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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The first uses of the term, in its French form individ-
grew out of the context of the counterrevolu-
tionary critique of the Enlightenment. Conservative
thought of the early nineteenth century was virtually
unanimous in condemning the appeal to individual
reason, interests, and rights, sharing Burke's scorn for
the individual's “private stock of reason” and his fear
that the commonwealth would “crumble away, be
disconnected into the dust and powder of individ-
uality” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790).
These attitudes were especially marked among the
French theocrats: in the earliest known use of the word,
Joseph de Maistre spoke in 1820 of “this deep and
frightening division of minds, this infinite fragmenta-
tion of all doctrines, political protestantism carried to
the most absolute individualism,” a passage found in
an Extrait d'une conversation, in Oeuvres complètes
(Lyon [1886], XIV, 286), while Lamennais wrote that
“the same doctrine which produces anarchy among
minds produces in addition an irremediable political
anarchy, and overturns the very bases of human soci-
ety,” and after asking: “What is power without obedi-
ence? What is law without duty?” his answer was
individualism (Des Progrès de la révolution et de la
guerre contre l'église
[1829], Ch. I). The Saint-
Simonians, themselves influenced by the theocrats,
were the first to use the term systematically in the
mid-1820's, to refer to a complex of related elements
which they held to characterize the modern “critical
epoch” originating with the Reformation. Such ele-
ments were the narrow and negative eighteenth-
century philosophy glorifying self-interest and the in-
dividual's conscience and rights; liberalism in politics;
anarchy and exploitation in the economic sphere; and
unbounded egoism everywhere. They saw the eight-
eenth-century philosophers as “defenders of individ-
ualism,” reviving the egoism of Epicurus and the Stoics,
and they held the inevitable political result of individ-
ualism to be “opposition to any attempt at organisation
from a centre of direction for the moral interests of
mankind...” (Doctrine de Saint-Simon: exposi-
tion—première année, 1829,
1830, twelfth session).

Partly because of the extraordinarily pervasive in-
fluence of Saint-Simonian ideas, “individualism” came
to be very widely used during the nineteenth century.
Among the French it mostly carried, and indeed con-
tinues to carry, a negative evaluation, though there was
a short-lived “Société d'Individualistes” of French
Carbonari in the 1820's, and various individual thinkers
adopted the label, among them Proudhon—though
even Proudhon wrote that “outside the group there
are only abstractions and phantoms” (Lettres sur la
philosophie du progrès
[1853], Letter 1, Part IV). It
is possible to fit a variety of French thinkers into a
history of individualist ideas (Schatz, 1907, but note
the defensive tone), yet few have welcomed the
epithet, and many stressed the opposition (first formu-
lated by the Swiss theologian Alexandre Vinet) between
individualisme (implying anarchy and social atomiza-
tion) and individualité (implying personal liberty and
self-development). In French thought individualisme
has almost always pointed to the sources of social
dissolution, though there have been wide divergences
concerning the nature of those sources and of the social
order they are held to threaten, as well as in the his-


torical frameworks in which they are conceptualized.

For some, individualism resides in dangerous ideas,
for others it is social or economic anarchy, a lack of
the requisite institutions and norms, for yet others it
is the prevalence of self-interested attitudes among
individuals. Men of the right, from de Maistre through
Veuillot and Brunetière to Maurras, have seen it as all
that undermines a traditionalist, hierarchical order.
Socialists, including Leroux, Pecqueur, Cabet, Blanc,
and Blanqui, contrasted it with “association” and “as-
sociationism,” “philanthropy,” “altruism,” “socialism,”
and “communism,” though Blanc also stressed its pro-
gressive aspect as a rejection of authority and a “nec-
essary transition” to a future age of fraternity, while
the followers of Fourier denied any basic opposition
between individualism and socialism, and Jaurès saw
socialism as the logical completion of individualism.
Liberals such as Tocqueville condemned it as inimical
to liberty. For Tocqueville it was the natural product
of democracy (“Individualism is of democratic origin
and threatens to develop insofar as conditions are
equalised”), involving the apathetic withdrawal of in-
dividuals from public life and their isolation from one
another, with a consequent weakening of society and
the growth of the unchecked political power of the
state. “Individualism” (“a recent expression to which
a new idea has given birth”) was “a deliberate and
peaceful sentiment which disposes each citizen to iso-
late himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw
apart with his family and friends” which “at first saps
only the virtues of public life, but, in the long run,
... attacks and destroys all the others and is eventually
absorbed into pure egoism” (De la démocratie en
[1835], Book II, Part II, Ch. II). The Ameri-
cans, Tocqueville thought, only avoided this conse-
quence because of their free institutions and tradition
of active citizenship: they conquered individualism
(implying privacy and born of equality) by means of
liberty (implying that liberty is a public virtue born
of enlightened self-interest).

