Skip to main content
Select Source:



Individualism endorses the principle that the ends or purposes of the human individual possess dignity and worth that take precedence over communal, metaphysical, cosmological, or religious priorities. While individualism may appeal to certain metaphysical or epistemological schools of thought such as nominalism or empiricism, it will be treated here as primarily a moral and/or political doctrine. Individualism is commonly seen by both its proponents and opponents to be the creation of the modern Western world, a development of Enlightenment liberal values.

The term individualism was first coined in the nineteenth century, initially around 1820 in French, and then quickly spread to the other European languages. In its origins, the term's connotations were pejorative: Joseph de Maistre (17531821) equated "individualism" with the "infinite fragmentation of all doctrines," and Félicité Robert de Lamennais (17821854) treated it as indistinguishable from anarchy. The language of individualism was picked up and widely spread by the followers of Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (17601825). In Germany, England, and the United States, however, the negative overtones were soon stripped away. In Germany individualism became closely associated with the aspirations of Romanticism, in England, with utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics, and in America with the core political and social values of democracy and capitalism.

Concentration on the linguistic diffusion of individualism overlooks the fact that many cultures outside the Atlantic world at many times before the nineteenth century have promulgated doctrines that were individualistic in inclination. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that many who champion individualism count tendencies inherent in modernity itself among the chief threats to the individual. Thus, a full study of the history of individualism requires a survey of a broad range of thinkers and writings.

Ancient Sources

The major schools of classical Indian religion and philosophy generally upheld the doctrine of karma, the idea that an individual's status in the present life is a function of one's deeds in previous lives. This entailed not only that the soul was separable from the bodyindeed, any bodybut that it had a specific identity that transcended even corporeal death. Karma thus implied deep individual responsibility for one's actions and a system of assigning merit and demerit in the future depending on how one lives one's life in the present. That moral judgment is embedded in dharmaa universalistic system of absolute moral dutiesis irrelevant. It still remains central to Indian thought that individual deeds are the wellspring of the moral system. For many Indian schools, and especially for Buddhists and Jainists, spiritual purification and eventual union with the Ultimate stem solely from the personal efforts of the individual. The right path is laid out, but it is up to the individual to follow it.

China produced doctrines that echoed the Indian emphasis on the individual. Confucius (551479 b.c.e.) challenged both egalitarianism and hierarchical naturalism as explanations of human character. Although people are born with equal capacities, only some achieve superior moral standing because the individual's moral qualities are dependent on practice and education. Confucius's follower Meng-Tzu (c. 371298 b.c.e.; romanized as Mencius) elaborated this position by stipulating that environment and instruction are insufficient as explanations for why only some individuals attain superiority; in his view many simply "throw themselves away," choosing not to adopt the path to righteousness, beneficence, and wisdom. Attainment of superiority thus rests in part on something like self-determination. Daoism, particularly Neo-Daoism, also evinced respect for individuality. The Daoist belief that each thing possessed its own nature could be interpreted not merely to pertain to natural species or types but to individual characters. According to the Daoist Chuang Tzu (fourth century b.c.e.), the freedom and peace of the spirit occur solely through knowledge of one's own inner nature, a position that, in turn, requires equal recognition and respect on the part of each person for the nature of one's fellow creatures. This focus on the nature of the individual was crystallized in the Neo-Daoist concentration on the particularity of human natures.

Self-knowledge was also the path to one's individuality for the Greek philosopher Socrates (469399 b.c.e.), who sought to live by what he claimed as his personal motto, "Know yourself." Accordingly, he maintained that virtue and other forms of knowledge cannot be taught or communicated directly from one person to another. Rather, each individual must discover what is true for him-or herself. But if wisdom is incommunicable, the philosopher may still question other human beings in order to prod them to realize the falsity that they embrace and to stimulate them in the process of self-questioning that yields self-knowledge. In Plato's Apology Socrates describes himself as a "gadfly" who annoys fellow Athenian citizens with his difficult and embarrassing questions and reveals their ignorance. Socrates' trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy has often been held up as a noble self-sacrifice in the cause of individualism against the conformity of the masses.

Socrates was not alone among Greek thinkers in proposing a version of individualism. Democritus (c. 460c. 370 b.c.e.) emphasized the atomic nature of all matter and, thus, licensed a conception of humanity that emphasized the discrete character of individual creatures. In turn, this theory of individuation has been shown by recent scholars to have direct political overtones that favored the Athenian democracy. The Sophist Protagoras of Abdera (c. 485420 b.c.e.) upheld the doctrine that "man is the measure," which he interpreted as a moral principle, as well as an epistemological one, that supported the individual as the source and standard of human virtue.

Revealed Religion

Christianity contributed doctrines of the freedom of the will and personal salvation that added a further dimension to human individuality. Created as equal persons in God's image, human beings enjoy inherent dignity by virtue of the divine flame that burns within their souls. Christian moral teaching replaced status, race, gender, occupation, and all other markers of social difference with one's individual orientation toward God as the determinant of the ultimate disposition of one's soul. While Judaism had conveyed some overtones of personal salvation, the dominant relation with God was conditioned by the divine covenant with the Jewish people as a whole. In contrast, Jesus' message was directed to all people who were open to his words and treated them as individuals capable of receiving divine grace and blessing. Every person, as one of God's created, could, through individual effort and renunciation of worldly concerns, render him-or herself worthy for salvation.

The implicit individualism of early Christian moral theology was reinforced by later thinkers such as St. Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.). According to Augustine, all human beings possess the capacity to choose between good and evil and to choose to accept or to turn away from the divine will. Of course, the objects between which one chooses are not of equal worth. Rejecting God by preferring one's own desires yields dissatisfaction and unhappiness in one's earthly life as well as the misery of eternal damnation, whereas submitting to God properly expresses one's divinely granted freedom, the correct use of the will with which human beings have been endowed. Nevertheless, it remains up to the individual (even up to the moment preceding death) to decide whether to submit to or renounce God's offering. The individual is the final and ultimate source of the destiny of his or her own soul.

