The Academy was founded by the Academy of Ideas in 2011 and came under the auspices of the Battle of Ideas charity in 2019.
The theme of the seventh Academy – which was held on Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 July – was From universal man to identity politics: the rise and fall of The Self. The first day covered the historic formation of the self, its role as a motor to historical development, and its classical formulation in political theory, economics, philosophy and law. The relationship and contradictions between the individual self and society was explored in the context of the relationship between the particular and the universal.
The second day examined the fall of the self, post-Enlightenment, in terms of the retreat from and disavowal of what might be called bourgeois individualism and universalism in a trajectory towards identity politics and relativism. Lectures covered topics such as authenticity, body-obsession, selfie-culture, social constructionism, and what prospects remain for the project of liberal humanism today.
Overall the event followed on from discussion in previous Academies about the emergence of the individual, personhood and the autonomy of the human subject and considered the contemporary problematics of the self in their different forms: self-obsession, notably bodily self-obsession, on the one hand, and an abstract hollow universalism on the other, viz moral grandstanding without consequence.
One thread pursued is that with the death of universalism – and the ending of Europe’s unique legacy – we see the death, too, of the autonomous subject, the person, who acted on what he wanted, pursued goals, many of them shared in common with others. Instead we have identities rooted, not in what people want, but in what they are. We move from the pursuit of truth to the facts of being. And we see the impossibility of solidarity which is based on difference rather than equality.
Instead of society, we can be said to have transient groupings of individuals who flock together only to best pursue special interest claims based on identity or ask for handouts for their particular victim claims. Real society, on the other hand, is based on subjects forming voluntary groups to purse common undertakings – that is they come together, not because of who they are, but because of what they want. It is based on differences that are tolerated because of a shared, universal foundation. Relativism has shattered that foundation giving rise to a deep intolerance and indifference to others: to different identity groupings. In other words, to a dehumanisation of man.
Many of the lectures from the weekend are now available on this YouTube playlist.
EMERGENCE OF THE SELF IN HISTORY
(Professor Frank Furedi)
This lecture examined the gradual development of sensibility towards the self. A major focus was the emergence of self-consciousness during the Renaissance and on the way that the distinction that Luther drew between the inner and external life of the individual opened up the space for the authorisation of the self. The lecture concluded with reflections on the relationship of the self to the modern conception of subjectivity.
LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE, FREEDOM OF SPEECH
(Dr Teresa Bejan)
Today, many take for granted that the familiar slate of individual rights and liberties—of religion, speech, and association—belonging to citizens of modern liberal democracies go hand-in-hand. And indeed, since John Stuart Mill, many liberals have assumed that the freedom of speech, in particular, is logically and historically inseparable from the liberty of conscience, the so-called ‘first freedom’ of early modernity from which all other modern liberties developed. In this lecture, Teresa M. Bejan will challenge this assumption and show that the connection between the liberty of conscience and freedom of speech is more tenuous, both historically and philosophically, then we might assume—or hope.
EMERGENCE OF THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE MARKET ECONOMY (Jamie Whyte)
Most people recognize a link between capitalism and individualism, if only because they arose simultaneously. However, the modern opponents of capitalism get the connection wrong because they misunderstand both individualism and capitalism. They think of individualism as selfishness and capitalism as an economic system that benefits and thereby encourages selfishness.
Individualism is in fact a resistance to coercion, a refusal to be compelled. The rise of “the individual” was not the rise of the selfish human; it was the rise of the free human. And the free are no more or less selfish than the unfree. Nor is capitalism a system that selfish people create. It is not a system at all. Capitalism is nothing more than human freedom in economic matters. It rose with individualism for the simple reason that it is the same thing. Even if it does not overcome selfish impulses, capitalism promotes cooperative behaviour. Because no one can be forced to buy what you produce, capitalism encourages people to attend to the wants of others.
THE SELF AND ENLIGHTENMENT PHILOSOPHY: ROUSSEAU AND KANT
Rousseau and Kant can be read as having very divergent views of the self. For Rousseau, that man is corrupted by society from a natural state of perfection. In Kant, that man is in a process of self-perfection through the public use of reason. Yet Rousseau was one of the major influences on Kant’s thinking and Rousseau’s portrait was famously the only image on display in Kant’s house. What do they share in terms of thinking about man’s capacity for reason as the basis for morality, something underpinned in Rousseau’s thought by the faculty of conscience: a faculty only developed once people have become conscious of themselves as social – rather than natural – beings?
