Individualism   /   Spring 2002   /    Articles

Beyond Individualism?

James Davison Hunter

RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM IN AMERICA IS CERTAINLY isomorphic with Protestantism, not least in the relationship between evangelical pietism and therapeutic subjectivism. Philip Rieff is an important guide to how this came to be. In an essay entitled “The American Transference from Calvin to Freud,” he wrote:

to the therapeutic of the mid-(one could also say late-) twentieth century, early twenty-first century, as to the ascetic of the Reformation movements, all destinies have become entirely personal, not at all communal. The way to this self-knowledge is to trace back a person’s conduct from symptom to the inner conditions responsible for that symptom. In the religious period the symptom was called sin, and the neurotic a sinner, self-convicted. The task of the clergy was to make the sinner hopefully aware of his sin. The task of the analyst is to make the neurotic therapeutically aware of his neurosis. Residues of the old attribution cling to the modern and popular usage of the term neurotic. Like his predecessor, the sinner, the neurotic is most reluctant to admit his weakness. In fact, his failure to admit a fundamental weakness is the most obvious characteristic of the inner wrong which the sinner/neurotic commits against himself. Such failure was once called pride. The thankless task of old ministers and new psychoanalysts consists first in educating for that state of awareness from which a person can cope with his weakness.1Philip Rieff, “The American Transference from Calvin to Freud,” The Feeling Intellect: Selected Writings (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990) 12–13.

There is, it would seem, a fine line existentially between the quest for spiritual purity before God and therapeutic introspection oriented toward achieving well-being and a healthy lifestyle. This line was crossed many, many years ago in most Protestant denominations, and even in the more ascetic, evangelical denominations today, the transference Rieff speaks of is a pervasive reality in theology, ministry, popular literature, and so on. Though present in Catholic experience, it does not seem to be as big of a problem there, and even Rieff in this essay writes: “psychoanalytic therapy never found as ready and receptive a public in those areas of Western culture that remained Catholic or nonascetic.”22xRieff 13.

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