honestly, i have no idea what's supposed to be at stake in the currently raging individualism/collectivism debate. it's not like i can choose not to be an individual, and it's not like i can cease to be in relation/connection to other people. i can't become everybody, but on the other hand i can't cease to be part of everybody or indeed everything. maybe we basically mean selfishness vs. generosity? oh i am for generosity. or maybe we mean liberty against coercion? i am for liberty. anyway, i actually don't think that practical politics can turn on these gigantic woolly abstractions, and if you make, say, your position on 34.6% or 39% in the marginal tax rate turn on your view about fundamental ontology or the locus of human consciousness, you are being very silly. but it does make a seemingly relatively minor debate like that insanely fraught, so that corporate and personal identities are apparently at stake in every little adjustment. that's one reason you have so much trouble compromising.
but really, we're chumps to be throwing around these categories without trying to get clear on what they could possibly mean. they have the typical qualities that gigantic abstractions display when they enter the discourse of politicians and pundits: neither has any clear or non-contradictory content, and if you'll excuse my saying so, you need philosophers (specialists in big woolly abstractions) to try to set up an actual taxonomy or at least provide some clarifying definitional/historical work that would lend the debate some meaning aside from the evident power of these terms as manipulative tropes.
it's not like you could achieve the collective good without doing good for any particular person, and it's not like you could do good for each particular person and not help everybody. there just cannot be this opposition as it's being framed right now. any position that tempts you to deny the existence of individuals or the existence of groups is obviously ridiculous, and then the work is to try to figure out the relations in some realer or thicker way that doesn't expunge either of these realities.
if you removed the individuals there would be no connections, and if you removed the connections there would be no individuals. for that matter, individuals are not atoms; each of us is a complicated web of relations as well. indeed, each of us is individuated precisely by our connections: no one else has the same relations to the same people and other things in the world as i do, and when you do this over time, each of us is massively unique precisely by the history of our relations. well that's the metaphysics of my big next book entanglements.
photo credit: jane sartwell