We describe things by their roles, but they are more than their roles. Iron, for example, has a role in the functioning of the human body, the earth, and the universe as a whole. To describe it is to say how it acts in connection with other things. On the other hand, it is also a substantial thing that does not reduce without remainder to what it does.
What applies to a chemical element applies all the more to human beings. We cannot identify, describe, or deal with people without reference to their participation in systems larger than themselves. We nonetheless recognize that they are more than the sum of their relationships. That is what makes them real.
Role and substantial existence, stereotype and individual, are the polarity that makes things—including us—what they are. Both are real, and an adequate understanding of the world and what is in it must include both.
Modern thought, with its insistence on transparent conceptual simplicity, insists on suppressing one or the other. Sometimes it separates us radically from our roles and so from the events and relationships that define us. That tendency gave rise to Descartes’ philosophy, with its radical opposition of the ego to all else. Today it convinces people that discrimination is simply irrational, since it fails to accept the irrelevance of a man’s connections and roles to the man himself.
There is also a contrary tendency in modern thought that leads people to deny that persons and things are more than collections of events and relationships. If they are more than that, skeptics ask, what more are they? It is hard to give an answer the skeptic will accept, so scientism and Occam’s Razor as now understood demand that we stick to what can be observed and measured—events and patterns of events—and forget about substantial existences. The result is that persons and things dissolve into a complex of physical events and social functions.
Those conflicting tendencies have given us both personal autonomy as an absolute and an ever more radical tendency to interpret human life as mechanism. To accept one is to reject the other, and modern thought offers no other possibility. Those who deny the absolute independence of man from his social connections are thought to deny that individual man matters, and those who say the individual matters feel compelled to make emancipation—whatever that might be—his highest goal.
It is evident that there is something fundamentally wrong with an outlook that oscillates between such strange and contradictory notions—between the libertarian abolition of society and the socialist abolition of the individual. Somehow we must regain the ability to understand man as related as well as real, as a participant in things larger than himself. Otherwise we will be unable to understand him at all.