Islam did not entirely share Christianity's affinity for personal freedom of the will, emphasizing instead a strict adherence to religious law, namely, shari'a. Yet the Koran did uphold human freedom, so Muslim teaching maintained that it was the individual, not God, who was responsible for sin. Likewise, the Koran offered a vision of personal salvation that was far more embodied and carnal than Christianity's. Thus Islam, too, adopted important elements of individualism.

Despite the common perception of medieval Europe as monolithic and hostile to expressions of individualism, the period did much to extend the idea of human individuality. In law, the concept of human beings with personal rights and liberties was expressed in both secular and religious documents. In public life, the principle of individual consent to the imposition of political power (captured in the ubiquitous phrase "What touches all must be approved by all") was articulated. In moral philosophy and theology, the conception of the rational will, which defined the individual as the primary unit of analysis, was elevated to axiomatic status. Regardless of the institutional and ecclesiastical barriers to individualism, scholars have repeatedly looked to Latin Christian Europe as a source for individualism.

The Reformation and the Aftermath

These medieval tendencies came to fruition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so that individualism in the modern world deserves to be understood as a culmination of far earlier intellectual trends. The Reformation brought not only a challenge in practice to the unity of the Christian Church but also a transformation of important theological categories. Martin Luther (14831546) insisted on the unique presence of God alone in the conscience of believers, with the implication that the faithful Christian is responsible directly and immediately to God. The consequence of this teachingwhile perhaps recognized only fleetingly by Luther and his followerswas that salvation did not depend on submission to the authority of the priesthood or the church. Nor did it fall to the secular power, to which pertained the control of bodies and behavior, to discipline the souls of subjects. Thus, whether intentionally or not, Luther opened the door to claims of public respect for liberty of conscience and eventually individual freedom of worship.

In the generation after Luther, inferences about personal freedom of religion were deduced by reforming thinkers. Sebastian Castellion (15151563) published pseudonymously a treatise entitled De haereticis, an sint persequendi (On heretics, whether they are to be persecuted) in response to John Calvin's organization of the burning of a fellow Christian theologian for heresy at Geneva. Castellion argued that Christian belief must be held with sincere conviction. Hence, clerics and magistrates must refrain from persecution of convinced Christians who cling to doctrines that do not coincide with official teachings. Castellion maintained that the individual Christian's duties extend to forbearance of the free and honest faith of one's fellows even in the face of disagreements of understanding and interpretation.

In the seventeenth century, the individualism implicit in confessional pluralism would become more pronounced. For instance, Baruch Spinoza (16321677) claimed a broad application for the right to liberty of thought and belief without interference from a sovereign power's (or a church's) determination of the truth or falsity of one's ideas. Pierre Bayle (16471706) asserted that all forms of persecution (innocuous as well as harsh) of religious diversity encourage hypocrisy and erode social order. An erring conscience, if it be held in good faith, deserves as much protection as a correct onea principle that Bayle extended even to atheists.

John Locke (16321704) proposed liberty of individual conscience as justified in the case of most Christian (and perhaps some non-Christian) rites. For Locke, the role of the magistrate should be confined to the maintenance of public tranquility and the defense of individual rights rather than the care of the soul. Hence, Locke's Letter concerning Toleration (1690) defended a vision of the church as a purely voluntary association that a believer was free, according to conscience, to enter or leave at will. Locke crystallized a key Reformation shift: the idea that one's religious confession is a matter of individual choice rather than institutional imposition.

The evolving acceptance of individualism paralleled changes in other European cultural, social, and political practices and attitudes. The invention of the printing press and movable type in the mid-fifteenth century immeasurably enhanced the ability of individuals to spread their ideas and made it possible for a larger public to access the written word. Demands were heard for freedom of the press (literally and figuratively) from censorship by clerical and secular authorities alike. While republican values that promoted civic virtue over personal choice retained a hold on public discourse, political liberty in geographically extensive regimes with monarchic institutions tended to be conceived in terms of individual freedom rather than civic populism. Hence, it is at this time and place that the origins of the bundle of individualist doctrines known as liberalism are found.

Liberalism and Individualism

Thomas Hobbes (15881679) generally is identified as the most important direct antecedent of modern individualist philosophy. In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes ascribed to all individuals natural liberty (as well as equality) on the basis of which they are licensed to undertake whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve themselves from their fellow creatures. Hobbes believed that the exercise of such natural liberty logically leads to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear so long as no single sovereign ruler exists to maintain peace. The exchange of chaotic natural freedom for government-imposed order requires renunciation of all freedoms that humans possess by nature (except, of course, self-preservation) and voluntary submission to any dictate imposed by the sovereign. Yet, even under the terms of Hobbes's absolute sovereignty, individuals are deemed to remain at liberty to choose for themselves concerning any and all matters about which the ruler has not explicitly legislated.

Locke begins his mature political theory in the Second Treatise of Government (1689) with the postulation of the divinely granted liberty of all individuals, understood in terms of the absolute right to preserve one's life and to lay claim to the goods one requires for survival. Arguing against the patriarchal doctrine of Sir Robert Filmer (15881653), Locke insists that no natural basisneither paternity nor descentjustifies the submission of one person to another. Rather, each individual is the proprietor of his or her (divinely endowed) physical and mental talents, abilities, and energies. The individual thus constitutes the basic unit of social and political analysis for Locke, who is sometimes considered the proponent of the doctrine of "possessive individualism" par excellence.

In contrast to Hobbes, Locke maintains that the natural condition of individual proprietorship can be maintained tranquilly because human beings are deemed sufficiently rational that they can and do generally constrain their free action under the terms of the laws of nature. Hence, should people choose to enter into formal bonds of civil society and authorize a government in order to avoid the "inconveniences" and inefficiency of the precivil world, the only rule worthy of consent is that which strictly upholds and protects the liberty they naturally possess. According to Locke, any government that systematically denies to its subjects the exercise of their God-given liberty (as Hobbes's sovereign would do) is tyrannical and cannot expect obedience.

