A Resolution of the Problem of Absolute Values in Transcendent Individualism

Since antiquity, and particularly after Plato, philosophers have pondered on the question of the absolute values, of truth, beauty and goodness. Now, just as then, there have been advocates of their status as real, as well as sceptics. The twentieth century was mostly a sceptical period, although I predict a revival of interest presently, given the generally calamitous state of public discourse, awareness of human depredation of the natural environment, and rising international and societal tensions. The concerns of philosophy have never been, throughout its history, entirely devoid of influence by or relevance to the social world in which philosophers are embedded. Nevertheless, the foundational issue of their ontological status must be addressed. I propose that the problematic status of absolute values finds its resolution in social structures founded on an anthropological concept of transcendent individualism.

The concept of value as a distinct theoretical concern of philosophy has its roots somewhere between the Enlightenment and the late 19th century when the first writings on value theory as a distinct branch of philosophy appeared in the writings of Brentano, Lotze, Meinong and others, though it has precursors in the medieval scholastic concept of the ‘just price’ and the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, among other sources (Werkmeister, 1970). The modern idea of values (in the plural), the ordinary language usage we make of the word when we are not wearing our philosophical hats, however, emerged with the advent of the modern science of society, or sociology, in the writings of Max Weber, in which values are judged to play an important mediating role in social interaction and institutional viability. It is precisely the existence of a realm of shared values in any given society which, according to sociologists, enables the social discourse between proponents of even profoundly different experiences, beliefs and views.

Weber took the view that values were functional aspects of social structures, largely irrespective of the actual moral force of particular and specific values, skirting around the fact-value dichotomy identified by Hume, wherein it is impossible – according to Hume – to derive a value judgement from the accretion of any number of facts. No one has yet advanced a plausible argument that Hume is wrong. In reality, though, in all social contexts (apart from conventions of philosophers possibly) we indiscriminately mix facts and judgements, even if there is no logical transition between the two. Weber put values on a new footing, ontologically, by assigning them a function while being mute about their fundamental nature. The influential mid-twentieth century American sociologist Talcott Parsons, put it thus: ‘An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives of orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation can be considered a value’ (Parsons, 1951, p.112).

While I am in general agreement with Parsons’ description of values as ‘an element of a…. system’, this describes their place from an ‘outside’ perspective only; their essential nature as conceptually specific, experiential and immanent in the emotions is ignored in sociology. Perhaps the best exponent of this view of the interiority of values is the Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade, who links the root of value even in the modern secular world to an experience of the sacred and for whom ‘even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world’ (Eliade, 1957, p.24). For Eliade, to hold firmly a value or set of values involves a hierophany, a ‘manifestation of the sacred [that] ontologically founds the world’ (ibid, p.21). While this may seem to imbue values excessively with meaning, they have the quality of remaining invisible and mysteriously opaque to inspection (Hechter, 1993) while inspiring and regulating social action (Kluckhohn, 1951, p.399).

A philosophical analysis of values can demonstrate that they can manifest as both conceptualisations of broadly agreed standards and an intense inner experience, though they do so under different conditions. Within normal societal discourse in open social circumstances we have frequent recourse to value terminology, which commits us to nothing more than a general assertion that we have a preference for one thing or perspective over another (Rokeach, 1973, p.5) or an interest in a specific thing (Perry, 1926). But there is another kind of discourse, which takes place within closed social groupings, in which a strong sense in in-group and out-group consciousness is maintained (Tajfel, 1974), in which value concepts take on a highly symbolic invocatory function and in which the experiential nature and sacred manifestation of the value is shared, or, at least, held to be shared. We can speak, therefore, of values as a conceptualised shared experience, conceptualisation or shared experience being uppermost depending whether the social context is open or closed.

The objection could be raised that the very disparate social conditions under which this dual nature of values manifest itself, as information with an ethical subtext in open society and highly symbolised medium of shared experience in closed community, undermines the coherence of the philosophical concept, that is, of value as a single entity with a dual nature. I would argue, though, that the modern idea of value has co-evolved with the form of society in the post-Enlightenment period characterised by individualism, in which an individual can freely move between multiple belongings, each form of life having the nature of a closed group built around a core of shared values, but in which the hard distinction of in-group and out-group is mitigated by a tentative membership and complex, self-assumed identities. Such societies – the liberal democracies – are, in theory at least, committed to maximising the freedom of the individual, while leaving the pursuit of meaning and happiness to the individual.

Individualism is one of the most misunderstood socio-political and philosophical concepts. This is partly because it does not feature or not feature highly in most non-western cultures, which favour some form of collective identity and almost certainly privilege the collective over the individual. Dumont (1973, p.34) makes a distinction between the ‘empirical subject of speech thought and will’ which is common to all cultures and ‘the independent, autonomous and (essentially) non-social moral being’ who is the inhabitant of modern societies. Thus, Dumont distinguishes between the facticity of individuality – as singular body and capacities – and the belief that one is free and the essential equal of all other human beings. It is this latter concept, which has evolved in the crucible of European history and its Hellenistic and Judeo-Christian inheritance, that has enabled the forms of society that we characterise as open to exist. Individualism, though, is not a peculiarity of Western culture; it is a periodic human discovery that has been made a number of times in history, notably by the Greek city states, but also in ancient Zoroastrian Persia and in medieval Islam. However, in the West individualism has probably had its most sustained form, allied as it has been to the rise of science and modern market economies, which have improved human life considerably over the past few centuries. Thus, although individualism is not peculiar to western thought and western ways of life, a case can be made that it is fundamental to modernity. If so, this entails that as collective cultures modernise, they will have to grasp the issue of individualism, otherwise progress will stall.

In my estimation, the major world religions have a relatively sophisticated and enlightened concept of the individual, which has enabled humanist outlooks to emerge in religious cultures as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Indeed, the typical view of the individual found in the sacred texts of the great religions mirror a contemporary humanist view, attributed to a 19th century scholar Lysenkus-Popper, that with the death of a single person, a whole universe disappears. Moreover, the sacred texts contain significant statements of existential value, in which each individual man and woman is accorded the opportunity to stand as a figure of moral significance, by taking up a significant historical role. This accords with the contemporary views of many social psychologists that we find meaning in life through assuming our burden of responsibility (Peterson, 2018). Thus, religions’ views of the individual accords unique value both ontologically and as a social actor.

Nonetheless, a view of society is not complete by just its anthropology. One criticism I have of religions as a basis for social theory is that they have an underdeveloped notion of freedom. This can be accounted for somewhat by their origins in strongly hierarchical cultures. For example, in its hermeneutics of the origin of evil, the standard Christian analysis of the story of Eden in Genesis 3 emphasises the Fall from God’s grace and alienation from God’s presence, without sufficiently, in my opinion, contextualising that within the creation narrative of the autonomy of the original ancestors, most obviously represented by the retrograde Catholic concept of felix culpa, the predetermination of sin in order that salvation be granted.1 In the moral narratives of religions, freedom is frequently minimised and bounded by conditions, particularly the idea of responsibility, which again is found to be bound up with the ideas of duty and obligation prevalent in closed communities and hierarchical societies. I believe this cultural loading perhaps prevents a more enlightened understanding of the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Rightly understood, responsibility is not the inhibitor of freedom, it is its complementarity and its guarantor.

First, the responsible person must accept that they are free, in both an existential sense and as a social actor making choices. Without this affirmation there can be no responsibility, only obedience, and at worst, slavery. The great tragedy of much of human history and still much of the world today is that social conditions do not allow people to be free and, therefore, not responsible, rather than duty-bound, though this number is, arguably, diminishing. The human thirst for freedom is unquenchable; we always choose it as an alternative to the burden of excessive societal expectation and to other forms of oppression, especially when we have experienced them.

