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Opposing Strains of Western Modernity: Situatedness and Separability

This paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

Whatever the ostensible theme of the September 2012 Telos conference, it seems the real one was the mess in the West. Has the West lost its pizzazz, gravitas, ability to guide? Have we become too secular, merely rational, and thus paradoxically ungrounded? Or are we not rational enough, our politics and economics still beset by emotional, quasi-religious beliefs?

From my perch, the West hasn’t lost anything but rather has gotten too much of what might be a good thing were there less of it. That thing is separability, and too much of it, untempered by situatedness, yields abandonment and anomie on one hand and selfishness on the other. Of course, too much situatedness would be equally damaging—oppressive and stultifying. It is the binary choice—separabilty or situatedness—that leads the West to the worst of itself. Thus what is needed are frameworks that foster the simultaneous presence of both. Here I’ll point to one, theologies of relationality.

First, a few definitions. The identity of the situated person emerges from her point in a nexus of relations; acculturation (roughly in what Bordieu called habitus) forms values, impulses, even rebellions. Localism, corporatism, and communitarianism are associated here. Certain normative claims emerge: One, that public policy should buttress societal groups. Two, some further claim that certain goods like health care or education are pervasively considered important and should be publicly financed. Three, some also claim that traditional communities carry extensive practical wisdom and should thus change only slowly.

The separable person, by contrast, is a completed entity who, while having been acculturated somewhere, has the mobility and freedom to physically and mentally leave that place to follow the ideas and opportunities of her choice. The normative claims include that public policy should foster benefits to the individual regardless of background—the jewel in the crown being human rights and equality before the law. Some hold further that institutions should recede to allow the individual maximum options. Negative liberty and rights-based legal systems are associated here.

To partake of the West’s heritage is not to choose one or the other but to be situated in a meld of the two. Indeed, linchpin thinkers who are claimed for one side or the other have often relied on just this sort of melding. A few examples: Thomas Hobbes is considered a linchpin of the separable self for his political hermeneutic of the solitary if fearful individual who cedes sovereignty for peace. Yet he is a melder, not because of his leviathan sovereign but because his ideal state depends on citizens possessing traditional western virtues—self-knowledge, justice, gratitude, modesty, equity, and mercy—so that they are able to control fear and selfish appetite. Locke, for all his individualist contractarianism, holds that similar virtues are necessary to live under the conditions of liberty—among them, religious toleration, justice, industry, truthfulness, and the submission of passion to reason, which must be nurtured by societal institutions, first in the family and should the father die, the state must step in. Adam Smith, who may have thought the market could regulate itself, did not think that persons alone could regulate themselves. He held that one is guided to act lawfully and morally in communities. And Kant—for all his search for a morality independent of convention—nonetheless held that “practical anthropology” (the conventional forms of social, political, and legal systems) is needed to foster in people the ability to quell self-interest and autonomously choose moral law.

Even the supposedly individualist utilitarian J.S. Mill noted that man’s ability to live in liberty relies on certain virtues forged by robust engagement in local government and voluntary associations (serving the public good) and by the family, state-backed schools, and churches. More recently, John Rawls’s scheme for setting up society—the “original position” and “veil of ignorance”—seems to posit a being that is not only separable but hypothetical, part of no society or culture. But when one designs a society according to Rawls’s rules, one is not valueless. Designing a “fair and just” society—Rawls’s mandate—requires that people draw on the very ideas of justice and fairness they have learned in their communities. Rawls’s own two conditions for just societies[1] are hardly valueless. They require substantial inalienable rights and equality of opportunity—separablity—and his economic “difference principle” mandates significant advantage for society’s less well off —situatedness.

In sum, these thinkers, ostensible champions of individualist freedom and separability, nonetheless assumed significant roles for situatedness—in particular, for traditional western virtues, family, religion, and certain state institutions. They assumed also that working toward the public good was one of the key things people did with their (free) time.