Individualism and Modern Society

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed an emerging role for the individual that culminated in the appearance of the language of individualism. One strand in the intensified interest in the individual was the rise of capitalism as an economic system that emphasized the individual both as the holder of self-interest and as the foundation of all legal rights. Perhaps the most famous early advocate of economic individualism was Adam Smith (17231790). Although Smith is sometimes labeled the first great economist of capitalism, he preferred to describe his system in terms of "natural liberty," arguing that the welfare of society is best served when every individual seeks his or her own advantage without reference to any overarching scheme of goodness or justice. When individuals are left to their own devices, Smith held, the ensuing system possesses an inherently self-adjusting quality that will ensure the maximum satisfaction of individual desires.

The apotheosis of individualism may be found in the utilitarian doctrine, formulated most clearly by Jeremy Bentham (17481832), that social policy should promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea rested on the principle that all individual estimations of utility deserve equal treatment and respect in comparison with all others. Hence, no person could claim that his or her calculation of happiness counted for any more or less than another's. A truly democratic society should treat the wishes and desires of each of its individual members with the same dignity, without regard for moral judgments concerning the content of those aims. Bentham elaborates the basic insight of Smith to cover the full range of political and social programs and institutions.

Although liberalism could seem to take individualism for granted, the extreme egalitarianism of the utilitarian position, coupled with the events of the French Revolution (17891799), made many thinkers (including those of a liberal stripe) nervous. Edmund Burke (17291797) was concerned that the spread of democratic equality and the breakdown of the organic social order would lead to the fragmentation of persons into atomized individuals lacking any sense of identity or place. He scorned the individual's "private stock of reason" in comparison with the wisdom of history, fearing that the glorification of individuality presaged the crumbling of regard for the tradition-bearers of social authority, such as the monarchy, the nobility, and the church. Under such circumstances, Burke predicted (presciently, as it turns out) that authoritarian forms of government would step into the breach and provide an artificial identity for individuals as a remedy for their extreme alienation.

The French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859) similarly believed that an excess of democratic equality bred individualistic isolation in which people retreat from public life into families and small groups of interested combines. The unavoidable results of individualism are egoism, the suppression of all virtues, and the concession of political deliberation to the "tyranny of the majority"conclusions reached on the basis of his observations of American as well as French modes of democracy. In Tocqueville's view, America's avoidance of the corrosive effects of individualism (at least in the early nineteenth century) stemmed from its valorization of liberty over equality as the basis of social relations. Note that true liberty is not, for Tocqueville, individualistic.

Karl Marx (18181883) occupies an interesting position in the history of individualism. Although Marx is commonly regarded as a holistic social thinker, he in fact repeatedly asserted that individual self-realization was the standard against which social relations should be judged. In his early writings, he condemned capitalism for the alienating and dehumanizing impact that it exercised on individual workers, while in the Communist Manifesto (1848) he called for a system of equitable distribution of the fruits of labor on the grounds that the precondition of the liberty of each is the liberty of all. Like his predecessor Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and his contemporaries, such as the anarchist Jean-Pierre Proudhon (18091865) and the utopian Charles Fourier (17721837), Marx believed that communal equality constituted the necessary prerequisite for the flourishing of free individuals.

John Stuart Mill (18061873) shared some elements of nineteenth-century skepticism about mass democratic society, but his writings crystallized the understanding of individualism still widely shared in Western societies. According to Mill's important essay "On Liberty" (1859), the interests of humanity are "progressive," in the Enlightenment sense that human beings seek material and moral improvement. Mill holds that the societies that are most likely to promote this goalsocieties that he terms "civilized"share the common factor of defending and promoting individual liberty. Individualismunderstood as experimentation with lifestyles and ideaschallenges uncritically received sureties and broadens the basis of human knowledge. Borrowing from Tocqueville, Mill admits that democratic society contains the potential to dampen or even forbid many expressions of personal liberty that stand at odds with mass tastes or beliefs. In contrast to Tocqueville, however, Mill maintains that individualism stands on the side of liberty, not equality. A free society supports individualism.

The trend toward the foregrounding of the individual continued in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900). Nietzsche reviled the "herd mentality" of modern mass society, which espouses conformity and mediocrity as the highest aspirations of humanity. He proposed, instead, that an individual might attain the "transvaluation of values," by which he meant that one could generate authentically for one's self the unique principles that would guide oneself and oneself alone. Principles of this higher sort cannot be imposed or taught by one to another. Rather, the authentic individual must discover in a radically individualized way those precepts that realize his or her own valuation. Nietzsche drew no explicit political theory from this because politics, as the realm of imposition of coercive authority over others (the "will to power"), was incompatible with the deep individualism that he advocated.

Persisting Debate

The twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed the spread around the globe of a culture that valorizes the human individual. Expressions of this individualism have been, however, extremely diverse. The philosophical and literary school of existentialism found a vast audience among both intellectuals and popular audiences during the middle of the twentieth century. The existentialiststhe best known of whom were Martin Heidegger (18891976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980)proclaimed the radically individualistic situation of human beings. In particular they focused on the profound nothingness of deaththe one element of human existence that each person necessarily experiences uniquely and individually, since no one can die another person's deathas a way of clarifying the condition of human Being. Positing the nonexistence of God, existentialism asserts that each individual must create meaning in his or her life through acts of personal will. Dependence on other people or institutionspriests, philosophers, governments, or even family and friendsfor meaning leads to inauthentic forms of existence. Because death cannot be escaped, inauthenticity ultimately reveals itself in the confrontation with one's own mortality. Each and every individual must eventually face the question, "Why do I exist?" And only in the deeds one freely performs does an authentic response arise.

Under the growing influence of economic thought, individualism has also been promoted under the guise of the logic of market relations. Libertarians such as Friedrich von Hayek (18991992), Robert Nozick (19382002), and, more popularly, Ayn Rand (19051982) proposed schemes of society that radically limited the power of the state and permitted broad scope for individual choice in all spheres of life. Each adopted a different starting point for these doctrines: for Hayek it was a quasi-utilitarian model of laissez-faire economics, for Nozick Lockean natural rights theory, and for Rand an original philosophical system that she called "objectivism." Yet, each thinker proposed that governmental regulation of the individual, and thus constraint on free choice and autonomy, amounted to a denial of authentic humanity.

In its avowedly neoclassic turn against Keynsian welfare economics, recent economic thought reinforces much of the individualism of the libertarian school (Hayek, of course, is well known as a leading economist as well as a political philosopher). Neoclassic economics holds that growth and efficiency within markets depends on the maximization of individual rational satisfaction. When political institutions (or presumably any other extrinsic factors) impinge on choice by limiting options or regulating competition, the perfect flow of information that the free market produces is impeded and inefficiency is introduced. The salient assumption of this economic theory is that individuals are rational satisficers or mazimizers; that is, they are the best (indeed, the only legitimate) source of decisions about what is best for themselves. Neoclassic economics, broadly construed, embraces rational egoism and hedonism as the only psychological premises that comport with the principles of free markets. The economic model has in turn been appropriated by other social sciences, such as political science, under the name of "public choice" or "rational choice" theory.

Of course, individualism remains a controversial idea. No less than Saint-Simon and his followers, modern communitarians worry about the socially corrosive effects of individualism, as evinced by rising levels of crime, political alienation, and unrestricted consumerism. In a widely acclaimed recent empirical analysis of social capital in America, Robert D. Putnam (b. 1940) has argued that the phenomena Tocqueville once identified as bulwarks against social decay in American democracyin particular, local-level voluntary associations and community-based activitiesare increasingly disappearing. Americans are "bowling alone" (to employ Putnam's own central image of rampant individualism) rather than joining leagues or social clubs to pursue common interests. Leaving aside its empirical dimensions, Putnam's provocative thesis raises for communitarians the specter of whether a social order composed of monadic units can sustain the values of democratic politics.

See also Alienation ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Identity ; Person, Idea of the ; Personhood in African Thought ; Responsibility ; Society ; State, The ; Utilitarianism ; Utopia .


Black, Anthony. "Society and the Individual from the Middle Ages to Rousseau: Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory." History of Political Thought 1 (1980): 145166.

Coleman, Janet, ed. The Individual in Political Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Engelmann, Stephen G. Imagining Interest in Political Thought: Origins of Economic Rationality. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.

Farrar, Cynthia. The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The Invention of Politics in Classical Athens. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984.

Locke, John. Letter concerning Toleration in Focus. Edited by John P. Horton and Susan Mendus. London: Routledge, 1991.

. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lukes, Steven. Individualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Macfarlane, Alan. The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property, and Social Transition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1978.

Macpherson, C. B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Marx, Karl. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty in Focus. Edited by John Gray and G. W. Smith. London: Routledge, 1991.

Plato. The Apology of Socrates. In Five Dialogues, translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by J. P. Mayer. New York: Harper, 1969.

Cary J. Nederman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Individualism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Individualism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 12, 2017).

"Individualism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from



INDIVIDUALISM. One of our most familiar terms of analysis, individualism is also one of the most elusive. It is employed in so many different ways—approving and disapproving, descriptive and normative, social and psychological, economic and political—that one never knows quite what is meant when the word is trotted out. It is rarely clear, for example, whether "individualism" is describing a consciously held set of formal philosophical or ideological doctrines or merely an ingrained ethos, or mentalité, a set of assumed internalized social norms that is not being articulated. Even more bewildering, the student of American culture is likely to find that "individualism" is first highly praised and then roundly condemned in nearly the same breath. Everyone, it seems, finds something to dislike about individualism, but rarely the same thing. Conservatives may be severe critics of individualism in the moral and expressive spheres, but tend to be staunch supporters of individualism in the economic sphere. By the same token, liberal critics of individualism are likely to restrict their criticism to economics and distributive justice, preferring instead to celebrate the very moral and expressive individualism that conservatives deplore.

Such confusion should not blind us to the irreducible core of validity in this often nebulous concept. A widely shared belief in the dignity and worth of the individual person has long been a distinctive feature of what we imprecisely call Western civilization. As the medievalist Colin Morris well expressed the matter, "We [Westerners] think of ourselves as people with frontiers, our personalities divided from each other as our bodies visibly are.… It is to us a matter of common sense that we stand apart from the natural order in which we are set, subjects over against its objectivity, and that we have our own distinct personality, beliefs, and attitude to life." But in fact, he continues, Western individualism is so far from "expressing the common experience of humanity" that it might more aptly be regarded as "an eccentricity among cultures." And yet this "eccentricity" forms the indispensable basis for the ideas of liberty and equality, which are among the West's chief gifts to humanity. Belief in the independent standing of the individual human being loses none of its central importance as a legitimizing principle of Western moral and political life because it emerged only in fits and starts over the course of Western history; has nearly always been applied selectively and inconsistently; and is often more honored in the breach than the observance.

The first stirrings of this emphasis on the individual person can be detected as far back as the world of classical antiquity, in the emergence of philosophical inquiry and democratic institutions in Greece, and especially in the intensely self-directed moral discipline of Hellenistic-era Epicureanism and Stoicism. The ideas and institutions arising out of biblical monotheism also played a vital part in the formation of an individualistic ideal, placing heavy emphasis upon the infinite value, personal agency, and moral accountability of the individual person. That emphasis reached a pinnacle of sorts in the synthetic vision of Western Christianity, which incorporated the divergent legacies of Athens and Jerusalem into a single universalized faith.

Yet none of these expressions of belief should be equated with what we mean by modern individualism. Such freedom as the premodern individual enjoyed, particularly after the advent of Christianity, was always constrained by belief in the metaphysical existence of an objective moral order, which could not be violated with impunity by antinomian rebels or advocates of romantic subjectivity. It was equally constrained by belief in the inherent frailty of human nature, which insisted that moral virtue could not be produced in social isolation. Although nearly all influential Western thinkers had conceded the signal importance of the individual, none employed the term "individualism" to express that belief. Only with the dawning of modernity did essential components of modern individualism such as the belief in natural rights—that is, rights that precede the creation of political society—began to fall into place and prepare the way for what was to come.

