By Ryan Salisbury
Thanks to the rapid development of telecommunications, from the telegraph in 1823 to the modern internet, the improvement and utilization of communications networks has been one of the defining technological changes of the last 200 years. As technology, as well as the diversity and scale of activities it can manage, grows independently of our understanding of it, the social, cultural, and philosophical frameworks we have built for ourselves begin to crumble. Seeing the world as a collection of separate, independent individuals becomes an increasingly untenable lens through which to understand its contemporary behavior. Examining behavior within the context of personal responsibility and personal choice shifts the blame to the victims, rather than the perpetrators or causes, of social and instutional violence—or at best, some link up the chain of responsibility that again ends with some specific person.
Dividualism is a way of seeing personhood usually attributed to Melanesian cultures but seen in many others, which includes partibility and relational personhood in its model. A person is not seen as a separate entity from the rest of the world, but as a complex of relationships interlinked with the world. This mode of thinking can be hard to grasp, until you realize that many of us occasionally already think this way. Someone can be said to have partible beliefs according to the different relationships they have, e.g. “As a writer,” “As a mother,” “As a veteran.” These statements reflect not an indivisible identity, but a divisible one, where attitudes and beliefs are a result of some relationship to the world (such as being a writer, a mother, or a veteran). Likewise, we should view others’ actions as having a strong basis in their relationship to the world, rather than some personal choice or intrinsic quality.
Individualism has been the key focus of Western philosophy for centuries now, and its cracks have long since started to show. The participation of every person in his or her own oppression renders individualism’s concept of personal responsibility a cumbersome and unhelpful (or even counterproductive) part of the problem-solving process. It provides a means to justify vindictive punishment systems or targeted violence which are not practical or ethical vehicles of change. It promotes a narrow, simplistic view of problems and their causes, which requires supplemental analysis far outside the scope of individualism in order to reconcile facts contrary to the individualist analysis. In the most extreme causes, individualism relies on premises that are readily proven false, such as individual sovereignty.
When a person is indivisible, a relationship with that person can create despair over some inextricable part of their individual identity, such as their role in the government, or their attitude toward consumption. Whether this causes the cessation of the relationship or merely some degree of tension, the end result of the indivisible identity leads to the placing of persons on a side of some border or along some continuum of benevolence & malevolence, responsibility & lack of responsibility, or other form of ingroup & outgroup division. It causes, ironically, more division, or at least, more harmful division, than the view of the partible, relational person.
The divisible person, on the other hand, has identities tied to specific relationships to others and to the world. It promotes a more nuanced way of thinking about actions and motivations than, “this person did it and is responsible,” or even the more subtle, “this person did it because of exogenous influence, and anyone whose identity includes membership in this exogenous force is responsible.” Attributing actions to dividual persons and their relationships avoids the fallacy of the single cause, allowing the consideration of distal causes that fall outside the scope of the individual, but within the scope of the dividual. It avoids the challenge of identity, which ultimately falls on ourselves, in establishing a relationship with an individual whom we can observe is “part of the problem”. Nonetheless, it does not ignore that there is some component of that person that is, in fact, part of the problem, while furnishing the means to trace the flow of causation to a more ultimate source.
The framework of the divisible person also allows us to reconcile other forward-thinking and radical concepts with our conception of personhood. An ecosystem cannot be considered an individual person, but it can be considered a dividual person. By considering it a dividual person, we easily see that our most challenging ecological problems stem from a hierarchical relationship to our ecosystems, in which we extract without replenishing. A dividual person can have a more fluid gender than an individual person, whose qualities are bound to their identity, rather than their relationships with the world. Our assignment of fixed gender roles may have a connection with our need to form individualist identities for ourselves and others. A dividual person may have a criminal relationship with the world, a relationship which should be therapeutically treated to repair the person’s other relationships to the world. Dividuality helps us to realize that today we are most strongly influenced by those who have no real relationship to us, and the factors that most influence our identities and our happiness have become hopelessly vicarious and remote.
Dividualism is a rather exotic way of thinking, one that often falls into the unfortunate pile of primitive, mystical, obsolete ways of thinking. I find there are many reasons to reconsider whether it is really dividualism that is the primitive world view: Dividualism promotes nuance and wider analysis of phenomena; it reduces the cognitive and social deadweight of assigning blame to individuals as a(n ineffective) means of resolving problems through individual vindication; it is compatible with many radical concepts that require a re-examination of individualism or a framework wholly outside of its scope. I encourage the dividual worldview as a means to gain a greater understanding of the problems and solutions that we will face today as well as tomorrow.