The Individual, Personhood, and Solitude


Now and then I find myself drawn to books that seem to be a long way from where my thinking is at. Such a book is The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the transition to the information age. I also read/listened to the The Fourth Industrial Revolution, by the Chair of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab.

The concept of the sovereign individual is interesting. The idea of a sovereign was obviously familiar to me. The Queen of England might be thought a sovereign individual in a sense. In this instance it is an idea of an individual who is not fettered to nation, person, or place in a primarily economic sense. The focus of the book is on how the Information Age will impact our world to such a degree that how things are done, and what is considered normal, will change radically. And in this environment the sovereign individual can flourish. 

The sovereign individual is an attractive idea for those who believe that accumulating wealth for its own sake is a good pursuit. It is a particular philosophical approach I have no sympathy for, but it was good to explore it. I read Schwab for another perspective on a similar theme. I was surprised to discover that Schwab has a more humanitarian, even spiritual, perspective on the same change scenario.

The Sovereign Individual is an extreme expression of the idea of the individual incubated in a certain intellectual and moral environment. I was curious about it because of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. This book is a masterpiece exploring how the emergence and evolution of Christianity fueled the development of our idea of the individual. I have been musing on the idea of the individualfor a few years now.

It is certainly true that the Information Age has transformed how we interact and engage – and will continue to do so. The need for persons to stand out in terms of their passions and ideas (as misguided as we may think they are) has been afforded a magnified intensity via the lens of social media. 

There is a pervasive sense of disappointment, injustice and powerlessness that has been given a voice that can influence governments in ways not seen before. It will be some time before that can resolve into a positive agency. At the same time, we are struggling with our relations with the planet and its greater than human life web, and we are struggling with our own human-to-human relationships. Let’s add to that the compelling sense that life from elsewhere is messing with our awareness as well. It’s a turbulent time.

I have just listened to a show on Plants as Persons on Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best of Our Knowledge podcast. It struck me that personhood and individuality are definitely not the same thing, despite what my Oxford Dictionary asserts – personhood is “the quality or condition of being an individual person” and person is – “a human being regarded as an individual”. An individual is “single, separate”. So, person is an individual in a state of being singular and separate? No. But that is how we encouraged to interpret the idea.

Particularization is a better idea.

Our biology and psychology say we cannot be ‘individuals’ in any complete sense – not single, separate. A better term might be a particularization, denoting an emphasis or concentration, rather than something that stands alone – stands out might be more to the point.

Separate individuals cannot exist. We see a tree standing as if alone, but beneath it is woven into a web of lives. A single oak in a park does not have the same quality of being as a single oak in a forest where there are other oaks. It lives, but not as it might. Individuality is not an optimum state for a tree.

If we see ‘individual’ as a something we distinguish from a community – a particular person – say a member of a football team – rather than someone separate from, we will have a better idea. A single footballer is of no value if there is no team. A single oak, distant from its forest kin, isn’t the same as one growing with its kin. It is separated. We did that – because that’s okay by us. We like individual specimens separated from kin.

The word individual is fine, it’s the meaning we ascribe to it that is the problem. Over the latter part of the 20th century being an individual apart has been a handy concept for predatory marketers who prey on insecurities, fears, and senses of powerlessness. The sense of individuality is the last bastion of hope before obliteration and meaninglessness. It has become the refuge of the hurt and angry, who believe they cannot turn to family or community for safety and belonging.

The idea of separation is very modern. It may reflect a conflict between tradition and modernity which emphasises a greater level of mobility and separation from old ways and structures. But it expresses a transitional state, rather than an absolute one. We are always seeking belonging and community.

This matters because particularization is a very different thing. It Is not a separation so much as a greater focus or concentration. The individual is simply more prominent, but still connected. A bleating lamb is still part of the flock even though its cries draw our attention. We hear the cries, identify the source, and see a particular lamb. It is individual, but not separate.

