Individualism (20TH CENTURY)

Theory opposed to collectivism.

Human social life is to be understood in terms of the actions of individuals, who are the basic units of society. Complementarily, the basis of moral reasoning consists in the rights of individuals, rather than of groups, societies, or nations.

David Miller et at., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)


In the English language, the word individualism was first introduced as a pejorative by utopian socialists such as the Owenites in the late 1830s, although it is unclear if they were influenced by Saint-Simonianism or came up with it independently.[11] A more positive use of the term in Britain came to be used with the writings of James Elishama Smith, who was a millenarian and a Christian Israelite. Although an early follower of Robert Owen, he eventually rejected its collective idea of property and found in individualism a “universalism” that allowed for the development of the “original genius”. Without individualism, Smith argued that individuals cannot amass property to increase one’s happiness.[11] William Maccall, another Unitarian preacher and probably an acquaintance of Smith, came somewhat later, although influenced by John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle and German Romanticism, to the same positive conclusions in his 1847 work Elements of Individualism.[12]


An individual is a person or any specific object in a collection. In the 15th century and earlier, and also today within the fields of statistics and metaphysics, individual means “indivisible”, typically describing any numerically singular thing, but sometimes meaning “a person” as in “The problem of proper names”. From the 17th century on, individual indicates separateness, as in individualism.[13] Individuality is the state or quality of being an individuated being; a person separated from everything with unique character by possessing his or her own needs, goals, and desires in comparison to other persons.[14]

Individuation principle

The principle of individuation, or principium individuationis,[15] describes the manner in which a thing is identified as distinguished from other things.[16] For Carl Jung, individuation is a process of transformation, whereby the personal and collective unconscious is brought into consciousness (by means of dreams, active imagination or free association to take examples) to be assimilated into the whole personality. It is a completely natural process necessary for the integration of the psyche to take place.[17] Jung considered individuation to be the central process of human development.[18] In L’individuation psychique et collective, Gilbert Simondon developed a theory of individual and collective individuation in which the individual subject is considered as an effect of individuation rather than a cause. Thus, the individual atom is replaced by a never-ending ontological process of individuation. Individuation is an always incomplete process, always leaving a “pre-individual” left-over, itself making possible future individuations.[19] The philosophy of Bernard Stiegler draws upon and modifies the work of Gilbert Simondon on individuation and also upon similar ideas in Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. For Stiegler, “the I, as a psychic individual, can only be thought in relationship to we, which is a collective individual. The I is constituted in adopting a collective tradition, which it inherits and in which a plurality of Is acknowledge each other’s existence.”[20]

Individualism and society

Individualism holds that a person taking part in society attempts to learn and discover what his or her own interests are on a personal basis, without a presumed following of the interests of a societal structure (an individualist need not be an egoist). The individualist does not follow one particular philosophy, rather creates an amalgamation of elements of many, based on personal interests in particular aspects that he/she finds of use. On a societal level, the individualist participates on a personally structured political and moral ground. Independent thinking and opinion is a common trait of an individualist. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, claims that his concept of general will in The Social Contract is not the simple collection of individual wills and that it furthers the interests of the individual (the constraint of law itself would be beneficial for the individual, as the lack of respect for the law necessarily entails, in Rousseau’s eyes, a form of ignorance and submission to one’s passions instead of the preferred autonomy of reason).

Individualism versus collectivism is a common dichotomy in cross-cultural research. Global comparative studies have found that the world’s cultures vary in the degree to which they emphasize individual autonomy, freedom and initiative (individualistic traits), respectively conformity to group norms, maintaining traditions and obedience to in-group authority (collectivistic traits). Cultural differences between individualism and collectivism are differences in degrees, not in kind.[21] Cultural individualism is strongly correlated with GDP per capita.[22] The cultures of economically developed regions such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, [23][24][25] North America and Western Europe are the most individualistic in the world. Middle income regions such as Eastern Europe, South America and mainland East Asia have cultures which are neither very individualistic nor very collectivistic. The most collectivistic cultures in the world are from economically developing regions such as the Middle East and Northern Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia, Central Asia and Central America.[26][27][28]

An earlier analysis by Ruth Benedict in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword states that societies and groups can differ in the extent to which they are based upon predominantly “self-regarding” (individualistic, and/or self-interested) behaviors, rather than “other-regarding” (group-oriented, and group, or society-minded) behaviors. Ruth Benedict made a distinction, relevant in this context, between guilt societies (e.g. medieval Europe) with an “internal reference standard” and shame societies (e.g. Japan, “bringing shame upon one’s ancestors”) with an “external reference standard”, where people look to their peers for feedback on whether an action is acceptable or not.[29]

Individualism is often contrasted either with totalitarianism or with collectivism,[5] but there is a spectrum of behaviors at the societal level ranging from highly individualistic societies through mixed societies to collectivist.[citation needed]

Competitive individualism

According to an Oxford Dictionary, “competitive individualism” in sociology is “the view that achievement and non-achievement should depend on merit. Effort and ability are regarded as prerequisites of success. Competition is seen as an acceptable means of distributing limited resources and rewards. Acceptance of the competitive individualism viewpoint encourages the cult of winning and the belief that competition brings out the best in people”.[30]

Competitive individualism is a form of individualism that arises from competitive systems. The function of the system is to maintain an inequality in the society and fields of human engagement. This pins the ups and downs of a person’s life onto themselves by not acknowledging a range of factors such as the influence of socioeconomic class, race and gender, among others. It supports the privilege theories that affirms position of certain individuals higher in the hierarchy of ranks at the expense of others. For better individuality, cooperation is considered to be a better remedy for personal growth.[31]

Methodological individualism

Methodological individualism is the view that phenomena can only be understood by examining how they result from the motivations and actions of individual agents.[32] In economics, people’s behavior is explained in terms of rational choices, as constrained by prices and incomes. The economist accepts individuals’ preferences as givens. Becker and Stigler provide a forceful statement of this view:

On the traditional view, an explanation of economic phenomena that reaches a difference in tastes between people or times is the terminus of the argument: the problem is abandoned at this point to whoever studies and explains tastes (psychologists? anthropologists? phrenologists? sociobiologists?). On our preferred interpretation, one never reaches this impasse: the economist continues to search for differences in prices or incomes to explain any differences or changes in behavior.

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