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Friday, August 1, 1975

Individuality and Intellectual Independence

Anne Wortham is a Research Librarian in the news syndication industry. One of her earlier articles from THE FREEMAN is included in The Libertarian Alternative: Essays In Social and Political Philosophy. This article is excerpted from her forthcoming book profiling race conscious prototypes among American Negroes.

Individualism, the doctrine of social freedom and independence, is being cast aside today as an ideal of Lockean fools; and individuality — the consequence of self-determination, self-reliance and self-assertiveness — is resented as a mysterious, unmalleable quality to be denied public acknowledgment in the affairs of men and undermined at every opportunity. While social engineers, economic planners and professional reformers continually advocate a social system in which individuals are coerced into equal conditions of life, animal behaviorists tell us that man is not as unique among animals as he likes to think. According to both lines of reasoning, a man is little more than a sophisticated primate who in time can be trained to accept a form of socio-political collectivism that prevents him from achieving any more or less than the man next to him.

They tell us that man’s similarities to other animals in the realm of perceptual awareness are more important than his distinction from them as a being of conceptual awareness; that his similarities to other men as Homo sapiens outweigh his differences from them as an individual. Indeed, behaviorist B. F. Skinner tells us that in order to prevent the abolition of the human species, science must abolish autonomous man (i.e., the individual) — “the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity.” “His abolition has long been overdue,” writes Skinner. “To man qua man we readily say good riddance. Only by dispossessing him can we turn to the real causes of human behavior.”1

Intellectual Independence and Free Will

If they could the abolitionists of individual autonomy would eradicate the intellectual boundaries that distinguish the identity of one man from another. They persist in judging men according to the similarities found in such statistical and categorical classifications as their biological ancestry, their national ancestry, their income level, their sexual attributes or the environment in which they live. While these classifications of attributes are useful in describing groups of individuals, they are not sufficient to distinguish one individual from all others, including those with whom he shares certain characteristics and circumstances. The fundamental characteristic that all men share is their possession of a conceptual faculty. And it is within the realm of man’s identity as a reasoning being that the primary distinction among individuals must be made. That distinction is man’s use of his consciousness. All other variations, such as his values, motivations and attitudes, and their consequences flow from this primary condition. The ruling force of man’s use of his consciousness is his power of volition, what Nathaniel Branden defines as “the power to regulate the action of his own consciousness.”² It is the power to focus one’s mind to achieve a level of awareness — to initiate thinking and to be aware of the nature and consequences of his thinking. Entailed in this self-regulatory mental activity and fundamental to man’s intellectual independence is his free will. Free will is defined by Branden as follows:

“Free will” — in the widest meaning of the term — is the doctrine that man is capable of performing actions which are not determined by forces outside his control; that man is capable of making choices which are not necessitated by antecedent factors…. Man’s free will consists of a single action, a single basic choice: to think or not to think. It is a freedom entailed by his unique power of self-consciousness. This basic choice — given the context of his knowledge and of the existential possibilities confronting him — controls all of man’s choices, and directs the choice of his actions.³

The doctrine of free will refutes the deterministic claim that man has no control over his conscious growth and development; that he is no more than a mass of protoplasm molded by his genes and social environment whose fate is determined by the stars or a witch’s spell. The use of reasoning is not something done to man; he makes reasoning occur. Even when men behave as if they could not help what they do, given the possession of normal faculties, they must be held accountable for their thought and actions. They must choose — whether out of ignorance, or in order to evade and repress, or whether to achieve truth and freedom of the spirit. Whatever the reasons for their choice, whether for good or evil intentions, men must choose to act; and the choice to act presupposes the choice to think — to initiate reasoning.

Putting Reason to Work

All men are equally equipped with the capacity to reason —man’s basic tool of survival. But it is in his choice to apply (or not to apply) his reason to the problem of survival, from the first hour of birth until the last breath of life, that each man stands unequal to other men. In the broadest sense, the conditions of human survival are equally the same for all healthy men at the onset of their lives. But it is each man’s perception of those conditions and the manner in which he translates those perceptions into integrated knowledge that makes one man unequal to other men. The decision to be conscious —to focus one’s awareness — and to perform the process of thought necessary to live in his environment is original with each man and must be initiated (or suspended) by him. Regardless of where he lives or under what circumstances, he has the option to act in support of his existence — or he can act against it, blanking out thought, evading effort and thereby sabotaging his life.

An individual has no choice about the color of his eyes, but he can choose to color his personality by a view of a gray, fogbound universe in which he feels hopelessly lost and powerless to comprehend; or he can color his personality by a view of a sunswept, integrated universe in which he feels at ease and confident in his ability to master. An individual has no choice about his need for oxygen, but he can choose to pollute his mind with the smog of doubts, fears and rationalizations; or, he can choose to keep his mind filtered with continuous inquiry, knowledge and validation. An individual has no choice about the physical height of his body, but he can choose to reach the intellectual height of a virtuous man of courage; or he can sink to the depths of a cowardly guttersnipe.

