April 5, 2010


By Eugène Delacroix, "Liberty Leading the People"

A Brief Intellectual History of Individualism

With the dusk of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era, individualism gradually began as a way of adapting to the new socio-economico-political conditions in Europe. And, henceforth, it evolved into socio-economico-political doctrines, expressive of one’s independence, self-reliance, self-determination, and, hence, individuality. In general, individualism gives primacy to the individual over what opposes her or his individuality, be it a social institution or the state. Also, this new way of adapting to life under the new circumstances found diverse expressions, not always in agreement with each other, in the ethical views of philosophers such as the French philosophes, Immanuel Kant, W.G.F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and etc. The word “individuality” (derived from Latin word indīviduus, meaning “not dividable” or “inseparable”) is commonly stipulated as the state or quality of being an individual, who exists as a distinct entity and possesses sum total of qualities and characteristics that distinguishes the individual from others. However, “individuality” is not an easy concept to unravel and understand. It has been viewed differently in various historical periods, and it can be examined from different perspectives, such as that of psychology, sociology, or political science.

Here, we are faced with an important distinction between the two concepts “individualism” and “individuality”. From a technical point of view, the former is depicted as a cultural or socio-economico-political phenomenon, not devoid of ethical dimensions, while the latter is depicted as a psychological phenomenon of mental growth. In this sense, not without exceptions, individualism is a proper subject matter within the discipline of sociology while individuality is an appropriate subject matter within the discipline of psychology. However, a sociologist can examine her or his sociological concept of individualism under the light of psychology, and a psychologist can examine her or his psychological concept of individuality under the light of sociology. Moreover, a sociologist can examine the psychological concept of individuality within a sociological context, and a psychologist can examine the sociological concept of individualism within a psychological context. A popular confusion about the concepts of individualism and individuality arises when one tries to think and comprehend them unwittingly within a wrong sphere of activities – such as when one means to appreciate the psychological concept of individuality, but unknowingly views it from a sociological perspective. Each discipline of sociology and psychology has its own distinct concept of individuality. And, confusion arises when one inattentively considers the sociological concept of individuality under the rubric of psychology without being aware, or when one absent-mindedly considers the psychological concept of individuality under the category of sociology without recognizing it. By analogy, this is akin to mixing apples and oranges. Both are fruits, but they belong to two different classes of fruits. Or, to put it differently, while both botanists and zoologists study nature of organic matter, it would be improper to ask botanists to study nature of cancerous animal cells or to ask zoologists to study nature of photosynthetic activities of a plant. So, the moral of the story is that whenever one scrutinizes the concept of individualism or individuality, one should articulate that from what perspective one is examining the concept; otherwise, one’s diagnosis shall suffer misunderstanding.

The general concept of individuality is historically pregnant with various facets, appearances, and confusions. At the positive end of the spectrum of the confusions, individuality is popularly deemed as some kind of “self-identity”. While the two words are synonymous and closely related, they do not seem to be identical. At the negative end of the spectrum, individuality is popularly mistaken for “being fashionable”, which is a contra spem spero (“hope against hope”). Moreover, individuality can reflect either a positive connotation (as in one who does not give in to herd mentality) or a negative connotation (as in one who is uncooperative and uncaring toward a common and noble goal). At its core, individuation seems to be a development from the general to the specific.

To the classical Greeks, our contemporary individualism would have been a contemptuous act of social division – separating ourselves from each other and the society at large. Perhaps, this idea is not lost in the words of the U.S. President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Should the individual have primacy over the state? Or, should the state be subservient to the individual? Or, should there be a symbiotic relation between the two? Starting with the Greece of antiquity, this article will very briefly explore the very complex phenomenon of individualism mainly from a perspective of intellectual history. And, looking at this phenomenon from a social viewpoint, individualism – distinct from individuality – seems to manifest itself as a social disease (dis-ease), that is, lack of ease.

