Children of Pride

Here is a précis of my current book project, tentatively titled Children of Pride: A Study of the Emergence of Modern Social Thought. Please feel free to contact me if you’re interested in looking at some or all of the manuscript.

The emergence of modern social thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is often understood to have marked the end of an older vision of human beings as “political animals,” constituted against a social background and finding their highest goods in collective life. Breaking with this vision, the story goes, thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Bernard Mandeville, and Adam Smith instead begin to take the atomistic, self-interested individual as the fundamental building block of their theories. Henceforth the theoretical task is to determine how such atomistic individuals can constitute a viable social order, regardless of whether the path revolves around the coercive power of the state or the invisible hand of the market. Or so this tradition has been remembered, both by its later social-scientific admirers and by critics from a wide range of political and ideological orientations.

This book argues for a different view of this history. Far from taking the atomistic individual as their descriptive starting point, these thinkers and their interlocutors are preoccupied with the ways in which human beings are all too social, fixated on status and relative position at the expense of their seemingly-objective interests. They are preoccupied, in other words, with the problem of pride: a kind of egoism that can only be understood against a social background, and which therefore cuts against the dichotomies—community and individual, norms and interests, altruism and egoism, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft—that structure so much later thinking about social life. This is not to say that atomistic individualism is altogether absent from their work. But atomism for them must be understood above all as a moral project rather than a descriptive assumption. This project centers on a shift from egoism understood as pride, a drive for superiority within a given and hierarchical social world, to egoism understood as self-interest, a form of atomistic maximization in quantitative and material terms. To its proponents, such a shift seems to offer the possibility of an escape from zero-sum positional struggle into a world where mutual benefit is at least conceivable.

These early modern discourses are the ancestors of our own social theories, both economic and sociological, materialist and culturalist. But the problem of pride has dropped out of our conceptual vocabulary altogether. The project of early modern individualism succeeded too well; the atomistic and self-interested individual, conceived as a moral possibility, was adopted as a bare descriptive assumption, resulting in the familiar set of dichotomies that seem to mark the limits of our own theoretical possibilities. The self-interested individual becomes the central premise or the central problem of social theory: alternately upheld as the necessary foundation for social inquiry or rejected in the name of the political animal, praised as the source of prosperity or denounced as corrosive of community. Examining more recent thinkers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and political stances, I show that their common neglect of these earlier problems can help point to some of the shortcomings of their theories, and indeed of this entire set of dichotomies. Without simply wishing to go back to a bygone conceptual world, I suggest that tracing its features can help point to some of what is missing in our own.