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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 existentialists—the best known of whom were Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)—proclaimed the radically individualistic situation of human beings. In particular they focused on the profound nothingness of death—the one element of human existence that each person necessarily experiences uniquely and individually, since no one can die another person's death—as 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 institutions—priests, philosophers, governments, or even family and friends—for 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 (1899–1992), Robert Nozick (1938–2002), and, more popularly, Ayn Rand (1905–1982) 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 democracy—in particular, local-level voluntary associations and community-based activities—are 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.


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Cary J. Nederman

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