Beyond Individualism?

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.
by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton.
University of California Press. 355 pp. $16.95.

Does the title Habits of the Heart seem more appropriate for a popular romantic novel (or a made-for-television movie) than for a serious sociological study? If so—if we associate “habits of the heart” with personal romance rather than with social science or public philosophy—this would simply be grist for Robert Bellah’s mill, further evidence for his contention that “the language of individualism, the primary American language of self-understanding, limits the ways in which people think.”

The phrase “habits of the heart” is borrowed from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville explains that he applies the term “mores” not only to what “might be called habits of the heart, but also to the different notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits.” Bellah also attempts to understand American “mores” in this broad sense. In order to discover “what resources Americans have for making sense of their lives, how they think about themselves and their society, and how their ideas relate to their actions,” Bellah and his associates engaged in “conversations with ourselves, our ancestors, and several hundred of our fellow citizens.” With the publication of their findings, they “intended to open a larger conversation with our fellow citizens” with an eye toward contributing to “transforming American culture.” Habits of the Heart thus aspires to be at once a work of social science and a contribution to public philosophy—a work, indeed, after the example of Tocqueville, of “social science as public philosophy.”



It would be unjust to criticize Bellah for falling short of the standard set by Tocqueville, since this simply puts Bellah in the company of every other student of America in the last century and a half. It would be churlish to harp too long on the issue of whether the Americans interviewed—about half of them Californians, a quarter therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and their clients, another quarter leftist political activists—are even loosely representative of the nation as a whole. It would be pointless to dilate upon the book’s wooden earnestness which pervades even the reports of the interviews, the repetitiousness of the exposition, the preachiness of the advocacy, even the rather hackneyed character of the argument. All of this would simply suggest that a prominent sociologist and four colleagues, advised by a distinguished advisory committee, and supported by three foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities, labored for several years and brought forth a mouse. But it is the particular character of this mouse, and the noises it makes when it squeaks, that may be of interest as revealing some of the habits of mind of one prominent stream of contemporary social science and public philosophy.

One might think that a work based primarily on interviews might be somewhat incoherent, but this is not a problem of Habits of the Heart. Quite the contrary; the interviews are cut and pasted to fit into a clear analytic framework. This was presumably made possible by the fact that, as Bellah acknowledges, he and his associates “sought to bring our preconceptions and questions” into the interviews, and that the story they tell is in any case “not just the story of those we interviewed. It is also our own.” This allows Bellah to lay out his argument clearly, even schematically; it also means that we do not learn very much from all the stories the interviewees tell. They all amount to Bellah’s own.



Bellah’s story is straightforward, and for the most part unobjectionable. American culture consists of three central strands—the biblical, the republican, and the modern individualist. Individualism, always our “first language,” has over the years become increasingly dominant, leaving the “self” ever more detached from social contexts or cultural traditions. Individualism flourishes in two modes: as the “utilitarian individualism” of a Benjamin Franklin that dominates our world of work, and as the “expressive individualism” of a Walt Whitman that we indulge in choosing “life-styles” while at leisure. The triumph of the somewhat uneasy alliance of utilitarian and expressive individualism has deprived us of a “framework within which to justify common values” or a language to explain our individual commitments—thereby rendering precarious both our common values and our individual commitments. As a result, American individualism “may have grown cancerous,” “threatening the survival of freedom itself,” to say nothing of our well-being as a society and as individuals.

This fundamental perspective underlies Bellah’s discussion of a variety of aspects of American private life and public life—from marriage and the family to religion and civic associations. The discussion draws heavily on three dozen or so of the interviews done by Bellah’s associates; but the interviews, and the analysis as a whole (with the partial exception of the chapter on therapy and therapists), do not serve as the occasion for developing more subtle distinctions, for discovering counter-intuitive complications, or, in general, for deepening our understanding. Instead they simply serve as evidence to support—time and again—the book’s relatively simple argument.

Meanwhile, Bellah gives remarkably short shrift to the huge literature on the topic of American individualism, much of which points the way toward a far richer discussion of the history of Bellah’s three strands, and of the relations among and variations within them. Here, despite the fact that “our most important task today is the recovery of the insights of the older biblical and republican traditions,” we get only a four-page sketch of those traditions, with little in the way of subsequent development. Perhaps this is the price we pay for the decision to depend primarily on interviews. But the interviews cannot bear the weight put upon them.

The snippets from the interviews do little to deepen or sharpen our understanding of the issue. Indeed they require some massaging to be made to support Bellah’s case. For example, one of Bellah’s themes is that Americans trapped in the language of individualism have great difficulty “justifying the goals of a morally good life”; when a therapist, Margaret Oldham, seems quite capable of justifying her goals, we are quickly told that her explanations are insufficient because her goals are not connected to a wider framework of common values. Similarly, individualism allegedly prevents us from giving a “substantive definition of the public good”; when a community organizer, Wayne Bauer, seems to have a reasonably clear public agenda, we are told that it is insufficient to deal with the issue of how “scarce goods should be distributed in a complex society.” And when an evangelical minister, Larry Beckett, seems to have a solid non-individualistic commitment to his family, we are reminded by the authors of the limitations of evangelical Christians’ grasp on their own tradition, and, later, of the fact that the tradition’s norms are often “accepted unreflectively.”



