views updated May 18 2018


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


views updated Jun 27 2018


Individualism is a doctrine concerning both the composition of human society and the constitution of sociocultural actors. The term was invented in the 1820s, apparently, in France (Swart 1962). Its first appearance in English dates from the 1835 translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's study of the United States (Tocqueville [1850] 1969, p. 506). The basic notion conveyed by the newly coined word, that the individual is sovereign vis-à-vis society, was intensely controversial, for it stood on the grave of one established order, proclaiming the rise of another. As an early French critic saw it, individualism "destroys the very idea of obedience and of duty, thereby destroying both power and law," leaving nothing "but a terrifying confusion of interests, passions and diverse opinions" (cited in Lukes 1973, p. 6).

Individualism should be distinguished from historically specific constitutions of the individuality of human beings. The word "individual," used to discriminate a particular human being from collectivities ("family," "state"), had been in circulation for centuries prior to Tocqueville (albeit mainly as an adjective), and individualizations had been practiced under one description or another long before that, at least as evidenced in the oldest surviving texts of human history. However, premodern constitutions of individuality did not become the foci of a distinctive doctrine of individualism. That development came in response to the profound changes of social structure and consciousness that had been slowly accumulating during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the transformation from a medieval to a modern world, new transparencies of meaning evolved—among the most important, a particular conception of "the individual." The enormous power of that conception is reflected in the fact that people of modern society have generally had no doubt as to what an "individual" is. The reference has been self-evident because the object referred to, an individual, has been self-evident, pregiven, natural.

But one must remember that "the individual" is a construct. Like all constructs, it is historically variable. The meaning of individualism's "individual" was formed under specific historical circumstances that, in practice as well as in ideology, increasingly prized values of rational calculation, mastery, and experimentation; deliberate efforts toward betterment of the human condition; and a universalism anchored in the conviction that "human nature" is basically the same everywhere at all times and that rationality is singular in number. These commitments were manifested in the doctrine of individualism (as, indeed, in the formation of the modern social sciences). By the time of Tocqueville and the newly coined word, individualism's individual had become integral to much of the practical consciousness of modern society. Human beings were being objectified as instances of "the individual"—that is, as instances of a particular kind of individuality.

The forces created during that formative period wrought great changes in the fabric of society, many of which continue to reverberate. Of course, as historical circumstances have changed, both "the individual" of individualism and the constitution of individuality have changed. Nonetheless, a certain transparency of meaning remains still today in our practical consciousness of "the individual," and it is still informed by a doctrine of individualism. Thus, when a sociologist says that "a natural unit of observation is the individual" (Coleman 1990, p. 1), he can assume without fear of failure that most of his readers will know exactly what he means.

The remainder of this article offers brief accounts of (1) the development of individualism during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, (2) recent shifts of emphases in individualism's conception of "the individual," and (3) some current issues and concerns. More extended treatments can be found in Macpherson (1962), Lukes (1973), Abercrombie and colleagues (1986), Heller and colleagues (1986), and Hazelrigg (1991), among others.


While elements of individualism can be seen in expressions of practical affairs as early as the twelfth-century renaissance (Macfarlane 1978; Ullmann 1966), the first more or less systematic statement of the doctrine came during the 1600s. Scholars such as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke believed that in order to understand a whole (e.g., society) one had first to understand the parts of which it is composed. In the case of society, those parts, the building blocks of a society, were instances of "the individual." Although disagreeing on various specific issues—for example, whether human agency is distinct from a natural world of causal necessity (Descartes) or a product of that causal necessity (Hobbes)—these seventeenth-century scholars displayed a remarkable confidence in their understandings of "the individual" as a presocial atom. Their individual was a highly abstract being, squatting outside the world.

In the premodern order of European society, social relations had been organic, corporate, and mainly ascriptive. Sovereignty was a complex relation of duty, responsibility, and charity, focused on a specific location in the hierarchical order of organic community. Certainly members of the community were individualized, but the distinction was constituted primarily by ascriptive position in the hierarchical order. It is clear from surviving documents of the twelfth century, for example, that one individual knight was discriminable from any other in ways that we would describe as "personality." With rare exceptions, however, the discrimination was local. Otherwise, knights were discriminable mainly by pedigree, lines of fealty, and quality of chivalry. Individuals could rise (and fall) through gradations of rank, but vertical movement was first within the family or household group. A knight who aspired to still higher standing had first to be retained in another, more powerful family. Similarly, while there is no reason to doubt that residents of a twelfth-century village or town could reliably discriminate one another by physiognomic features, the portrayal of human beings in paintings concentrated on matters of costume, placement, and posture to signal social distinctions among virtually lifeless mannequins. Even in the revolutionary works attributed to Giotto (1267–1337), whose use of subtle gestures and glances began to individualize portrayals sufficiently to be called portraits in the modern sense, such facial features as warts, wens, moles, wrinkles, lines, scars, and sagging skin were still quite irrelevant to, and therefore absent in, the visualized identity or character of a person. But by the end of the 1400s we see, most notably in Domenico Ghirlandaio's Portrait of Old Man and Boy (c. 1490), depictions that to the modern sensibility count as realistically individualized faces. The art of portraiture gradually developed into advertisements of a new actor, front and center—modernity's sovereign individual (Haskell 1993).

