4 minute read


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 (1723–1790). 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 (1748–1832), 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 (1789–1799), made many thinkers (including those of a liberal stripe) nervous. Edmund Burke (1729–1797) 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 (1805–1859) 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 (1818–1883) 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 (1712–1778) and his contemporaries, such as the anarchist Jean-Pierre Proudhon (1809–1865) and the utopian Charles Fourier (1772–1837), Marx believed that communal equality constituted the necessary prerequisite for the flourishing of free individuals.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) 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 goal—societies that he terms "civilized"—share the common factor of defending and promoting individual liberty. Individualism—understood as experimentation with lifestyles and ideas—challenges 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 (1844–1900). 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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismIndividualism - Ancient Sources, Revealed Religion, The Reformation And The Aftermath, Liberalism And Individualism, Individualism And Modern Society