U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Anonymity, Continued

Probably the best book ever written on the topic of anonymity is Maurice Natanson’s 1986 monograph Anonymity: A Study in the Philosophy of Alfred Schutz.[1] As we resume our inquiry into the interlinked histories of anonymity, racial capitalism, and intellectual property law, it seems sensible to start with Natanson’s eloquent and witty text.

Building on themes gleaned from the writings of his mentor, Alfred Schutz, Natanson presents “anonymity” as an “invariant feature” of everyday life lived in its “taken-for-grantedness.”

Structurally speaking, the most important thing to know about anonymity is that it is reciprocal: “I am anonymous to most Others, as most Others are anonymous to me.” Without question, there is something troubling (to most of us, at least) about this reciprocal anonymity (or anonymizing reciprocity). “Anonymity,” Natanson writes, “in general parlance, means the state of being unknown, without identity, a kind of hiddenness.” Natanson paraphrases Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich: “it seems right that Others should be anonymous, but as for me, it would be terrible.”

Anonymity also has political teeth. Recall E.P. Thompson’s essay “The Crime of Anonymity” in Albion’s Fatal Tree.[2] “The anonymous threatening letter is a characteristic form of protest in any society which has crossed a certain threshold of literacy,” Thompson writes, “in which forms of collective organized defense are weak, and in which individuals who can be identified as the organizers of protest are liable to immediate victimization.”

There is something characteristically modern about the experience of being deprived of one’s anonymity––singled out and yanked from the crowd. Modern state terror has as its signature the arbitrary act of recognition by an agent who wears the uniform of power or robes of law. Or engraved in the circuits of the unmanned drone as it carries out its targeted killings.

Natanson’s writing is not unaware of these dimensions of anonymity. But he is insistent that the mundanity of the anonymous everyday be appreciated, and distinguished from the banality of evil.

Thus, to flesh out a philosophy of anonymity, Natanson returns repeatedly to Schutz’s mundane example of the ordinary person putting an ordinary letter in the mail. “All that is needed for the task to be accomplished,” Natanson writes, “is that the letter-poster stick to a certain ‘recipe’: addressing the envelope in an acceptable manner, affixing sufficient postage, dropping the letter in a mail box.” As long as the letter reaches its addressee, the letter-mailer need not “understand the intricacies of the postal system, how it works, who does what in processing the mail, how mail is transported and delivered.”

Considered philosophically, the texture of such experiences is––above all else––anonymous and anonymizing. In other words, the identities of the actors involved in helping get my letter to its addressee are irrelevant to the act of mailing a letter, just as my identity is irrelevant to them. .

Here, we see the overlap of Schutz’s phenomenological thinking with Max Weber’s theory of “ideal types.” Wrestling with Weber’s interpretive apparatus, Schutz develops the notion of the “biographical situation” of the actor in social life:

Man finds himself at any moment of his daily life in a biographically determined situation, that is, in a physical and sociocultural environment as defined by him, within which he has his position, not merely his position in terms of physical space and outer time or of his status and role within the social system but also his moral and ideological position. To say that this definition of the situation is biographically determined is to say that it has its history: it is the sedimentation of all man’s previous experiences, organized in the habitual possessions of his stock of knowledge at hand, and as such his unique possession, given to him and to him alone.

“It is in terms of his biographical situation,” Natanson suggests, “that the individual in daily life orders his constructions, his ideal types––writ small––of human action in the social world.” The Schutzian/Natansonian “biographical situation” reminds us of Avery Gordon’s notion of “complex personhood”––the diverse constellations of experience that make every human being irreducible to the charts and tables of bourgeois social science. The idea of the “biographical situation” negates, necessarily, any methodological individualism, rendering all knowledge and experience irreducibly social:

The individual’s conception of any segment of experience is derived socially, that is, from his parents, his family, his teachers, his employers, his fellow employees, his friends and acquaintances, and the large range of other persons and associations which make knowledge, in Schutz’s view, a social structured achievement.

From Natanson to Gordon and Fanon

Lewis Gordon’s Fanon and Crisis of European Man (1995) builds on these themes from Schutz and Natanson, staging an encounter between the phenomenological theorization of anonymity and Frantz Fanon’s critique of the white colonialist imagination.

Gordon registers his key concerns with his selection of epigraphs: Du Bois–– “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word”; Ralph Ellison––“When the white American, holding up most twentieth-century fiction, says, ‘This is American reality,’ the Negro tends to answer (not at all concerned that Americans tend generally to fight against any but the most flattering imaginative depictions of their lives), ‘“Perhaps, but you’ve left out this, and this, and this. And most of all, what you’d have the world accept as me isn’t even human.”; Frantz Fanon––“Dirty nigger!” or simply, “Look, a Negro!”

These epigraphs prepare the ground for an encounter with the Fanon who begins from the strange situation of being both a Frenchman and not a Frenchman, a paradoxical role that derives from the fact of Fanon’s blackness. “He simultaneously is and is not in a peculiar way,” Gordon observes. He is too much. And he is not enough.” To be black, for the logic of racism, is always to be too black—not white enough, which means: not human enough. “Like the African American,” Gordon continues, “Fanon finds himself inextricably linked to a society that not only rejects him, but also attempts to deny his existence as a legitimate point of view…He lives as a critique of France. He embodies its critique.”

Fanon’s disclosure of his existence as living critique of “Europe” (the trans-Atlantic white metropole) coincides with the deepening “crisis of European man” limned by Edmund Husserl: “The European nations are sick; Europe itself, it is said, is in crisis.”

Situating Fanon in this way, Gordon highlights an particularly evocative section of Black Skin, White Masks:

The psychoanalysts say that nothing is more traumatizing for the young child than his encounters with what is rational. I would personally say that for a man whose only weapon is reason there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason. I felt knife blades open within me. I resolved to defend myself. As a good tactician, I intended to rationalize the world and to show the white man that he was mistaken… Reason was confident of victory on every level. I put all the parts back together but I had to change my tune. That victory played cat and mouse; it made a fool of me. As the other put it, when I was present, it was not; when it was there, I was no longer.

Gordon interprets this meditation: “a black man who reasons finds himself in the absurdity of the very construction of himself as a black man who reasons.” Where white thought reaches its limit at the nightmare of a newly disintegrating Reason––for which the white court philosopher no longer has anything to offer­­––Fanon looks at the world and sees the nightmare of a persistent racist reason stretching back to Ancient Greece––for which the black radical philosopher serves as an impossible obstacle.

Husserl sweats over the dying patient. Fanon smirks. Gordon explains: “Why worry about that sickness?” and points to Fanon’s famous declaration that the complexities of racial domination cannot be explained by way of ontology:

In the Weltanschauung of a colonized people there is a impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation. Someone may object that this is the case with every individual, but such an objection merely conceals a basic problem. Ontology––once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside––does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.

If ordinary ontology––the logic of being and becoming––proves itself inadequate to the task of accounting for blackness and anti-blackness, Gordon suggests, the (existential) phenomenology of anonymity might well constitute the missing rubric. We will further explore this possibility next week.


[1] Maurice Natanson, Anonymity: A Study in the Philosophy of Alfred Schutz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

[2] E.P. Thompson, “The Crime of Anonymity” in Douglas Hay, et al, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon, 1975).

4 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Kurt,
    My comment is confided to the statement based on an inference (or implication) from the idea of a “biographical situation” to the (alleged) negation of “methodological individualism.” I cannot see how or why an individual’s “biographical situation” renders “all knowledge and experience [as] irreducibly social.” Indeed, this appears to be a non sequitur insofar as Natanson explicitly says here that it is “the individual in daily life [who] orders his constructions,” and we further read that it is “the individual’s conception of any experience that is derived socially,” which means that it is in fact the individual human being who is irreducible, however much or to whatever degree her knowledge is in the first instance undoubtedly dependent on the (intimate and anonymous) world into which she was born and socialized. The “conceiving” and the “deriving” are reduced to individuals in as much as such actions or processes are performed by individuals qua individuals, however socially generated and situated. On this account, it is the biographical situation which makes for (individual) human action in the social world, as it is the individual(s) who is(are) moved to act, say, by a peculiar or idiosyncratic mix of beliefs (especially social norms), passions, and interests, even if the provenance of this motivational triad is no doubt social (owing in part, for instance, to ideologies and worldviews). (Elster reminds us that there is a ‘wide range of motivations: substantive and formal [examples of the latter include attitudes to risk, uncertainty, and the distant future], conscious and unconscious, self-regarding and non-self-regarding, forward-looking and backward-looking.’) This is perfectly consistent with Schütz’s view that social scientific analysis “refers by necessity to the subjective point of view.” The respective views of Schütz, Natanson and Gordon, in other words and by way of illustration, are uniquely theirs in a way that make mincemeat of the idea “all knowledge and experience [is] irreducibly social” and indirectly reveals the necessity and value of “reductionism” in social science (which is not to say that such reductionism is sufficient for or the only value of the social sciences). Here is where the Husserlian-inspired notion of the “lifeworld” (Lebenswelt) is helpful, for it enables us to appreciate the “situatedness,” so to speak, of human action, while not losing sight of the fact that it is, again, individuals who do the acting, it is from their subjectively experienced world (of material and immaterial circumstances) from which all action springs.

    Perhaps it would help to clarify the (proper) meaning of methodological individualism (assuming a principle of charity), in which case we should recall, with Jon Elster—who of course has been an indefatigable proponent of “methodological individualism” (which is a ‘much criticized but, if properly understood, essentially trivial doctrine’) for social scientific explanation—that this postulate

    “implies neither an atomistic perspective (it grants that relations between individuals are not always reducible to their monadic predicates), nor egoism (it is compatible with any specific set of motivations), nor rational choice (here again it is perfectly neutral), nor the innate ‘given’ character of desires (it is consistent with the view that desires are shaped by society, that is, by other individuals), nor finally political individualism (being a methodological doctrine, it is compatible with any political or normative orientation).”

    The notion of the lifeworld equips us to appreciate, for example, how and why, “in the first place what the actor does is explicable in terms of what he thinks he can do and in the second place what he thinks he can do is largely explicable in terms of what he can in fact do.” Elster concedes there are many exceptions to the second half of this sentence, but the “desire-opportunity” model respects the irreducible locus of the individual in social life (her ‘biographical situation’). Knowledge and experience, in short, are irreducibly individual, hence the significance if not centrality of moral and political (or, excluding its crude behaviorist manifestations, ‘social’) psychology in social scientific explanation.

    As always, my comment (on the mark or not) is not indicative of—indeed it could be said to confirm—my overarching appreciation of your contribution. And thus I look forward to the next installment on this topic.

  2. Hi Patrick. Thanks so much for this insightful and incisive comment.

    I have an intuitive feeling that the best response would be one that starts with the “forest,” as it were, and then moves to the “trees,” but I am going to work backwards to make sure I don’t miss anything.

    So, to begin–all of the thinkers considered here are existentialist humanists. That means their view of the world is substantially much more foundationalist than is usually true of contemporary critical theorists, particularly Foucauldians and dogmatic social constructionists.

    If the question of “methodological individualism” that you raise is the question of foundations, then, I think it should be stressed that Schutz, Natanson, Fanon, and Gordon all have a picture of human agency that allows for deep consideration of individual people as responsible subjects who are charged to act responsibly in the world as it actually exists. At the same time, Schutz, Natanson, and Gordon all read phenomenology with William James (and Nietzsche). They want to understand subjectivity as the stuff of processes of selection and affirmation within the flux of consciousness.

    In this light, to say that human experience is irreducibly social merely means that our choices and decisions pertain to a collective register of life and sensation.

    To declare the human being as irreducible seems a trickier move, since the texture of social reality survives the birth and death of individual humans (the same cannot be said of the inverse). We know that all sorts of sub-individual things come together that shape historical developments, just as we know that most historical events are driven by collectivities larger than the individual human.

    The relevance of the “biographical situation” to all of this, I think, is epistemological: how do we confirm that X or Y phenomenological reflection is true if we all come to consciousness within the irreducibly social matrix of knowledge and history? Why is every phenomenological reduction not just the eccentric hallucination of some oddball? Why don’t all phenomenologists drop the meditations on chairs and tables and just become sociologists? (This is essentially the starting point for Schutz). The answer is that the “biographical situation”––the unique positionedness of each observer––is so universal as to be generic. We won’t all distinguish the “natural attitude” from intense intentional thinking about some object in the same way; but we will all approach it in a manner that is partial and biased because it is human. For knowledge to be knowledge, it needs to be shared and compared. Knowledge begins with the insufficiency and dependency of the subject, as Judith Butler argues, and that insufficiency and dependency never goes away. Kojin Karatani has argued that this, in fact, was the secret core of Immanuel Kant’s project––the parallax view––and that it was this trans-critique (by which Karatani means that human knowledge is irreducibly social) that Marx and Engels picked up and developed into their critique of political economy. We might also see Charles Peirce and John Dewey as sympathetic fellow travelers in this endeavor.

    What Gordon and Fanon wish to say, however (and what feminist philosophers articulate in a parallel project) is that the integration of the various “biographical situations” as a generic starting point for philosophy is woefully inadequate. The community of inquiry, it turns out, is limited to white men. Not only that, the apparatus of investigation is shared with the machinery of conquest and torture, exclusion and enslavement. There is ontology for the white male subject (discoverable, in different ways, via the common participation in projects of knowledge cultivation) precisely because there is a denial of ontological presence––a “hemorrhage of facticity” in Gordon’s words––to women, natives, and others.

    In this sense, Fanon is genuinely suggesting a revolutionary philosophy–a critique that makes the “natural attitude” and “biographical situation” unuttterable because such terms have been revealed to rest on a foundation of racialized bad faith. Gordon and Butler and others often point to Sartre’s apparent inability to come to terms with Fanon’s critique as proof of the explosive contents contained within, in particular, The Wretched of the Earth.

    I realize that this does not, maybe, answer all of your objections satisfactorily. I like Jon Elster’s writing a great deal, but my sense of his methodological individualism is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I don’t think that analytical Marxism has done a good job of generating models to make sense of class struggle after the transition to industrial capitalism. In fact, it has largely contributed to the taxonomic, labeling and sorting sorts of knowledge production rather than the diagnosis of motive force or entelechy. At the same time, if I had a colleague or correspondent who was dead set on doing historical research in an Elsterian key, I would probably encourage her: there are all sorts of things that a methodological individualist approach could help one find out, and so long as the model was kept in view as a heuristic aid rather than a religious icon, I think the results would probably be terrifically useful. (Much of the post-60s backlash literature, re-routed through an explicit MI frame, for example, would probably produce new insights into the formation of alliances and the politics of affect). And I think, at least implicitly, that some of the best works in the history of capitalism do exactly this sort of work: wonderfully rich studies by Greta Krippner and Edward Baptist spring to mind.

    That’s too much, and too little, at any rate, but I hope it keeps the conversation going. Looking forward to your response.

  3. Kurt, There’s way too much here for me to respond to (in part, because we may not share presuppositions and assumptions on several topics) so I’ll again severely limit the scope of my comment. I’m more interested in methodological individualism than analytical Marxism as such, the former of course being far wider in scope than the latter. In any case, as I say in the preface to my bibliography on Marxism, I find much of value that falls outside of “analytical Marxism,” even if I still think an “analytical” approach helps us avoid much if not most of the nonsense that has come under the rubric of Marxism that egregiously fails to do Marx himself justice. There are any number of reasons why one might conclude that “analytical Marxism has [not] done a good job of generating models to make sense of class struggle after the transition to industrial capitalism:” I suspect, for example, that few people are genuinely interested in such an approach, as it is not for the faint of heart and demands a philosophical rigor that eludes even our best social scientists, a task made more difficult by the fact that minimal conceptual clarity is not always intrinsic to terms in the Marxist corpus itself. Whatever the reason, good social science (and by extension, history) is extremely difficult and rather elusive (looking back, there’s much in the social sciences best ignored and forgotten). Moreover, I’m not opposed to sophisticated forms of functionalist explanation, of the sort attempted by G.A Cohen and defended by Harold Kincaid. And I disagree (without attempting for now to provide evidence to the contrary) with the judgment “that it [MI] largely contributed to the taxonomic, labeling and sorting sorts of knowledge production rather than the diagnosis of motive force or entelechy.” I’m increasingly convinced (by Elster himself and more than a few others) that game theory may fill in some of the missing parts, given its growing sophistication and applicability in a wide array of domains, although I confess some of it is as of yet beyond my comprehension.

    Finally, I’m fond of the (comparatively) emerging field of “social epistemology,” and find nothing there that need be in conflict with the tenets of a methodological individualism which simply states that social explanation needs to make reference to the actions (and mixed motivational complex) of individuals (alone and in groups, etc.): “all social phenomena–their structure and their change–are in principle explicable in ways that only involve individuals–their properties, their goals, their beliefs, and their actions.” Any social theorizing that ignores this basic form of reductionism strikes me as wildly implausible. And I share your preference for (and a corresponding attitude that goes with) the utility of heuristic aids (although I’m not sure where there’s evidence of methodological individualism being adhered to on the order of a ‘religious icon’). A “heuristic” approach to theories and models generally is valuable, but perhaps we’ve barely begun to explore the possibilities of same while remaining within the strictures of methodological individualism (which, after all, are fairly loose, even if frequently violated, one reason Elster refers to this methodological doctrine as ‘trivially true’).

    Thanks for your erudite reply and, again, I look forward to more on the subject. (And hope someday to speak to these questions and subjects in a more substantive manner, but I have too much on my plate at present. That I even entertain such a hope is a consequence of your posts at this blog, which has provoked me to return to stuff I haven’t thought about in some time!)

Comments are closed.