In this new order, by contrast to its predecessor, social relations were conceived as contractual rather than organic, based on achieved rather than ascribed traits of individuals liberated from constraints of community. City life was once again the center of gravity in territorial organization, having displaced the manorial system. What would become the modern nation-state was beginning to take shape during the period of relative peace inaugurated by the several Treaties of Westphalia in 1648. Within this context of invention and experimentation with new (or renewed) organizational forms, the new individual was conceived as a wholly separate entity of self-identical integrity, a "bare individual" who could freely consent to enter into concert with other, equivalently constituted individuals, each propelled by self-interest. This was, as Macpherson (1962) described it, the advent of "possessive individualism," and it correlated well with the developing motivations of capitalism.

By the end of the eighteenth century, individualism had attained mature statement in treatises by David Hume, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant, among others. This mature statement, worked out in the context of rapidly changing political-economic institutions, emphasized the centrality of a "self-representing individual." The chief claim—that "every individual appears as the autonomous subject of his [or her, but primarily his] decisions and actions" (Goldmann [1968] 1973, p. 20)—served as the linchpin to formalized explanations of the political and economic rights of members of society, especially the propertied members. Expressions of the chief claim in moral and legal rights of the individual became enshrined in newly invented traditions, in legitimizing principles such as "popular sovereignty" and "inalienable rights," and in documents of public culture such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Constitution of the United States of America (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Morgan 1988). The prayerful injunction "God bless the squire and his relations and keep us in our proper stations" had been replaced by the almost wholly secular "I pledge allegiance to the flag" (i.e., to an abstract sign). While the claim of autonomy emphasized the universality of rights and the particularity of the "I," the practical emphasis on a self-representing individual was formulated in political-economic terms that "necessitated" elaborate definitions and procedures for the defense of "property rights" long before equivalent attention would be given to, say, "rights of the handicapped."

Much like the individual of organic community, the self-representing individual is a substantial presence, manifest as the embodiment of a uniform human nature, and as such is the bearer of various traits, dispositions, and predications. However, the site of the self-representing individual's capacity of agency and potential for autonomy is neither the community nor the accumulated traits, dispositions, and predications. Rather, it is deeply interior to what became a new "inner nature" of the human being. Beneath the faculty of reason, beneath all feeling and emotion and belief, there is "the will." Emile Durkheim ([1914] 1973) described it as the egoistic will of the individual pole of homo duplex, for George Herbert Mead (1934) it was "the principle of action." But before either of those sociologists, the master theorizer of the self-representing individual, Immanuel Kant, had formulated the basic principle as the pure functioning of the "I" through time. Only because I can unite a variety of given representations of objects in one consciousness, Kant ([1787] 1929, B133) argued, is it possible that I can "represent to myself the identity of consciousness," throughout those representations. In other words, the very possibility of a knowledge of the external world is dependent on the temporal continuity of the "I." The individual is absolute proprietor of this pure functionality, this willing of the "I" as basic principle of action; the individual owes absolutely nothing to society for it.

By conceiving the essential core of human individuality to be a deeply interiorized, radically isolated pure functionality, connections between the individual and the substantive traits that he or she bears become arbitrary. The individual is formally free to exercise choice in which traits to bear, free to be mobile geographically, socially, culturally, personally. Ascriptive traits are devalued in favor of achieved traits, and one set of achieved traits can always be exchanged for yet another set. This principle of freely exchangeable traits, an aspiration directing progress toward "the good society," depended on new means of socialization (or "internalization of norms"), so as to insure sufficient regularity in processes of exchange. Indeed, the self-representing individual was central to a distinctive regimen of behavior, a new practical meaning of "discipline" (Foucault [1975] 1977). As the doctrine of individualism saw it, the contractual, associative forms of social relation, though looser fitting in their normative constraints than the old organic community, were complemented by the figure of "the self-made man" who had internalized all the norms of rectitude and propriety so nicely as to merit life in an unprecedentedly free society. When reality failed the image, there were courts and legal actions for deciding conflicts of interest and the clash of individuals' rights. Notably, not a single book on the law of torts had been published in English by the mid-1800s; the explosive growth of tort law and third-party rules was only beginning (Friedman 1985, pp. 53–54).

Because the doctrine of individualism provided a set of answers to questions that were foundational to sociology (as to the social sciences in general)—What is the individual? How is society possible? and so forth—virtually every topic subsequently addressed by sociology has in one way or another involved aspects of individualism. Given the composition of individualism's self-representing individual, the most prominent issues have often centered on questions of relationship between the rise of individualism and the development of new forms of political-economic organization as manifested in capitalism, bureaucracy, and the modern state. Indeed, that relationship was focus of one of the great controversies occupying many early sociologists (Abercrombie et al. 1986). Hardly anyone doubted the existence or importance of a relationship. Rather, the debates were about such issues as causal direction (which caused which?), periodizations (e.g., when did capitalism begin?), and whether ideas or material conditions (each category conceived as devoid of the other) were the primary motive force. In many respects the debates were a continuation of the struggles they were about.

Other, more specific topics addressed by sociologists have also involved aspects of the rise of individualism. Several have already been mentioned (e.g., a new regimen of discipline). Additional examples are the development of sectarian (as opposed to churchly) religions, followed by an even more highly privatized mystical-religious consciousness of the isolated individual; changes in domestic architecture, such as greater emphasis on individualized spaces of privacy and functionally specialized rooms; changes in table manners, rules of courtesy, and other "refinements of taste"; the emergence of a "confessional self" and practices of diarykeeping; increased emphasis on romantic love ("affective individualism") in mate selection; new forms of literary discourse, such as the novel and autobiography; the rise of professionalism; and the rise of the modern corporation as an organizational form that, having gained standing as a legal actor comparable to a flesh-and-blood person, cast into doubt reliance on understandings of "the will" as foundation and motive force of contractual relations (see Abercrombie et al. 1986; Horwitz 1992; Perrot [1987] 1990).


