/in'deuh vij"ooh euh liz'euhm/, n.
1. a social theory advocating the liberty, rights, or independent action of the individual.
2. the principle or habit of or belief in independent thought or action.
3. the pursuit of individual rather than common or collective interests; egoism.
4. individual character; individuality.
5. an individual peculiarity.
6. Philos.
a. the doctrine that only individual things are real.
b. the doctrine or belief that all actions are determined by, or at least take place for, the benefit of the individual, not of society as a whole.
[1825-35; INDIVIDUAL + -ISM]

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Political and social philosophy that emphasizes individual freedom.

Modern individualism emerged in Britain with the ideas of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, and the concept was described by Alexis de Tocqueville as fundamental to the American temper. Individualism encompasses a value system, a theory of human nature, and a belief in certain political, economic, social, and religious arrangements. According to the individualist, all values are human-centred, the individual is of supreme importance, and all individuals are morally equal. Individualism places great value on self-reliance, on privacy, and on mutual respect. Negatively, it embraces opposition to authority and to all manner of controls over the individual, especially when exercised by the state. As a theory of human nature, individualism holds that the interests of the normal adult are best served by allowing him maximum freedom and responsibility for choosing his objectives and the means for obtaining them. The institutional embodiment of individualism follows from these principles. All individualists believe that government should keep its interference in the lives of individuals at a minimum, confining itself largely to maintaining law and order, preventing individuals from interfering with others, and enforcing agreements (contracts) voluntarily arrived at. Individualism also implies a property system according to which each person or family enjoys the maximum of opportunity to acquire property and to manage and dispose of it as he or they see fit. Although economic individualism and political individualism in the form of democracy advanced together for a while, in the course of the 19th century they eventually proved incompatible, as newly enfranchised voters came to demand governmental intervention in the economic process. Individualistic ideas lost ground in the later 19th and early 20th century with the rise of large-scale social organization and the emergence of political theories opposed to individualism, particularly communism and fascism. They reemerged in the latter half of the 20th century with the defeat of fascism, the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and the worldwide spread of representative democracy. See also libertarianism.

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▪ politics and philosophy
      political and social philosophy that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual. Although the concept of an individual may seem straightforward, there are many ways of understanding it, both in theory and in practice. The term individualism itself, and its equivalents in other languages, dates—like socialism and other isms—from the 19th century.

      Individualism once exhibited interesting national variations, but its various meanings have since largely merged. Following the upheaval of the French Revolution, individualisme was used pejoratively in France to signify the sources of social dissolution and anarchy and the elevation of individual interests above those of the collective. The term's negative connotation was employed by French reactionaries, nationalists, conservatives, liberals, and socialists alike, despite their different views of a feasible and desirable social order. In Germany, the ideas of individual uniqueness (Einzigkeit) and self-realization—in sum, the Romantic notion of individuality—contributed to the cult of individual genius and were later transformed into an organic theory of national community. According to this view, state and society are not artificial constructs erected on the basis of a social contract but instead unique and self-sufficient cultural wholes. In England, individualism encompassed religious nonconformity (i.e., nonconformity with the Church of England (England, Church of)) and economic liberalism in its various versions, including both laissez-faire and moderate state-interventionist approaches. In the United States, individualism became part of the core American ideology by the 19th century, incorporating the influences of New England Puritanism, Jeffersonianism, and the philosophy of natural rights. American individualism was universalist and idealist but acquired a harsher edge as it became infused with elements of social Darwinism (i.e., the survival of the fittest). “Rugged individualism”—extolled by Herbert Hoover (Hoover, Herbert) during his presidential campaign in 1928—was associated with traditional American values such as personal freedom, capitalism, and limited government. As James Bryce (Bryce, James Bryce, Viscount), British ambassador to the United States (1907–13), wrote in The American Commonwealth (1888), “Individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride in personal freedom have been deemed by Americans not only their choicest, but [their] peculiar and exclusive possession.”