§1. Age of Antiquity of Greece

Within the socio-political context of their society, it is said that the Greeks of antiquity had no word for “individuality”; they simply did not understand it. Our contemporary lifestyles – generally individuated from the life of our society as a whole – would have been appalling to the classical Greeks. The Greek polis (i.e., the Greek city-state), especially during the Golden Age of Pericles (448-404 B.C.), was not just a guarantee of citizenship; the Greek polis was what made possible for a man to become a human. Fifth century B.C. Athenians were interested not in the rights of man as an individual, but in the rights of Athenians as a collectivity. In his famous Funeral Oration, Pericles, the statesman-ruler of the democratic Athens, said to the citizens, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the polis] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.” The Greek city-state functioned as a civilizing force by collectively creating social conditions necessary to development of “good life” for its citizens. Historians of comparative civilizations consider ancient Greece as one of the ideal examples of civilization, a civilization that has been a source of inspiration and of standards in arts, architecture, literature, politics, science, and philosophy. The Athenians would have found our cult of egocentric individualism incomprehensible. Our cherished ideal of privacy, to the Greek thought, would have been a scandalous failure of human maturity.

To the Greeks, the Delphic Oracle’s dictum, “know thyself”, never meant, “individuate or separate thyself” from the rest. For them, one’s livelihood and the conditions for being human were essentially dependent on communal life. This is clearly manifest in life of Socrates when he – out of respect for the laws of Athens, which had condemned him to death – chose not to escape from his own execution when he had the opportunity to flee. The Greek sense of community is also exhibited in their spiritual and intellectual activities. To them, the idea of having a “personal savior” would have been a reductio ad absurdum (“reduction to the absurd”). For the Athenians, the pursuit of truth was no private, individual affair; truth was not something that could be attained individually and monologically, but something that could be achieved collectively and dialogically. As demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues, the expression “know thyself” was not carried out in private, away from the public forum. For Socrates, in accordance with Plato’s dialogues, truth is achieved by way of dialogue and dialectical interaction with others. This Greek disposition is deemed to be a contributing factor to the unprecedented birth of “democracy” (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā, meaning “rule of people” – not individual) in Athens.

While the Greeks did not comprehend individuality, they did emphasize cultivation of human character, a word closely associated with the Greek word aretê (ἀρετή), meaning “excellence” or “virtue”. In general, the Greeks valued life of “excellence” – which ideally entailed development and fulfillment of human powers or potentials such as “beauty” (as evident in their sculpture and other art forms), “justice” (as obvious in their invention of “democracy” and how the polis existed for the good of all), “intellect” (as obvious in their pursuit of theoretical disciplines such as geometry and philosophy), “wisdom” (as evident in the character of their thinkers), “courage”, and etc. In contrast to the United States where cultivation of virtue – as opposed to wealth – is generally deemed of no practical value, the cultivation of character traits of beauty, justice, intellect, wisdom, courage, and etc. was a collective – not individualistic – effort, which was made possible by the Greek city-state. Hence, in general, the Greek view of ethics (derived from the Greek word ἦθος, ēthos, meaning “character”) was mainly character-based, emphasizing the pursuit of “excellence”, wherein one actualizes one’s potentials within the social context.

§2. Medieval Age

During the Medieval Age in Europe (roughly from 476 to 1517), Christian beliefs and values dominated the scene. While some of the heritage of the Greek and Roman civilization was retained and utilized by the Roman Catholic Church, many of their literature and cultural artifacts were pronounced unworthy or were destroyed. The Church charged them with being pagan and immoral. For centuries, Christianity shaped the entire cultural, social, and political life of Europe. Social institutions, economic relations, arts, literature, philosophy, and science were put under the strict control and direction of the Church. The free, rational, Greek-style speculation was brought to an end by the Church and was not to be restored until the advent of the modem era, beginning around 1650 A.D. The Medieval Christianity put an end to free thinking, and replaced it with “faith in God”. As a general rule, anyone who dared to challenge the dogmas and the authority of the Church was put to torture or death. Consequently, individualism found no significant expression in the Dark Ages of Europe. However, gradually, there developed a great sense of doubt and mistrust toward the Church, its worldview, and the political organizations. Hence, the conditions were ripe to gradually give birth to the age of individualism. History seems to demonstrate that when religious and socio-economico-political institutions are dubious and untrustworthy – and no longer function for the sake of the common good, as some would argue that is the case in the U.S. –, people individuate and break away from them to shape their own fragmented lives. (Of course, another contributing factor seems to be an unprecedented degree of complexity of social life, which can have alienating effects.) In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle deemed this mode of social existence as sub-human.