As for "individualism" itself, like many of our most useful words, it began life as a term of abuse, appearing first in the discourse of opponents of the French Revolution. The nineteenth-century French archconservative Joseph de Maistre used the word "individualism" to describe the Revolution's overturning of established social hierarchies and the dissolution of traditional social bonds in favor of an atomizing and leveling doctrine of natural individual rights, which freed each individual to be his or her own moral arbiter. Maistre's idea of "individualism" was not an affirmation of personal human dignity. Instead, for him it represented a disordered nightmare of egotism and moral anarchy.

Alexis de Tocqueville also employed the term critically, albeit much more moderately so, in his classic study Democracy in America (1835–1840), a locus classicus for the consideration of the term's American career. Individualism is, he argued, a characteristic pitfall for all societies that are "democratic," by which he meant societies lacking any legally sanctioned distinctions of rank or status among their members. Indeed, he concluded that the American propensity for individualism was characteristic of all modernity, because America, as the first "great republic," represented the avant-garde of human history, and therefore served as a pioneering exemplar of what the future would likely bring to Europe.

Tocqueville's complaint was very different from Maistre's, however. Egotism, he thought, was a mere emotional disorder, the passionate and exaggerated self-love one could find manifested throughout human history. But individualism was also something else. It was a more or less self-conscious social philosophy, "a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures: and to draw apart with his family and friends: so that … he willingly leaves society at large to itself." In other words, individualism was a conscious and calculated withdrawal, not from all human contact, but more specifically from the responsibilities of citizenship and public life. For Tocqueville—who was, unlike Maistre, a qualified friend of democracy, which he believed to be the God-ordained direction of human history—there was no greater threat to the health and stability of this new order than such a tendency toward privatism.

So "individualism" began its life as a critical term, and a reasonably precise one. But it did not remain so. Indeed, the critical view of individualism taken by these two French writers seems strikingly at odds with the self-conception that would come to be characteristic of most Americans, who had little or no comparable experience of feudal, aristocratic, monarchical, and other premodern political institutions, and who saw individualism in a largely favorable light. In the American context, especially with the social opening that came with the rise of Jacksonian democracy, the word has only rarely taken on pejorative connotations. It was more likely to refer to the sturdy values of the self-reliant frontiersman or the self-made entrepreneur—or to a broadly libertarian under-standing of the relationship between the individual and society or the state, wherein the liberty and dignity of the former are shielded from the grasping hands of the latter. As such, it pointed toward a view of all political and social groups as mere aggregations of otherwise naturally self-sufficient individuals, whose social bonds are largely governed by choice and consent. Even more radically, it might point toward a view, increasingly pervasive in our own day, that to the maximum degree possible, the individual should be regarded as an entirely morally autonomous creature—accountable to no person and no "higher law," armed with a quiver of inviolable rights, protected by a zone of inviolable privacy, and left free to "grow" and "develop" as the promptings of the self dictate.

In any event, there seems little reason to doubt that the dominant view in our own day tends to endorse the highest possible degree of individual liberty and self-development in political, religious, social, and economic affairs. American history is a record of the defeat or weakening of nearly all competing ideas. The language of individual rights—the tendency to regard individual men and women as self-contained, choosing, contract-making, utility-maximizing, and values-creating actors, who accept only those duties and obligations they choose to accept—grew steadily more powerful and pervasive in the latter part of the twentieth century, and now stands triumphant. The recourse to individual rights, whether expressed as legal rights, voting rights, expressive rights, reproductive rights, sexual rights, membership rights, or consumer rights, has become the near-invincible trump card in most debates regarding public policy. Although there are serious challenges to the hegemony of such "rights talk," particularly as evidenced in the critical works of such communitarian thinkers as Mary Ann Glendon, Philip Selznick, and Amitai Etzioni, such challenges have yet to find a broad audience.

The Unique Development of American Individualism

This has not always been the state of affairs in America, and we are reminded of just this fact by much of the best scholarship in colonial and early national history in recent years. The crucial role of Protestant Christianity in making the early American social and political ethos has been repeatedly emphasized. For example, the political scientist Barry Alan Shain has made the case that it was not Enlightenment liberalism but a very constrained form of communitarian Reformed Protestantism that best represented the dominant social and political outlook of early America. The political theorist Michael Sandel has argued that, until the twentieth century, America's public philosophy was based largely on the "republican" assumption that the polity had a formative, prescriptive, "soulcraft" function to perform in matters of the economy, the family, church-state relations, personal morality, free speech, constitutional law, privacy, productive labor, and consumption. Like so much else about the early American milieu, that assumption has been so completely erased by the individualistic liberalism of our own day that we have forgotten it was ever there.

In retrospect, however, it is hard not to see those earlier perspectives as fatally fragile. Certainly by the middle of the nineteenth century, figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman—romantic American nationalists and prophets of the unconstrained self—were already trumpeting the note that would have the most lasting resonance in the American imagination. It was Emerson who declared famously that a society is a "conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members," and that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." And it was Whitman who declared that "the Great Idea" is "the idea of perfect and free individuals," and that "nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's-self is." One could hardly deny that such driving, self-interested ambition was itself a logical corollary to the spirit of unrestrained self-development, although both men would live long enough to be disappointed in the crass materialism that seemed to take hold of American society in the post–Civil War years. So, too, there is the irresistible story of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the semi-noble, semi-savage boy who lit out for the territory rather than enduring the phony rigors of civilization. Indeed, one sure index of the hold that individualism has had on American thought and expression is the culture's richness in figures of heroic individuality—and its relative poverty in providing convincing representations of community or social obligation.

There have always been a few important countercurrents, however, to this pervasive celebration of individuality. One such current emerged from women writers, both inside and outside the nascent feminist movement. Individualism being a game still reserved largely for males, the fiction and "domestic economy" literature produced by such nineteenth-century writers as the sisters Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe often had a very different tone, emphasizing the satisfactions of settlement, family life, nurture, and human connectedness—all the things that Henry David Thoreau and Huck Finn sought to escape. Such arguments were carried to a high pitch by the southern anti-suffragist Louisa McCord, who urged women to stand at a critical distance from the coarse individualism of the male public world. To be sure, the works of northern feminists such as Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were nothing if not individualistic in tone, testifying to the fact that some women were eager to get in on the game. Various forms of that same tension between equality and difference have persisted into the twenty-first century and continue to color our discussions of individualism and gender.

