The social contract theories assume that people are "naturally individuals", and they give up some of their individuality in a "social contract".

However, humans are also naturally social animals. Therefore, it is logically equally plausible to state that humans are born social -- as integral members of the family and society -- yet humans created notions of "individualism" as an "invention".

Are there influential theories that go in this direction? If not, why?

  • Great apes lived in communities even before the apparition of homo sapiens, so society predates humanity, it's a fact.
    – armand
    Jan 11, 2021 at 0:33
  • 1
    @armand I know, but I'm not aware of any formal theory that takes this position to counterbalance "social contract theory" and thus the question.
    – J Li
    Jan 11, 2021 at 0:36
  • Note that it does not invalidate social contract theories, as they are still relevant to explain why we should accept the rule of the general will.
    – armand
    Jan 11, 2021 at 1:03
  • Some socialists and communists believed something like this. For example, Marx and Engels described the "natural" state of humans as "primitive communism", and individualism as promoted by the capitalist class.
    – Conifold
    Jan 11, 2021 at 7:46

2 Answers 2


Most of early (pre-Marx) socialism was explicitly based on the idea that humans were social first and individuals second. This is particularly true of the socialist movements tied to Christian ideals. Theology in general has always been communitarian, with the possible exception of certain cults and sects (Alastair Crowley's Thelema cult, Scientology, etc, though communitarian arguments could be made even about those). If we read theology, or some of the more religiously-inspired academic philosophy (e.g., the American Pragmatists and Transcendentalists), we can find these kinds of arguments, but they are not exactly 'mainstream'.

This is one of the core unresolved issues of the Liberal era. Liberalism based its fight for political and social power on the idea of the stand-alone individual — Locke literally suggested that 'property' inhered in the individual, so that a man 'owned' a good in the same way that he 'owned' his own body — and in the general public that solipsistic (one might argue neurotic) individualism is a matter of dogmatic ideology, not scientific or philosophical analysis. There are people pushing back on it — in critical theory and social theory, sociobiology, etc. — but it's hard to crack dogma in he first place, and doubly hard to do so without regressing to earlier religious ideation, which modern society tends to reject.


Eusociality is relevant. Developed & extended by AO Wilson, world leading social insect expert, and staunch opponent of 'selfish gene' reductionism. By the strict definition, humans have been eusocial, and language occured in that context - in tribal units.

Confucianism focuses on family way ahead of individuality, making 'filial piety' a primary social value for order & harmony in society. In modern thought this seems repressive, but succession crisees have been a majorly destabilising & destructive force through most of human history, is a big focus of the Maharabata, & many other cultural narratives, & is still hugely problematic in Subsaharan Africa where only a few peaceful transitions of power have been made (& Trump is trying to undermine the democratic tradition's solution, like Caesar undermined Rome's that the US is based on). I would say Confucianism has a countervailing picture of the origin of society, to social contract theory.

I remember reading about a comparison of locus of control/accountability between West & East (as including India) - I wonder how much that is about the role of extended families and the domination of politics by successful ones, vs post-industrial family atomisation as people moved for work. I think I don't have the terminology right, because I haven't been able to track it down.

Burke's 'social contract for the ages', or between generations, sounds like other contract theories, but links past & present groups to duties to the future, which may be relevant.

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