Secondly, the responsible person must accept that their choices and the acts that flow from them all have consequences, for good and ill, for which they reap the benefits and the costs. With experience comes a greater ability to discern between the two and the wise person will not only make better choices but also choose to impose limits on their actions. The actions that destroy, deplete and offend are the ones that are most likely to result in a reaction that aims to curtail the freedom of the individual for the protection of the common good. For this to happen, the power of the community or the state must be invoked. Every invocation of the power of the greater collective or its authoritative representative entails a diminution of the freedom of the individual, which itself informs the state of freedom of the society. Consequently, that which guarantees the freedom of society is an act of self-limitation imposed on oneself for the sake of the greater good.

Thirdly, the responsible person should work for the common good, which is another way of saying social justice. A commitment to justice in this sense is not a commitment to equality, but it can be compatible with a commitment to reducing inequality, particularly of opportunity. Justice, we might say, is relative freedom, rather than absolute freedom. Justice is the addressing of actual injustices, where there is the absence, limitation or oppression of freedom. It is not attempting to equalise everything by limiting the freedom of the majority in favour of a minority. People are not, and never will be equal in freedom, but it is not unreasonable to address that issue by increasing the freedom of the less free.

From the perspective of a social theorist, absolute values can only be broached in a society which is committed to freedom based on individualism, partly because there is a strong case that the concepts have co-evolved. As the twin forces of religion and monarchy have been weakened in the modern period, individuals have become empowered, science, art and humanism have flourished, and the concepts of the true, beautiful and good have become dissociated from religious doctrine. Religions are, and will continue to be, though, an important mythic narrative source of local and universal values and an important agent in community structure and civil society. However, they can never be the model of a free, individualist and humanistic society, such is their penchant for otherworldliness (at worst apocalyptic nihilism), schism, persecution of supposed heretics and dogmatic control of thought. Their social utility, if that is the right word, lies in the deconstruction of their myths into moral narratives that pose existential challenges for individuals in secular societies, not in forming the authorised template for individual behaviour.

Nevertheless, individualism is clearly declining in the West. It is now routinely ignored in educational establishments, being replaced by postmodern values of equality, diversity and inclusivity, for which groupthink and commitment to collective political activism are required. Additionally, its foundations and the fundamentals of modernity such as evidence-based knowledge and logic, are being undermined, accused of being merely expressions of Western hegemony. But individualism is also declining because over time it has drifted from its roots in the spiritual iconoclasm of such figures as Francis, Luther, Kierkegaard and King and become all too often a justification for selfishness, indifference to suffering and greed. It has the appearance of a spent force whose ideals no longer inspire a civilisation. As Arthur Miller more cynically put it, ‘an era is over when its basic illusions have been exhausted’. The survival and reinvigoration of modernity will depend on the transformation of individualism into what I call transcendent individualism, which draws on the religious and secular heritage of the world’s cultures for the highest values that sustain the human conscience, lust for discovery and the instinct to altruism. These values will in all likelihood turn out to be universal and culminate in the absolute values of truth, beauty and goodness.

One can argue about the ontological status of absolute values, depending on whether one is inclined to Platonism or some form of instrumentalism. Work by Russell, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Quine and others laid bare the logical basis of mathematical and linguistic truth, fundamental science has added enormously to our knowledge of the universe, work on chaos theory has added to our knowledge of the constituents of beauty – such as symmetry, proportion and depth – that of creative instability, and the research of psychologists is building a slowly growing picture of what constitutes the good personality. There is little doubt about the existential force of these values in the lives of individuals and cultures for betterment, prosperity and peace, nor the minatory power afforded by awareness of the proximity of the disvalues of falsity, ignorance, ugliness and evil.

I believe I have made a case based on societal development and social expectations that absolute values and transcendent individualism are mutually supporting concepts. There is still a requirement, though, for some philosophical justification and underpinning for this argument. I believe this can be found in Munsterberg’s concept of the actualisation of absolute values through stages, culminating in the ‘self-assertion of the world’ (Munsterberg, 1909, p.74). I take this to mean that the only world that can be asserted by individuals in a world of individuals as constituting an identical experience of the world is a world of absolute values. However, it can additionally be interpreted as the assertion by the individual that they as an individual constitute a world-in-potential determined by absolute values, which is exactly what transcendent individualism implies. Absolute values provide the metaphysical space for the concept of transcendent individualism, which in turn embeds them in realistic societal conditions.

Because they are absolute, truth, beauty and goodness are, in principle, unattainable. Yet, the human condition is such that, under favourable conditions, it strives against its limitations spurred on by the prospect of the absolute – despite suspecting that it is unattainable – because glimpses of the ineffable are had from time to time. A society of freedom liberates individuals’ creative capacity to pursue truth, beauty and goodness and in pursuing these the individual ensures that the society remains free. The transcendent individual is moving outwards from themselves. Being in themselves, consciously and bodily, they nonetheless attempt to dissolve the boundary of self and other to achieve social solidarity and justice. They challenge themselves to transcend themselves in every dimension of their being: physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially to ensure their social attributes – such as compassion, hospitality, empathy and altruism – are continually being extended outwards. Above all there should be respect for the unique value of the individual and a recognition that everyone has a unique contribution; at the same time, the society of such individuals should be attuned to empowering those who are less able – as a result of natural or social disadvantage – through the progress of knowledge and technology.

The world today is a confusing mixture of optimism and pessimism, potentialities and threats of great magnitude. The idea of transcendent individualism grounded in the aspiration to absolute values could provide the vital nudge the world needs at this time. Our institutions – such as the press, the judiciary, the arts, the sciences, and politics – pay lip service to truth, beauty and goodness, though they frequently fail, both institutionally as well as in the actions of their constituent members, to uphold them. It is high time they were awoken from their constitutional slumbers.



  1. The lesson of the myth of the Garden of Eden, to my understanding, was that the first ancestors did not protect their freedom and did not accept responsibility for their lives and their actions, but sought to play the victim, just as today (as throughout history) many seek to blame others or ‘society’ for their personal misfortunes. The victim mentality which seems to be sweeping so much of the West today is not the result of individualism, but the result of the decline of individualism and the retreat into polarised collectives characterised by philosophical incoherence, hysteria and addiction to blame and conflict.



Dumont, L. (1970). Homo Hierarchicus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eliade, M. (1957). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Hechter, M. (1993). Values research in the social and behavioural sciences. In M. Hechter, L. Nadel and R. E. Michod (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 1–28.

Kluckhohn, C. (1951). Values and value-orientations in the theory of action: An exploration in definition and classification. In T. Parsons and E. Shils (Eds.), Toward a general theory of action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 388-439.

Munsterberg, H. (1909). The eternal values. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Perry, R. B. (1926). General theory of value. New York.

Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. London: Penguin Random House.

Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: The Free Press.

Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information, vol. 13, pp. 65-93.

Werkmeister, W. H. (1970). Historical spectrum of value theories. Lincoln, Nebraska: Johnsen Publishing Company.



Antagonistic Tribalism: the cement of political extremism

The social psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has achieved a certain internet notoriety recently, through his lectures on the analysis of cultural myths and stories and, in particular, his moral opposition to mandated speech in Canadian law and the encroachment of the radical left in academia and social institutions in general, has, it seems to me, struggled to find a conceptual language in which to position himself as a politically neutral arbiter, amid claims that he is a ‘right-wing’ or even ‘alt-right’ ideologue. He claims that it is easy to distinguish when the right has gone too far – when it makes claims of racial superiority – but the consequences of pushing a radical egalitarianism, which is what Peterson identifies as the distinguishing mark of the left having gone too far, are less obvious to many, despite the millions of corpses sacrificed to this idea in the twentieth century.