The figure of the self-representing individual proved to be unstable, even as the meaning of representation gradually changed. This was mainly because the same factors that had produced this version of individualism's individual also led to dissolution of the transparent sign. For example, whereas clothing, manners, bodily comportment, and similar traits had been, in the old order, reliable signs (representations) of a person's rank or station in life, the sign became increasingly arbitrary in its relationship to ground. This loosening of the sign, together with a proliferation of signs in exchange, led to a new universalism of "the empty sign." The prototype was money and the commodity form: Devoid of intrinsic value and capable of representing everything, it represents nothing in particular. As one recent scholar has described the process, borrowing a clause from Karl Marx, "all that is solid melts into air" (Berman 1983).

At the same time, the rhetoric of transhistorical forms of value (e.g., the commodity, inalienable rights) allows for an enormous amount of individual variation in the sociocultural conditions under which it can succeed. Individualism's emphasis on the bare individual was being increasingly generalized, further reducing the import of group-based relations and traits. In the mid-1800s, for instance, the distinction between public affairs and private matters was drawn at the door of home and family. Family life provided the chief "haven" of organic relations, nurturant domesticity, and refuge from the trials of work and politics. But soon the haven itself became a site of struggle toward still greater individuation. Of the many factors contributing to this rebellion against the traditional restraints of family, one of the most important was a new culture of sexuality, which manifested a more general and growing concern for the interior interests and needs of the individual.

Precedent for this concern can be seen in Kant's conception of the self-representing individual (because of the transcendental "I," every individual has in common a potential for self-actualization) as well as in romanticist movements of the early 1800s. However, the development of a new "inner discourse of the individual" has been mostly a twentieth-century phenomenon. The psychology of Sigmund Freud and his disciples formed part of that development, certainly; but another part was formed by the conception of a new "social citizenship" (Marshall 1964), which emphasized an individual's rights of social welfare in addition to the earlier mandates of political and economic rights. A new figure of individualism's individual gradually emerged, the "self-expressing individual."

The individualism of the self-representing individual promoted the idea that all interests are ultimately interests of the bare individual. The new version of individualism both extends and modifies that idea. Whereas the self-representing individual puts a premium on self-control and hard work, the self-expressing individual generalizes the value of "freedom of choice" from political-economic exchange relations to matters of personal lifestyle and consumption preferences (Inglehart 1990). The central claim holds that "each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized" (Bellah et al. 1985, p. 336), and each person has the right to develop his or her unique capacities of self-expression. A recent change in divorce law partly illustrates the import of that claim. Prior to the 1960s one of the few organic relations still surviving in modern society was the marital bond; few conditions were deemed grave enough to have legal standing as grounds for breaking it. With the invention of "no fault" divorce (relatively noncontroversial legislation that spread rapidly from state to state; Jacob 1988), the marital relation became a civil contract much like any other, and a spouse's freedom to choose divorce in the interest of satisfying unfulfilled needs of self-expression gained recognition.

Another manifestation of this self-expressing individual is the recent development of a specialized field, the sociology of emotions (e.g., Barbalet 1998; Thoits 1989). Certainly earlier scholars (e.g., Georg Simmel) had recognized emotive dimensions of sentiment, tradition, trust, and the like, and had assumed motivations such as fear of power, anxiety about salvation, envy of success, frustrated ambition, and eponymous glory. No one imagined that persons of premodern societies did not experience emotions—though usually this would have been in an idiom of "the passions," and scholars disagreed whether these were in fact ahistorical, noncultural formations. But emotions had rarely been treated as important topics of inquiry by sociologists until the latter decades of the twentieth century. The emotive dimensions of life had typically been regarded as subordinate to other dimensions, just as the passions had been treated as dangerous when unbridled—energies which belonged properly in the harness of reason or "the rational faculty." (Most of the seven deadly sins, remember, were emotional states or effects of emotional states.) When rightly yoked by reason, emotive energies of the self-representing individual could achieve highly valued public outcomes even if the particular emotion itself was classified as a vice. Thus, avowed Adam Smith among others, private greed or avarice could become, through the device of market transaction, a public benefit. For the self-expressing individual, on the other hand, emotive aspects of life are, or should be, valued in themselves, not only for what might result from them. Whereas the eighteenth-century "pursuit of happiness" (one of the self-representing individual's inalienable rights) was idiomatic for the unfettered formal liberty of the individual to pursue self-interest in commerce (an inherently outward-looking, social activity), for the self-expressing individual the pursuit of happiness refers to a much more introspective, privately evaluated emotional state, "being happy with who one is."

Individualism's self-expressing individual remains a trait-bearing substantial entity, to be sure. The variety of bearable traits is greatly expanded by the shift in emphasis from self-control to self-expression through lifestyle experimentation ("the person as work-in-progress-from-within," as it were). Moreover, this shift in emphasis is accompanied by the stipulation that only those traits that an individual can freely choose to assume, and then jettison, should be relevant criteria by which to discriminate and evaluate individuals. Criteria falling outside the bounds of individual choice ("immutable" traits, whether biological or sociocultural) are deemed to be both irrelevant and, increasingly, a violation of an individual's rights. In conjunction with the "entitlements" logic of social citizenship, this stipulation of a radically individualistic freedom of reversible choice has been linked to the emergence of a generalized expectation of "total justice" (Friedman 1985).

By the same token, the doctrine of individualism has always contained a large fictive component. Long after the doctrine proclaimed the sovereignty of the bare individual, for example, the actual individuality of human beings continued to be heavily marked by ascriptive traits (e.g., gender, race) and by sociocultural inheritances from one's parents. The shift to an expressive individualism reflects efforts to situate the agency of a "free individual" outside the separately conceived domain of relations of domination. Rather than attempt to change those relations, the self-expressing individual would "transcend" them by concentrating on a logic of rights pertaining to the free expression of individual will in a domain of "personal culture" (Marcuse [1937] 1968).

Fictions can be productive in various ways, however. The fictions of individualism have often been made taskmasters, as women, African Americans, persons with disabilities, and other human beings discriminated primarily by ascriptive or group-based criteria have struggled to make reality conform to doctrinal image.


Because individualism has been one of the professional ideologies of the social sciences ("methodological individualism"), a perennial issue concerns the proper structure of explanation—specifically, whether explanation of any sociocultural phenomenon must ultimately refer to facts about individuals, and if so, what precisely that means (Coleman 1990; Hazelrigg 1991; Lukes 1973). No one denies that collectivities are composed of individuals. But that truism settles neither the question of how "composition" is to be understood nor the question of what constitutes "the individual." In short, the methodological issue involves a number of theoretical-conceptual issues, including several that are located at the intersection between individualism's "individual" and historical variations in the actual constitution of individuality (Heller et al. 1986). The doctrine of individualism has consistently conceptualized "the individual" as a distinct and self-contained agent who acts within, yet separate from, a constraining social structure. Rather than being an ensemble of social relations, individualism's individual is the substantial atom out of which any possible social relations are composed. This has certain implications for the empirical field.

How, for instance, does one understand the category "rational action"? What minimal criteria must be satisfied in order that a particular action can count as "rational"? The individual who stands forth in individualism tends to the heroic—self-made, self-reliant, and self-governing, rising above circumstances, taking charge of one's own destiny, and, in the aggregate of similar atoms, building a better world. This individual was soon accorded central place as the chief fount of rational action. Whereas late eighteenth-century scholars such as Adam Smith continued to remind readers that rational action could and did stem from nonrational motivations (e.g., moral sentiment, the ethos of tradition, even the simple inertia of habit), pride of place in the list of motivational sources increasingly shifted to that part of the "faculties of mind" called "the rational faculty," conceived as an instrument of the will. The emphasis on rationality as faculty, an "instrumental rationality," was no doubt encouraged by, and at the same time promoted, a growing list of successes in the inventiveness of carefully deliberated, calculated designs, plans, and projects of human engineering. (Recall the success of Dutch efforts, beginning on an ever larger scale in the 1600s and 1700s, to push back the sea and create thousands of square miles of new land—for most of us a barely remembered fact of history, but in those earlier times a truly audacious undertaking.) Are the limits of rational action therefore as closely circumscribed as the limits of an individual actor's rational deliberations, calculations, and intentions? Most sociologists today are agreed in answering "no" to that question, although they diverge, sometimes sharply, in particulars of the answer (Coleman 1990; Kuran 1995; Sica 1988).

Social action can be highly rational in the aggregate, both in outcome and in process, even when individual actors, attending more to nonrational or irrational than to rational motivations and intentions, behave in ways that hardly fit the doctrinal image of "heroic actor." People do learn from experience (if fitfully and slowly), and part of the accumulated fund from that learning consists in organizational forms that have rationalities built into them. This "rationality as form"—a materialized intelligence in the same way that a hand-held calculator, an airplane, or a magnetic resonance imager is a materialized solution to a set of problems—enables many more people to use, benefit from, and even operate the rationalities built into such devices than have the understanding ("rationality as faculty") required to design their architectures or to convert design into working product. Moreover, whereas the examples just cited can be readily interpreted as immediate and punctual products of some specific individual's rational faculty (thus fitting the heroic-actor model of the inventor or discoverer as genius), many other examples of rationality-invested organizational forms—family structures, markets, bureaucracy, and so forth—are as much or more the gradual accretions of indirection, sentiment, habituation, and happenstance than the intended consequences of rationally deliberated, calculated, instrumental actions of particular individuals. The doctrine of individualism has often slighted the importance of these latter wellsprings of rational action, as if the actions they motivate do not quite count, or do not count in quite the same way, as action that directly manifests the willful force of an individual's reasoned intentions.

In a related vein, if the individual owes nothing to society for the "I" as principle of action, where should the distinction be drawn between determinants of action that are social and those that are psychological? Consider, for instance, a person suffering the characteristics clinically (and thus socially) categorized as "depression." Are these characteristics proper to the individual only, or are they also in some way descriptive of a social condition that is integral to the individual so characterized? If Willy Loman, of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, is depressed, does that description say anything about the circumstances of a life Loman shared with countless others, or is it the description only of a misery interior to an isolated individual? Each of these accounts of what is under description has had its proponents. The popularity of a medicative regimen that emphasizes direct palliation or amelioration of psychic state (as in chemical applications, whether Prozac or psilocybin) suggests a growing preference for the second account.