The immense human suffering and social dislocation wrought by industrialization was another stimulus to anti-individualistic thinking. One can see some elements of this critique emerging idiosyncratically in the antebellum years—for example, in the fascinating career of the anti-capitalist Catholic convert Orestes Brownson, who railed against individualism for destroying the grounds of human solidarity; or in the works of pro-slavery apologist George Fitzhugh, who presented slavery as an organic and patriarchal institution, far preferable to the inhumane and predatory institution of "wage slavery." But the best example could be found in one of the most widely read books of the nineteenth century, Edward Bellamy's 1888 fantasy Looking Backward, an effort to imagine a perfected postindustrial Boston, reconstituted as a socialist cooperative commonwealth in the year 2000. Bellamy openly reviled individualism, proposing in its place a post-Christian "religion of solidarity," which would radically de-emphasize the self, and instead emphasize social bonds over individual liberty (and traditional Christian doctrine).

The popularity of Bellamy's book showed that there was a market hungry for such ideas, and many of the most "progressive" forces of the day—ranging from the cooperation-minded Knights of Labor, the theological advocates of a modernist "social gospel," to Progressive reformers such as Herbert Croly, Jane Addams, and John Dewey—unreservedly admired and emulated its spirit. Indeed, the Progressive movement itself, at least in some of its manifestations, advanced a new corporate ideal that sought to downplay individualism and instead to defend and preserve "the public interest" in the face of industrial capital's power. In the hands of a sophisticated thinker like Dewey, a case was made that the values of community and individuality, far from being in opposition, are mutually supporting and mutually sustaining, particularly in an age dominated by large industrial combinations, immense asymmetries of wealth and power, and vast impersonal networks of communication. It was pointless, in their view, to restore the small-scale community of days past. Economic and social forces had rendered such community, with its personal bonds and face-to-face business transactions, impossible. The task ahead was the creation of something new, which Dewey called "The Great Community," a systematically reconstituted social order that, it was hoped, would adapt the best features of the old community forms to the inexorable realities of the new economy and society, and thereby preserve the possibility of a healthy form of individuality as well.

Individualism in a Postindustrial World

In retrospect, though, a social and political ideal based on solidarity seems never to have had much of a chance. Even the crisis of the Great Depression did little to dislodge Americans' individualistic assumptions, and a decisive blow to communitarian alternatives was administered by the rise of the totalitarian regimes of Europe, whose terrifying success in suppressing the individual for the sake of the nation threw all communitarian and corporate ideals into a disrepute from which they have yet to recover. The concerns generated thereby decisively shaped both the liberalism and the conservatism of the postwar years. Libertarians like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek and liberals like David Riesman, Lionel Trilling, and Reinhold Niebuhr—even conservatives like Robert Nisbet and Russell Kirk—all paid their disrespects to the Leviathan nation-state and thereby called into question the efficacy of any modern corporate or communitarian ideal. Instead, the social and political thought of postwar America seemed to be devoted to an entirely different ideal: the guardianship of the self.

The 1950s were awash in works devoted to that cause. Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) warned against the conformism of "other-direction" in the American personality, and William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) deplored the predominance of a "social ethic" in America's white-collar classes. Ayn Rand's fierce pop-Nietzschean novels celebrated the autonomy of the individual creative genius, sneered at altruism as a form of self-betrayal, and gave rise to the still lively intellectual movement called Objectivism. Neo-Freudian psychology concerned itself with the problems of the ego, and such leading psychological theorists as C. G. Jung and Erik Erikson focused obsessively on the problem of "individuation." Even the emergence of a New Left movement in the early 1960s, which purported to challenge the bourgeois assumptions of its liberal forebears, did little to alter this trend, since the movement's communitarian tendencies were no match for its commitment to a radical, near-anarchic standard of behavioral and expressive liberty.

In the age of postmodernity, then, the self has become the chief source of moral value. But one need only state such a proposition to realize how deeply problematic it is. Notwithstanding the naive certitude of Descartes's cogito, there is nothing more elusive than the self, which is both something that we "are" and something that we "have" in our less-than-full custody. Not only is it the ultimate seat of our subjectivity, it is equally the object of our therapeutic ministrations. Moreover, it is an entity whose highest refinement is its reflexive ability to stand outside of itself, enacting a selfhood that is beyond self. Indeed, the tortuous complexity of this description lends plausibility to one of the most powerful themes of post-modernism: its assertion that the modern idea of the unitary self cannot bear the weight placed upon it by fragmented modern life, and that in fact what we call the "self" is finally deconstructible into an ensemble of social roles. If so, though, then in what can individualism, let alone morality, be grounded?

It may be, too, that what appears to be unrestricted individualism turns out, on closer examination, to be something rather different. It may be that our broadened individual liberty is constrained in ways we hardly notice, so that we have been granted greater and greater freedom to live lives of less and less heft and consequence. A choosing consumer is not the same thing as a deliberating citizen, because the freedom to choose is not the same thing as freedom to shape. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, has argued that the expanding moral freedom of the modern world has been purchased at a very considerable price in public disempowerment. In our "bifurcated" modern world, moral evaluation has been relegated to "the realm of the personal," he says, while vast public bureaucracies and private corporations rule unchallenged over "the realm of the organizational" by means of impersonal procedural dicta. Hence individuals are remarkably free to order their personal lives as they see fit, but at the cost of having ceded any substantial voice in the shaping of public life. There is, MacIntyre has asserted, a "deep cultural agreement" between the ideal of the unencumbered private self and the corporatist ideal of rule by bureaucracy. Both accept a diminished understanding of humanity. In this view, we may already resemble the soma-numbed denizens of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) more than we would like to think.

