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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Individualism” is a term ranging over a wide variety
of attitudes, doctrines, and theories, and this diversity
of meaning is only increased when one takes account
of historical shifts in the connotations of the very word
“individual” and its synonyms (Mauss, 1937; Ullmann,
1966). The relation of these various meanings to one
another is largely one of family resemblance, though
“individualism” has usually been understood as expres-
sing some cluster of such meanings, which usually are
either not distinguished from one another or else as-
sumed to be logically or conceptually related.


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 ideology. 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 ideologies
(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
ideology 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.


Almost all these uses of “individualism” combine a
number of different meanings or unit-ideas, and it is
therefore worth trying to analyze these elements. In
attempting this, the aim is to indicate broad conceptual
outlines, partly by definition (positive and negative)
and partly by historical allusion, but with no suggestion
that the items in the following list are either mutually
exclusive or jointly exhaustive.

1. First, there is the ultimate moral principle of the
supreme and intrinsic value of the individual human
an idea which A. D. Lindsay describes as “the
great contribution to individualism” of the New Testa-
ment and all Christianity (1930-35, p. 676); though
it is also found in the religious, if not the social, ethics
of Hinduism. Absent from earlier Judaism (in which
God's concern was with Israel, the nation), it is adum-
brated in the prophets and clearly set forth in the
Gospels, as in such sayings as: “Inasmuch as ye have
done it unto one of the least of these my brethren,
ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). In its
Christian form, centered on God and implying the
supreme value of the soul, this idea was reaffirmed at
the time of the reformation, with Luther's and Calvin's
preoccupation with the individual's salvation, and the
sectarian principle that all men are alike children of
God, each with his own unique purpose. It had, on
the other hand, been de-emphasized in the medieval
thesis of the corporational structure of society (itself
rooted in Roman conceptions), which was expressed
by the principle Utilitas publica prefertur utilitati
(“Public utility is preferable to private util-
ity”). According to that thesis, “what mattered was the
well-being of society and not the well-being of the
individual parts constituting it”; the “individual did
not exist for his own sake but for the sake of the whole
society” (Ullmann [1966], pp. 36, 42).

The idea of the individual's supreme worth was
eloquently expressed in a different form by the Renais-
sance humanists, for whom the dignity of man was a
favorite theme, above all in the writings of Giannozzo
Manetti, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola.
Indeed, this idea has come to pervade modern ethical
and social theory in the West. Few modern thinkers
(except some theocrats, late romantics, Neo-Hegelians,
fascists, and others on the far right) have explicitly
rejected it, though it has, to say the least, been treated
with differing degrees of seriousness. Some are pre-
pared to ignore it in the short run, or to qualify it
by balancing it against other principles; others, from
the early sects to the anarchists, have derived from
it the most immediate and egalitarian conclusions.
Moreover, there is room for infinite dispute concerning
its practical implications.

It underlies the Benthamite principle that every man
is to count for one and no man for more than one,
it is enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man,
and it is central to the thought of Rousseau, who wrote:
“Man is too noble a being to serve simply as the instru-
ment for others...” (Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse
[1761], V, letter 2). It achieved its most impressive and
systematic expression in the writings of Kant, who
asserted that “man, and in general every rational being,
exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means...”
(Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten [1785], Ch.
II). Kant saw this as an “objective principle” from
which “it must be possible to derive all laws for the
will,” and as entailing the practical imperative: “Act
in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether
in your own person or in the person of any other, never
simply as a means, but always at the same time as
an end
” (ibid., trans. H. J. Paton). In his pre-critical
writings Kant sought to ground it in an innate, univer-
sal natural sentiment, while in his critical writings he
offered an (unsuccessful) transcendental proof. More
recently, the philosopher J. McT. E. McTaggart argued
for it in a brilliant paper entitled “The Individualism
of Value” (in his Philosophical Studies, 1934), whose
thesis is that “only conscious beings and their states
have value” and that, in particular, “the individual is
an end, the society is only a means.” In general, it has
the logical status of a religious or moral postulate
which is ultimate in offering a general justifying prin-
ciple in moral argument.