Some sociologists contend that individualism's self-expressing individual is an accurate depiction of contemporary reconstitutions of individuality, and that in this new form of "the individual" the substance of selfhood, an individual's self-identical integrity, is being evacuated. Bellah and colleagues (1985) indict the emergence of "a language of radical individual autonomy" in which people "cannot think about themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition (p. 81)." Others argue that the emphasis on individual autonomy and separation is an expression of masculine, patriarchal values, as contrasted to feminine values of social attachment (Gilligan 1982). Still others see the development of an entirely new "order of simulacra" (Baudrillard [1976] 1983), in which simulation or the simulacrum substitutes for and then vanquishes the real (e.g., television images establish the parameters of reality). The alleged result is a collapse of "the social" into the indifference of "the masses," who no longer care to discriminate among "messages" (beyond their entertainment effects) since one simulation is as good as another.

Equally contentious issues surround the evident growth in people's sense of entitlement and in the array of legal rights claimed and often won on behalf of "individual choice." Individualism's figure of the self-expressing individual is held by some to be the harbinger of a new age of democracy, by others to be the confirmation of a continuing trend toward greater atomization (Friedman 1985). Both assessments point to the emergence of a "rights industry" that promotes the invention of new categories of legal right pertaining to everything from a guaranteed freedom to experiment with unconventional lifestyles without risk of discrimination or retribution, to the rights of animals both individually and at the species level, to the possibility of endowing genes with "subject-like powers" and thus legal standing (Glendon 1991; Norton 1987; Oyama 1985). Some critics contend that the expansion of concern for increasingly particularized and "arbitrary" individual choices comes at the expense of a diminished concern for social outcomes. "Unless people regain the sense that the practices of society represent some sort of natural order instead of a set of arbitrary choices, they cannot hope to escape from the dilemma of unjustified power" (Unger 1976, p. 240). The conviction recalls that of the early French critic quoted in the opening paragraph.


Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephen Hill, and Bryan S. Turner 1986 Sovereign Individuals of Capitalism. London: Allen and Unwin.

Barbalet, J. M. 1998 Emotion, Theory, and Social Structure. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Baudrillard, Jean (1976) 1983 In the Shadow of the SilentMajorities. New York: Semiotext (e).

Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton 1985 Habitsof the Heart. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Berman, Marshall 1983 All That Is Solid Melts into Air. London: Verso.

Coleman, James S. 1990 Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Durkheim, Emile (1914) 1973 "The Dualism of Human Nature and Its Social Conditions." In Robert Bellah, ed., Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel (1975) 1977 Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon.

Friedman, Lawrence 1985 Total Justice. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gilligan, Carol 1982 In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Glendon, Mary Ann 1991 Rights Talk. New York: Free Press.

Goldmann, Lucien (1968) 1973 Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Henry Maas. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Haskell, Francis 1993 History and Its Images. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Hazelrigg, Lawrence 1991 "The Problem of Micro–Macro Linkages: Rethinking Questions of the Individual, Social Structure, and Autonomy of Action." Current Perspectives in Social Theory 11:229–254.

Heller, Thomas C., Morton Sosna, and David E. Wellbery 1986 Reconstructing Individualism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983 TheInvention of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Horwitz, Morton J. 1992 The Transformation of AmericanLaw, 1870–1960. New York: Oxford University Press.

Inglehart, Ronald 1990 Cultural Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Jacob, Herbert 1988 Silent Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1787) 1929 The Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., trans. Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan.

Kuran, Timur 1995 Private Truths, Public Lies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lukes, Steven 1973 Individualism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Macfarlane, Alan 1978 The Origins of English Individualism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Macpherson, C. B. 1962 The Political Theory of PossessiveIndividualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert (1937) 1968 "The Affirmative Character of Culture." In Negations, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon.

Marshall, T. H. 1964 Class, Citizenship, and Social Development. New York: Doubleday.

Mead, George Herbert 1934 Mind, Self, and Society, ed. Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morgan, Edmund S. 1988 Inventing the People. New York: Norton.

Norton, Bryan G. 1987 Why Preserve Natural Variety? Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Oyama, Susan 1985 The Ontogeny of Information. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Perrot, Michelle, ed. (1987) 1990 A History of Private Life, vol.4, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sica, Alan 1988 Weber, Irrationality, and Social Order. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Swart, Koenraad W. 1962 "'Individualism' in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (1826–1860)." Journal of the History of Ideas 23:77–90.

Thoits, Peggy A. 1989 "The Sociology of Emotions." Annual Review of Sociology 15:317–342.

Tocqueville, Alexis de (1850) 1969 Democracy in America, 13th ed., J. P. Mayer, ed., George Lawrence, trans. New York: Doubleday.

Ullmann, Walter 1966 The Individual and Society in theMiddle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Unger, Roberto Mangabeira 1976 Law in Modern Society. New York: Free Press.