So, plants can be persons, along with fish, fowls, and human folk – and none are apart from their kin in any real way – until we remove them. We are okay with separation. We do it all the time. Perhaps we have a profound sense of separation in our cultural DNA? At the root of our western religious tradition is the story of expulsion from paradise, followed by a tale of genocidal slaughter via flood. And this by a ‘loving father’. Its nice to feel wanted.

In fact, our culture is founded on a demand for redemption, as if we were born wrong. In Australia the indigenous people experience intergenerational trauma arising from our expulsion of them from their paradise, followed up with genocidal efforts. And we have tried to make them feel wrong too.

The victims have become the perpetrators. The separated have become separators. The individual as apart, single, has meaning to us. It is in our cultural DNA.

Siedentop explored how cultural evolution altered the focus of identity from a patriarch to other family members who shared their own sense of identity without being separated from family. It is true that such evolution did involve conflict and acts of physical and emotional separation, as the old order gave way to the new. But that’s not the same thing as being ‘separate’ in the way we now mean. Being apart; but connected is better.

We see in nature documentaries that predatory hunters will seek to separate the vulnerable from the herd – to kill and eat. In modern terms predators will separate the vulnerable by boosting their illusion of separation – as individuals – to exploit them.

Personhood is universal

Personhood denotes sentience and intelligence expressed in a particular and coherent form via representatives of a community – as opposed to supposedly separate entities. Separation itself is an illusion. It arises only because connecting elements are shorn off, discounted, and ignored.

The clearest example is a human being. The physical appearance of separateness is countered by the psychological reality that personhood is framed and sustained by relationships and inclusion in a community. Human identity is comprised of descriptors of belonging and connection with others who are alike or similar. In indigenous communities those others included the many lives who shared country with them – physical and non-physical.

The individual in that modern sense of apartness has no identity beyond the fact of their physical presence – unless there is a nurturing connection to others. Without that there is only profound psychic distress.

The filter of organic being

Humans in this world are constructed on a physical primate foundation. But it is not all we are. The gulf of difference between primate and human is significant, and this is poorly understood. We are primate +, and it is this plus that has been so contentious in a culture dominated by materialism.

Beneath our seeming apartness as individual humans, something connects us beyond our biology. This is made evident in the research into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Being excluded from connection with others causes psychological suffering – from which relief is sought. Restoration of connection is, of course, a clear objective. We have biological and psychological needs for connection.

But then it does not explain the need for solitude – the intentional separation and isolation from others – as the means to create a deeper connection with that + element of our humanity. We are more than we appear to be, and we are more than we know. Seeking solitude to find wholeness is a remarkable logic. Of course, the idea of actual solitude is absurd. Though we may be apart from our own kind, we are embraced by other lives. Maybe that’s the point. We need to know we belong within a manifold global community of persons, and beyond, to create a sense of spiritual connection.


The ideas in the Sovereign Individual were useful to me because the central premise of the book is real. The Information Age is transforming how we live in fundamental ways. But the book is flawed in its moral and philosophical model. It speaks, I believe, to the more psychopathic personality. Schwab is a counterpoint.

So much of our contemporary notion of individuality is the product of a predatory effort to separate the vulnerable from the family/group/community that should sustain and protect them. By the maintenance of an ongoing level of psychological stress a marketplace for products and services is created. These are presented as means by which relief can be secured. But they are a solution without the prospect of satisfaction. Nothing can substitute for connection and belonging – on the biological and the plus levels.

If we can reframe our individuality to be a unique particularization of humanity, we do not need any concept of separation. In fact, the idea has no meaning of value, and can only be harmful. We are particular persons who flourish in a community of like kin, and in solitude (the community of unlike kin) when we choose it. So much depends on who embrace as kin.

The genesis of our mentality is the story of the expulsion from paradise. That story has been infecting our culture for millennia. It is a story of trauma and separation. It lives on in our framing of our idea of the individual.

Separation is a denial of connection, of belonging. It is a state of harm. This is true for all beings – all persons.

We need a new genesis story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *