Upon my reading of Chapter Two of McGuire’s Religion: The Social Context, I was struck by her analysis of the Individual. She comes to the conclusion that individuals do not, “construct a personal meaning system from nothing,” and that every personal meaning system is derived from those around them. This begs the question, however, does the individual even exist if McGuire’s conclusions are correct? If no individual has an entirely personal meaning system, and if meaning systems help make, “sense of one’s identity and social being,” then how can the individual exist? It seems to me that McGuire’s analysis of the individual when coupled with her concept of meaning systems concludes that the entirety of society feeds off of each other to develop their personal identities. When I first began to seriously ponder these questions, I began to doubt the validity of McGuire’s claim. I could not understand how an individual could truly be an individual if their very meaning system was something taken from those around them, rather than personally developed within them.
As I continued to question, however, I began to understand more fully what McGuire was truly saying. She does not say that the individual’s meaning system was taken from those around them, but rather, she claims that the individual’s meaning system is influenced by those around them. The distinction is crucial. The individual uses the figures that are present around them to assess their personal identities. They compare and contrast their beliefs with the beliefs of the individuals they encounter, essentially placing their meaning system with theirs and scrutinizing them both intently. By exposing themselves to their family, friends, society, etc., they are able to learn from the meaning systems of others, as well as solidify aspects of their own meaning systems.