Lawrence Hazelrigg


views updated May 14 2018





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


views updated May 17 2018


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.



views updated May 23 2018


A powerful ideal that signifies the preeminence of the self as an autonomous, rights-bearing entity, individualism first emerged as a national ethic during the half-century after the American Revolution. Elements of individualistic thought reach back to ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe. Over the centuries, various writers have used individualistic themes to express and proclaim all sorts of agendas and convictions. All of these efforts, however, strive to locate the singular person within—or atop of—the social institutions that standardize life. Individualism is, at root, a relational idea, one that responds to and rejects its foils: anonymity, passivity, conformity. As such it has often borne a defensive or embattled posture. This was certainly true in early national America. For some, individualism helped to define the Republic against its ancien régime enemies; for others, individualism menaced both public order and personal morality.

roots of american individualism

The concept of individualism grew from religious, political, and economic roots in early America. Protestant Christianity, practiced in some vein by most Euro-Americans, rejected the symbolic and institutional props of Catholicism in favor of a more intimate link between the seeker and God. The personalized thrust of Protestantism inhered in Puritan diaries, through which the writer catalogued his or her search for salvation, and in Quaker meetings, during which men and women silently accessed their "inner light" of faith. The conversion experiences of eighteenth-century Evangelicals also underlined this personal connection to God. American individualism also derived from liberal political theory, especially from John Locke's precept that an individual's rights preceded the formation of governments. According to Locke, all men—women were subsumed by their fathers or husbands—bore inherent entitlements to life and property that the state had to respect. Finally, the concept of individualism issued from the market economy that developed throughout the North Atlantic world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In light of this new economic setting, some philosophers celebrated the "natural" workings of trade and commerce. When each person pursued his own interests, they argued, every person benefited. Mercantilist or paternalistic controls on self-interest (and, by extension, self-awareness) thereby lost some of their cultural legitimacy.

the individual vs. duty, obligation, and the public interest

As powerful as these experiences and belief systems were in colonial America, they cut against the grain of early modern thought and culture. In both Europe and North America, most of those in power as well as most philosophers understood society as an organic whole, a "body politic" of unequal but interdependent parts. No one but Robinson Crusoe lived alone or unattached; all people bore duties and obligations to those above and below them on the "great chain of being." In Revolutionary America, political radicals who called themselves "republicans" found these old ideas increasingly hollow. Haughty aristocrats who curried favor with the crown did not appear to uphold their responsibilities to the commonweal. Yet such radicals did not seek an alternative to monarchical "corruption" in the ascension of the individual. On the contrary, republicans exhorted would-be citizens to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the political community. "Every man in a republic," declared the physician and Revolutionary Benjamin Rush, "is public property. His time and his talents—his youth—his manhood—his old age—nay more, life, all belong to his country" (Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, p. 61). Thus, neither the monarchical precepts that Americans rejected nor the republican philosophies they embraced during the Revolution celebrated (or even tolerated) the free-floating, autonomous individual.

Nonetheless, the American Revolution propelled individualistic thought toward its eventual enshrinement as a (not the) national ethic. Historians often argue that the Revolution bequeathed a dual legacy of republican and "liberal" tendencies to American culture, and that the latter eventually won out. Individualism is often taken as the end product of liberal capitalism and liberal democracy. Early national Americans, however, would have puzzled over the term "liberalism." Many, perhaps most, explicitly invoked or implicitly embraced Christian and republican virtues of self-sacrifice and public service. Yet others discerned a fresh potential for self-fulfillment within the cultural topography of the new Republic. They celebrated "emulation"—creative tension between an individual and a certain goal or another person—as the key to such fulfillment. Teachers, ministers, and other local notables argued that emulation pushed people, especially youth, to "excel" their peers in learning or virtue, tapping reservoirs of personal energy that monarchy had kept frozen. Some even lauded the long-feared passion of "ambition"—the personal desire for honor and preeminence—as a potential virtue, an emotional "fire" to be harnessed rather than stamped out. Such beliefs intersected with hero-worship of Revolutionary figures ("which one of you will be the next Washington?" asked one academy preceptor) and manifested in everything from school spelling-bees to debate societies. For the first time, the cultivation of the self for a distinct role in "the grand theater of the world" gained widespread legitimacy.

Again, though, such ideas ran counter to vital currents of thought and experience. Even as Americans moved toward a popular and competitive rather than an elitist and consensual political culture, and even as they participated in an ever-expanding commercial economy, they remained enmeshed in household and neighborhood obligations. The family economy, in which women and children worked for household heads, survived the Revolution. In fact, it adapted to and helped to propel a burgeoning of commerce in the early nineteenth century. Farmers and artisans enhanced labor demands on their wives and children and used republican citizenship to affirm their authority within the household. Many an "ambitious" farm lad found his aspirations thwarted by his father's wishes. Ironically, proponents of emulation often assailed such fathers as litigious, greedy, and selfish—in other words, as individualistic. Protestant views of the self as depraved and worthless also retained their power over the new nation's religious culture.

a celebration of self-definition

The term "individualism" finally emerged in national discourse during the 1820s, as those who inherited the Revolution and its new grammar of personal potential gained civic, cultural, and economic power. The word, and the social types associated with it, celebrated personal discovery and self-definition, not (or not just) personal gain and self-interest. The appearance of the term coincided with the rise of the autobiography as a popular genre. The first of the so-called "self-made men" in America were those who had left the farm, admired and imitated some hero or ideal type, and then invented a special vocation or niche—a "career"—in society. They included itinerant ministers, factory founders, Western explorers, and college professors; they also included many who went bankrupt and a few who struck it rich. Women faced even greater obstacles to self-definition. Effectively marginalized from the world of commerce, ambitious women sought distinction and personal fulfillment in reform movements like temperance, antislavery, and, of course, women's rights. All of the early autobiographers conveyed a sense of struggle—with physical disabilities, with financial hardships, and with the provincial mores and local commitments that fettered the self.

