TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Modernity and the Autonomous Individual

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, J. F. Dorahy looks at Joel Whitebook’s “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual,” from Telos 50 (Winter 1981).

Autonomy is, arguably, the most fundamental concept in the discursive constellation of modernity. If it is apposite, and I believe it is, to think in terms of the differentiation between political, socio-economic, and cultural modernities, then it is clear that the concept of autonomy—either with reference to the autonomous individual or the autonomous work of art—is a constitutive force within each sphere. In “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual,” Joel Whitebook offers a historically nuanced overview of the difficulties involved in thinking the “autonomous individual” under the conditions of a dynamic and increasingly complex modernity. Whitebook’s piece is wide-ranging and fuses a deep psychoanalytic insight with a robust sociological consciousness: a fusion that accompanies, to my mind, the best critical theory. To be sure, the many subtleties and divergences that emerge from Whitebook’s dialectic are resistant to a full reconstruction within this preview. Rather, I would like to simplify Whitebook’s account by drawing out the three historical epochs examined by Whitebook and say a few things regarding the key aspects of Whitebook’s reading of Marx and Freud and Adorno and Habermas as thinkers who most significantly appreciate the problematic nature of the modern, autonomous individual. Finally, I conclude by arguing for the innovative character of Whitebook’s thoughts regarding the centrality of affective relationships in the formation of the autonomous individual.

The Autonomous Individual in Pre-Modernity

The articulation of the above subtitle is deliberately paradoxical: as Whitebook states, prior to the epoch of modernity the “social substance” assumed both a temporal and a logical, or, an ontogenetic and a categorical priority over individuals. The social collectivity—Whitebook’s example is the Athenian polis—precedes individuals. It socializes them and provides them with a definite and coherent place within a strictly defined and meaningful cosmos. The social substance persists after individual death. In the following passage Whitebook brings to mind the tensions that accompany the priority of the polis:

What the individual gains from the existence of a meaningful, well-articulated cosmic and social order, he loses in the restrictions that order places on the possibilities for his personal development. The order may be secure and intelligible, but it is also constricting . . . the modern idea that the collectivity is somehow grounded in the will of the individual would have been inconceivable to most premodern people. As Hegel never tired of pointing out, Socrates’ presumption to have judged the traditions of the polis in the subjectivity of his proto-conscience spells the end of the cohesiveness of Athenian Sittlichkeit. (81)

By the late Middle Ages the collectivity no longer provided each and all with a specific and static social position: expanding economic markets and the burgeoning development of trade created a class of individuals “disembedded” from the feudal system who experienced for the first time the modern phenomenon of social mobility. These, and further, changes in the social fabric were reflected in the theoretical discourse of the time, and we witness the proliferation of social contract theorists who, according to Whitebook, attempt the “unprecedented” derivation of human society from “the multiplicity of atomistic individuals” (82). It is precisely this coalescence of sociological changes and theoretical problems that constitutes the “hermeneutic horizon” that encloses not only the thought of Kant and Hegel, but also that of Marx and Freud.

The Autonomous Individual in Modernity Proper: Marx and Freud

In contradistinction to thinkers of premodern epochs, those two inimitable and iconoclastic critics of modern bourgeois culture—Marx and Freud—begin, in Whitebook’s words, from the axiomatic assumption of the primacy of individual deliberation over and above the received traditions of domination and authority. Whitebook goes on to claim that it is their axiomatic certainty concerning the autonomous and rational subject that in a sense unites Marx and Freud as thinkers fundamentally orientated to human emancipation:

There is thus more to Marx and Freud’s dedication to science than their sometimes uncritical acceptance of the tenets of 19th-century positivism, for which they have been justly criticized. They were both scientists in the profounder sense of demythologizers: each insisted that the beliefs which not only rationalize individual and social unfreedom, but often make the burden of existence more bearable, be scrutinized before the tribunal of autonomous reason. ‘The critique of religion is the premise of all critique’ for both, and each wrote a work on religion that exemplifies their critical method. Despite its origins in a 19th-century sensibility, Marx and Freud’s disdain for parochial prejudice, sentimentality, mystification and cant are still to be admired. (82)

Such words can, I would argue, scarcely be rejected, however they do stand in need of some immediate clarification: neither Marx nor Freud is usually considered as a champion of the rationality and autonomy of individual agents. Rather, in comparison to a thinker such as Kant, Marx and Freud are often cast as two figures who, with their respective theories of ideology and the unconscious, fundamentally undermine the modern conception of the autonomous individual.