THE LEGAL SUBJECT
The legal subject has traditionally been viewed as a bearer of rights, particularly rights to property, security and liberty, that the law must protect. Whether in English law, the American Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, this legal subject was a bearer of negative rights, rights that increased his liberty. This liberal conception of man endowed him with three positive qualities: rationality, perfectibility and moral equality. His rationality required a law that restricted the state’s power. Yet in recent decades, the legal subject has been degraded. The law’s focus is now on the individual’s perceived negative qualities: his lack of rationality, his frailty and his inequality of circumstances. They are rights that tend to weaken the individual and strengthen the state.
FROM MARX TO TATTOOS: SELF, SOCIETY AND ALIENATION
Marx’s theory of alienation draws attention to the inherent contradiction between the categories of ‘individual’ and ‘society’, with egotistic man set against his social and human existence. What is the basis of this contradiction and what form does it take today? Can we understand contemporary phenomena such as sexting or identity politics as new forms of alienation?
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? AUTONOMY, AUTHENTICITY AND THE EMERGENCE OF IDENTITY POLITICS
(Dr Tim Black)
Authenticity has become one of the defining ideals of the modern world. It is the quality we are meant to demand in that which we consume; a value to be opposed to all that is ‘fake’, or ‘phoney’, or ‘artificial’. Above all, it is what an individual is meant to aspire to be – true to one’s self, self-actualising, self-expressing. Authenticity today has an almost ethical force. It underpins identity politics, legitimises transgenderism, and informs the ubiquitous demand for often legal recognition and informal respect. But what does its elevation say about the condition of modernity? What is its historical and conceptual relationship to ideas of freedom and autonomy? And to what extent is it really possible or even desirable, as Shakespeare’s Polonius insisted it was, to be true to thine own self?
DEATH OF THE SUBJECT
(Dr James Heartfield)
1970s France saw a great intellectual upsurge in a variety of different academic fields, principally philosophy, but also in the social sciences, linguistics, anthropology, history and psychiatry. Different strands of thinking, from the linguistic school of structuralists, Levi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology, Louis Althusser’s reconsiderations of the basis of Marxism, Derrida’s philosophical critique of phenomenology and structuralism, Lacan’s of Freud and the unconscious and Michel Foucault’s historical genealogy all seemed to be coalescing in a reconsideration of the centrality of Man in what had been assumed to be a human-centred universe. Often seen as representing the triumph of subjectivity over objective reality, this lecture will show how the theories of deconstruction were really a critique of the Subject.
NARCISSISM AND IDENTITY-DETERMINISM
Narcissism is now – according to the New York Times – “the go-to diagnosis” for commentators. Why has cultural narcissism become so deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary society? This lecture will explore explanations, including: the affluence of late modernity (supposedly leading to shallow materialism and lifestyle consumerism); from 1960s permissiveness to overindulgent parenting; from a loss of confidence in the future to a demonisation of the past; and to the contemporary epidemic of self-harm. Why has individualistic self-preoccupation with identity become dominant at the very time when individual autonomy and agency are so weak? Are there any positive aspects in constructing Brand Me and a ‘Narrative of Self’ in terms of reclaiming subjective selfhood? Is narcissism too clichéd a concept to help us understand today’s crisis of identity?
- Selfies – individual and social media (Ella Whelan)
- A defence of the modern self (Chris Lynch)
- The suicidal self (Dr Kevin Yuill)
LIBERAL HUMANISM AND THE FUTURE OF THE SELF
(Professor Frank Furedi)
The lecture will explore the changing perception of the self – particularly the shift from a relatively strong sense of self-reliance to the contemporary version of the vulnerable self. This shift is best captured by the changing meaning of self-help, from its nineteenth-century connotation of a robust individual to the contemporary notion of relying on the therapeutic advice of others to survive. The significance of linking the ideal of self-consciousness and self-determination – ie, autonomy – will constitute the main argument and theme of this lecture.