In turn, thinkers considered situatedness-advocates also propose a meld. Edmund Burke praised not only situatedness but the situations of one’s forefathers with but slow change. He thought traditional, gentlemanly virtue knits society together as abstract legal rights could not. And he—a commoner—roundly censured members of the House of Lords who failed to so behave. But this is separability. Burke held that virtue and talent are found among commoners, who may criticize their “betters.” Moreover, he understood that, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”[2] In the generations following, Romanticism reveled in the importance of community, land, culture, and language, yet it did not abandon separability. It rather flipped the argument on its head, arguing for each person’s individual rights and opportunities not on the grounds of the abstract law entitled to separable persons but on the grounds that each person is culturally unique. As the Romantics championed each people’s language and culture (situatedness), each group and then subgroup and sub-sub-group, they ended in advancing the individual life, especially the artist and non-conformist (separability).

We can follow this mix of separability and situatedness in nineteenth-century nationalist movements, which saw individual rights (separability) at one with national self-determination (a situatedness claim). And we can continue with the late nineteenth-century structural anthropologists and twentieth-century deconstructionists, who—for all their investigation of mankind’s situatedness in discourses, habitus, etc.—nonetheless assume inalienable rights and much of the separability of present-day life. For all their de-centering and deconstructing of the humanist subject into flux in a discourse, even Gilles Deleuze and Luce Irigary signed their books.

Recent thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Sandel charge current, neo-liberal separability with alienation and economic selfishness and seek a return to greater situatedness (community/corporatist associations and responsibility for others). Nonetheless, Sandel also holds also that a person can re-assess and change her community-formed goals. While MacIntyre emphasizes the “embedded self,” he also insists that individuals come to their own moral standards.[3] Indeed, he is counting on our ability to separate from present separability to return to situatedness. Taylor holds that each person is formed by community, which she must nourish. But he is also concerned that if she doesn’t, the West will lose its prized aspect, separability, or in his words, “freedom and individual diversity.”[4]

This mix is the legacy of Western modernity for the good reason that when a meld gives way to one or the other, we get a mess in the West. Untempered situatedness yields oppression (situatedness enforced from above) or conformity (by the crowd). Unconstrained separability yields a value-less-ness that hobbles our ability to choose one life course over another and vitiates the networks, public policies, and institutions that enable us to realize our goals. We are left with little opportunity to pursue opportunity. And it risks a self that is as self-absorbed as the Goldman Sachs analysts described in Greg Smith’s New York Times article, “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs”: “toxic and destructive,” concerned only with making money off clients, and devoid of “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.”[5]

When today, extensive separability is projected back as the core value of all modernity, we tar four centuries of thoughtful mixing with the separability-enthusiasm of neo-liberal finance. The heritage of the West has been debate about the ideal mix, but debate assumes both. Together they suggest a self that is not selfish, communities that can change, and people who can change communities (opt in, opt out).

Thus frameworks are needed that sustain the meld. Theologies of relationality are hardly the only ones, but they offer an enduring, robust structure for maintaining both even when the selfish sort of separability or oppressing situatedness seem appealing. On one hand, the Protestant emphasis on self-responsibility and individual conscience was a foundation of separability in early modern Europe. Concepts key include: the worth of each individual (made in God’s image and not sacrifice-able for the group), the individual’s personal relationship with God, the mandate to individualist Bible reading, the priesthood of all believers (and thus a strong role for the individual), and self-responsible striving. While this striving initially meant seeking moral betterment, striving itself became a muscle well-exercised and applied to many arenas of life, including the political and economic.[6] But in modern Europe, economic and political striving required release from feudal, legal, and economic bonds. The slow shift toward this release—despite resistance against land enclosure—created modern separability. Finally, the Protestant emphasis on self-reliance was reinforced in the dissenting sects by the persecution they faced by Europe’s states and state churches. In America, it was reinforced further by the rough conditions of settlement, where survival depended on can-do individualism and voluntarist associationism.

Yet, though theologies of relationality cherish the separable person, they do not allow the self to end in self-absorption. They guide one toward an ethics of situatedness, to the formation of relationships and institutions so that conditions wrought by separability may be re-wrought when they neglect, impoverish, or violate the common good.

