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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

XIV. Individuality and Genus

THE view that man is intended to become a wholly self-contained, free individuality stands in apparent conflict with the facts, that he appears as a member of a natural whole (race, tribe, nation, family, male or female sex), and that he acts within a whole (state, church, etc.). He exhibits the general characteristics of the community to which he belongs, and gives to his actions a content which is defined by the place which he occupies within a social whole.

This being so, is individuality possible at all? Can we regard man as a whole in himself, in view of the fact that he grows out of a whole and fits as a member into a whole?

The character and function of a member of a whole are defined by the whole. A tribe is a whole, and all its members exhibit the peculiar characteristics which are conditioned by the nature of the tribe. The character and activity of the individual member are determined by the character of the tribe. Hence the physiognomy and the conduct of the individual have something generic about them. When we ask why this or that in a man is so or so, we are referred from the individual to the genus. The genus explains why something in the individual appears in the form observed by us.

But man emancipates himself from this generic type. For the generic qualities of the human race, when experienced by the individual in the right way, do not restrict his freedom, and ought not by artificial arrangements to be made to restrict it. The individual develops qualities and activities of his own, the reason for which we can seek only in himself. The generic type serves him only as a means to express his own special being in it. He uses the characteristics which nature has given him as a foundation and gives them the form which expresses his own being. We seek in vain for the reason of such an expression of this being in the laws of the genus. We are dealing here with an individual who can be explained only through himself. If a man has reached the point of emancipation from what is generic in him, and we still attempt to explain all his qualities by reference to the character of the genus, then we lack the organ for apprehending what is individual.

It is impossible to understand a human being completely if one makes the concept of the genus the basis of one's judgment. The tendency to judge according to the genus is most persistent where differences of sex are involved. Man sees in woman, woman in man, almost always too much of the generic characteristics of the other sex, and too little of what is individual in the other. In practical life this does less harm to men than to women. The social position of women is, in most instances, so humiliating because it is not determined by the individual characteristics of each woman herself, but by the general representations which are current concerning the natural function and needs of woman. A man's activity in life is determined by his individual capacity and inclination, whereas a woman's activity is supposed to be determined solely by the fact that she is “just a woman.” Woman is to be the slave of the generic, of the general functions of womanhood. So long as men debate whether woman, from her “natural disposition,” is fitted for this, that, or the other profession, the so-called Woman's Question will never advance beyond the most elementary stage. What it lies in woman's nature to strive for had better be left to woman herself to decide. If it is true that women are fitted only for that profession which is theirs at present, then they will hardly have it in them to attain any other. But they must be allowed to decide for themselves what is conformable to their nature. To all who fear an upheaval of our social structure, should women be treated as individuals and not as specimens of their sex, we must reply that a social structure in which the status of one-half of humanity is unworthy of a human being stands itself in great need of improvement. [Immediately upon the publication of this book (1894), critics objected to the above arguments that, even now, within the generic character of her sex, a woman is able to shape her life individually, just as she pleases, and far more freely than a man who is already de-individualized, first by the school, and later by war and profession. I am aware that this objection will be urged to-day, even more strongly. None the less, I feel bound to let my sentences stand, in the hope that there are readers who appreciate how violently such an objection runs counter to the concept of freedom advocated in this book, and who will judge my sentences above by another standard than that of man's loss of individuality through school and profession.]

Anyone who judges human beings according to their generic character stops short at the very limit beyond which they begin to be individuals whose activity rests on free self-determination. Whatever lies short of this limit may naturally become matter for scientific study. Thus the characteristics of race, tribe, nation, and sex are the subject-matter of special sciences. Only men who simply wish to live as specimens of the genus could possibly fit the generic picture which the methods of these sciences produce. But all these sciences are unable to get as far as the unique character of the single individual. Where the sphere of freedom (in thinking and acting) begins, there the possibility of determining the individual according to the laws of his genus ceases. The conceptual content which man, by an act of thinking has to connect with percepts, in order to possess himself fully of reality (cp. pp. 64 – 65 ff.) cannot be fixed by anyone once and for all, and handed down to humanity ready-made. The individual must gain his concepts through his own intuition. It is impossible to deduce from any concept of the genus how the individual ought to think; that depends singly and solely on the individual himself. So, again, it is just as impossible to determine, on the basis of the universal characteristics of human nature, what concrete aims the individual will set before himself. Anyone who wants to understand the single individual must penetrate to the innermost core of his being, and not stop short at those qualities which are typical. In this sense every single human being is a problem. And every science which deals only with abstract thoughts and generic concepts is but a preparation for the kind of knowledge which we gain when a human individual communicates to us his way of viewing the world, and for that other kind of knowledge which we gain from the content of his will. Wherever we feel that here we are dealing with that element in a man which is free from the typical kind of thinking and from willing according to type, there we must cease to call in any concepts of our own making if we would understand his nature. Knowledge consists in the combination by thinking of a concept and a percept. With all other objects the observer has to gain his concepts through his intuition; but if the problem is to understand a free individuality, we need to take over into our own spirit those concepts by which the individual determines himself, in their pure form (without mixing with them our own conceptual contents). Those who always mix their own concepts into their judgment on another person can never attain to the understanding of an individuality. Just as the free individuality emancipates himself from the characteristics of the genus, so our knowledge of the individual must emancipate itself from the methods by which we understand what is generic.

A man counts as a free spirit in a human community only to the degree in which he has emancipated himself, in the way we have indicated, from all that is generic. No man is all genus, none is all individuality; but every man gradually emancipates a greater or lesser sphere of his being, both from the generic characteristics of animal life, and from the laws of human authorities which rule him.

In respect of that part of his nature for which man is not able to win this freedom for himself, he forms a member within the organism of nature and of spirit. He lives, in this respect, by the imitation of others, or in obedience to their command. But ethical value in the true sense belongs only to that part of his conduct which springs from his intuitions. And whatever moral instincts man possesses through the inheritance of social instincts, acquire ethical value through being taken up into his intuitions. In such individual ethical intuitions and their acceptance by human communities all moral activity of men has its root. To put this differently: the moral life of humanity is the sum-total of the products of the moral imagination of free human individuals. This is the conclusion reached by Monism.