While Peterson’s formulation captures something of how the extremes of right and left are bad in different ways, it doesn’t in my view capture the way in which they are fundamentally similar: both right and left – and, indeed, all other forms of extremism, such as religious and environmentalist extremism – are committed to a form of tribalism that negates the developments in individualism that are the hallmark of the modern world of individual liberties, relative prosperity, relative peace and relative freedom from suffering. The forms of society either envisioned by or instituted by extremists offer no such relative bounties, but unbounded and, therefore, unrealisable visions, resulting in social catastrophes when they are forced on recalcitrant populations.

It is important to analyse the aetiology of extreme tribalism, because humans are tribal by nature. Although we are physically constituted individual, we are social beings, and this is manifest at a fundamental physical level, in our genetic makeup and in our hormonal responses to others. At the psychological level, we are attuned to seek tribal allegiances, which can be interpreted liberally to include everything from family, to ethnic identity, profession, religion, political affiliation, nationality, football or baseball team, hobby clubs, and so on. One of the features of social media sites is the emergence of spontaneous tribalism among those who find common identity in a shared interest. I drive an older car and have noted the tendency among drivers of the same model (me included) to acknowledge each other on the road, establishing an immediate if evanescent identity. We have a capacity for tribalism, both profound and trivial.

Tribalism means more than just a sense of identity, though. To belong to a tribe also involves a value judgement that the tribe with which we identify is ‘better’ or ‘superior’ in some sense. Henri Tajfel, a French social psychologist and pioneer of social identity theory, claimed we make a distinction between an “in-group”, to which we belong, and an “out-group” to which the rest of the world belongs, privileging the former as the basis of our social identity and sense of worth. This is the unassailable logic of the tribe; from this it is not difficult to see wherein many social tensions and conflicts have their root. What mitigates this in modern developed societies is the existence of multiple belongings, riding on the individualism which has emerged in modernity, but which has a long pedigree in the West with roots in antiquity. In the modern developed society, characterised by a high degree of political emancipation, economic autonomy and liberal education, the individual is not beholden to a single, totalising identity, but is free to build a complex self-identity through belonging, whether profoundly or superficially, in multiple in-groups, which has the effect of fracturing the monolithic cohesion of the out-group.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that individualism is universally accepted or necessarily a stable element of liberal democracies. The criticism is often raised that individualism is just an excuse for selfishness, that it is fundamentally immoral or amoral. I would counter that selfishness is inimical to the individual and to the idea of individualism, which has at its foundation the well-being and enhancement of the individual. Nevertheless, there is a justified concern that the focus on the individual in society undermines the cohesion of the broader society by a focus on the desires and interests of individuals to the detriment of duties and responsibilities to others. For this reason, I prefer to speak of transcendent individualism, which specifically includes sociality and areas of spirituality as dimensions of human development. Most advocates of individualism are in fact advocates of transcendent individualism. Yet, the widely-held misunderstanding about individualism and the minority of people who justify the bad choices they make, in terms of their health, education, prosperity, relationships and happiness within an individualist framework, declaring themselves to owe no duty to anyone else or to any moral standards, makes the philosophical foundations of individualism particularly prey to absolutist and tribalist critiques.

Having asserted that political extremism of both the left and the right share a commitment to tribalist ideology, despite obvious ideological differences, it is necessary to distinguish the tribalism of such extremism from the natural tribal affiliations we all experience. I believe that can be summed up in two words: stance and strategy. The stance of extremists is antagonistic: they revel in hatred and conflict, whatever fine justifications they may dress it up in; they develop a hypersensitivity to perceived injustices, whether personal or against the group they identify with; they categorically reject the safeguards to extreme stances which the culture around stable democracies have built into them – tolerance, dialogue, the willingness to listen and learn, respect for truth and evidence, compromise, perhaps even a willingness to change. The strategy is the polarisation of society into antagonistic tribes and the elimination of the ‘other’, the out-group, using the power of the state.

This road to the tribalising of erstwhile democratic society can be considered to take place through four stages. The first is the identification of a cause. Usually, it is a particular grievance held by one section of the population. This is frequently, though not invariably, associated with a pre-existing identity, such as a religion or an ethnicity; if such a correlation between identity and grievance does not exist, it must be manufactured. The second stage is the gradual identification of the individual with the cause and the withdrawal from multiple belonging which we said is characteristic of societies that have individualism as their basis. This is accomplished simultaneously through polarising propaganda which draws a clear line of demarcation between the virtuous “we” and the inauthentic, suspect or heinous “other”. Obviously, in such a confrontation the subtleties of complex social problems and the complexities of self-identity through multiple belonging are lost. The third stage is then to enter a period of increasing insulation of the tribe from reasoned debate and engagement with, and increasing hostility towards, the identified other. This is also marked by the maturation of the political culture of the tribe. The fourth stage is the overthrow or subjugation of the state – whether that be through a campaign of terror, a putsch or a ‘long march through the institutions’ – to capture the instruments of state power.

The outcome of a society overturned by such antagonistic tribalism does not have to be theorised, as the evidence is abundant in history, ancient, modern and contemporary. It is worth noting some of their common characteristics: suspicion of and hostility towards outsiders leading to frequent warfare; expectation of absolute conformity to traditions or the ruling ideology and ruthless suppression of dissent; the practice of barbaric forms of punishment, including mass killing of their own people; changes in power through violent removal of incumbents. Should the argument be made that these are the perversions of the ideology rather than the successful embodiment of it, one only needs to point to the same features in primitive tribal cultures – only the scale is different. These are not features of the developed democracies we generally inhabit today, because the development of an individualistic culture has mitigated the worst features of tribalism. However, the persistence of unresolved problems and the emergence of new ones in imperfect societies create conditions under which ideologues, rather than attempting to solve real problems, can promote absolutist fantasies as remedies to problems they have augmented or exacerbated.

The role of the state in a democratic society to counter such tendencies should be to maintain the basis of individualism within society, in order to maintain and develop the foundations of freedom, knowledge, well-being and prosperity. It is this foundation that encourages multiple belonging and the growth of complex identities across and transcending narrow sectarian ones. There are certain things a government should not allow: the existence of alternative (religious) systems of law or education that undermine transcendent individualism and multiple belonging and entrench tribal identities; political, religious or other ideological groups that operate on an exclusionary principle and advocate hatred of others and incite violence or the overthrow of the state; and any moves to suppress freedom of thought and speech.

This last point, freedom of speech, needs to be addressed in particular. We have moved from a society in which there was a consensus across the political spectrum that freedom of speech was a fundamental right, to one in which this is considered to be a right that advantages the dominant oppressive class in society, by both the far-left and, increasingly, the far-right. The left maintain, with some plausibility, which makes it difficult to see through the sophistry, that freedom of speech can be a cloak for permission to engage in ‘hate speech’ against unpopular minorities. True, if one is inciting violence against a person or group, but that is a crime under existing law (and has been for a long time); however, ‘hate speech’ is a term of such vagueness and elasticity that it encompasses everything from genuine incitement to violence to any opinion that might make someone feel uncomfortable (i.e. that they disagree with) or vicariously consider may be demeaning to a particular (vulnerable, so claimed) minority, as a precursor to the victimisation/oppression of that minority. There is evidence that rightist groups have started using the same strategy, particularly on campuses that are dominated by left-wing academics and students.

In psychology this chain of assuming the worst possible outcome on the slenderest of probabilities is known as ‘catastrophising’ and is a vector of mental illness. Nevertheless, the passionate intensity with which such scenarios are portrayed – in the language of risk assessment, high impact, without the concomitant low probability being considered – is such that an increasing number of academic institutions have been convinced to dismantle their commitment to genuine free speech. The danger for society is that free speech underlies the mechanism of the growth of knowledge and the identification of error, upon which the universities have their rationale, debate takes place in public and in the media, and which forms the basis of the other freedoms we enjoy.