§3. Renaissance

The 15th century Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) in Europe brought about a revival of Greco-Roman art, literature, and philosophy. The human-nature-centered Greek view of the world inspired them and brought about a cultural and intellectual revolution, which reaffirmed the dignity, worth, and powers of human beings. Renaissance is deemed as the rediscovery of the human – that man is a capable being, with the power to direct one’s own destiny. This emergent view, of course, undermined the influence of the Church and weakened the structure of the Medieval feudalism. The new moral posture of the Europeans – coupled with the invention of the printing press, Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and the discovery of new trade routes via water and land – gradually promoted advent of a new social order.

§4. Protestant Reformation and Cartesian Thinking

The phenomenon of individualism gradually took place in the sphere of Christianity, and gave rise to Lutheranism and Calvinism (the Protestant Reformation, from 1517 to 1648). These movements ideally put the accent on the individual to read and interpret the Bible for oneself, without intervention of the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, gradually, Christianity became less a matter of communal affair than a personal matter. This shift from the communal life to the individuated lives seems to be due to the great sense of incertitude and mistrust in the air – which, perhaps, are still present in our time more cynically than ever.

Furthermore, this sense of incertitude and mistrust rendered philosophy not impervious to the phenomenon of individualism. In fact, it seems to have instigated an unprecedented shift in the way of thinking, as exemplified by French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy. While the Greeks philosophized dialogically and outdoors in the public, René Descartes (and subsequent thinkers) philosophized monologically and indoors, away from the public view. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, with the self thinking in solitude, becoming conscious of the false and doubtful ideas one has accepted so far in life, and deciding that the time has come to overthrow all of one’s beliefs. In the first paragraph of his “First Meditation”, Descartes wrote: “Everything must be thoroughly overthrown for once in my life, if I ever want to establish anything solid and permanent in the sciences.” He continued: “Today I have freed my mind from all cares. I am quite alone. At last I shall have time to devote myself seriously and freely to the destruction of all my former opinions.” (Italics added.) His problem was: Can I, by my own reason, establish solid and permanent truth? Unfortunately, for Descartes, the historical conditions of his time – when the Church was authoritative and intolerant – had no mercy on free thinking; hence, he had to take refuge in the safety of seclusion.

§5. The Age of Enlightenment

Following the footsteps of Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770), celebrated human reason and reawakened a sense of self-confidence and self-possession. Having observed how free human reason had managed to discover the natural laws of nature under the hands of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the Enlightenment figures applied reason to human nature and society to infer natural rights of liberty, equality, and property for all mankind. French philosophes, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), charged the Church and the political establishment with having conspired together to fetter human reason and to keep the masses ignorant and impoverished. As Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778) stated, “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” Eventually, such Enlightenment ideas contributed to the French Revolution (1789-1799), which put an end to the dominance of the Church and monarchy in France. Thereafter, the gospel of independence and freedom spread throughout Europe, paving the way for the modern individualism, secularization, bureaucracy, and the complexity of the modern life.

The Enlightenment – invigorated with the truths of science and of human nature, and with its daring spirit to challenge the authorities and the longstanding traditions – brought about a paradigm shift in human thinking and relations. This paradigm shift, which is integrally part of our psyche today, can be characterized with what they referred to as the natural law of progress: human reason can discover scientific truths about the world and human nature, and in turn this body of knowledge can be put into practice to improve human societies and living conditions through history. About a century later, Karl Marx reflected the same idea of progress in his dialectic of history.

§6. The Modern Age

With the rise of modernity (fueled by the new Cartesian mode of thought, Newtonian physics, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the rise of the nation-states and secularization, and advent of capitalism and industrialism), the new ethical view no longer responds to “character”; what it does respond to are individuated actions of individuals. In general, the ethical views prior to modernity put more emphasis on communal “cultivation of character” rather than on individuals self-servingly choosing their own right actions. The Greek ethical view was virtue ethics, which was about formation of good character, aretê, within a good society that principally functioned for the common benefit of all the citizens. In contrast, the Medieval ethical view – not entirely abandoning cultivation of character – was principally authority ethics, in the sense that the right action was the one recommended or commanded by the Church, prince, community, or whoever had the “authority” to decide. In contrast to the Greek and the Medieval ethical postures, the emergent bourgeois (i.e., the modern) view of ethics, under Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), is generally not based on “character” or “authority” – but fundamentally based on “autonomy” of an individual in choosing her or his own actions. Our Kantian and Millian legacy is that autonomy is central in making ethical decisions. In principle, the existing modern ethical view is a narrow inquiry into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose. And, in choosing so, one applies an ethical “formula” to judge the action. Kant’s celebrated ethical formula is, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature”; in other words, do not lie or cheat if you do not like to be lied to or cheated. And, Mill’s famous ethical formula is, “One should always act so as to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” Therefore, in the modern era where individuals are fragmented and separated from each other in a society where social bonds are not as fundamental anymore, ethics has become instrumental, quantitative, and formulaic. Fundamentally, since the French Revolution until present, the authority that has been most recognizable is that of the autonomous individual.