Such a state of affairs bears an uncanny resemblance to the condition Tocqueville most feared, in which individualism enervates Americans' will to act in public ways. Accordingly, it would seem that the most useful response to the disintegration and diminution of the self might be a movement away from the characteristic preoccupations of modern sociology and psychology, and toward a fresh reconsideration of our political natures, in all their complexity, contingency, and promise. Just such a view was put forward memorably by the late American historian Christopher Lasch, who argued that it is in the school of public life, and in the embrace and exercise of the title of "citizen," that the selves of men and women become most meaningfully equal, individuated, mature, and free—not in those fleeting, and often illusory, moments when they evade the constraints of society and retreat into a weightless zone of privacy, subjectivity, and endlessly reconstructed narratives of the "self." This insight will be well worth our pondering in the years to come.


Arieli, Yehoshua. Individualism and Nationalism in American Ideology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Curry, Richard O., and Lawrence B. Goodheart, eds. American Chameleon: Individualism in Trans-National Context. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991.

Hewitt, John P. Dilemmas of the American Self. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Revised, New York: Norton, 1991.

———. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1991.

Lukes, Steven. Individualism. Reprint, Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1985.

McClay, Wilfred. The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Morris, Colin. The Discovery of the Individual, 1050–1200. Reprint, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Sandel, Michael. Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Individualism." Dictionary of American History. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Individualism." Dictionary of American History. . (December 12, 2017).

"Individualism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from






The term individualism covers a range of ideas, philosophies, and doctrines that emphasize the unlimited freedom of the individual and the individuals right to protect his or her own interests against those of society. The French liberal writer Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859) coined the word to characterize individual selfishnessa value system that predisposes human beings to be concerned only with themselves and their small circle of family and friends. Arising in reaction to the collectivist spirit of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, its original meaning tended to be rather negative and controversial, implying that individualism was a source of social atomism, anarchy, and public disorder. Thus, while praising the individualism of nineteenth-century America, Tocqueville at the same time cautioned against its threat to public life through the weakening of social bonds and obligations.


Today the term is often employed to describe a political and social philosophysometimes referred to as liberal individualism or laissez-faire individualismthat stresses the primacy of the individual and the importance attached to individual freedom, self-reliance, privacy rights, and individual choice. In its full-fledged form, it emerged first in Britain with the spread of the laissez-faire ideas of Adam Smith (17231790) and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (17481832) in economic and political theory. In the Anglo-Saxon world, liberal individualism became a catchword for free enterprise, free markets, limited government, and unrestricted economic freedom, as well as for the individualistic attitudes, forms of behavior, and aspirations that sustain the idea of self-made man. One influential version of this usage was U.S. president Herbert Hoovers campaign speeches in 1928 celebrating rugged individualism in America. Above all, individualism came to signify a preference for a minimal government role in social, economic, and religious affairs, as exemplified by the slogan That government that governs least governs bestthough not in matters of public morality or law and orderas opposed to the more collectivist ideals of socialism.

Individualism is frequently contrasted with collectivism, a social philosophy in which the collective or common weal rather than the individual good is considered paramount. Man is seen in the Aristotelian tradition as a social animal, whose very nature, wants, and capacities are to a very large extent the product of society and its institutionsrunning the gamut from the family through the workplace and all kinds of voluntary associations to the nation-state and the global market. For example, the famous Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) advocated subordinating the individual will to the collective will, a view that is in fundamental opposition to the philosophy of individualism. Rousseaus popular treatise Social Contract (1762) maintains that each individual is under an implicit contract to submit his or her will to the general will of the entire citizenry (volonte generale ), although the general will need not be the will of absolutely all citizens (volonte de tous ).

In his major work Democracy in America (1835, 1840), Tocqueville himself took a rather ambiguous stand about individualism, at times giving it a distinctly pejorative flavor. He was torn between his admiration for the individualism of American democracy and his anxiety about its political implications, such as the danger of widespread social conformism. He pointed to two major aspects of the individualistic character of American societyon the one hand, a faith in individual reason as the sole basis of public opinion, and, on the other, a self-centered, self-interested preoccupation with private concerns.

This second aspect of American individualism manifested itself in pervasive egoism, a widespread tendency to withdraw from public affairs and to focus on the material welfare of the family as the most important purpose in life. This egoism was evident in unrestrained personal ambition and atomistic competition. In a society where the scramble for power and possession was widely thought to be open to alland failure could not be ascribed to disadvantages of birth or any other privilegethe contest was bound to be fierce and uncompromising. Tocqueville believed that individualism could pose a threat to liberty, because individualistic attitudes encourage individual subservience to public opinion and conformism. U.S. democracy found its source of intellectual authority in prevailing public opinion based on the idea of the moral equality of all individuals. The conformity to generally held attitudes and social standards was thus the result of the imposition of social sanctions by ones peers. When Tocqueville asked why there were no professed atheists in the United States, his answer was that atheists would not get any jobs or customers. When faced with the opinion of the majority, the individual felt powerless: If the majority of ones equals is always right, then a dissenting opinion must be always wrong. For Tocqueville, this conformist attitude was an assault on individual libertya new kind of despotism over isolated individuals too afraid of public opinion to object, too absorbed in private concerns to participate in public activity, too aware of the economic value of public order to threaten protest and disorder. Such tyranny of the majority, the Frenchman warned, would weaken not only liberty but the very will to liberty.

Tocquevilles warnings about the paradoxical contradictions of individualism have been echoed numerous times in modern social and cultural criticism. The philosophy of liberal individualism has been criticized for creating a culture of what Canadas most eminent political theorist, C. B. Macpherson (19111987), called possessive individualism, a theory of human nature that is rooted in the seventeenth century and is based on a conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them (Macpherson 1962, p. 3). Such a society, according to Macpherson, where individual skills are a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market, demonstrates a selfish and unrestricted thirst for private consumption that is celebrated as the very essence of human nature. The American sociologist Robert Bellah (1985) has similarly warned that individualism is becoming so pervasive and excessive in the United States that it is destroying the integrity and moral foundations of American society.

