others etc. In the process you form a narrative or concept of an acting “I” which is basically an abstraction, she says an illusion. I would add that it is always changing.

  33. jules

    Paul N @ 32.

    Thats what I would have thought actually. (Not that the free markets is really free. I can’t buy slaves or sell crystal meth.)

    Brian I spent a bit of time in the 90s doing what I’ll call study of mystical (or whatever) states of mind, and I didn’t neglect drug induced ones.

    The most challenging part of that article was finding there’s a wikipedia page on psychonautics. For one thing it should be called “psychonauties” cos that other word is way too pretentious and lacks the humour you need to do any of that stuff and not lose the plot.

    Its a very good article, and does justice to the difficulty and seriousness of exploring yourself and your perception of reality with those substances. Its not just LSD, any powerful psychedelic leaves you no where to hide, and no where to hide the stuff you hide from yourself, (which is nearly the same thing.)

    For myself I used to face terrible scenes of torture, rape and other kinds of human cruelty. I do not know why, but I found myself imagining them again and again both in meditation and with drugs. Perhaps like most people, I began by fighting them and trying to push them away, but LSD will not let you push anything away. You have to face it. And this is, I think, what makes it the ultimate psychedelic. There is no hiding with LSD. You have to face whatever comes up or be overwhelmed by it.

    I faced the fact that I could not blame the drug nor anyone else for my visions, and certainly not for the worst fact of all – that such cruelty has always happened and is happening somewhere even now. Ultimately I confronted the fact that I was not fundamentally different from either the torturers or the tortured, that I had in myself strains of cruelty and hatred that might, under other circumstances, lead me to be the perpetrator as well as the sufferer.

    This is very true. Those others aren’t monsters, they’re us. The worst of humanity is a potential everyone carries with them. if you can’t see yourself detonating a suicide bomb or being a guard at any of the death camps humans have built over the years then you’re fooling yourself, cos that potential is in everyone and unless you understand and determine not let it happen then you’ll be vulnerable to it. If you can’t know in yourself what would turn you into a monster, then how will you stop yourself if those circumstances arise?

    I dunno if you need psychedelics to understand that, to know it in your gut and your bones but we have no cultural institutions that teach it.

  34. Brian

    jules, I recall being told that the German writer Goethe said something like that. But then I don’t think he really sorted himself out, because it’s said that in later years he had trouble coping with The Sorrows of Young Werther which he wrote in his youth.

  35. paul burns

    Well, I rather read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Zola, Balzac, Austen, Emily and Anne Bronte, Hemingway, Carey, White, etc etc etc etc for insights into the human condition than take LSD. Just sayin’.

  36. wmmb

    This interpretation of the Crucifixion by Howard Bess may be of interest.

    The case is made that JC upset the banksters in the Temple to stop animal sacrifices. JC, it is claimed, went to the Temple as an insurgent to overturn a way of life, to stop both the animal sacrifice the money that resulted from it. These sacrifices were the reason Solomon had built the temple. This version of events, accepted by the John’s Gospel was reinterpreted by “Latinized Christianity”, so that JC became symbolically “the sacrificial lamb”.

    If correct, this interpretation suggests a counter-revolution to the Axial Age. So maybe, in the West, individualism is rediscovered at the time of the Renaissance, along with perspective in art, with reference to the actual Greek and Latin texts and the emergence of banking, trade and urban life? ( Of course, now I look, this is mostly conventional wisdom.) This individualism was not twined with ascesis and eventually coupled with objective science of moving objects gives rise to materialism and shopping, as a form of identity?

  37. Matt in the Springs

    I think that the answer to the original question is “no” and to the second “yes”. I think we are no more individual than we have ever been, and that focusing the question around this is the wrong way to understand what is going on in our society.

    Instead I think that we should focus more attention on why sociological understandings of the self are giving way to psychological understandings. In framing this as the important question this I am drawing on the work of Mead, Dewey, Blumer and more latterly Kathryn Pyne Addelson (KPA for short) (http://foresighteandtheentangledbank.com/) who are more interested to chart how the self emerges in social action (i.e. that groups are ontologically prior to individuals). For it is in the realm of social action that not only does the self emerge (and noting here that it is not fixed and cannot be
    “found” inside) but that we do the important work of making and remaking society. To focus on whether we are more individual, and then trying to work out what “forces” are at work to create this (as in axial ages) distracts us from how we do our (social) work in the here and now, and in consequence become who we are (and in so do doing participate in the ongoing creation of society).

    So for me the more pressing question is not “who we really are” or “where is my self located” or any questions that have a psychological focus, but what are the social and political issues that lie in front of us- how are we to live? In this way we participate in an alternative ethical framing to the epistemological individualism that underlies modern Western thought, which in turn allows us to participate in the world differently. It is such questions that a focus on individualism obscures.

    I think also the points that KPA makes in the “past and future” tabs of her website (drawing on Halbwachs) of the work that historians do are relevant here, particularly if notions of axial ages are to be invoked.