This ethics emerges first from commitment to traditional wisdom—transcendent texts that historicize current assumptions and offer ideas outside the contemporary range. For instance, “The first task of the church [the community that reads a transcendent holy book],” the theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, is “. . . to exhibit in our common life the kind of community possible when trust, and not fear, rules our lives . . . what a politics of trust can be like.”[7] A polity of trust is indeed outside present political discourse. The alternative of the undefensive polity of trust is found in the transcendent Deuteronimic text, “Choose life, the way of God” (30:19). For the way of God means to trust and care for each other as God does for us.

This is a key link between the separable person—each valued by God, each worthy of dignity and rights—and her situatedness in relationships and practices that care for others and the common good: love among mankind is constituent of loving God. In the Judaic tradition, this idea is found not only in provisions for the poor but fundamentally in the idea of brit or Abrahamic covenant, which binds man to God in a promise of eternal, love, trust, and mutual care, which we are then to extend to others. In the Christian covenant, it is found in the principles of justification, where serving others—being right or justified with them—is constituent of being justified with God.[8] This sort of thinking distinguishes itself from traditions that separate serving others from salvation/justification—a split that usually locates the aid emphasis in Jesus and the salvific emphasis in Paul. In theologies of relationality, these are twined. Indeed in Paul, the unity of the God-of-salvation and the God-of-agapic-giving is firmly forged. Corinthians I, 13: 2-3 is representative: “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Covenant between God and man is made possible by grace, chesed or chen (Hebrew), charis (Greek). Grace allows for a covenant/relationship with God, which is also a template for relationship among men. Relationality is thus dyadic and an inclusive loop—an idea elaborated in the relationality of the Trinity and Eucharist. Partaking of the latter binds each person to God—indeed, places her in the body of Christ. Yet in doing so, community is created, for embedded in one body, we cannot neglect any part of it, any person. In the traditional formulation: no eye can neglect a hand.[9] Being in the body of Christ is being in the communal body. If we fail at one (community, service), we will not succeed at the other (salvation).

In Paul, resurrection too is linked with the salvific/agapic meld. Jesus’ resurrection and offer of eternal life show God’s love for us, but they also guide us to how we should love each other. For the offer of salvation/eternal life scuttles the scarcity-competitive mode of living that comes with fear of death. Though confined to history and earth, we yet remain in a more enduring life and so we can let go of competition and fear, with their eternal return of Hobbesian conflict. We may act toward each other with agape.

And so the eschaton changes the polis—in the private sphere but also at the societal level, as a basis for socio-economic networks. Indeed, this was Jesus’ idea of how man would build a polity of love and trust. In it, the individual is not subsumed but remains of prime worth on her own. Yet because of that worth, each person is responsible for building networks of giving and resource-distribution for others whom God loves. “The point is,” Tri Robinson, pastor of an Idaho church explained, “if healing the brokenhearted, setting the captives free and ministering to the poor was his [Jesus’] job description [in Isaiah 61] then we believe it is ours as well.”[10]

At present, theologies of relationality ground considerable activism in environmental protection and poverty reduction. As I have described this work in other Telos articles, I’ll conclude by saying that in my field research, I met people who came to theological melds of separability and situatedness through their families and traditions—through their situatedness. I met others who had moved quite far from their natal communities and traditions to come to their meld—that is, they came to it through separability.


1. (1) “each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic right and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all”; and (2) “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and, second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.”

2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, vol. 3 (London: John. C. Nimmo, 1899), pp. 259–60.

3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Duckworth, 1981), p. 205.

4. Charles Taylor, “Atomism,” in Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit, eds. Communitarianism and Individualism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992), p. 47.

5. Greg Smith, “Why I am leaving Goldman Sachs,” New York Times, March 14, 2012.

6. This shares some ground with Troeltsch and Weber’s analyses of Protestantism’s rationalization of life but looks more closely at the psycho-social and cultural results of individual effort.

7. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 85–86.

8. In his description of the Last Judgment, Jesus note that those who are justified with God are those who loved man—first, the man who was Jesus but then all those in need, as Jesus explained, “whenever they did it to the least of these brothers and sisters, they did it to me” (Matthew 25: 40).

9. “Because there is one bread [Eucharist], we who are many are one body” (I Cor. 10: 16-17).

10. Interview with the author, May 1, 2009, Sept. 25, 2010.

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