Free Will Makes the Difference

It is man’s free will that individuates him. Free will gives him an autonomy that is inviolate, pulling him out from the family of man, separating him from his neighbors, friends, loved ones and associates. In this sense, each man is cognitively alone — not linked to any other men before, during or after him; not linked to any living entity or social institution, conventions, mores or traditions. Even if all men had the same quantity and quality of genetic endowment, the conscious choice of each individual to activate his mind would remain the controlling force of all other life choices. And the character and personality that results would still make the person distinct from all other men.

As an end in himself, man has sole control over his mind; neither his physical nor social environment can compel him to think (or not to think), to act (or not to act). Even when a man chooses to follow the crowd, the choice is his — born in his mind, not in the “collective mind” of the crowd. He may live in an environment where the will of the tribe is law, but there is nothing to prevent him from possessing a sovereign consciousness except his own will. He may live in a society where to exercise his mind is punishable by the pain of death, but there is nothing short of death that can prevent him from using his mind except his own will. His body may be destroyed by others, but only he has the power to destroy his mind.

Like all living things, man is a part of nature but he is the only living organism that is in any degree free of the forces of nature —i.e., not controlled by his external environment. Unlike other organisms, the greater freedom man has of nature, the greater are his chances of survival. “An animal obeys nature blindly,” writes Branden, “man obeys her intelligently — and thereby acquires the power to command her.”4

Unlike the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin, man cannot survive in his environment merely as a passive reactor. The facts of reality exist for all to comprehend. It rains on the irrational as well as the rational but what a man makes of the rain is entirely his own affair. A simple but profound difference between the lilies of the field and man is that while the survival of the lilies is dependent on their strength to withstand the rain they cannot escape, man builds a shelter. And the difference between individuals is that while one man will build a shelter of straw, another will build his shelter of stone.

All lilies everywhere react biochemically to their environment in much the same way. But each man, at any time and under any circumstances, must face the facts of his environment alone — not with the purpose of being a chemical reactor but with the purpose of identifying the facts and using that knowledge to further his life. There are no exceptions. The rules are the same for each man whether he inhabits a mud hut in the most primitive jungle or a marble mansion in the most technologically advanced society. A Twentieth Century housewife’s responsibility to activate her consciousness is no less than Aristotle’s was. And all her claims to an intellectual heritage based on the thinking of Aristotle will not make her any less responsible for the original thinking she does or does not do. What links the housewife and Aristotle, or the caveman and the astronaut is that regardless of their knowledge, context and values, each must function in the manner of Homo sapiens: each must choose to focus his awareness or not to focus it.

It is not enough to choose to think; one must then proceed to think — to understand the identity and cause of things. “Theirs [is] not to reason why,” wrote Alfred Tennyson of the Light Brigade, “theirs [is] but to do and die.” But if man is to exist in harmony with reality, he must ask why. (as well as what and how) and he must live to live, not to die.

Intellectual Independence and Understanding

If a man is to control his environment rather than rely on the thinking of those who do control their environment, he must be willing to understand that environment. Guesswork, hunches, or faith won’t do. He must be willing to distinguish between who and what in his environment is beneficial to his existence and who and what is inimical to it. But understanding is not a quality man is born with. It does not come to him overnight (even a sudden “brainstorm” has a cognitive history in an individual’s mind) and it cannot be merely wished into existence. It is an intellectual level of awareness one must work for — the end product of a logical process of independent thought.

The principle of understanding occupies both ends of the knowledge-acquiring spectrum; it is an on-going process that is both the cause and effect of man’s reasoning. A man activates his reasoning because he wants to understand himself and reality; and as the result of his logical reasoning, he achieves understanding. Mere repetition or imitation does not constitute learned knowledge, as it does not require understanding. But learning requires thinking and thinking requires the will to understand. While it is possible for one man to learn from another, it is not possible for one man to do another’s thinking. What he learns must, be his knowledge, or he cannot claim to have learned. This is not to say that a person’s ideas must necessarily be original with himself. He may hold the same ideas as other men, but what must be original with him is the thinking and the manner of thinking he does to reach the same conclusions as other men. However, the goal of his thinking should not be to reach the conclusions that others have reached but to arrive at convictions that are legitimately his own — whether they stand in agreement or disagreement with those of others.

Entailed in the will to understand is the commitment to creativity and honesty. One must not only be certain about what he knows but also the extent and limitation of his knowledge. He must be the prime architect, organizer and administrator of the content of his consciousness. He must be at once selective about the facts he integrates and scrupulous about the relevance they hold for his life. It is in this manner that understanding is necessarily contextual. It is by this monitoring of his thinking that an individual maintains cognitive harmony with the facts of reality and it is in this manner that he remains honest.