During the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, economic individualism in the form of laissez-faire capitalism came into conflict with political individualism in the form of representative democracy, as the newly enfranchised working-class voters increasingly came to demand government intervention in the marketplace far beyond the mere enforcing of economic contracts. The rise of militant labor unions and the mass socialist parties built upon them made free-market economic policies morally untenable and politically risky, especially after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s and the governmental response to it based on the interventionist theories of John Maynard Keynes (18831946), the preeminent British economist who revolutionized the science of economics by advocating active state involvement in the capitalist economy, ushered in the collectivist-inspired social-welfare state and also seemed to sound the death knell for the discredited doctrines of economic individualism. But the waning of western social democracy and the decline and eventual downfall of Soviet-style state socialism in the late twentieth century led to the revival of the ideas of laissez-faire capitalismfirst during the era of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom and Reaganism in the United States, and later with the neoliberal policies of globalization capitalism. The anti-Keynesian and antistatist writings of Ludwig von Mises (18811973), Friedrich von Hayek (18991992), Milton Friedman (19122006), and their followers have also contributed to restoring the previously tattered intellectual reputation of economic individualism.


In another widespread, although thematically separate usage, the so-called methodological individualism in the social sciences refers to the position adopted by those who argue that groups (collectivities) are nothing more than their individual members. In this view, there are no properties of groups that are not reducible to individual properties. Not only must scientists study individuals, but also the explanations of the social phenomena they studyphenomena such as social class, power, the political system, and so onmust be formulated as, or be reducible to, the characteristics of individuals. While not denying that groups exist, the individualist does deny that they have any independent status and that they are more than the sum of their parts. As former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously declared, There is no society, only individuals.

This individualistic position stands in marked contrast to the so-called methodological holism, the theoretical principle that each social entity (group, institution, society) has a totality that is distinct and cannot be understood by studying merely its individual component elements. There are emergent group properties that are not reducible and, therefore, groups (collectivities) are more than the sum of their parts. For example, the famous French sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917) claimed that collective phenomena are not reducible to the individual actor or psyche; hence, social facts can be investigated and explained independently of the individual. The debate over methodological individualism versus methodological holism in the social sciences reflects an underlying ideological tension about the relationship between the individual and society, recognizing that these two analytical levels are distinct and may have to be explicated separately.

SEE ALSO Altruism; Bentham, Jeremy; Bolshevism; Choice in Psychology; Collectivism; Competition; Conformity; Constructivism; Durkheim, Émile; Elite Theory; Elites; Enlightenment; Freedom; French Revolution; Friedman, Milton; Great Depression; Hayek, Friedrich August von; Keynes, John Maynard; Laissez-faire; Libertarianism; Liberty; Microanalysis; Microeconomics; Mises, Ludwig Edler von; Party Systems, Competitive; Philosophy; Philosophy, Political; Political Theory; Reductionism; Rousseau, JeanJacques; Smith, Adam; Social Contract; Sociology, Micro-; Tocqueville, Alexis de; Tyranny of the Majority; Utilitarianism; Welfare State


Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brodbeck, May. 1958. Methodological Individualism: Definition and Reduction. Philosophy of Science 25 (1): 122.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. [1948] 1976. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lukes, Steven. 1973. Individualism. Oxford: Blackwell.

Macpherson, Crawford B. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

ONeill, John, ed. 1973. Modes of Individualism and Collectivism. London: Heinemann.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. [1835, 1840] 1994. Democracy in America. New York: Knopf.

Rossen Vassilev

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Individualism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Individualism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 12, 2017).

"Individualism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


individualism Broadly any set of ideas emphasizing the importance of the individual and the individual's interests, the term is used to characterize a range of ideas, philosophies, and doctrines. It is, for example, employed to describe a political philosophy usually described as ‘liberal individualism’ that stresses the importance of the individual and the value attached to individual freedom and individual choice. This philosophy is frequently contrasted with collectivism, where the collective rather than the individual good is paramount. Thus, the American sociologist Robert N. Bellah and his colleagues have recently proposed the controversial thesis that American individualism is becoming excessive, since it is destroying the moral integrity of that society (see Habits of the Heart, 1985
). The term is also used to characterize certain religious ideas, as in the phrase ‘Protestant individualism’, since Protestant churches historically have emphasized the relationship of God and individual as being one that is not mediated by the organization of the Church itself.

Whilst sociologists frequently use the term as a description of the philosophy of a particular social or political group within society, they also use it to characterize an approach to social phenomena within their discipline. So-called methodological individualism refers to the position adopted by those who argue that, in studying society, sociologists must not only (inevitably) study individuals, but also that the explanations of the social phenomena they study—phenomena such as social classes, power, the educational system, or whatever—must be formulated as, or reducible to, the characteristics of individuals. This position stands in marked contrast to ‘methodological holism’, the theoretical principle that each social entity (group, institution, society) has a totality that is distinct, and cannot be understood by studying merely its individual component elements. (An example would be Émile Durkheim's claim that social facts can be studied and explained independently of the individual.)

The debate over methodological individualism reflects an underlying tension about the relation between the society and the individual. This tension is, however, now more commonly analysed in terms of structure and agency: discussions of methodological individualism as such are less common. See also LIBERALISM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"individualism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"individualism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (December 12, 2017).

"individualism." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


in·di·vid·u·al·ism / ˌindəˈvijoōəˌlizəm/ • n. 1. the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant. ∎  self-centered feeling or conduct; egoism. 2. a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control. DERIVATIVES: in·di·vid·u·al·ist n. & adj. in·di·vid·u·al·is·tic / -ˌvijoōəˈlistik/ adj. in·di·vid·u·al·is·ti·cal·ly adv.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"individualism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"individualism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 12, 2017).

"individualism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


364. Individualism (See also Egotism.)

  1. Beaumont, Ned gambler-detective solves murder case in unorthodox manner. [Am. Lit.: The Glass Key, Magill I, 307308]
  2. Different Drummer Thoreaus eloquent prose poem on the inner freedom and individualistic character of man. [Am. Lit.: NCE, 2739]
  3. Longstocking, Pippi eccentric young girl who sets her own standards. [Childrens Lit.: Pippi Longstocking ]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Individualism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Individualism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . (December 12, 2017).

"Individualism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from