This introduction to the third and final part of the Common Knowledge symposium “Unsocial Thought, Uncommon Lives” (13:1 [Winter 2007]: 33–39) is reprinted here in a special issue of representative pieces from the journal’s first twenty-five years. The title is taken from an article by Isaiah Berlin in CK (7:3 [Winter 1998]: 186–214 and likewise reprinted in the anniversary issue). Perl’s essay argues against the Aristotelian (and, generally, commonsense) presumption that “man is a social animal” and explains that the CK symposium on unsocial thought was meant to substantiate that “societies do as a rule smother instinctive (along with distinctive) behaviors, but in the process they also as a rule incarnate the least respectable instincts with greater force than individuals can do independently. . . . If even heroism and altruism, let alone standard social conduct, are oblique expressions of aggression, cruelty, and the will to power (as the hermeneutics of suspicion maintains), then the obvious conclusion to reach is that human beings are not fit company for each other. . . . The standard means of veering off from this conclusion is to blame one’s own society, or aspects of contemporary society, and then to propose improvements. Historically, evidence suggests, efforts of this kind are (or else, become) opportunities for controversy and thus for exercise of the will to power. Social order is such that even the discussion of social order occasions conflict.” Perl goes on to argue that individualists and communitarians are “fundamentally in accord”: they are “teams” agreeing to the rules of a dubious conflict from which only “stylites, dendrites, and (on the hearty end of this spectrum) mendicants” have done what is required to exempt themselves.
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Jeffrey M. Perl; Suffocation in the Polis. Common Knowledge 1 April 2019; 25 (1-3): 332–338. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-7299414
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