Individualism, collectivism, "mere" birds, and how to understand ice hockey

What is happening here? Source: 08-usa-rus-faceoff, Uncleweed, Wikimedia Commons. Conventional thinking has overemphasized and over-stretched the collective perspective. Meanwhile, I think certain approaches to libertarianism have over-emphasized an individual or individualist perspective—or at least have a bad reputation for seeming to. Calling this "atomized" individualism is certainly a rhetorical move on the part of collectivism, but it might also contain some useful lesson.

Over-emphasizing the individual perspective probably came as an understandable reaction to the absurd overreaching of collectivist thinking, in which the "mere" individual is to vanish in the great tide of the collective. Moreover, the undertone is usually not far away that if the "mere" individual does not cooperate, force will be applied. The great blind spot of collectivism is that such force can only ever actually be applied by other acting individuals wielding such force (whether they work for the state or such does not alter this fact).

In contrast to all of this, what is needed is the ability to use both individual and system perspectives as appropriate to understand reality. This seems to also be what the great economist, journalist, and moral philosopher Henry Hazlitt was on to when he wrote:

Society is not merely a collection of individuals. Their interrelations in society make them quite different from what they would be in isolation. Brass is not merely copper and zinc; it is a third thing. Water is not merely hydrogen and oxygen, but something quite different from either. What an individual would be like if he had lived completely isolated from birth (assuming he could have survived at all) we can hardly even imagine…We can hope to solve many social problems not by looking at them exclusively from either an "individualist" or a "collective" aspect, but by looking at each aspect alternately.

          — Henry Hazlitt, The Foundations of Morality (1964) p.167

Some images might help clarify what I am getting at by the need for access to both "aspects" or perspectives. Imagine a team sport match. Any sport will do. Maybe ice hockey. What is needed to watch and understand the game?

Seeing the whole field and the players, we are able to understand what is happening. Now if advanced video editing were used so that we could only see one of the players in the game but not any of the others, it would suddenly appear incomprehensible. What is that player doing? Why going this way and not that? Why crashing into the wall? This is an example of missing the collective or system perspective.

Alternatively, say we were watching unedited video of the game, but this time had no idea what the rules and objectives were. Here we would be missing the individual perspective. What is each player trying to do, why, and how? Again, the whole game would be incomprehensible in that case too, but for different reasons. Now there are just a bunch of armored people skating around with sticks! But why?

In order to understand the game, we require both an individual perspective and a system or collective perspective at the same time. The same goes for the real world in general.

One of a list of benefits of referencing an integral approach (see, for example, Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1999)), is that it reminds us that both individual and system perspectives are always available to be consulted, and ought to be. Both perspectives can be misinterpreted and misused, sure, but neither simply goes away.

The very idea of one of these aspects being valid to the exclusion of the other is absurd; they are sides of a coin. There exist no systems that are not made up of components. At the same time, components do not become something other than what they are by virtue of being part of a system. Birds flock—and remain birds all the while. We observe no flocks of "mere" birds, only flocks of regular birds. Likewise, components do not exist in isolation. One can ignore their context and interrelations (which Ayn Rand called "context dropping"), but this does not make such context and interrelations vanish from reality.

It seems that Hazlitt already hit the perfect note on this in 1964. We must "look at each aspect alternately." Upon running into an explanatory brick wall by focusing mainly on one perspective, one can try checking in with its partner perspective and see what dawns.