2. Distinct from this first idea is a second: the notion
of individual self-development. This idea, and the
phenomenon of self-cultivation to which it refers, may
be traced back to the Italian Renaissance (as by Burck-
hardt), but it was most fully worked out among the
early romantics. Thus Schleiermacher in his Monolog
of 1800 describes how

... it became clear to me that each man ought to represent
humanity in himself in his own different way, by his own
special blending of its elements, so that it should reveal
itself in each special manner, and, in the fullness of space


and time, should become everything that can emerge as
something individual out of the depths of itself.

The same idea is found in Wilhelm von Humboldt,
for whom the “true end of Man” was “the highest and
most harmonious development of his powers to a com-
plete and consistent whole,” whose “highest ideal...
of the co-existence of human beings” consisted in “a
union in which each strives to develop himself from
his own inmost nature, and for his own sake,” and who
concluded that

... reason cannot desire for man any other condition than
that in which each individual not only enjoys the most
absolute freedom of developing himself by his own energies,
in his perfect individuality, but in which external nature
even is left unfashioned by any human agency, but only
receives the impress given to it by each individual of himself
and his own free will, according to the measure of his wants
and instincts, and restricted only by the limits of his powers
and his rights

(Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Gränzen der
Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen
[1852], Ch. II; trans.
J. Coulthard).

The history of this idea is well known: it soon devel-
oped into a theory of organic community, the term
Individuelle shifted its reference from persons to supra-
personal forces, and individuality came to be predi-
cated of the Volk or the State. Apart from this, it
entered into the liberal tradition, especially through
John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859, Ch. III: “Of Indi-
viduality...”), and it entered as a crucial element into
the ethical basis of Marx's thought, as in Diedeutsche
([1845-46], Part I, Sec. C, where Marx writes
of the individual under communism “cultivating his
gifts in all directions”), while it has remained attractive
to artists of all kinds ever since Byron and Goethe.
In general, it specifies an ideal for the lives of individ-
uals—an ideal that is either anti-social (as with some
of the early romantics), extra-social (as with Mill), or
highly social (as with Marx, or Kropotkin, or the
English Idealists).

3. The third element of individualism might be
called the idea of self-direction, or autonomy, accord-
ing to which the individual subjects the norms with
which he is confronted to critical evaluation and
reaches practical decisions as the result of independent
and rational reflection.

It could be argued that this idea was first clearly
expressed (since Aristotle) by Saint Thomas Aquinas.
According to the traditional medieval doctrine, the
order of a superior, whether just or unjust, had to be
obeyed; for Thomas it need not, if conscience forbade
its execution. His argument was that “everyone is
bound to examine his own actions in the light of the
knowledge which he has from God” (Quaestiones dis-
putatae de Veritate,
qu. 17, art. 4). As Ullmann has
commented: “The general principle he advocated was
that 'every man must act in consonance with reason'
... a principle which persuasively demonstrates the
advance in individual ethics and a principle which
began to assert the autonomy of the individual in the
moral sphere” (1966, p. 127).

In the religious sphere that autonomy was clearly
evident in Luther's argument: “... each and all of us
are priests because we all have the one faith, the one
gospel, one and the same sacrament; why then should
we not be entitled to taste or test, and to judge what
is right or wrong in the faith?” (An den Christlichen
Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes
[1520], I, ii), and in Calvin's teaching (at
least with respect to the Roman church) that “Our
consciences have to do, not with men, but with God
alone” (Institutio religionis Christianae [1536], IV, x,
5). In the social, and especially political, sphere, it was
one of the cardinal values of the Enlightenment and
the main target of the latter's critics, who were terrified
by this exaltation of the individual's private judgment:
hence de Maistre's “political protestantism....”

The most systematic expositions of the idea of au-
tonomy are in Spinoza's Ethics (1677) and, above all,
in Kant. Kant's third practical principle for the will
was “... the Idea of the will of every rational being as
a will which makes universal law,
” according to which
“all maxims are repudiated which cannot accord with
the will's own enactment of universal law. The will
is not therefore merely subject to the law, but is so
subject that it must be considered as also making the
for itself and precisely on this account as first of
all subject to the law (of which it can regard itself as
the author)” (Grundlegung..., Ch. II; trans. H. J.
Paton). Kant argued that “To the Idea of freedom there
is inseparably attached the concept of autonomy, and
to this in turn the universal principle of morality,” and
that “... when we think of ourselves as free, we
transfer ourselves into the intelligible world as mem-
bers and recognize the autonomy of the will together
with its consequence—morality” (ibid.).