By the 1830s, the language of individualism helped to portray the United States as a hurried and "bustling" place, one where the demands of moneymaking and self-making intersected and collided. Yet no sooner had individualism established itself in the American vocabulary than it provoked new criticisms and alternatives. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), for example, believed that the America he toured in 1831 was degenerating into individualism, which he called "a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows." Many middle-class commentators, who now worked in offices or shops rather than at home, praised that very tendency. The middle-class home, by design, provided a gentle retreat from the callous world of work. But many worried that this withdrawal hindered the civic engagement and public spirit that made republics better than monarchies. Tocqueville also noted that the prevailing sense of self-interested busy-ness actually suffocated personal creativity and self-expression. Individualism was, in a sense, its own worst enemy.

Even as it became the nominal core of the democratic, capitalistic world of nineteenth-century America, individualism remained a controversial and complex notion. As home and work divided in the industrial age, more and more Americans took for granted the need to exercise one's ambition, to find one's unique place in the wide world. Competition and the disciplined pursuit of wealth and status became organizing principles of American society—at least, of its bourgeois elements. But the formation of a full-blown market economy and democratic polity only sparked a new quest for authentic freedom and self-determination. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau sought a more satisfying form of autonomous experience than industrial society, or conventional ideas of individualism, would allow. Thoreau found his in the solitude of Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts; Emerson, in the introspective faith he called "self-reliance." Religious perfectionists, moral reformers, and factory workers all invented new kinds of associations to combat the anonymity and inequity of nineteenth-century America. And the vexed career of individualism stretches to the present day, underscoring the multiple and conflicting legacies of the American Revolution.

See alsoAutobiography and Memoir; Democratization; Home; Industrial Revolution; Market Revolution; People of America; Quakers; Reform, Social; Religion: Overview; Temperance and Temperance Movement; Women: Rights .


Appleby, Joyce. Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2000.

Bellah, Robert N., ed. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 2 vols. 1835, 1840. Translated by George Lawrence, edited by J. P. Mayer. New York: HarperPerennial, 2000.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

J. M. Opal


views updated May 11 2018


Individualism as the free, unfettered expression and development of the self in life's social arenas—the political, cultural, and economic—is one of the few consistent American ideals, tracing a bright line through the course of the nation's history. Whereas European observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville tended to see American individualism as a dangerous centrifugal social force, Americans have generally embraced the individual as a self-contained, value-creating, contract-making actor whose preservation and encouragement were consistent with the needs of society and the community. Disagreements have emerged primarily about how best the individual may be reconciled with and included in society.

In the early part of the nation's history, a narrow brand of communitarian Reformed Protestantism gave shape to American individualism. But during the twentieth century the reconciliation of the individual with the needs of the community was increasingly based on a vision of society as a voluntary collection of individuals seeking their own advantage in the marketplace, with government acting primarily as a guarantor of individual rights. Ideally, through the function of the free market, individuals are automatically attracted to work that is useful, producing a product or service that others need. Acting through the free market individuals are able to find that work for which they are best suited, and which will provide the maximum opportunity for individual self expression and development. Relying on their own efforts, individuals are free to improve their social and economic standing, improving the fortunes of the groups to which they belong in the process.

Through work that is at once free and of service to others, society forms as a network of bridges of self-interest between individuals, creating intricate interdependencies. As Emile Durkheim famously observed, work may be the tie that binds societies together. Individualism has emerged as a public issue primarily when Americans have lost faith in the automatic function of the free market to support the individual, the Great Depression being a key example.

The massive unemployment of the Great Depression appeared to many to challenge the ideal of work-based free market individualism. However, unemployment compounded work and marketplace failures that had been festering for decades. Since the turn of the century, modern jobs that required little skill and offered few opportunities for creativity had eroded the hope that work could be the avenue for self expression and craftsmanship. The jobs that still existed offered little chance for pleasure and satisfaction. The rise of corporations, advertising, and mass society further complicated a simplistic faith in individualism. Concentrations of wealth and political power appeared to be limiting social mobility, casting serious doubts on one of the nation's other precious ideals: an egalitarian, classless society of individuals.

Even the strongest supporter of the traditional idea of American individualism, Herbert Hoover, saw the need to find new ways to preserve individualism in an era of giant bureaucracies, corporations, and standardization. Hoover sought to redeploy large-scale organization in the service of "self-help," "spiritual development," and the individual through "purposeful planning" and his "association idea," a strategy largely dependent on government encouragement of business voluntarism.

Others, however, veering to the political left, sought to reenergize the Progressive movement's corporate ideal, emphasizing the need for community and the importance of solidarity and state action to assure the "public interest." Arguing for a planned society, such critics of excessive individualism as John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Robert Lynd, and George Soule sought to counter the Depression's threats to both the individual and the community. Turning increasingly to the state to regulate the free market, leaders such as Henry Wallace (Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture and third-term vice president) emphasized "cooperative achievement" and "organic" communities, and stressed the need for increasing cooperation in American life.

Such critics hoped that by becoming more cooperative in its economic life, the United States could redeem the individual, establishing a new cultural and political foundation for free associations, replacing the failing work-based free market individualism. Social scientists, socialists, and Marxists proposed to free Americans from excessive concerns about economic matters, liberating them in life's more important venues—the cultural, communal, and, as Hoover had hoped, the spiritual.

