chapter  3
38 Pages

Our Individualism and Its Religious Origins

Louis Dumont, key theorist of the individual and individualism Unlike some thinkers who feel compelled to declare their moral alignment with the ideas they explore, Dumont generally tries to short-circuit moralizing the subjects of his writing. This is not always possible, nor perhaps even desirable-even for Dumont-but it is how he conducts himself as a scholar and author. One of Dumont’s sharpest critics, Robert Parkin, put this stance in the following way. In his work on morally delicate subjects such as hierarchy or individualism, Dumont has consistently refused to strike a moralistic pose, instead

(Parkin 2003, 116) Dumont’s reluctance readily to moralize the notion of hierarchy by con-

demning it-part of the transgressive thrust of his work, as I have argued —is at the root of the irritation and outrage against Dumont expressed by such critics as Gerald Berreman, as we have noted. By the same token, Dumont’s moral distancing from the equally involving notion and institution of individualism might, in some quarters, cause the same sort of impatience with Dumont’s views of the genesis and function of individualism. Why is not Dumont either celebrating individualism like a classical “liberal” should or, on the other hand, why is he not condemning it like a “man of the left”? One could imagine the Durkheim of the Dreyfus Affair, in particular in his spirited defense of individualism as the national French value in “Individualism and the Intellectuals” feeling that Dumont was being just a

little too cool about such a vital institution. The Durkheim of those days felt not only that the sacredness of the human individual was so important in his day, but also that since it was so much under attack by the forces of the revanche that he had to lend the weight of his scholarly prestige to its defense in the public arena-hence, his intervention into the public controversies of the Dreyfus Affair. In effect, Durkheim felt that the neutrality of scientific distance was less important to protect in his own day than the sacred value of individual, and indeed the sacredness of a real concrete human individual, Captain Dreyfus (Durkheim 1975). If Dumont does not seem under quite as much pressure to defend individualism, he perhaps feels moral pressure from other quarters, such as from the need to strike a pose against what he thinks are the greater evils of his time, namely, the leveling drive of the totalitarianism of the French Stalinist left of his own milieu. If he enjoys instead the relative leisure of holding up the notion of individualism to scientific scrutiny, rather than rallying to its defense, it is perhaps because he believes that greater moral and political dangers issue from other quarters than those which threatened individualism at the end of the nineteenth century. Having said this, it would be best then to head off questions about whether Dumont thinks individualism is a good or bad “thing” right from the start. What I personally find that Dumont’s explorations of individualism achieve is the creation of a pervasive sense of dis-ease and discomfort with a notion usually surrendered to the pieties of our commonplace nostrums, celebrating individualism. Dumont thus makes us “think” about the consequences of the particular set of choices we in the West have made in opting for individualist forms of social life.