Who comes first: the individual or society?
Western philosophy is more oriented towards the perspective of individuality and differences among people rather than what is common between them. Eastern perspectives start, however, from the concept of interconnectedness of all living beings and the environment.
But if individualism is prioritised, then a common agreement between people becomes more distant.
The reflection of individualism on virtues and values was discussed by Japanese thinker and peace activist Daisaku Ikeda, in his lecture (1991) delivered at the University of East Asia, Macau. The lecture points to a study by American sinologist, Professor William Theodore de Bary of Columbia University, published in his book “The Liberal Tradition in China”, in which he evaluates what he called “Confucian personalism” as opposed to radical individualism. On this, Ikeda states:
“… it is important to note that Cartesianism, while it may provide for the untrammelled autonomy of the individual, is almost entirely devoid of reference to an “other”, and it is on this point that it diverges sharply from the concept of individualism or liberalism expressed in Chinese philosophy.
In the Chinese precepts to master oneself and return to propriety, for example, we see the clear and positive involvement of the introspective “self” with the “other” through the medium of social ritual propriety. The liberal and individualistic currents in Chinese thought differ from their European counterparts in that the existence of society, as the organic setting for the life and the activities of the individual, is always assumed.
It is in this respect that I find the down-to-earth sense of harmony evident in traditional Chinese thought – to be outstanding; this might be defined as a sense of the duty and responsibility the individual has to improve society and human existence”. (*)
Ubuntu: "I am - because you are"
A clear example of focus on person's individuality in Western philosophy implies Descartes Cogito: “I think, therefore I am” (**). Meditating on the concept of "certainty", Descartes' final product of thinking was a statement in which "I" appears twice, while the "others" and "environment"- ignored. It can be argued that, if Descartes was searching for an "absolute certainty", then a certainty without doubt would be that the existence of the individual, the "I", is not possible without others and the environment.
Eastern philosophy targets the concept of existence of the individual through the principle of "Dependent Origination", which suggests that the individual's existence is interdependent on causes and conditions, and interconnected with others. A similar perspective was offered in the 20th century's South African concept of Ubuntu defining the individual's existence based on the interconnectedness of self-and-others. The gist of Ubuntu is that "I exist because of others".
Archbishop Tutu explains that it was the spirit of Ubuntu that could hold together a bitterly divided nation of South Africa after the apartheid:
“I am, because you are’’- says Archbishop Tutu; “how I behave
impacts not only on me but also others around me because we all
belong together.” So a person with ubuntu is generous, thoughtful
and respectful towards others, appreciating the differences that
together make us greater than the sum of our parts!” (^).
(*) From Today Onward', Collected Guidance of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, vol. 80 page 22.
World Tribune Press, Santa Monica, CA 90406, copyright 1992.
(**) Cogito Ergo Sum
(^) Dorothy Jolly, South Utah University