There is a dimension of personal responsibility to this. Being that we are tribal in nature and have lived in tribal cultures for far longer that we have lived in individualistic ones, there is a strong propensity to be swayed by appeals to tribalistic urges, including negative propaganda, negative rumours and negative stereotypes. Sometimes we need no external catalyst, but are primed to categorise someone and assume the worst of someone on the basis of a perceived shared identity, ignoring and collapsing the likely complex self-identity of individuals on the basis of limited information and experience. This tendency is countered most effectively by personal knowledge of people from many different backgrounds (interestingly, opinion polls – in the UK at least – show a consistent trend of the greatest opposition to immigration in areas that have very little of it). Sometimes this is not enough; when social stressors are high, such as terrorist attacks or the pernicious influence of political propaganda, there is a strong reversion to antagonistic tribal mentality, projected onto individuals symbolising the ‘other’. At such times it is particularly important to remind ourselves and others of our cultural and philosophical commitment to individualism, multiple belonging and complex identities – our own and probably that of the individual we are in danger of pigeonholing and disparaging.

Nietzsche and Weber: Transcendent Individualism as Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucratic Rationalisation.



Modernity has been characterised not only by the great benefits brought by the increase in scientific knowledge and the technologies that have flowed from it, such as increasing wealth and convenience, improvements in health and well-being, and access to enormous amounts of information by ordinary citizens, but also by the increased possibilities for the documentation, regulation and control of our individual lives by governments, corporations or the cooperation of the two which technology has facilitated. This was already foreseen in the nineteenth century by one of sociology’s founders, Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the iron cage’ to characterise the growth of bureaucratic rationalisation in capitalist society. Other writers of the period also perceived this tendency within modernity, notably Friedrich Schiller, and Franz Kafka in The Trial. Over the intervening century the bureaucratic state has slowly but inexorably been stretching its tentacles into every aspect of social life, and this development has gathered pace with the advent of big data. With the convergence of government with big data, such as the establishment of a social credit system in China this tendency is now reaching its apotheosis in the ‘digital state’.

The argument made in this essay is that while technological developments have facilitated the drift towards the digital state, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the promises that the digital world holds, while neglecting the matter of our spiritual being, specifically the rationality, freedom and moral individualism which is the foundation of a sustainable democratic order. While responsibility for this neglect cannot ultimately be laid at the feet of anyone but each of us individually, there are cultural currents that define the social context in which we are brought up, educated and live our lives, and those currents are driven by thinkers of great perception and boldness. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one such thinker. His influence on the twentieth century, if largely unacknowledged, has been profound, as various aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, existentialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. By advocating hedonism as a positive virtue, Nietzsche unleased the genie of irrationalism in Western culture, where it has played havoc with our thinking and institutions since.

I will briefly review four aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy and their influence on European culture1: the Übermensch, transvaluation of values, death of God, and the eternal recurrence. As post-modernism is the contemporary intellectual legacy of Nietzschean philosophy, I will consider how this legacy is taking forward the programme of transvaluation, and the influence that is having on the modern culture and, specifically, on individualism as the bulwark against the bureaucratic state’s total dominance. Finally, I will re-evaluate Nietzsche for insights that might yet reinvigorate individualism and the democratic tradition.

The Transvaluation of European Thought

Like Weber, Nietzsche observed the increasing bureaucratisation of European society and, while like Weber, he saw this as rooted in Christian doctrine and values, unlike Weber, he was not merely content to objectivise these values as structural components in a ‘science’ of society; instead, he called for the wholesale transvaluation of our value system. Under the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, he developed his ideas of the will-to-power. Nietzsche saw the phenomenon of bureaucratisation as a moral failure of Christian civilisation, particularly as represented in the bourgeoise life of the middle classes, and this failure as arising from the weakening effect of Christian values such as humility, meekness, love and charity on the will-to-power. In place of these values, he sought to instil what he saw as the aristocratic values of the past, those of the warrior code of the pagan gods.

Nietzsche stands in opposition to much of what we think of as philosophy in the Western tradition, usually discussed along the dual traditions of rationalism and empiricism, which can be traced back to the debates of the ancient Greeks, although inflected through the ideas of medieval scholasticism. Rather, he made a turn into mystification and mythologisation through the medium of analogy and aphorism. His most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, uses the figure of a hermetic seer, nominally based on the actual founder of the Zoroastrian religion2, who descends from his mountain to speak about the Übermensch (Over-man, more commonly translated as Superman) and announce the death of God to the world.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. Despite the middle classes embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, they are consistently a target for elitist figures, including the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. One can see Nietzsche’s point to some extent; although most of us in the West at least are middle class, to aspire to be middle class is to accept a place in Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of an increasingly regulated existence. To the extent that we are aware of this, we feel a call to resist, and the Übermensch offers us one model of resistance. For reasons that I will develop further below I think it is the wrong model; not wrong absolutely, but too partial to address our current requirements. What it does suggest is that resistance has an element of danger, both risk to ourselves and – at least potential – threat to others.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche believed European civilisation was on the verge of sliding into nihilism. The cause of this catastrophe he argued was that Christianity was effectively emasculating the population; belief in the afterlife, values such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness, and turning the other cheek in the face of hostility, were diluting the will-to-power necessary for the vitality of a culture. As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, announced the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. His riposte to Christian belief was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. This is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, and then imagine living it without a single regret. Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life, but a Dionysian existence of excess without shame.

Is it true that belief in an afterlife encourages apathy towards social development in this world? One can see logically why it could be true, but there is no compelling evidence that there is a causal relationship. The Victorian period in British history was marked not only by a strong religiosity, but also substantial social reform frequently motivated by religious belief. Nietzsche obviously moved in more genteel circles, in which an insipid form of religious observance encouraged passivity rather than social engagement. This coincided with the rise of more bureaucratic states in Europe as urban populations rose with the development of capitalism and industrialisation driven by scientific discovery. Together they created a pliant cultural milieu, in which the individuality of the individual was subsumed in a culture of mediocrity. Against this reality Nietzsche railed and called for a transvaluation of values, something that entailed the wholesale replacement of the Christian virtues and the values arising from the Enlightenment with the pagan virtues of the aristocratic warrior, the elevation of a Dionysian view of human life and potentialities.

One sees something like a need for a Nietzschean reaction to the present-day dominance of illiberal values, which, together with the rise of digital technology, have emasculated the vibrancy of Western and other developed cultures. We are a few steps away from becoming vassals of a totalitarian digital state. The implementation of a social credit system in China is the precursor of what may happen globally if present trends continue, because it has a logical inevitability as well as an intrinsic appeal to the powerful. However, There is a terrible paradox to Nietzsche’s revolt against the Christian and humanist traditions of European culture; standing outside the mainstream and preaching a philosophy of the extreme – a heady mixture of violence and hedonism – against the suffocating dictates of reason and conventional morality, has weakened very core values of European and Western identity and stability and allowed the influx, cultivation and nurturing of extremist ideologies at the very heart of many of our academic institutions.

The Susceptibility of Post-Modern Societies to the ‘Iron Cage’

The ‘iron cage’ of Weber’s imagination is as apt a description of the social trends we see today as it was of his own time. Two new factors have been added: the emergence of digital technology which has accelerated and augmented the bureaucratisation of the state and its intrusion into more areas of individual and family life; the rise of a rights-based illiberalism which necessitates, increasingly, the use of the tools of state power to implement and police its diktats in every corner of society.

How have we been enticed into the iron cage, and how do we continue to live there for the most part unaware of our imprisonment? Answering those questions fully would require a historical and psychological account to be given and I am neither a historian nor a psychologist, but from a socio-philosophical perspective it can plausibly be argued that a Nietzschean transvaluation has in fact occurred. European civilisation has been based upon individualism derived from both classical Enlightenment values and Christian values. This type of individualism has provided people with the tools for both internal resilience, that is inner conviction in an extrinsic truth, and the ability to call out wrongdoing and transgression in the name of a greater good, not only moral but also social. At the same time, it has also bred a belief in fundamental freedom and tolerance, meaning an acceptance of that with which one did not necessarily agree. Beyond this, these fundamental values have provided the basis for a shared understanding and belonging in a web of communities, both secular and spiritual, in which disagreements could be discussed in a more-or-less civilised manner. It is this individualism which has now been severely weakened.