“Where the id was, ego shall be.” Freud’s statement represents, for Whitebook, a programmatic insistence of the normative validity of individual autonomy. However, Freud posits individual autonomy, not as a transcendental fact of consciousness, but as a goal, the realization of which is never taken for granted.

In comparison with his treatment of Freud, Whitebook’s reading of Marx as a theorist not only of modernity but also of the autonomous individual in modernity, is both more expansive and more original. Invoking a version of the central Marxian dichotomy of material content and social form, Whitebook emphatically construes Marx as an “enthusiastic advocate of modern civilization” (83). Whitebook then argues that the Marxian distinction between abstract and concrete individuality corresponds to the distinction made between the bourgeois form of modernity and the modern epoch as such. Thus, Whitebook concludes, it is grossly mistaken to attribute to Marx a critique of modern individuality per se; indeed, he goes on to argue that many significant and often “disastrous” practical-political mistakes of twentieth century find their genesis in precisely such a conception.

The Autonomous Individual in Late Modernity: Adorno and Habermas

As with his discussion of Marx and Freud, Whitebook’s treatment of the Frankfurt School begins by thinking through the important sociological changes that accompany the transition to late modernity. To this end, the thesis of the “end of the individual” plays a crucial role. The first generation of critical theorists argued that fundamental structural changes in the economy of late modernity—the shift from small, family-operated businesses to large scale corporations—had a severely undermining effect on the family structure, thereby dissolving the nexus of oedipal conflict. The ultimate consequences of the decline in patriarchal authority are present by Whitebook in the clearest terms:

This development is troublesome because the “direct socialization” of the young, which bypasses the “struggle with the father,” creates individuals less capable of autonomously mediating their relation to the social order, and therefore more susceptible to the manipulations of mass society. While the old critical theorists were well aware of the prices exacted by the attainment of that autonomy in terms of repression, guilt, neurosis, etc., the alternative was unquestionably more objectionable. (91–92)

Habermas’s attempt to re-think the thesis of the “end of the individual” provides, according to Whitebook, an ironic though nevertheless striking indication of the gulf that exists between the first and second generations of critical theory. According to Habermas, previous thinkers have failed to transpose the thesis of the “end of the individual” from the isolated experience of intellectuals to the realm of empirical verification. In attempting to consummate such a transposition, Habermas goes beyond the paradigm of socialization via the internalization of authority (for a full analysis of the problem of internalization see Jessica Benjamin’s classic piece entitled “The End of Internalization: Adorno’s Social Psychology,” published in Telos 32, Summer 1977, pp. 42–64) and formulates a theory of ethico-practical development in which ontogenetic and phylogenetic, individual and social, processes are paralleled.

Whitebook’s treatment of Habermas’s model of socialization is too detailed to address here. This is so largely because Habermas’s theses are situated against the perspective of the “counter-enlightenment” and evaluated with reference to the latter’s critique of modernity. There is, however, one important theme that I would like to raise, a point that is touched on by Whitebook but often falls from view due to the somewhat unfocused nature of his piece. Here I refer to the role of the affectively saturated impulse towards the transgression of ego boundaries in the formation and maintenance of individual autonomy. Whitebook introduces this theme early on in the piece via a long quote from Hans Loewald and returns to it in the final paragraph in a criticism of Habermas:

Habermas’s move from Freud to Piaget and Kohlberg aggravates a tendency that was already present in his interpretation of Freud: a systematic undervaluation of the drives. His attempt to correct the biologism of the early Frankfurt School has led him to a cognitivism which is equally one-sided. The best psychoanalytically oriented social theory has always dwelt in the tension between cognition and affect, biology and society, etc., and it is this tension that Habermas forgoes. For example, while the mastery of inner nature proceeds through the internalization of intersubjective norms, those norms are embodied in significant love objects that the child “introjects” through extremely corporeal fantasies. This process is generally accompanied by the most tempestuous feelings of love and hate. Development does not unfold with the orderliness that the rational reconstructions of cognitive psychology suggest. (102)

Here Whitebook raises a point that has only in recent years come to the forefront of critical theory, thus demonstrating a pioneering insight. In a series of papers, and his often criticized lectures on reification, Axel Honneth has convincingly attempted to incorporate the above insights, taken from object-relations theory, within his theory of recognition. Honneth has demonstrated the constitutive role that “affective recognition” plays in both the formation intersubjective bonds and in episodes of intersubjective and intrapsychic conflict. Although the theoretical differences between Whitebook and Honneth are well known, “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual” nevertheless offers, at times, an enlightening account of the genesis of one of today’s most significant areas of research.

Read the full version of Joel Whitebook’s “Saving the Subject: Modernity and the Problem of the Autonomous Individual” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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