Achievement through Experience

Contextual and honest understanding forbids claiming more understanding than one’s actual thinking and experience can provide. A person’s knowledge and the understanding it entails is his own when he has reached the point of experiential affirmation of his convictions — when he can relate the abstractions of his mind to the concretes of his existence. But it takes time for intellectual understanding to be transformed into an experiential achievement. A child does not understand facts about himself or his existential environment that a mature adult is required to understand. The intellectual growth span of a person is in many ways analogous to the cultural growth span of the human race. His movement from the level of mere perception to the higher level of conceptualization and finally to psycho-intellectual maturity is as impressive as the dynamics of mankind’s progression from the Stone Age across the centuries to the Space Age. Each individual begins life at the level of an intellectual Stone Age. But whether he reaches his own personal Space Age and beyond depends on whether he chooses to think and how skilled he becomes in the exercise of his reason toward that goal —not on his genetic endowment, his socio-economic status or how well he can mimic the reasoning of others.

The Possibility of Error

There are aspects of reality which one may not be able to understand until the context of his life is broad enough to provide room for that knowledge which he does not yet possess. Yet it is also possible to have an abstract understanding of certain facts and never have an experience in one’s life that reflects that understanding. One does not have to be a candlestick maker to understand how candles are produced. For the same reason, one is not prohibited from inventing a better source of light than candles simply because it has not been done before. This creativity, or what Branden calls “cognitive self-assertiveness,” is the factor of man’s consciousness that underlies his esthetic expression: he is able to create a fictional hero unlike any person he has met — or paint a landscape he has never seen — or devise a theory for a social system that has never existed.

Since man is not infallible—since knowledge and the understanding it entails is not automatic in human beings — since man must discover what is beneficial and what is inimical to his existence — there is always the possibility that he may commit errors of knowledge and judgment. The will to understand requires that he be willing to admit those errors and to correct them. It requires that he operate on the premise of intellectual honesty, confidence and courage. Rather than a source of humiliation, an error should be seen as a green light signaling the necessity for new thought that can lead to another level of understanding, increased knowledge and intellectual growth. It presents one with the opportunity to expand his ability to deal with the world around him; to increase his efficacy as a person. Man cannot be right all the time, and he cannot be certain about everything all the time. One’s past assumptions may be proven in error by his future knowledge; and by the same principle, his answers to today’s questions may become his validated convictions of tomorrow. What is important is that he does not attempt to fake his own nature or the nature of reality by evading his errors or refusing to acknowledge and resolve his uncertainties.

Steps in the Growth Process

But there are those who would rather die than admit their errors. Equating right with good and wrong with bad, they feel that to admit they have erred means to admit that they are bad people. To be judged in error is to them the same as having their morality called into question. Hence, they build up all manner of defenses and rationalizations to protect the image of perfection and omniscience they would like to project. But in choosing such deception, they commit an even greater error — not one of knowledge, but a breach of morality: they wish to fake reality.

But the man committed to understanding does not experience such fears or contradictions. He knows that to be wrong does not mean that he is morally bad; he knows further that being right does not make one necessarily morally good. He knows that one is morally bad only when he tries to make a mistake appear to be correct when it isn’t; he is then bad because he is a liar. He knows that mistakes are tools; they are warning signals that more knowledge is required of him. He does not feel that because he has made mistakes, he cannot be certain of anything. And he never uses the phrase “to err is human” as an excuse not to correct his mistakes. To be human is to grow; human error, properly seen, is a force of motivation — not an excuse to do nothing.

The man who chooses to think and does so with the will to understand is a person of sovereign consciousness, a self-regulating consciousness. To be such an individual means accepting the responsibility for being cognitively independent of other men; it means being responsible for one’s own thinking — being the initiator of the thought and action necessary for one’s existence. Because he is a self-regulator, the sovereign individual does not depend on the judgment of others to motivate his self-understanding. He is intellectually adventurous and secure in his convictions, but always on the alert to improve and expand his store of knowledge and correct his errors. Not only does he seek knowledge to benefit his existence; he enjoys the search. Repeatedly, he enthusiastically initiates the process of identifying aspects of reality, of integrating those facts into concepts and those concepts into wider abstractions and principles to add to his continual accumulation of knowledge.


1Skinner, B.F., Beyond Freedom and Dignity, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971), pp. 200-201.

² Branden, Nathaniel, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Corporation, 1969), p. 37.

3 Ibid., p. 50.

4Branden, Nathaniel, The Disowned Self, (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Corporation, 1971), p. 239.  

  • Anne Wortham is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. She is a rare voice in the liberty movement — a scholar and rogue academic. She wrote her first piece for The Freeman in 1966.