Does collectivism actually exist?

Wikipedia defines:

Collectivism is a cultural value that is characterized by emphasis on cohesiveness among individuals and prioritization of the group over self.

If (at least from western Cartesian viewpoint) the subject is the fundamental cognitive being, then how is it possible that group experience would override subjective experience? It seems supernatural and thus "religious".

Or perhaps it's subjective? I could imagine that for someone e.g. physically weak, it'd make more sense to "group up" with other or stronger members, since you're weak alone.

  • it certainly.exists as a concept. And there are all sorts of collectives. If you pay tax, you're in one. Some societies are more disposed to the ideal of collectivism than others. And ultimately humans are neither ant nor tiger, and tire, making the implementation of more ideal economic collectivism (communism say) a task of coping with boredom and desire for choice. But without collectivism in its essence, nothing above that achievable by the power of one person would ever get done.
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 11:21
  • The definition in Wiki is obviously not full. It demands a free parameter. "prioritization of the group over self" .. IN WHAT? A team can behave itself as a team during a football game, but after the game ends, there is no team, but a group of separate people. BTW, the other part of the definition is even worse: "characterized by emphasis on cohesiveness.." - totally senseless part. "Collectivism is a cultural value..." - A value is not CHARACTERIZED, but MEASURED, as by prioritization, for example.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 16:16
  • Western viewpoint has not been Cartesian for a while now, nor was it Cartesian before Descartes, or even exclusively so during his lifetime. Utopian socialists, and later Marx, also came from the West. European social democracies, and, to a lesser extent, even US, balance individualist and collectivist priorities for almost a century. They still have kibbutzes in Israel. Whatever Cartesian ideology one might adopt, being social animals remains a fact of our biology, enshrined in culture and folk mentality, and shapes how we act, some more than others.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 4:15
  • "emphasis on cohesiveness among individuals and prioritization of the group over self." That sounds a lot like my experience of the military. If we go by the definition you give, that might be an example of its existence.
    – armand
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 0:39

1 Answer 1


Remembering the emotions

Descartes never says that we are merely cognitive beings. Thinking may be our essence - may define our essential nature - but we are also creatures of emotion or 'passion' as the term is usually rendered in translation.

In the Passions of the Soul he identifies six primitive passions :

The first primitive passion is [1] wonder, which occurs when an unfamiliar object is encountered and which "we . . . find novel, or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be . . . ." Wonder is first and foremost because it occurs before the object has been determined to be "beneficial"; and it has no opposite, since looking at an object without wonder is to look at it "without passion."

Descartes in fact defines each of the primitive passions through a differentiation which occurs on the biological level through the movement of animal spirits. Wonder, however, exhibits no such movement, while each of the remaining primitives does. Though it may sound strange to speak of animal spirits as the determining ground for passions, it is not so far removed from our modern account of hormonal disposition.

The second and third primitives are those of [2] love and [3] hate. In the first definition, love for something is simply the thought that this thing is good [beneficent]; and hate, that it is harmful. Following these two is a pair: [4] joy and [5] sadness. "Consideration of a present good arouses joy in us, and consideration of a present evil arouses sadness, when the good or evil is one that we regard as belonging to us."

The final primitive is [6] desire. Like wonder, desire has no opposite and is always directed towards the future. It disposes "the soul to wish, in the future, for the things it represents to itself as agreeable." Desire pertains not only to the want of good in the future, but also the "preservation" of good which exists in the present. Descartes does not pair aversion with desire on the primitive level. Aversion is simply the desire to avoid evil and in this manner is reducible to desire itself. (Anthony F. Beavers, 'Desire and Love in Descartes's Late Philosophy', History of Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 279-294: 282-3.)

The emotions as a basis for collectivism

There is no reason why, given these primitive passions or emotions, collectivism should not be possible in some form. Co-operative inquiry, mutual responsibility, and citizen participation (Henry Tam, Communitarianism, London: Macmillan, 1998) could all be supported by the Cartesian passions. The exact mechanics by which collectivism could emerge from them is another matter.

The essential point is that once you have passions, you have the possibility not only of conflict and indifference but also of co-operation, which is the ground of collectivism. Appearances suggest that elements of co-operation, hence of collectivism, are real enough in contemporary life. In this sense 'collectivism actually exists'.

  • I think the problem is in the ambiguity of collectivism. Am I collectivist if I like my co-workers? Or only if I share all the profit with them?
    – mavavilj
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 12:55
  • 2
    I tried to disambiguate 'collectivism' by specifying the three elements of co-operative inquiry, mutual responsibility, and citizen participation. You introduce more specific elements connected with liking and sharing profits. There can be collectivism as I've defined it with or without these extras. I don't myself see that liking and profit-sharing are inherent conceptual elements of collectivism. They are contingent features - add-ons which are no part of the logic of the concept. You must make what you will of my answer. I have given the best I could.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 13:04
  • @GeoffreyThomas whilst.it''s not strictly necessary for members of a collective to.enjoy participation.. It's really the whole trick i think.
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 22:07
  • @Richard. Psychologically, you are dead right. So I've no desire to contest your point. I focused, narrowly I agree, on whether Cartesian subjects could make collectivist arrangements. I fixed on conceptual possibilities rather than psychological realities. All I'd say is that it's a contribution that users might want to consider. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 9:29

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