In itself, this idea is neutral with regard to the prob-
lem of the relativity of values (and for Kant it was
evidently compatible with objective moral certainty;
but see below: II, 10), though it has often been re-
garded as incompatible with most versions of deter-
minism. As Kant put it: “... To be independent of
determination by causes in the sensible world (and this
is what reason must always attribute to itself) is to be
free” (ibid.). It can have the logical status either of
a universal proposition (a priori or empirical) concern-
ing the conditions of human (or moral) action; a first-
order moral principle; or a sociological ideal-type, as
in David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950).


4. The fourth unit-idea is the notion of privacy, of
a private existence within a public world, an area
within which the individual is free from interference
and able to do and think whatever he chooses. This
is an essentially modern idea, largely absent from an-
cient civilizations and medieval Europe. It constitutes
perhaps the central idea of liberalism, whose history
has largely been an argument about where the bound-
aries lie, according to what principles they are to be
justified, whence interference derives, and how it is to
be checked. It presupposes a picture of man to whom
privacy is essential, even sacred, with a life of his own
to live. Sir Isaiah Berlin has characterized this idea
as “negative liberty,” involving a “sense of privacy,
... of the area of personal relationships as something
sacred in its own right...,” arguing that

This is liberty as it has been conceived by liberals in the
modern world from the days of Erasmus (some would say
of Occam) to our own. Every plea for civil liberties, every
protest against exploitation and humiliation, against the
encroachment of public authority, or the mass hypnosis of
custom or organised propaganda, springs from this individ-
ualistic, and much disputed, conception of man

(1958, pp.
14, 12).

We have already met this idea in Tocqueville who,
though alarmed by the social and political conse-
quences of the excessive retreat into privacy under
democracy, nonetheless held “negative liberty” as a
preeminent value. It is found (with different concep-
tions of the private area of noninterference) in Locke,
Paine, Burke, Jefferson, and Acton. It is found, above
all, in the writings of John Stuart Mill and Benjamin
Constant, which contain the classic liberal justifications
for preserving private liberty. For Mill, the “only part
of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable
to society, is that which concerns others. In the part
which merely concerns himself, his independence is,
of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and
mind, the individual is sovereign” (On Liberty, Ch. I).
For Constant,

... everything which does not interfere with order; every-
thing which belongs only to the inward nature of man, such
as opinion; everything which, in the expression of opinion,
does not harm others... everything which, in regard to
industry, allows the free exercise of rival industry—is indi-
vidual and cannot legitimately be subjected to the power
of society

(Mélanges de littérature et de politique [1829],

Constant further remarked on the essentially modern
character of this notion of liberty as “the peaceful
enjoyment of personal independence”: the ancients, “to
preserve their political importance and their part in
the administration of the State, were ready to renounce
their private independence,” whereas “Nearly all the
enjoyments of the moderns are in their private lives:
the immense majority, forever excluded from power,
necessarily take only a very passing interest in their
public lives” (De l'esprit de conquête [1814], Part II,
Ch. VI).

This idea is to be seen as contrasting not only with
various types of authoritarianism, but also with that
powerful tradition of thought (reaching back through
Elton Mayo to Rousseau) which stresses “community”
and “groupism,” aiming to cure psychological and
social ills, or to achieve political and social purposes,
through attachment to groups, whether these are pri-
mary groups, work groups, professional associations,
classes, parties, religious orders, corporations, city-
states, or nations. It is this tradition which David
Riesman attacks in his essay “Individualism Reconsid-
ered,” in which he concludes that “to hold that con-
formity with society is not only a necessity but also
a duty” is to “destroy that margin of freedom which
gives life its savor and its endless possibility for ad-
vance” (Individualism Reconsidered [1954], Ch. 2).