No less diverse have been the historical perspectives
within which French thinkers have conceived individ-
ualism. It is variously traced to the Reformation, the
Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Revolution, to the
decline of the aristocracy or of the Church or of tradi-
tional religion, to the Industrial Revolution or the
growth of capitalism, but there is wide agreement in
seeing it as an evil and a threat to social order. (The
latest edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie
1932-35, defines it simply as “subordination
of the general interest to the individual's interest.”)
Perhaps the role of individualisme in French thought
is partly due to the practical success of “individualist”
legislation at the time of the Revolution (Palmer, 1948)
together with its social, administrative, and political
consequences. However that may be, the mainstream
of French thought, especially in the nineteenth cen-
tury, has expressed by individualisme the social, moral,
and political isolation of rootless, self-interested, and
acquisitive individuals unconcerned with social ideals
and unamenable to social control. As Tocqueville
wrote, “Our fathers did not have the word individ-
which we have coined for our own use, be-
cause in their time there was indeed no individual who
did not belong to a group and who could be considered
as absolutely alone” (L'ancien régime et la révolution
[1856], Book II, Ch. II).

Quite distinct from the French use of the term is
another whose characteristic reference is German,
namely, the romantic idea of individuality (Individ-
), reacting against the abstract, uniform stand-
ards of the Enlightenment and glorifying individual
uniqueness, originality, and self-development. The ro-
mantics themselves did not use the term Individ-
but it came to be used in this sense from
the 1840's, when a German Liberal, Karl Brüggemann,
contrasted with its Saint-Simonian meaning that of a
characteristically German “infinite” (unendlichen) and
“whole-souled” (innigen) individualism, signifying “the
infinite self-confidence of the individual aiming to be
personally free in morals and in truth” (K. H.
Brüggemann, Dr. Lists nationales System der politi-
schen Ükonomie,
1842; see Koebner, p. 282). There-
after the term became, in this, chiefly German, use,
virtually synonymous with the early romantic concep-
tion of individuality, as found in the writings of
Wilhelm von Humboldt, Schlegel, and Schleiermacher.
Thus in 1917 Simmel could write:

The new individualism might be called qualitative, in con-
trast with the quantitative individualism of the eighteenth
century. Or it might be labeled the individualism of
uniqueness [Einzigkeit] as against that of singleness [Einzel-
]. At any rate, Romanticism perhaps was the broadest
channel through which it reached the consciousness of the
nineteenth century. Goethe had created its artistic, and
Schleiermacher its metaphysical basis: Romanticism sup-
plied its sentimental, experiential foundation

(1950, p. 81).

A synthesis of the French and German meanings of
the term is to be found in Jacob Burckhardt's Die
Kultur der Renaissance in Italien
(1860), where “indi-
vidualism” combines the notion of the aggressive self-
assertion of individuals freed from an externally-given
framework of authority (as found in Louis Blanc) and
that of the individual's withdrawal from society into
a private existence (as in Tocqueville) with the idea,
most clearly expressed by Humboldt, of the full and
harmonious development of the individual personality,
seen as representing humanity and pointing towards


its highest cultural development (Koebner, 1934). The
Italian of the Renaissance was for Burckhardt the
firstborn of the sons of modern Europe in virtue of
the autonomy of his morality, his cultivation of privacy,
and the individuality of his character.

It was in America that “individualism” came to
specify a whole set of social ideals and acquired im-
mense ideological significance: it expressed the opera-
tive ideals of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-
century America (and indeed continues to play a major
ideological role), advancing a set of universal claims
seen as incompatible with the parallel claims of the
socialism and communism of the Old World. It re-
ferred, not to the sources of social dissolution or the
painful transition to a future harmonious social order,
but to the actual or imminent realization of the final
stage of human progress, an order of equal individual
rights, limited government, laissez-faire, natural justice,
and equality of opportunity, and individual freedom,
self-development, and dignity. Naturally, interpreta-
tions of it varied widely.