How is it then that a culture that underlay Western individualism has been so etiolated? I think that the seeds lie already in how Christianity and humanism developed through their institutional embodiments. In some respects their positive strengths and values made them susceptible to the enticement of alternative – more extreme – interpretations of their virtues. These forces include the emergence of a culture of groupthink. At some point in the development of human rights thinking, the notion of group rights became accepted. This went against the very idea of human rights in its original form, which enshrined the right of the individual to be protected from the power of the state. The protection of the rights of a group requires and inversion of this priority, that is the interference of the state in the rights of individuals in freely expressing their views on groups considered vulnerable. Of course, it can, and is, argued that this represents progress in social matters; nevertheless, it was a breach in the protection of individual rights. The expansion of this initially laudable idea of the protection of vulnerable groups has continued apace, until it has come to occupy almost the entire discourse on human rights, and where group rights conflict with the individual right of self-expression or conscience, almost invariably group rights – the protection of one’s rights as part of a collective identity – take precedence in any legal judgement.

A second related threat is the progressive undermining of the spiritual and secular values of European civilisation. For reasons that it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider, spiritual and secular values, while often in tension, exist in a symbiotic relationship. It has often been noted that the particular religious legacy of the West has been instrumental in creating its intellectual culture. Attempts to distil the essence of rationality shorn of this historical and cultural context have inevitably run into paradox. At least since the French Revolution, though, the intellectual culture of the West has been increasingly hostile to religion, and this has permeated almost every institution and medium of mass communication. For example, the EU is an attempt to create a European identity based entirely on secular values, without any reference to its shared religious history. To some extent this trend is understandable, as it can be seen as a reaction against the past historical abuses of power of the Christian churches and the wars of religion. However, the lessons of the French revolution should disabuse us of the idea that reason alone is the guarantor of a just social order. I suspect (though I have no evidence for this) that religion creates a context of rules for an extended community in which reason can operate but is constrained; freed of this constraint, reason has nothing to operate on but itself, which at least explains the self-destructive tendencies in the hyper-rationalism of post-modern philosophies such as deconstructionism.

Post-modernism is doubtless the principal contemporary ideology with a Nietzschean lineage.3 Its indebtedness to Nietzsche is two-fold: on the one hand is its clear inheritance of Nietzsche’s diatribes against Christianity and rationality, though reinterpreted through a Marxist appeal to equality to the downtrodden (replacing the industrial proletariat with whoever can conveniently be labelled a victim of western power structures) and the subtle use of dialectic that allows the play of meaning to the verge of semantic nihilism; on the other hand is its incessant narratives and barely concealed love of confrontation and transgression: Foucault’s discourses on power and ‘symbolic violence’ (basically everything), anti-imperialist, radical feminist and queer theorists that subject even science and mathematics to their victimological hermeneutics, to the current vogue for ‘safe spaces’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘trigger warnings’, that foreclose open debate and precipitate pre-emptively defensive acts of violence. Nowhere is this postmodern dialectic more revealing than in its apologetics for radical Islam, despite (or is it because of?) its anti-rationalist and anti-science fundamentalism, its oppression of women, support for global jihad and dreadful human rights record.

Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’

Is it possible to interpret Nietzsche for a route out of the iron cage, towards which, I have argued, he has unwittingly helped entice us, by creating the cultural shift in values that is facilitating the advent of the totalitarian digital state? I believe that a reading of Nietzsche can be foundational to a reassessment of individualism moving into the emerging information age, both of its rationalistic elements and of its Christian morality. I will focus on two of Nietzsche’s concepts, the figure of the Übermensch and the eternal recurrence.

The Übermensch has been criticised as a type of proto-fascist ideal. They live by an aristocratic code of superiority, the will-to-power, which is what attracted the Nazi theorists to the idea and it is certainly true that the Nazis appropriated the terminology for their own propaganda.4 The delineation of the idea in itself, therefore, makes Nietzsche responsible to that extent. That, however, can be said of almost any idea: that it is subject to misinterpretation and misappropriation. A reading of Nietzsche on the subject should be enough to correct that criticism. Fascism is a branch of socialism that identifies the state with national identity rather than the industrial proletariat. The Übermenschen live by their own values, not by the values of the collective. They have no allegiance to the state, to an ideology, to a collective identity or obedience to a Fuhrer, which is where Nietzsche and fascism part company.

I think Nietzsche was right to critique the dominant values of the culture of his time, particularly the way in which Christianity, with its focus on sin and salvation, diminished the image of man and reduced the capacities and potentialities of life in this world with the promise of a better life in the next. He was also right in predicting the slide into nihilism that occurred with the two world wars. It is possible that the very culture of inadequacy and dependence which he lacerated was instrumental in the rise of Hitler, who came as a messianic saviour to the German people. However, the image of the Übermensch should not be appropriated wholesale, but accepted critically as a corrective to the weaknesses of the dominant European culture. Particularly at this time, as people are becoming in thrall to the new digital culture and the possibilities for radical government control over the actions and thoughts of their citizens, Nietzsche’s Übermensch holds out the possibility of the individual citizen becoming more dangerous to the power of the state.

That said, this does not require a total transvaluation of the sort proclaimed by Nietzsche. Many of the values that he criticised have an important place in our culture and our psychology. The fact is, we are physically and morally limited and fail or commit sins. All cultures have evolved methods for individual and societal healing, such as confession, punishment, contrition, mercy and forgiveness, depending on the nature of the crime. I suggest rather than a rejection of the values of the culture of which we find ourselves a part, we should engage in a more critical appropriation and individualisation of those values, accepting the positive aspects and resisting attempts by the state to coerce us into its desired patterns of behaviour. It is to redress the balance in the relationship between the state and the citizen, which has flowed in the direction of state empowerment during the last 100 years. It is not a repudiation of statehood, but of the totalitarian bureaucratic state that is threateningly just over the horizon. It is also to accept the responsibility for becoming a better citizen, who holds the state to account.

The idea of the eternal recurrence (or eternal return as it is also known) is probably the most difficult of Nietzsche’s ideas to fathom. I have offered my interpretation above, and on the surface a more morally odious and nihilistic idea can barely be conceived. Yet I want to turn that on its head now, and consider how that might yet presage an important philosophical turn in European civilisation. The eternal recurrence, on Nietzsche’s own understanding, means to live beyond not merely belief in a life after death, but beyond belief itself, in a world of values. It is to live in the eternal present; not so much to live hedonistically in the present moment as such, but to live one’s values as if they are eternal values. Nietzsche therefore declares that the age to come is the new axial age, in which matters of value, whether they be religious or secular, take precedence over the matters of ontology and epistemology which have hitherto been the central concerns of philosophy.

Just as Nietzsche could not contemplate a transvaluation of European civilisation without a mythological underpinning, so too a reinterpretation of the eternal recurrence as a paradigm shift to values-based culture has its own mythology, which is best described by Maurice Berman’s concept of ‘the re-enchantment of the world’, which  emerged in a book of the same name on the philosophy and psychology of science, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians in the late twentieth century. Coming full circle, it was, ironically, a challenge to Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other. The disenchantment of the world is the spiritual precursor of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationalisation.

The idea of re-enchantment fulfils the need in a thoroughly secularised age for a sense of the transcendent in human life. That could be transcendence in the religion of our own culture, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure, or in love. Seeking transcendence of our ego, our experience of the self, is not only an expression of our freedom and individuality, but also our desire, as an individual, to belong to the human community. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, therefore finds a more benevolent interpretation in what I call transcendent individualism, a philosophy of the self that is at the heart of resistance to the iron cage.