Perhaps the most striking, and certainly the most
influential contemporary expression of “groupism” is
in the thought of Mao Tse-Tung. According to Mao,
liberalism “is extremely harmful in a revolutionary
collective... a corrosive which eats away unity, un-
dermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissen-
sion”; it “stems from petty-bourgeois selfishness, it
places personal interests first and the interests of the
revolution second....” A Communist should “be more
concerned about the Party and the masses than about
any private person, and more concerned about others
than about himself” (“Combat Liberalism,” September
7, 1937).

In general, the idea of privacy refers to a relation
between the individual, on the one hand, and society
or the state, on the other—a relation characteristically
held by liberals to be desirable, either as an ultimate
value, or (as with Mill) as a means to the realization
of other values.

5. The fifth unit-idea of individualism, the notion
of the abstract individual, needs to be carefully speci-
fied, for it has so often been misdescribed, especially
by its nineteenth-century opponents. It implies a con-
ception of society according to which actual or possible
social arrangements are seen as responding to the re-
quirements of individuals with given capacities, wants,
and needs. Society's rules and institutions are, on this
view, regarded collectively as an artifice, a modifiable
instrument, a means of fulfilling given individual ob-
jectives; the means and the ends are distinct. The
crucial point about this conception is that the relevant
features of individuals determining the ends which


social arrangements are held (actually or ideally) to
fulfil—whether these features are called instincts,
faculties, needs, desires, or rights—are assumed as
given, independently of any social context.

Morris Ginsberg calls this view “sociological indi-
vidualism,” defining it as “the theory that society is
to be conceived as an aggregate of individuals whose
relations to each other are purely external” (1956, p.
151). It is what Gierke meant when he observed that
“the guiding thread of all speculation in the area of
Natural Law was always, from first to last, individ-
ualism—an individualism steadily carried to its logical
conclusions,” so that, for all modern natural law
theorists, from Hobbes to Kant, “a previous sovereignty
of the individual was the ultimate and only source of
Group-authority” and “the community was only an
aggregate—a mere union, whether close or loose—of
the wills and powers of individual persons”; they all
agreed that “all forms of common life were the creation
of individuals” and “could only be regarded as means
to individual objects
” (1934, pp. 96, 106, 111).

Gierke was right to locate the ascendancy of this
idea between the middle of the seventeenth and the
beginning of the nineteenth centuries. It was, obvi-
ously, intimately related to the “social contract” mode
of argument and, in general, to arguments concerning
society based on the conception of man in the state
of nature, though it can also be seen in a different
form—an abstract notion of man in general—in the
early utilitarians and the classical economists. Needless
to say the (pre-social, trans-social or non-social) “indi-
viduals” involved here—whether natural, or utilitarian,
or economic men—always turn out on inspection to
be social, and indeed historically specific (e.g., Mac-
pherson, 1962, passim). “Human nature” always in
reality belongs to a particular kind of social man.

For Hobbes, the archetypal abstract individualist,
Leviathan was an artificial contrivance constructed to
satisfy the requirements of the component elements of
society—“men as if but even now sprung out of the
earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full
maturity, without all kind of engagement to each
other” (De cive [1642], VIII, 1). Locke argued similarly,
as did very many eighteenth-century thinkers, espe-
cially in France and Germany. Even Rousseau, insofar
as he used the social contract idea, toyed with this
conception, though the central thrust of his thought
was incompatible with it. Perhaps the most explicit
(and most characteristic eighteenth-century) expression
of it occurs in an article in Diderot's Encyclopédie
(1752-72) by Turgot, who wrote: “The citizens have
rights, rights that are sacred for the very body of
society; the citizens exist independently of society; they
form its necessary elements; and they only enter it in
order to put themselves, with all their rights, under
the protection of those very laws to which they sacri-
fice their liberty” (article on “Fondation (Politique et
Droit Naturel)” in Vol. VII).