Imported with negative connotations via the writ-
ings of various Europeans, among them the socialists
and the Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier, the econo-
mist Friedrich List, and Tocqueville, “individualism”
acquired a positive meaning and expressed an evolving
reinterpretation of American previous hit ideology next hit. In 1839, an
article in the United States Magazine and Democratic
(VI, 208-09) already described the “course of
civilization” as “the progress of man from a state of
savage individualism to that of an individualism more
elevated, moral, and refined.” Conceptions of individ-
ualism developed under the successive influences of
New England Puritanism, the Jeffersonian tradition,
and the natural rights philosophy; Unitarianism, Tran-
scendentalism, and evangelicalism; the need to elabo-
rate an ideological defense of the North's social system
against the challenge of the South; and the immensely
popular ideas of Herbert Spencer (forerunner of “rug-
ged individualism”); together with the continuing
impetus of alternative European-born previous hit ideologies next hit
(Arieli, 1964). For Emerson, individualism, which he
endowed with moral and religious significance, had not
yet been tried; it was the route to perfection, a sponta-
neous social order of self-reliant and independent indi-
viduals. “The Union,” he wrote, “must be ideal in
actual individualism” (“New England Reformers,”
1844). For Walt Whitman, the progressive force of
modern history was the concept “of the singleness of
man, individualism” (Democratic Vistas, 1871), though
in the hands of such Social Darwinists as William
Graham Summer, the term acquired a harsher and
altogether less idealistic significance. Eventually, it
came to fuse the doctrine of laissez-faire with a business
previous hit ideology next hit and was thus used by Andrew Carnegie and
Henry Clews, author of The Wall Street Point of View
(1900), who spoke of “that system of Individualism
which guards, protects and encourages competition,”
whose spirit was “the American Spirit—the love of
freedom,—of free industry,—free and unfettered op-
portunity...” (Individualism versus Socialism [1907],
Ch. I). In 1928, Herbert Hoover gave his famous cam-
paign speech on the “American system of rugged indi-
vidualism,” yet even such radical critics of capitalism
as the Single Taxers and the Populists argued in the
name of individualism. As James Bryce observed,
throughout their history, “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
American Commonwealth
[1888], III, Part V, Ch. XCII).

In England the term has played a smaller role.
Robert Owen and John Stuart Mill used it pejoratively
in the French-influenced sense to refer to the evils of
capitalist competition. As a favorable epithet for
English liberalism, though scarcely used by the laissez-
faire economists and the Benthamites, it came to be
more widely used in the latter half of the nineteenth
century. The Unitarian minister William McCall
preached the “Principle of Individualism”; Spencer
adopted the term, as did the ultra-Spencerian Auberon
Herbert, author of The Voluntaryist Creed (1908) and
editor of The Free Life (where he described his creed
as “thorough-going individualism”). T. H. Green used
it favorably, while Dicey, in an influential use, equated
it with Benthamism and utilitarian liberalism (see
below). It has, following Dicey, been widely used to
mean the absence or minimum of state intervention
in the economic and other spheres (in contrast with
“collectivism”), and has usually been associated, both
by its adherents and its opponents, with classical, or
negative, liberalism. L. T. Hobhouse shows this mean-
ing clearly when he writes that “individualism, when
it grapples with the facts, is driven no small distance
along Socialist lines” (Liberalism [1911], Ch. IV).
Finally, “individualism” has been applied to the ster-
ling qualities of free and self-reliant Englishmen, as
when Samuel Smiles wrote of that “energetic individ-
ualism which... constitutes the best practical educa-
tion” (Self-Help [1859], Ch. I).

Historians and sociologists have come to use the term
in a variety of contexts. Some, such as Ernst Troeltsch,
associate it with primitive Christianity and the Gospel
ethic; others, like Burckhardt, with the Italian Renais-
sance; others, following Max Weber and R. H. Tawney,
with Protestantism, especially Calvinism, and the rise
of capitalism (Weber, 1904-05; Tawney, 1926), or with
the growth of a “possessive market society” in seven-


teenth-century England (Macpherson, 1962). Others,
such as Otto Gierke, associate individualism with mod-
ern Natural Law theory, from the mid-seventeenth to
the early nineteenth century (Gierke, 1913), and yet
others, like Simmel and Friedrich Meinecke, with the
rise of romanticism. Finally, economists of a doctrinaire
liberal kind, such as the Austro-liberals Ludwig von
Mises and F. A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman, as well
as laissez-faire ideologists like Ayn Rand, adhere to
“individualism”: in this sense, it is an ideological trend
of the right, of comparatively minor significance in
most contemporary industrial societies.