To speak of transcendent individualism as benevolent does not, though, mask its threat to the forces of bureaucratic rationalisation. The modern capitalist society requires us to be good workers and consumers, whereas socialism requires us to be good citizens of the state. Of the two prospects, given the choice, people have chosen the former on the whole, and the former almost universally after having experienced the latter. But the state in either case has no intrinsic interest in us as individuals, only as functional parts of its operational whole; it defends us against enemies, feeds us, educates us, provides we remain in reasonable health, and perhaps employs us, because that is the requirement of its own survival – indeed without doing those things we would call it a failed state. Paradoxically, then, though the state is, in the end, just individuals, as a deontological entity, it abstracts the individuality of the individual and, if it becomes too powerful it crushes the natural state of free thought, free expression, free action and free association that underlie authentic social belonging.

Transcendent individualism, by resisting the encroachment of the overgrown state into more areas of our lives, is the guarantor of the continuing vitality of the society of which the state is an important part. It addresses philosophically an issue which has been neglected in recent debates on democracy, the importance of individualism as the foundation of democratic societies, without reducing it to the consumer of capitalist requirement. It does not shy away, either, from the notion of democracy as a messy, conflict-ridden and sometimes revolutionary force. I do not foresee a reduction in conflict in democratic society in the future, as there will inevitably be clashes of values, but this is the essence of the form of society that builds itself on the value of the individual, one that must be eternally vigilant of collectivist tendencies and the stultifying oppression of bureaucratic rationalisation.


  1. I have referred to European thought and European culture rather more than the more general term Western thought and culture, firstly because this is more representative of the cultural milieu in which Nietzsche moved and wrote, but also because, although there are continuities with Western thought and culture more generally, some of the criticisms, e.g. of the character of Christianity, discussed here do not necessarily apply outside Europe.
  2. The modern-day Parsees of India, a small but influential community, are the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religion, which was once widespread throughout central Asia. Its influence is even apparent in Jewish and early Christian theology.
  3. Nietzsche’s relationship to subsequent developments is disputed and paradoxical, as it seems he is held responsible for precipitating the things he warned against. He likened Christianity to a slave mentality, making a virtue of weakness. Today postmodernism – which does have an authentic Nietzschean heritage – underpins much of social justice rhetoric and activism, yet reproduces this mentality. Similarly, while he warned against nihilism, he is considered by some a nihilist philosopher.
  4. It is known definitively that Nietzsche’s links to Nazism arose through the emendation of his archive posthumously by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was married to an believer in Aryan supremacy, and was later herself a National Socialist sympathiser. Through the bowdlerised works, Nietzsche came to the attention of Nazi theorists and leaders.


Selected Bibliography

Peter Baehr (2001), The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, History and Theory Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 153–169, May 2001

Ernst Bertram (2009[1918]). Nietzsche: Attempt at a New Mythology [Translated by Robert E. Norton]. University of Illinois Press.

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Simon Denyer (22 October 2016). China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives. The Independent (online): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-surveillance-big-data-score-censorship-a7375221.html

Graeme Garrard (2008). Nietzsche for and against the Enlightenment. The Review of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Fall, 2008), pp. 595-608

Richard Jenkins (2000). Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In Defence of the Open Society against its Enemies

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude (Karl Popper)

It is just over 70 years since the publication in 1945 of Karl Popper’s most widely known and influential book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Written during the war years while in exile from Austria, Popper considered it to be his contribution to the war effort, as it sought to expose the faulty philosophical foundations of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism. Popper identified, in particular, the tendency to historical prediction or ‘historicism’ that proclaimed the inevitability of the social forms advocated by these ideologies according to supposedly scientific laws of historical development. Thus his criticism can be considered an extension to political philosophy of his earlier and more important work on epistemology, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (published in German in 1934), that is, a critique of the epistemological foundations of these ideologies, and indeed of all ideology. The open society, exemplified by liberal democracies, Popper considered the only form of government able to effect political change without bloodshed and to undergo evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) development through piecemeal change and problem-solving. Notwithstanding the debates within scientific and political philosophy having moved beyond Popper’s contemporaneous concerns, his central epistemological concept of falsifiability, with its entailment of transparency and truth-seeking, has particular relevance to this information age, but is a principle which is markedly absent from interactions within the present political, economic and social fields. Some commentators see in this the demise of liberal democracy. I believe that while open societies have vulnerabilities, they are both more robust than these commentators allow and need to be more strongly advocated than we seem willing to do at present.

To drop the anti-historicist baton for a moment, if history has any point, or purpose, it is the struggle for human freedom. While freedom can be variously defined, all freedoms reside in empowerment, whether that be political, economic or moral freedom. What is certain is that all people, everywhere, desire these freedoms, even if, in some cases, that appears to be the freedom to relinquish their freedom by merging into the collective, the rigid, the backward, the insular, the dysfunctional and of course the criminal. These are the enemies of the open society that must, paradoxically, be tolerated even as they are resisted, even those who utilise the freedom of open societies to proselytise their diatribes against freedom. This paradox nevertheless elevates open societies above all other, for they enable the conditions that – given enough time – expose false theories and beliefs, false promises, false policies and false lifestyles to scrutiny and the unremitting evidence of consequences. Freedom involves risk and risk-taking; open societies can seem chaotic, but it is the chaos of dynamic disequilibrium from which innovation and change emerge. However, to reaffirm the anti-historicist perspective, it would be wrong to assume, pace Fukuyama, that liberal democracies represent the end point of history; they embody, imperfectly, a principle of the growth of knowledge that has had precursors in history that were prematurely extinguished, but appeared fully-fledged in Europe in the eighteenth century: that is the scientific method.

The scientific method is not exclusively about the accumulation of scientific knowledge in a narrow sense that is the specific concern of scientists; it is rather a generalised account of how we learn, which is given specificity in the scientific context. Knowledge as such is the interaction between ideas, in the form of theories, beliefs or opinions, and information, in the form of facts and data about the external world that constitute evidence. This much was practiced by Aristotle and the Arab scholars of the golden era of Islamic civilisation, but it was Francis Bacon who systematised it as a method and laid the groundwork for modern experimental procedures. After Bacon the general assumption was that gathering sufficient data was the basis for sound theorising. Popper however pointed out the logical error in such an inductive approach, in that no number of confirmatory examples was sufficient to verify a theory, but a single counter-example was sufficient to falsify it. Instead, he insisted bold imaginative conjectures should be subject to repeated attempts at falsification. This raised the epistemological threshold considerably for the acceptance of theory, to such an extent that practicing scientists, like the rest of us, largely ignore these strictures in the pursuit of knowledge, and accept the balance of probabilities. Popper’s deductive theory is more like a theory of truth; truth which, according to philosophers like Kuhn, can never be realised, but only approximated more closely. Nevertheless, it remains as a reminder of the standard to which, logically, we should subject our beliefs, opinions and theories.

There are numerous implications of the theory of knowledge for the open society. First, we should be free and educated sufficiently to think boldly and imaginatively about any subject. Secondly, individuals should be free to express any opinion and respect no orthodoxy in the pursuit of truth. Thirdly, beliefs, opinions and theories of whatever kind, whether philosophical, religious, moral or scientific, should be considered tentative, however plausible or implausible, until there is confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence. Fourthly, while persuasion is a legitimate means of transmission of ideas, coercion never is. Fifth, there should be some presumption of respect for people as individuals as free and rational, though not necessarily for their beliefs. Sixth, society as a whole, and at regional and local levels, should be attempting to manage conflict and be committed to finding solutions to problems. Seventh, there should be transparency and the free flow of information. Eighth, there should be a universal commitment to the recognition of and correction of error. Ninth, open societies should empower their citizens, economically, socially and politically, that they can participate fully in the life and development of their society. Tenth, we as individuals should be committed to the improvement of our lives and our societies. These seem the most obvious corollaries.