The idea of the abstract individual formed a princi-
pal target for many nineteenth-century thinkers, many
of whom held it to be a typically narrow and superficial
dogma of the Enlightenment. It was attacked by
counterrevolutionary and romantic conservatives in
France, England, and Germany, by Hegel and Marx
and their respective followers, by Saint-Simon and his
disciples, by Comte and the positivists, by sociologists,
especially in France, by German historicists, and by
English Idealists. It is what de Bonald had in mind
when he wrote: “Not only does man not constitute
society, but it is society that constitutes man, that is,
it forms him by social education...” (Théorie du
[1796], Preface); and it is what F. H. Bradley
meant when he wrote that “the 'individual' apart from
the community is an abstraction.” Man, for Bradley,
“is a social being; he is real only because he is social
...” and if we abstract from him all those features
which result from his social context, he becomes “a
theoretical attempt to isolate what can not be isolated”
(Ethical Studies [1876], essay V, “My Station and its

6. Distinct from this idea (though on certain inter-
pretations an application of it) is a doctrine which has
come to be known as methodological individualism.
This asserts that all attempts to explain social phenom-
ena are to be rejected (or, according to a current, more
sophisticated version, rejected as “rock-bottom” expla-
nations) unless they are couched wholly in terms of
facts about individuals. Thus, according to its chief
contemporary exponent, Sir Karl Popper: “... all so-
cial phenomena, and especially the functioning of all
social institutions, should always be understood as re-
sulting from the decisions, actions, attitudes, etc., of
human individuals, and... we should never be satisfied
by an explanation in terms of so-called 'collectives'
...” (The Open Society and its Enemies [1945], Vol.
II, Ch. XIV).

It was first clearly articulated by Hobbes, for whom
“everything is best understood by its constitutive
causes” (De cive, Preface), the causes of the social
compound being Hobbesian men. It was taken up by
the thinkers of the Enlightenment, among whom, with
a few important exceptions (such as Vico and Montes-
quieu), an individualist mode of explanation became
preeminent, though with wide divergences as to what
was included, and how much was included, in the
characterization of the explanatory elements. Man was
seen by some as egoistic, by others as cooperative; some
presupposed the minimum about social conditions,


others (such as Diderot) employed a genuine social
psychology. As we have seen, many reasoned as though
the “individuals” in question were “prior” to society,
that is, undetermined by features of their social context.

Methodological individualism was confronted, from
the early nineteenth century onwards, by a wide range
of thinkers who brought to the understanding of social
life a perspective according to which collective
phenomena were accorded priority over individuals in
explanation. In Germany this was a pervasive trend,
encompassing all the social sciences, such as history,
economics, law, psychology, and philology (from, say,
Adam Müller onwards). In France, this tradition passed
from Saint-Simon and Comte through Alfred Espinas
to Émile Durkheim, whose whole sociology was
founded on the denial of methodological individualism.
Marxists and Hegelians have likewise always been
committed to such a denial, as is the mainstream of
modern American sociology. Many, however, have
continued to uphold it. The utilitarians were at one
with John Stuart Mill in maintaining that the “laws
of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing
but the actions and passions of human beings,” namely,
“the laws of individual human nature” (A System of
[1843], Book VI, Ch. VII, 1). Similarly, many
social scientists have been methodological individ-
ualists, most obviously all those who have appealed
to fixed psychological elements as ultimately explana-
tory factors—such as Pareto (“residues”), McDougall
(“instincts”), Sumner (“drives”), and Malinowski

The debate over methodological individualism has
recurred in many different guises—in the dispute be-
tween the German “historical” school in economics and
the “abstract” theory of classical and neo-classical
economics (especially as expounded by Carl Menger
and the Austrian School), in endless disputes among
philosophers of history and between sociologists and
psychologists, and above all in the prolonged contro-
versy between Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde (in which
most of the issues were most clearly brought out).
Among others, Georg Simmel and Charles Horton
Cooley tried to resolve the issue, as did Georges
Gurvitch and Morris Ginsberg (Ginsberg, 1954), but
it constantly reappears, for example in reactions to the
macroscopic theorizing of Talcott Parsons and his fol-
lowers, and in the debate provoked by the wide-
ranging methodological polemics of Popper and
Hayek on behalf of methodological individualism.