      The French aristocratic political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (Tocqueville, Alexis de) (1805–59) described individualism in terms of a kind of moderate selfishness that disposed humans to be concerned only with their own small circle of family and friends. Observing the workings of the American democratic tradition for Democracy in America (1835–40), Tocqueville wrote that by leading “each citizen to isolate himself from his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends,” individualism sapped the “virtues of public life,” for which civic virtue and association were a suitable remedy. For the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (Burckhardt, Jacob) (1818–97), individualism signified the cult of privacy, which, combined with the growth of self-assertion, had given “impulse to the highest individual development” that flowered in the European Renaissance. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim (Durkheim, Émile) (1858–1917) identified two types of individualism: the utilitarian egoism of the English sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer (Spencer, Herbert) (1820–1903), who, according to Durkheim, reduced society to “nothing more than a vast apparatus of production and exchange,” and the rationalism of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (Kant, Immanuel) (1724–1804), the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Rousseau, Jean-Jacques) (1712–1788), and the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), which has as “its primary dogma the autonomy of reason and as its primary rite the doctrine of free enquiry.” The Austrian economist F.A. Hayek (Hayek, F.A.) (1899–1992), who favoured market processes and was distrustful of state intervention, distinguished what he called “false” from “true” individualism. False individualism, which was represented mainly by French and other continental European writers, is characterized by “an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason” and the scope of effective social planning and is “a source of modern socialism”; in contrast, true individualism, whose adherents included John Locke (Locke, John) (1632–1704), Bernard de Mandeville (Mandeville, Bernard de) (1670–1733), David Hume (Hume, David) (1711–76), Adam Ferguson (Ferguson, Adam) (1723–1816), Adam Smith (Smith, Adam) (1723–90), and Edmund Burke (Burke, Edmund) (1729–97), maintained that the “spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend” and accepted that individuals must submit “to the anonymous and seemingly irrational forces of society.”

      Other aspects of individualism pertain to a series of different questions about how to conceive the relation between collectivities and individuals. One such question focuses on how facts about the behaviour of groups, about social processes, and about large-scale historical events are to be explained. According to methodological individualism, a view advocated by Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper (Popper, Sir Karl) (1902–94), any explanation of such a fact ultimately must appeal to, or be stated in terms of, facts about individuals—about their beliefs, desires, and actions. A closely related view, sometimes called ontological individualism, is the thesis that social or historical groups, processes, and events are nothing more than complexes of individuals and individual actions. Methodological individualism precludes explanations that appeal to social factors that cannot in turn be individualistically explained. Examples are Durkheim's classic account of differential suicide rates in terms of degrees of social integration and the account of the incidence of protest movements in terms of the structure of political opportunities. Ontological individualism contrasts with various ways of seeing institutions and collectivities as “real”—e.g., the view of corporations or states as agents and the view of bureaucratic roles and rules or status groups as independent of individuals, both constraining and enabling individuals' behaviour. Another question that arises in debates over individualism is how objects of worth or value (i.e., goods) in moral and political life are to be conceived. Some theorists, known as atomists, argue that no such goods are intrinsically common or communal, maintaining instead that there are only individual goods that accrue to individuals. According to this perspective, morality and politics are merely the instruments through which each individual attempts to secure such goods for himself. One example of this view is the conception of political authority as ultimately derived from or justified by a hypothetical “contract” between individuals, as in the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Hobbes, Thomas) (1588–1679). Another is the idea, typical in economics and in other social sciences influenced by economics, that most social institutions and relationships can best be understood by assuming that individual behaviour is motivated primarily by self-interest.

      Individualism as Tocqueville understood it, with its endorsement of private enjoyments and control of one's personal environment and its neglect of public involvement and communal attachment, has long been lamented and criticized from both the right and the left and from both religious and secular perspectives. Especially notable critiques have been made by advocates of communitarianism, who tend to equate individualism with narcissism and selfishness. Likewise, thinkers in the tradition of “republican” political thought—according to which power is best controlled by being divided—are disturbed by their perception that individualism deprives the state of the support and active involvement of citizens, thereby impairing democratic institutions. Individualism also has been thought to distinguish modern Western societies from premodern and non-Western ones, such as traditional India (Indian philosophy) and China (Chinese philosophy), where, it is said, the community or the nation is valued above the individual and an individual's role in the political and economic life of his community is largely determined by his membership in a specific class or caste.

Steven M. Lukes

Additional Reading
An overview of individualism is Steven Lukes, Individualism (1973, reprinted 1984). Classic statements on individualism by major thinkers include Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vol. (1835; originally published in French, 1835), vol. 2, part 2, chapter 2; Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Period of the Renaissance in Italy, 2 vol. (1878; originally published in German, 1860); Émile Durkheim, “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” in Robert N. Bellah (ed.), Émile Durkheim on Morality and Society (1973; essay originally published in French, 1898), pp. 43–57; and F.A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (1948, reissued 1996). A discussion of methodological individualism can be found in Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (1957, reissued 1997). A clear, critical account of ontological individualism is Charles Taylor, Philosophy and the Human Sciences (1985).Works discussing the alleged dangers of individualism include Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1978, reissued 1991); Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985, reissued 1996); and Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). A defense of individualism against such critiques is Herbert J. Gans, Middle American Individualism: The Future of Liberal Democracy (1988, reissued 1991).Steven M. Lukes

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Universalium. 2010.

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