Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Myth of Atomism

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Myth of Atomism

Article excerpt

Free above Scot-free, that observes no laws, Obey no governor, use no religion But what they draw from their own ancient custom, Or constitute themselves, yet they are no rebels. (1)

CHARLES TAYLOR, IN TWO IMPORTANT ESSAYS, (2) offers both a refutation of what appears to be the foundations of liberalism (3) as well as an alternative "third way" to the liberal-communitarian debate. In this paper we are broadly interested in the role of community within a liberal framework, and for that reason the Taylor essays are a useful way to begin such an exploration. There is, we believe, much in Taylor with which to agree. If liberalism somehow fails to accommodate any meaningful conception of community or somehow manages to undermine the possibility of community, that would be a serious strike against it. "Atomism" is one of those concepts inherently linked by thinkers such as Taylor to liberalism. It is the sort of concept meant to evoke, if hot describe, a perspective on human association that is at least problematic to community-building, if not directly undermining it. Taylor's first essay with the title of "Atomism" explores this idea and levels the charge of anticommunity against liberalism. The second essay, "Cross Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate," builds upon that charge but seeks to moderate the apparent antiliberal stance of the first. Our position is that liberalism is not opposed to community and that "atomism" when applied to liberalism is something of a myth--a caricature rather than an integral part of liberalism. Out specific theses will be the following: (1) "atomism" as used by Taylor is a confused tool and one whose uses for understanding liberalism are extremely limited, if applicable at all; (2) the applicability of "atomism" is ironically more consistent with certain forms of collectivism than with liberalism; and (3) Taylor's own proposed way of navigating the difference between liberalism and communitarianism is in the end a form of communitarianism and not an alternative at all.

I

Let's begin with the way in which Taylor conceives of "atomism." Atomism is the doctrine that makes the theory of "the priority of the individual and his rights over society" (4) possible by positing a certain view of human nature and the human condition without which the priority of rights could not be asserted. The priority-of-rights thesis ascribes to persons rights as such, that is unconditionally, but it does not do so to social categories such as "belonging" or "obedience." (5) Atomism thus "affirms the self sufficiency of man alone or, if you prefer, of the individual." (6) The classical thinkers who hold to this position are Hobbes and Locke, according to Taylor. (7)

Before continuing further we must note that this characterization of atomism is about as precise as Taylor gets in this article. Yet it is not the vagueness to which we so much object, as it is the inaccuracy of this concept when applied to any recognizable liberal doctrine or thinker! First, Hobbes is not an atomist on this account. On the usual reading, persons in the state of nature have no rights, only liberties. And even Locke, who does ascribe rights to individuals in the state of nature, does not do so over and above society, because there is no "society" in the state of nature in the sense that Taylor means it, namely, where concepts such as "belonging" and "obedience" are generally applicable. There is, nonetheless, society for Locke, since people in his state of nature still interact and even do so peacefully at times. What there is not is general loyalty and obedience. In addition, for Hobbes at least, there is no argument of self-sufficiency as Taylor suggests. It is precisely because we are hot self-sufficient that we need to leave the state of nature and seek the company of others. We are social animals for Hobbes as well as Aristotle, just not for the same reasons. For Hobbes, individuals seek society for the benefits that associating with others may bring, whereas for Aristotle, "seeking" society seems somehow incoherent since society is not something we come to, but that within which we are born. …

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