What all of this suggests is that if one sets the implicit standard high enough, so that people are expected to be able “to define for themselves such things as the nature of success, the meaning of freedom, and the requirements of justice,” any popular moral language—not only that of modern individualism—will seem lacking. This applies to Robert Bellah as well, whose own attempt “to find a moral language that will transcend” modern individualism is so vague, formalistic, and hortatory that anyone not predisposed to it would be hard put to judge it in any way superior to the language of individualism he deprecates.

It is true, as Bellah says, that the vision of freedom as “freedom from” does not much help Americans address “common conceptions of the ends of the good life.” But Bellah, typically, does not himself address the ends of the good life; he does not even suggest how to address those ends; he simply suggests that “freedom might encompass an ability to share a vision of a good life or a good society with others, to debate that vision, and come to some sort of consensus.” Or we are told, again and again, that “there are truths we do not see when we adopt the language of radical individualism.” Here is Bellah’s most comprehensive account of those truths:

We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of our selves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups, associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning. Our individualism is itself one such pattern. And the positive side of our individualism, our sense of the dignity, worth, and moral autonomy of the individual, is dependent in a thousand ways on a social, cultural, and institutional context that keeps us afloat even when we cannot very well describe it. There is much in our life that we do not control, that we are not even “responsible” for, that we receive as grace or face as tragedy, things Americans habitually prefer not to think about. Finally, we are not simply ends in ourselves, either as individuals or as a society. We are parts of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price.

Here endeth the sermon.



Bellah’s reliance on exhortation and his refusal to articulate substantive alternatives to individualism are compounded by his unwillingness seriously to discuss the difficulties with those alternatives. Bellah is everywhere alert to the tensions and ambivalences that plague individualism; the tensions and ambivalences of the biblical and republican traditions he acknowledges only to explain them away. Bellah is not willing to tolerate a revival of the illiberal aspects and implications of the non-individualist traditions: thus he stresses that he is no simple opponent of modern individualism. It is to be praised insofar as it has broken down barriers of discrimination and oppression supported by attitudes of moral dogmatism—insofar, for example, as it has made possible in the sphere of family life a new view of relationships between persons of the same sex, and has made possible in general “more sensitive, more open, more intense, more loving relationships.” Yet modern individualism now threatens to undermine these improved relationships, so we need to reappropriate “the older civic and biblical traditions,” suitably reformulated so as to be purged of illiberalism “while simultaneously remaining faithful to their own deepest insights.”

Now the attempt to have the best of the modern individualist and the republican/biblical worlds is in a way a reasonable one; one might say that this desire animates much of the best American political thinking. But Bellah never offers any argument as to why we should believe that the older traditions do have the capacity to reformulate themselves while remaining faithful to their deepest insights, or how they might do so. Indeed, he never tells us to which aspects of themselves they must remain faithful, and which aspects must be reformulated. Similarly, Bellah argues that the language of individualism makes it difficult for most Americans to envision “what concrete shape and direction the public good might take in our present historical circumstances”; he suggests that if only we addressed the issue of the public good, the ends and purposes of government, “we might find that there is more basic agreement than we had imagined.” But he gives no substantive indication at all of what the features of that basic argument might be, just as he never justifies his claim that “with a more explicit understanding of what we have in common and the goals we seek to attain together, the differences between us that remain would be less threatening.” In this sense, Bellah is justified in claiming that in terms of present American political discourse his vision is “neither conservative nor liberal,” since through most of this book his vision remains without any substance whatsoever.

In most of the book—but not all. For one can discern the political direction Bellah would have us take as we move beyond individualism. One clue is provided by the four interviewees singled out for praise for their efforts to help make our private and public worlds mutually coherent: all are involved in liberal or Left politics. In addition, it turns out that one of the charges against individualism is that it tends to blind us to “embedded inequalities of power, privilege, and esteem in a culture of self-proclaimed moral equality.” And (incredibly) we are told that “the litmus test that both the biblical and republican traditions give us for assaying the health of a society is how it deals with the problem of wealth and poverty.” On the basis, then, of a revived biblical/ republican tradition that provides us with “a political discourse that could discuss substantive justice,” we could act “to ameliorate the differences that are patently unfair while respecting differences based on morally intelligible commitments.” How would we know which differences are which? Would we be likely to agree on this? Don’t ask.



The fact that Habits of the Heart fails to provide much in the way of serious examination of individualism and its alternatives does not of course imply that individualism ought not to be a genuine concern. But one is led to wonder whether this whole formulation of the problem—one common, incidentally, not just to Bellah but to many conservative social theorists concerned with the individualist erosion of our “moral capital”—may not be somewhat misleading. While it is true that there is a certain kinship between utilitarian and expressive individualism (a kinship embodied in the Yuppies), what is striking is that the fundamental political divide tends to run down the middle between the two individualisms.

In politics (to oversimplify matters considerably), those whom one might call the traditional communitarians tend to find themselves allied with utilitarian individualists, and the two together stand apart against progressive communitarians allied with expressive individualists. There are obviously tensions between the two groups in each alliance; but the fact of these alliances leads to the reflection that the individualist/communitarian distinction, though important, may not be fundamental, and that there may be a deeper ground of division which separates the individualists and communitarians on the Left from the individualists and communitarians on the Right.



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