Modern liberal democracies are not paragons of the open society; it remains something of an ideal. They are rather experiments, each of which have particular virtues and are grappling with particular vices. Yet they embody enough of the principles to be far preferable to any other social form. This alone explains why millions of people are on the move to escape persecution, war and poverty, or the grinding weight of custom and inequality, and make their way to developed countries. This creates problems for open societies, but by their nature they are solution-generating and self-correcting. It is, of course, on this basis impossible to determine what the solution to any particular problem, for example mass immigration, should be. In the short term I suspect there will be a number of solutions, some more viable than others, and hopefully we will learn from the best and improve our strategies. In the long term, the only solution is to transform all societies into open societies. This, though, can only be accomplished on the basis of the principles outlined in the paragraph above, not through military conquest. We have sufficient problems of our own to address. This naturally gives space to the enemies of the open society, the ideological opponents of freedom, to attack the very idea. They cannot do this, of course, resorting to the principles and strategies outlined above, but rather by misinformation and coercion, and, more subtly, by undermining belief in freedom (and its attendant responsibilities) and restricting opportunities for free speech.

Reason justifies open societies as the only desirable future for mankind and reason is their guiding operative principle. Passionate concern, dogmatism and pessimism are inimical to, and are inevitably generated by ideological opposition to, open societies. Nevertheless, attacks on reason come from some surprising places. Universities, which once were bastions of academic freedom, now incubate extremism on one hand, but on the other, under the influence of anti-rationalist postmodern philosophy, forestall the expression of unpopular or challenging opinions by ‘no-platforming’ certain speakers lest some people feel ‘unsafe’ or ‘uncomfortable’, though more probably lest they be disturbed from their dogmatic slumbers.  The law is another area where decisions taken on purely legalistic technicalities can have far-reaching and chilling consequences for transparency. A law being considered at the moment would effectively end the free press in the UK, at least their ability to investigate potential scandal and corruption, by creating a no-penalty right to sue a newspaper if someone considers their privacy to have been invaded. Welfare is another system that seriously endangers individual empowerment and initiative. Compassion, which is a human virtue, experienced by the strong for the weak, can become a vice when it is institutionalised and merely perpetuates that order of power rather than ending it. Low educational ability, despite universal education, much of it free, is strongly indicative of poor life chances in employment, physical and material well-being, prospects for marriage and social status. In many developed countries we are too tolerant of poor educational outcomes and economically supportive of their attendant lifestyles and the subcultures that perpetuate them.

The aggregate enemy of the open society is collectivism and group-think. The foundation of open societies and our freedom is individualism. If for the moment we strip away all the cultural accretions, we are all fundamentally the same in sharing a human nature, as opposed to an animal nature. The frequent assertion that we are ‘nothing but’ animals, specifically mammals, results in a peculiar type of contradiction: the application of reason to cloak its own phenomenology. For reason is what defines us as human and not as animal. There is a qualitative difference; however much we see a spectrum of intelligence in the animal kingdom, there is, as Marxists would say, a tipping point at which the quantitative becomes the qualitative. Therefore, when talking of individualism, this is not to focus on the individual physical body, which is an adaptive form created by the forces of genetic mapping and environmental pressures, but the mind which is embodied. Reason finds the value of the individual in the unique individual mind and this is the foundation of freedom and equality, which are fundamental to the open society. Cultures and sub-cultures that exhibit the trait of differential evaluation of human worth, whether that is as someone to be controlled, as a possession, as a means to economic or social advance, or a sexualised object, exist still within the sphere of slavery and need to be transformed.

For some, individualism has a bad name. It is associated with selfishness and hedonism, as a denial of spirituality, altruism and collective duty, whether to the family, an institution or the nation. The first thing to say is that these arguments have been used throughout history by powerful individuals and elites to crush the aspirations of people everywhere, and they are also advanced by the ideological enemies of the open society. The second point is that, from a rational perspective, selfishness and hedonism are intrinsically inimical to individual flourishing which is both a pillar of, and a desirable outcome of, the open society. Laziness, greed, addiction, irresponsibility – the besetting sins of all societies – are harmful to the individual and to society, and a rational society should be doing all it can to curtail them. Selfishness, though, should not be confused with self-interest. Our life-long project should be the improvement of our selves. It is the nature of this self, though, that it is of interest, not just to us, individually, but to society as a whole. Society is not more than the sum of its parts, or at least only to the extent that it is an emergent property of social interactions. Therefore, society in the abstract has a vested interest in the flourishing of the individual, which means that as individuals we also have an interest in the advancement of others. This is different to the perspective accepted and encouraged in our present economic culture here in the West, which is implicitly a zero-sum game based on the Darwinian-Spencerian idea of the survival of the fittest, which in reality optimises outcomes for neither the individual nor the society.

Therefore the individualism which is suited to an open society has a transcendent quality, in that the self is continuously engaged in a project to extend its abilities. That transcendence can be counted on at least five major fronts: physical, intellectual, professional, emotional and social, which emerge from aspects of our evolved human nature: survival instinct, sexuality, sociality and spirituality. Each of the fronts  necessitates development centred around a cluster of values, for example – and this is merely a limited selection – ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ for the physical, ‘knowledge’ and ‘reason’ for the intellectual, ‘reliability’ and ‘expertise’ for the professional, ‘resilience’ and ‘warmth’ for the emotional and ‘companionship’ and ‘generosity’ for the social. These fronts are not isolated or competing aspects of the individual, even if in the past they may have been seen as such; they are complementary and collectively reinforcing. As our knowledge grows we are beginning to see a more rounded and more extensive picture of human possibilities. No one ultimately need be excluded from this vision. We already see, through events like the Paralympics, the range of possibilities that are opening up even for the disabled. New technologies promise the eventual elimination or circumvention of blindness and paralysis and the emancipation of their sufferers.

Open societies are not perfect, nor will they ever be; they are imperfect by definition. The difference to other social forms is that this fact is universally acknowledged, and this acceptance sets the stage for a programme of continuous improvement through problem-solving. The defence of open societies is ultimately the defence of a process, not a thing. Some people find this threatening, as they would like to retreat to a closed, unchanging world of certainty. Most of us at some time, if the truth be told, feel like this, but the enemies of the open society experience this as perpetual existential crisis. They should be tolerated but kept on the fringes. The growth of knowledge has enabled us to survive so far in a hostile environment and has succeeded in making human lives better, freer and happier. That is definitely something worth defending.

Self-transcendence and the multiplicity of value-worlds in the evolution of modernity



The dizzying rate of change today is bringing a focus on fundamental values that is bypassing the traditional concerns of epistemology within philosophy and the historical and political issue of the religious/secular divide. This focus points to an emerging view of social evolution driven by a transcendent view of individual identity.

The nature of social evolution

If there is one universal truth it is that we do not see or experience the world as it is, but only as we believe it to be on the basis of the ideas and values we have accepted. While this is true of the physical ‘world’ (universe) in which we live, it is true in a qualitatively different and more meaningful sense of the social ‘world’ (society) that we inhabit, in that we are not merely interpreters of social reality but, equally, creators of it.

Today it is commonplace to argue from a perspective of cultural relativism that the social form prevalent in the West – variously characterised as ‘open’ (Popper, 1945), ‘secular’ or ‘liberal democratic’ – is merely one form of society emerging in the world, neither intrinsically better or worse than others such as Islamic theocratic, Chinese Confucian/Communist or Russian authoritarian. While the geographical labelling of this form of society is linked to its historical origins in Western Europe and the pre-eminence of the United States as an economic, military and cultural power during most of the past 100 years, not only is it not limited to those ‘European’ cultures, but it contains the essential ingredients of a universal social form, that for convenience can be termed modernity.

