Social Atomism and the Old World Order


One of the central problems of modern philosophy has been the formulation of an adequate account of justice. In its earliest forms this entailed providing a justification of state authority independent of divine right or natural heredity. What gives the State, or anyone else for that matter, the right to tell people what they can or cannot do?

While this may strike us today as an abstract, academic exercise, remote from the needs and interests of everyday life, we should keep in mind that in the eighteenth century it was the basis for two violent revolutions and a good deal of social unrest. To take just one (and perhaps the most obvious) example, the tensions that led to the French revolution were focused largely on the task of overturning centuries of class privilege enjoyed at the expense of the majority of people from whose labor the few managed to attain leisure, wealth and culture.

The motivation behind the Jacobin reforms advocated by Voltaire and others was to "uproot" the people, i.e. to do away with national history, collective identity, prejudice and the politics of heredity. All of these old values were to be replaced by a new contract based on the radical autonomy and individual equality of all "men" - a nation of "associates" - a union of wills governed by principles based on reason and universal justice. One's value would no longer be determined by one's place in the social order, which is to say by heredity, nor was it to be determined by divine right. It was, henceforth, to be a matter of one's intrinsic worth as a human being and a citizen working together in voluntary association with others for the common good. With this vision, a new nation and a new age was born.[1] And the tool used to build that new age was the concept of "the autonomous, unconnected, rational human individual".[2]

The founding fathers of the United States, whose own revolution was an inspiration to the French, were clearly influenced by European philosophy and a theory of human nature shaped by a long line of thinkers from Descartes, Hobbes and Locke, to Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Kant. Thus, American society inherited and encoded in its founding documents the principles of equality and individualism, transforming them into a new tradition with its own hierarchy of values and preferences. Philosophical theories can and often have played an influential role in social change. By critically examining the genealogy of the dominant philosophical concepts of the self and its relation to social and cultural forms, we can come to a clearer understanding of what shapes contemporary thinking about our own self-identities and our role in the struggle for a just and ethical society.


With the rise of individualism in the modern western world, the people who make up a society came increasingly to be thought of as independent and separate selves. This new conception of what it means to be a human being--a subject of experience--emerged from the radical changes taking place in the intellectual and social life of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe.

The success of observation and logical analysis in science led to a new vision of reality and the natural world. A new picture began to emerge--one that replaced the awkward alliance of Christian hermeneutics and Aristotelian teleology. Inspired by the example of innovators such as Copernicus and Galileo, and struggling to free himself from the constraint of having to reconcile the claims of astronomy with passages from the Bible, Descartes went beyond faith in attempting to rationally explain the world and our place in it by means of close analysis, definition, and logical deduction. His approach, he felt, was egalitarian--based on the belief that reason "is naturally equal in all men".[3] Rationality--the defining feature of "Man" and the key to unraveling the mysteries of life--was an intrinsic faculty of the mind that functioned independent of desire and the contingencies of material life.

Thomas Hobbes, who took politics apart with the analytic tools of the geometrician, developed a comprehensive and deductive argument to justify state authority and the social contract on which it was based. Adopting a thesis which he took to be self-evident, that all human beings have a natural right to self-preservation, and adding an additional premise regarding human psychology, that all human beings are motivated by a kind of enlightened self-interest, Hobbes concluded that the only rational way to live reasonably peaceful and productive lives would be for individuals, who are equally capable of inflicting harm on one another, to agree to refrain from interfering in one another's lives. But upholding this agreement would entail a compromise, that is, an exchange of one's total independence and a relinquishing of one's rights for a greater measure of security and dependence on another--the duly appointed sovereign--who was granted absolute authority over society provided he fulfilled his duty to keep the peace.

John Locke, while differing with Hobbes over the possibility of altruism, mutual concern and cooperation among human beings, agreed on the fundamental point that in order for a society to exist it must be bound by a contract voluntarily chosen by rational, independent and self-interested individuals. It was primarily through Locke that the ideology of individualism made its way into foundation of the American republic.

