The Authentic Meaning of Individualism


Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818) by Caspar David Friedrich (Kunsthalle Hamburg)

My liberalism, like all liberalisms, centers around the dignity and autonomy of the individual human person. Individualism is thus one of its essential commitments. However, “individualism” is such an ambiguous and commonly misunderstood word that I must clarify what I mean by it.

One of the most fruitful ways to understand the meaning of a word or concept is by distinguishing it from what it is not, and in particular, from what it is opposed to. Individualism is opposed to collectivism, according to which only the social group or collective has genuine reality and moral significance. The individual human person is considered nothing more than a mere part of the whole; it is related to the collective as a cell is related to the animal. Or alternatively, the individual is regarded as nothing but the manifestation of larger social realities and forces – the empty space or receptacle where these forces interact and play out. All versions of individualism oppose these ideas.

Few people would endorse the kinds of collectivist thought I have described. Nonetheless, many who oppose collectivism remain hesitant to label themselves “individualists”. I argue that this is because individualism is often mistaken for other doctrines which are in reality distinct from it. For the sake of clarity, then, individualism must be distinguished from two doctrines with which it is often confused. (To be sure, some individualists do in fact subscribe to one or the other of these following two doctrines, but I insist that there is no necessary connection among them. My version of individualism rejects both of them.)

First, individualism must be carefully distinguished from egoism, whether in its normative form (each individual’s sole moral duty is to pursue their own self-interest) or its descriptive form (each individual is in fact solely motivated by the pursuit of their own self-interest). Individualism must also be distinguished from atomism, which refers to either (1) the social ontology which claims that, in the human world, only individual human beings, their mental states, and their actions exist, and that social realities are nothing more than an aggregation of individual mental states and actions, or (2) the idea that the individual human being is self-sufficient and primordially isolated, for whom social ties, with other individuals and with communities, are “optional and extraneous”.

What individualism – genuine individualism – insists upon is the irreducible reality and infinite worth of the individual human person. Nonetheless, my version of liberalism differs from many of its historical antecedents in its precise conception of the individual. Rather than regarding some aspect, capacity, or abstracted notion of the person as the bearer of moral worth, my liberalism insists that the human person possessing intrinsic value and dignity is (1) essentially embodied (not a Kantian transcendental subject or rational agent, but rather the person who laughs and weeps, and who one can wrap in an embrace), (2) socially constituted (for whom relationships with other persons [Heidegger: Mitsein; “Being-with”] constitute their ownmost Being, and who is essentially embedded within larger communities and societies, and (3) historically situated. Admittedly, the word “individual” has such inextricable connotations of isolated, asocial atomism that perhaps it is more appropriate to speak not of the individual but of the particular human person. But as long as the human person’s embodiment, sociality, and historicality is not forgotten, we may continue to use the word “individual”, in order to keep our thinking within the long-standing liberal tradition, and retain the connotations of that tradition.


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