It is worth adding a twist to this issue by mentioning that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had a negative view of individualism and found it quite harmful to the state and its entire population. Inspired by the classical Greek city-state, in his book Philosophy of Right, he gives primacy and power to the state over the individuals. In the book, he insists that the individuals exist for the sake of the state, not the other way around. For Hegel, individualism does not make possible one’s selfhood. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, he wrote, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” In other words, you would not know that you are a self until you are acknowledged by another self, until you are looked at by other selves. Other selves act as mirrors through which you can become conscious of your own self.

By the time German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), an heir to the promise of the Enlightenment, appears on the scene, he drops a bombshell on the Hegelian idea of state. For Marx, the state only serves the interests of the ruling class through ideologies that are designed to impoverish the masses. By seizing upon Hegel’s own statement, “what is rational is real”, Marx claimed that Hegel never meant to defend the state’s status quo – that only what is “rational” has a claim to being called “real”, and the most important task is to mercilessly criticize the government and the social institutions so that they are compelled to become more “rational” and, therefore, more “real”. “Criticism” became the slogan of Marx. “The philosophers”, Marx wrote, “have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In his Manifesto of 1848, he wrote: “The communists . . . openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!” It is dubious how well we have inherited the Enlightenment promise when we, as a nation, are consumed through our obsessive consumption of goods and services while the government seems to encourage this economy-stimulating behavior!

At last, it is worth adding one more twist to this brief history of individualism. According to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), if we think we are consciously in control of what we call our individualities, we might be mistaken! Our so-called individualities are often enslaved to our subconscious impulses. In a sense, so long as our conscious mental activities and unconscious impulses are not integrated (or remain individuated), the illusion of self-control and self-direction will subsist.

§7. The Post-Modern Era

A Heideggerian may make an observation as follows: Within the context of our post-modern lifestyles in the contemporary Western societies – where our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination; where being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate; where, hence, we are inauthentic (alienated) and do not trust one another; and where, as a result, our socio-economico-political institutions are fraudulent and untrustworthy as well –, individualism (i.e., to individuate oneself from others and society) has become a way to survive, as opposed to live. Nonetheless, individualism – in addition to shallow nationalism (i.e., to blindly yield to the “mass-culture” of one’s nation) – might prove to be dead-ends. If, as the ancient Greeks believed, one can cultivate one’s humanity and well-being in relation to others and in a socio-economico-political setting that functions for the benefit of all, then we might be chasing our own tails around a circle. The Greek polis, in which all citizens participated, provided the conditions that made it possible for the citizens to develop as humans. And, in turn, this made possible the citizens’ contributions to the polis.

But the ancient Greece, which never ceases to mesmerize our imaginations, comparatively had a tiny population, and life was simple and devoid of the modern complexities. According to the influential literary critic and essayist George Steiner, “A mass democracy never inspired the ancient Greek thinkers with much confidence. They did not think it could work. Then, under Thomas Jefferson and under the great figures of the Enlightenment, they tried to bring together the ideal of a true mass democracy with that of a high culture of debate, of freedom, and of openness in the discourse of law, of public affairs, and of government. And, the two have not lived very comfortably together. The dream of Jefferson, and of Lincoln as well, that somehow the ideal of ancient Athens could be extended to a continental scale has proved illusory.” Post-modern individualism seems to be taking steps toward a freedom and independence that may be no more than a mirage. Perhaps, individualism is akin to a broken key that does not open the door to our freedom and independence; each one of us is a piece of the broken key.

Dear reader, for a further exploration of this article, I suggest you read my next article:

(Due to the complexity of the phenomenon of individualism and its far-reaching consequences in terms of the contemporary societies, this issue will be revisited in almost all of my future articles in this blog. This article merely scratched the surface.)

Dear reader, please feel free to make a critique of this article. I look forward to learning from you!

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1 Comment »

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