Still others supported a more practical, traditional remedy. One of the most important political issues of the Great Depression was legislated work-sharing. The Black-Connery bill of 1933, limiting hours of work to thirty a week, attracted critics of work-based free market individualism, who, stopping short of the cooperationists' remedy, saw in steadily increasing leisure the best way to reestablish individualism outside the economy. Seeking, in the words of Richard Pells in his Radical Visions and American Dreams, "to liberate the American people from the bondage of economic anxiety—to shift their attention from material to moral and existential concerns" people such as William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, "liberation capitalists" such as W. K. Kellogg, and progressive reformers such as Stuart Chase proposed that a shorter workweek would provide time for alternate, free forms of association. Through increased leisure, the family, the community, churches, voluntary groups, and local governments would flourish as never before. These, instead of work and the market, would become the new media for individual growth and expression.

Roosevelt was lukewarm to the new cooperationist schemes and to work-sharing. Such measures as the National Recovery Administration and Social Security were primarily designed to provide industrial stabilization and a safety net for a free-swinging economy. Instead, Roosevelt attempted to redeem work-based free market individualism by marshaling government in support of perpetual economic growth and work-creation, employing the now familiar New Deal reform strategies: public works, liberal monetary policy, deficit spending, and direct expansion of government jobs.

With Roosevelt, leaders of the women's movement and the emerging civil rights struggle reaffirmed the importance of work-based free market individualism. The Harlem Renaissance matured and began to recognize the importance of the individual's struggle with society. Similarly, the nascent civil rights movement began to direct its efforts toward gaining equality through the marketplace, with jobs becoming a primary arena for struggle. Advancing beyond the suffrage victories of the previous decade, American women also began to make inroads into the workforce, and, like African Americans, they began to look for independence and individual liberation through work. African Americans and women turned to the government to open free and equal access to jobs, and thus extend the ideal of work-based individualism to previously excluded groups.

The rise of authoritarian, repressive regimes in Europe and the coming of World War II curtailed cooperationist talk in the United States. Work-based free market individualism entered the 1940s vigorous and growing, made stronger by the challenges offered to it during the Great Depression.



Dewey, John. Individualism, Old and New. 1930.

Durkheim, Emile. The Division of Labour in Society, translated by W. D. Halls. 1984.

Hawley, Ellis Wayne. Herbert Hoover and the Crisis of American Capitalism. 1973.

Hoover, Herbert. American Individualism. 1922.

Pells, Richard H. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. 1973.

Shain, Barry Alan. The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. 1994.

Shannon, Christopher. Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought, from Veblen to Mills. 1996.

Thomson, Irene Taviss. In Conflict No Longer: Self and Society in Contemporary America. 2000.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America (1835–1840), translated by George Lawrence, edited by J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner. 1966.

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt


views updated May 23 2018


Some historians, such as Jakob Burckhardt, have seen the Renaissance as a period when people became much more aware of themselves as individuals. Burckhardt thought that in the Middle Ages, people had tended to view themselves mainly in terms of their connection to other people—as members of a nation, a race, a family, or some other group. During the Renaissance they focused more on their personal identities and goals. Burckhardt saw this as one of the central developments of the Renaissance.

The Individual's Place in Society. The Renaissance movement toward individualism probably began with the Italian poet and scholar Petrarch. In works such as Familiar Letters and Life of Solitude, Petrarch expressed the idea that individuals must struggle to achieve the kind of life best suited to their own moral sense and character. The poet combined his individualism with a concern for others, saying "whoever is secure in himself ... sins against the law of nature if he does not bring aid to the suffering when he can."

Later scholars echoed Petrarch's views on balancing personal needs and desires with helping others. The Italian humanist* Leon Battista Alberti addressed this idea in On Governing a Household (1470), a book on how to live a useful and satisfying life. Alberti urged his readers to be "active in some honorable task," arguing that "Man is born to be useful to himself and no less to others."

God and the Individual. Later scholars focused on the relationship between the individual and God. The German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa argued in On Learned Ignorance (1440) that God is infinite and human beings are limited. In order for humans to begin to grasp the nature of God, they first had to understand their place as individuals in the universe.

Other writers focused on the conflict between individual human will and the will of God. During the Middle Ages, people firmly believed in divine power as the ruling force in the world. Renaissance thinkers tried to blend this notion with their belief in human free will. Coluccio Salutati, a follower of Petrarch, wrote about this issue in On Fate, Fortune, and Chance (1399). He argued that God "moves" human will without forcing it, so that individuals are always capable of doing the right thing. Therefore, those who fall into sin do so of their own free will.

Two later scholars, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, emphasized the power of humans to affect the world around them. Ficino, for example, placed great importance on the ability of humans to create various kinds of art. He wrote that this ability made them "seem not to be servants of nature but competitors." Pico, in Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), argued that God had created people so that there would be someone capable of recognizing and appreciating the glory of God's creation. He claimed that God had placed human beings "in the middle of the world" and given them the potential to live anywhere and do anything on earth. Modern philosophers and historians still admire Pico's thoughts on the many possibilities of individual achievement.

(See alsoMan, Dignity of. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)


views updated May 18 2018

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.


views updated May 09 2018

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. &·di·vid·u·al·is·tic / -ˌvijoōəˈlistik/·di·vid·u·al·is·ti·cal·ly adv.


views updated May 18 2018

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 ]