Individuals and Groups

Everywhere I turn lately, I run into problems with understanding the concept of dialogue, and that’s bound up in larger issues. One of these problems involves understanding who exactly is on either end of dialogue. In fact, this post relates to the question of dialogue between equals that I raised in the last post. This time, I want to focus on the spectrum of individual and society. I use the word spectrum deliberately because I find that it can be difficult to figure out where the individual ends and society begins, or vice versa. Of all things to cause consternation, this seems like one of the least likely. After all, the individual almost seems like a self-defining entity. An individual is an individual and society is a grouping of individuals. However, dig in a little bit and it’s more complicated.

Consider the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, someone in whom I am really interested and am working to understand better. One of his main ideas is that individual understanding of knowledge is based on context and history. That is, we don’t learn in a vacuum. What we know depends in large part on the people from whom we draw our knowledge. Or consider political ideas about the individual. In recent discussions with people I really respect, I’ve learned that these ideas differ not so much on the concept of freedom as they do on the understanding of the individual in relationship to society. To create a comparative image, it’s like the difference between a puzzle made out of pieces and a puddle made out of many drops of water. Both are coherent wholes, but the units out of which they are made and the ways in which those units interact to create the whole are very different.

What does this have to do with dialogue? If the boundaries between the individual and larger communities are hard to pin down, there are implications for dialogue between individuals, between groups, and between individuals and groups. At what point do individuals stand in for groups and vice versa? Once again, I do not have clear answers. But I am encouraged to keep identifying ways in which dialogue seems embedded in important societal constructs aside from face-to-face conversation.

Do any of you have ideas or answers to these questions?

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