As Elizabeth Wolgast has pointed out, this concept of human beings as essentially equal, rational, self-contained individuals or "social atoms" to which Descartes, Hobbes and Locke were key contributors was reinforced by a moral atomism derived from the inner sense theories of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and extended considerably by Kant. At its core was the distinction between moral authority, which arises from individual human reason and insight, and political authority which is embodied in laws imposed by the State. "Ethical atomism combined with Hobbes' and Locke's social atomism supplies some of the most important and characteristic features of American political theory, and the imprint of these ideas is evident and fixed in the Constitution."[4]

Wolgast claims that the thesis of social atomism--that human beings are self-interested and independent components of a larger social aggregate--gains a measure of plausibility when understood as analogous to scientific principles used to explain, for example, the behavior of molecules in a gas or a liquid. By explaining the behavior of a volume of gas as the sum of the behavior of the individual molecules of gas, we have a model for understanding society and its constituent elements, much as Hobbes set out to do in the seventeenth century. Or to put it another way, by examining the nature of the component parts, one can understand the nature of the totality composed of those parts.

The assumption here is that when one takes a thing apart to study and understand the individual components, the parts retain the same nature in isolation from the whole from which they were taken. By way of contrast, consider, as Wolgast does, the example of a machine. A machine is not simply a collection of parts. It matters how those parts are put together. That's because the machine has a function determined by the needs of the user. Its parts are also designed to perform specific tasks, or functions that contribute to the overall purpose and use of the machine. In isolation from the machine, the parts are "mere things". Alienated from their functional role within the larger whole, they make no sense.

The same can be said of sentences. A sentence is not just a list of words. For a sentence to be properly formed and coherent we need a grammar or set of rules within which words have their functional roles to play. And while a word may have an individual meaning, that meaning often changes when put in the context of a sentence. The sentence, in turn, takes on greater possibilities of meaning when placed among a set of sentences or a paragraph (which itself is more than just a set of sentences).

"Therefore while an atomistic approach works to explain some things, we can't assume it will provide an adequate understanding of society, though it will certainly press out a crisp and simple theory."[5]

The irony here is that in justifiably seeking to overcome the awkwardness and authority of Aristotle's teleological approach to scientific, political, and social explanation and understanding, we also lost contact with the sense of human beings as fully comprehensible only within the context of a larger set of relations, i.e. as part of a whole within which their desires, reasons and motivation would make sense. In challenging the rule of tradition, class and privilege by offering a new conception of social life based on equality and autonomy, we lost sight of the extent to which one's identity and sense of self is formed through one's connections to family, friends and those whose interests and desires we share.

From the atomistic standpoint, the individuals who make up a society are interchangeable like molecules in a bucket of water--society a mere aggregate of individuals. This introduces a harsh and brutal equality into our theory of human life and it contradicts our experience of human beings as unique and irreplaceable, valuable in virtue of their variety--in what they don't share--not in virtue of their common ability to reason (though this is valuable in its own right). Thus, Wolgast asks, "How can it be just to treat people alike when their needs and situations differ?"[6]

Thus, what contemporary pluralistic societies in the West have inherited along with the ideology of possessive individualism is a tension between equality and autonomy.

Is justice compatible with equality?

Is it possible for people to be both free and equal?

What kind of equality would this entail?

What kind of freedom?


1. See Alain Finkielkraut, The Defeat of the Mind, (translated with an introduction by Judith Friedlander), New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. [return]

2. Elizabeth Wolgast, "A World of Social Atoms", in Elizabeth Smith and H. Gene Blocker, Applied Social and Political Philosophy, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994, 226. [return]

3. René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald Cress, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980, 1. [return]

4. Wolgast, op. cit., 228. Marilyn Freidman, in her critique of various forms of liberal and communitarian thought, describes the concept of the abstract individual and its purported abilities in the following way: "This self-atomistic, presocial, empty of all metaphysical content except abstract reason and will-is allegedly able to stand back from all the contingent moral commitments and norms of its particular historical context and assess each of them in the light of impartial and universal criteria of reason." What Are Friends For?, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993, 234f. [return]

5. Ibid., 229. [return]

6. Ibid., 230. [return]

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© T. R. Quigley, 1999