I would like to burnish a perspective on modernity, first broached by Hegel, but popularised by Francis Fukuyama (1992), that the prominence of rationalism and emergence of liberal democracy in the eighteenth century represented the beginning of a new stage in history. Perhaps prematurely, Fukuyama announced the fall of communism as the ‘End of History’, a judgement that has not fared well in the ensuing years of resurgent nationalism, socialism and Islamism. In this period the pessimistic realpolitik of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ (1993) has held sway and postmodernism has come to dominate intellectual discourse in many fields. From the broader sweep of history the emergence of modernity goes back further than the eighteenth century, back in fact to the Renaissance of the fourteenth century. In the Renaissance a social and cultural paradigm was set in motion that has endured for six centuries and has transformed the life of humans beyond recognition. Some of the characteristics of this paradigm are:

  • The development of personal freedoms and rights
  • The development of scientific knowledge, scientific methodology and critical tradition
  • The dissolution of traditional power structures and the emancipation of millions of humans from a life of slavery or serfdom
  • Technological advancement and progress towards ending the great scourges of mankind: poverty, disease and famine
  • Wealth creation through density and complexity of economic activity
  • Universal education and social welfare

Some or all of these appeared in pre-modern societies, but never all together and never integrated so systemically that they constitute a type of ‘universal replicator’ (von Neumann, 1966; Dawkins, 1989; Deutsch, 2010). If modernity is considered as a project, it is an as yet unfinished project. Despite the immense progress, problems of great magnitude remain to be solved; moreover problems yet to be imagined or discovered wait in the future. The nature of modernity is not that it finally resolves all problems, but that it contains the mechanism by which all problems are in principle solvable. While the prospect of unending social evolution through problem solving may not be how we imagine the future, nor chime with the widespread pessimism about mankind’s future from many quarters today, imagine what a society in which such progress had come to a halt would entail, as the interlinking of all the aspects of modernity described above started to unravel.

Constructing value-worlds

One persistent critique of the West – and by implication of modernity – from its external socio-political competitors and from its internal critics, particularly religious groups, is that it permits and even encourages deviant morality and anti-social lifestyles. This criticism comes from an older and simpler paradigm of human sociality that is gradually being replaced.

While the cultures of the West are characterised as individual-based, its critics typically come from politically or religiously collective cultures. However, collective cultures are an integral part of modernity also, but the relationship between the individual and the collective is different in a number of important aspects. All collectives are characterised by adherence to a set of common ideas and common values – what we could call common beliefs. As a result all members of a collective tend to share a similar worldview, a common moral outlook, communal practices, a social interaction, and so on. Such a collective experience can be represented abstractly and very simply by a closed circle, delineating the world ‘inside’ from the world ‘outside’. In pre-modern, anti-modern and closed collective forms, the life of the individual, and even the society, tend to be subsumed within a single such boundary. What characterises the life in modernity is not the absence of these collective forms, but their multiplicity in our social institutions and our simultaneous and rather more tentative belonging, which mitigates both the naturally closed nature of such institutions and the exclusivity of belonging. While closed societies are marked by stasis – the desire to remain unchanging – a state of dynamic equilibrium between the collective and the individual is a feature of open societies.

The closed nature of such value-worlds is not something that has generally been recognised in enlightenment thinking, with its emphasis on freedom, the individual and rationality. Values, though, exist in shared experience and therefore have an emotive and collective dimension as well as a rational and individual dimension. It is impossible for an individual to live in any society and not be subsumed into a value-world; the difference in an open society is the multiple belonging, freedom of association, and (depending on the individual) degree of reflexivity of the belonging. In a real sense individual construct their own value-world – or value matrix – through such multiple belonging.

There seems to be a paradox, though, in claiming that such closed value-worlds exist in an open society. The answer to this can be illustrated by looking in particular at the relationship between the ideas of religion and secularity and our assumption of their conflicting nature.

Throughout history – or to be precise religious history, for it is only an intellectual issue for religion – religion has been seen in opposition to the secular realm. Without delving into the detail of this, the divide has had more to do with the struggle for political power in society than competing paradigms of reality, which is religion’s theological interpretation. Following Jesus’ ruling on the ownership of the denarius, the terms ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’ have come to imply a sharp distinction between two ways of seeing the world, at least equal in status. However, this is not true: there is actually no such a thing as secularity. The opposition is a false one. Kant referred to such oppositions as ‘antinomies’ and considered them as arising as artefacts from the process of conceptualising reality. There is, in fact, in the West at least, only modernity, and from the perspective of modernity there is a multiplicity of value-worlds. In the pre-modern paradigm there is only the perspective of each closed worldview; there is for each collective only one inner and one outer world. In the midst of modernity this must result in a form of cultural schizophrenia, kept at bay by self-deception or (in extreme cases) acts of violence. In reality, even the most devout must eventually acknowledge the multiplicity of power centres and value-worlds. They rely on modernity for their medicine, their transport, the technology they use to broadcast their message, and, in most cases, their jobs and their education, and at some point must accept the dissonance between their ideology and reality.

Religions are already mostly integrated into modernity and this process will continue, embracing even those parts of the world where religious institutions still hold sway. There are, though, two important riders to this statement: the first is that although religions will continue to appear, grow, decline and disappear, religion itself will never disappear because it is fundamental to some aspects of human nature, something that even evolutionary psychology recognises, and it will adapt to individual and collective needs of every age; secondly, religion would only ever come to dominate human culture again though the catastrophic failure of the project of modernity and the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

There will always be those who are strongly committed to a religious view and who populate religious institutions. Likewise there will always be some who are indifferent or even hostile to religion. But most people lie along a spectrum, and the life of these individuals will be marked by phases of spirituality and worldly concerns. Some of the factors affecting people’s attitudes and their location along the spectrum include genetic traits, family upbringing, peer group, specific historical and events, personal circumstances and stage of life.

Resolving value-relativism

If the world contains a multiplicity of worldviews all justified in their own terms and co-existing within society, is it possible – and if so, how is it possible – to discriminate between truth and falsity, between the morally good and the morally evil and between the coarse and the refined?

There are two possible answers to that, one of which – a Spenserian form of social evolution, that is, ‘the survival of the fittest’ – is the less palatable option. In the first place there is no indication that social evolution takes place in this manner at all. Evolution in the Darwinian sense (rather than as a type of guided or teleological evolution) guarantees no favourable outcomes. History teaches that in fact many good things have disappeared beyond human reach. Secondly, such a view provides no guidance as to the intrinsic qualities sought in the present among the myriad competing claims of the contemporary world.

The second solution, though, points to more promising resolution of the dilemma. The view of modernity outlines above is most compatible with a view of human nature that I term transcendent individualism (1). If the history of modernity up to the present has been to validate the individual beyond the collective, the future will validate the individual who is in the process of self-transcendence. That does not mean reabsorbing the individual into the collective; it means that on the basis of individual freedom, the individual will enter into a process of self-improvement socially, morally, spiritually, physically and intellectually. Like many aspects of modernity, this idea is gradually taking shape but is not yet fully formed. Nor, I suspect, will it ever be, because like modernity itself human nature can only truly emerge in the process of meeting and overcoming challenges, of which there will be no end.


1. The term ‘transcendent individualism’ is not original, although I have interpreted it in my own way. It reflects some of the concerns of the transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, such as Emerson and Thoreau, although they saw it predominantly in aesthetic and mystical terms, whereas I would include aspects of physical self-improvement and social transcendence that counter the tendencies towards self-indulgence and inconsiderate behaviour that blight highly individualistic cultures.


Richard Dawkins (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
David Deutsch (2010). The Beginning of Infinity: explanations that transform the world. London: Allen Lane.
Francis Fukuyama (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin.
Samuel Huntington (1993). The Clash of Civilisations. Foreign Affairs; Summer 1993; 72, 3.
John von Neumann (1966). The Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. A.W. Burks (ed.). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Karl Popper (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies. London: Routledge.