The question of the role of an individual in the society has been a subject of discussion over centuries. This is perhaps due to the fact that the process and actions performed by an individual have a net effect on the society in which a person lives. While some authorities observe that an individual affects the society, others feel that the society has a much greater effect on the individual. Each of the different factions of this debate belongs to different schools of thought. As a result, they base their arguments on quite different premises. This essay seeks to explore the question of individuality against the wider society as discussed by Sigmund Freud and George Simmel. It begins by first outlining the viewpoints of each other author’s followed by an analysis, while Freud viewed the individual as living in perpetual conflict with societal laws, Simmel viewed the individual as a necessary contributor to societal cohesion.
Sigmund Freud’s Viewpoint
Sigmund Freud presents the individual as living in constant conflict with the rising civilization. He is popularly known for his contribution in psychoanalysis and the structured personality in psychological studies. In other words, he is known for basing every human act on the sexual feelings. Generally, he viewed human beings as being controlled by ‘instinctive’ feelings which sometimes may be uncontrollable. In his book Civilization and its discontents, Freud presents the individual as living in constant conflict with the society that is in the process of civilization. He considers law-making as an important step or component of civilization. In his view, the society makes laws that are contrary to the instinctive nature of humanity. In other words, the laws do not approve the inner needs of the individual but seek to suppress them. For instance, human beings have a strong desire for sex. However, in the wake of civilization, they are not expected to explicitly or anyhow manifest their sexual urge in the wrong place or manner. As a result, civilizations outlaw rape. In the long run, the individual feels disconnected from the society and its civilization process.
George Simmel’s Viewpoint
George Simmel viewed an individual as contributing to the total functioning of the society. This neo-Kantian sociologist is seen as having been a forerunner of the structuralist school of thought. According to him, all individuals collectively make the society work in a structured manner. He introduces various concepts that nucleate around social relations thus consequences such as classism, subordination, exchange, superodination and sociability. Simmel propounds that the social structure evident at the wider society is a sum of total individual social structures. In his book, he mentions the concept of higher unity in which things are in sync with each other having resulted from the separate impetuses created by different individuals.
Differences in the Two Viewpoints
Freud’s and Simmel’s viewpoints differently present the individual in society. The differences in the way they present the individual could have emanated from the fact that their ground theories or perspectives were somewhat divergent. From what has been presented so far, it is clear that Freud presents individuals as in constant conflict with the society, while Simmels presents individuals as necessary for the wider harmony of the society. It appears that Freud was pessimistic of the smooth acceptance of societal regulations by individuals. On the other hand, Simmel was optimistic that societal regulation would actually help the individuals achieve what was necessary, as opposed to egocentric desires that could only help the concerned person.
A Synthesized Viewpoint
The differences in the two viewpoints above described seem to be deeply rooted in different schools of thought. There is no doubt that Simmel was influenced by Immanuel Kant’s theory of categorical imperative that was an objective view of ethics or right and wrong things. From this view, Simmel is being objective while Freud in being subjective. The question that needs to be answered is whether concepts should be adopted on the basis of their contribution to the well being of the entire society or that of the individual. While this view somewhat agrees with Simmel’s viewpoint, there is a need to have a more integrated approach to the role of individuals in the society. The viewpoints by the two authorities are simply extremist. Freud suggests that laws should benefit the individual, while Simmel suggests that they should benefit the society at the expense of the individual. With the recent development in understanding human rights, there is a need to strike a balance and adopt a middle ground. The relationship between the two, in this view, should be reciprocal. Neither the individual not the society should suffer because of the other.
Sigmund Freud views individuals as being in conflict with society while George Simmel presents them as contributing to the well being of the society. This may have resulted from the fact that they belonged to different schools of thought. Moreover, this view proposes a middle ground that considers both the individual and the society as important in their own right.