Briefly, it may be said that methodological individ-
ualism acquires a range of different meanings in ac-
cordance with how much of “society” is built into the
explanatory “individuals.” At one extreme stand think-
ers such as La Mettrie and H. J. Eysenck, who seek
an ultimately physiological, even physical explanation
of social phenomena; then there are those, such as
Pareto and Freud, who ultimately appeal to psycho-
logical variables, but with no social reference; next,
there are those, from Tarde to George Homans, who
seek explanations in terms of general and “elementary”
forms of social behavior, but with the minimum social
reference; and finally, there are those who appeal to
concrete, unabstracted individuals who incorporate all
the relevant features of the social context. (For further
elaboration and discussion of the above, see Lukes,

7. Next, there is a set of familiar ideas, which col-
lectively may be labelled political individualism. This
may be defined generically as a prescriptive doctrine
which finds the source and grounds of political author-
ity in individuals' purposes and the limits to such au-
thority in the minimum required to achieve those
purposes. Somewhat artificially, one may say that the
differing varieties of political individualism have arisen
from different assumptions about how the relevant
individual purposes are to be identified and about the
amount of authority needed to achieve them. (Insofar
as the former are abstracted from a social context,
political individualism becomes an application of the
idea of the abstract individual.)

Hobbes is again of central historical importance
here. For him, political authority derived from human
purposes, not from divine or natural law (in the ancient
and medieval sense), or from immemorial tradition; he
wrote: “The people rules in all governments. For even
in monarchies the people commands” (De cive, XII, 8).
As Hegel justly observed, Hobbes, unlike his prede-
cessors, “sought to derive the bond which holds the
state together, that which gives the state its power,
from principles which lie within us, which we recog-
nise as our own” (Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der
2nd ed. [1840], Vol. III, Part III, Sec. ii,
Ch. I, B [3]). Locke developed this idea, but without
giving it operational significance; it was Rousseau who
carried to its logical conclusion the view that “conven-
tions form the basis of all legitimate authority among
men,” seeing the Sovereign as “formed wholly of the
individuals who compose it” (Contrat social [1762],
Book I, Chs. IV, VII). Political individualism became
a commonplace in the eighteenth century, with its
predilection for contract and consent. the article on
“Autorité” by Diderot in the Encyclopédie put it very

The prince derives from his subjects the authority he holds
over them; and this authority is limited by the laws of nature
and of the state. The laws of nature and of the state are
the conditions under which they have or are supposed to
have submitted themselves to his rule. One of these condi-


tions is that, having no power or authority over them except
by their choice and their consent, he can never use this
authority to break the act or contract by which it has been
conferred on him...

(Vol. I).

It will be seen that, as we have defined it, the limits
of political individualism are in principle wide, en-
compassing theorists of popular sovereignty at one
extreme and, at the other, those “totalitarian demo-
crats” who have claimed to know men's “real” pur-
poses and used them as a justification for tyranny. In
practice, the term has usually been restricted to that
type of political liberalism which aims to confine the
functions and the authority of the state within fixed
limits. Here what counts as “individuals' purposes” has
often amounted to the (primarily economic) claims of
the individuals of particular classes. It was in this sense
that Dicey characterized legislative utilitarianism as
“systematised individualism,” observing that “Ben-
thamism meant nothing more than the attempt to
realize by means of effective legislation the political
and social ideals set before himself by every intelligent
merchant, tradesman or artisan” (Lectures on the Rela-
tion between Law and Public Opinion in England
during the Nineteenth Century
[1905], Lecture VI, Part
[B]). As Macpherson's work suggests (Macpherson,
1962) within a certain range, political individualism
becomes the political theory entailed by the eighth
unit-idea, to be considered next.

8. This is economic individualism. At its simplest,
this is a belief in economic liberty; it amounts to the
justification of certain culturally specific patterns of
behavior and a consequent presumption against eco-
nomic regulation, whether by Church or State. Ever
since Weber and Sombart, economic historians and
others have argued about when and how these patterns
of behavior emerged in the West, and in particular
about their relation to the various forms of Protestant-
ism, which often provided their early justification
(Weber, 1904-05; Tawney, 1926; Robertson, 1933). It
was, however, not until the mid-eighteenth century
that their justification could make use of a coherent
economic theory, with the work of Adam Smith in
Britain and of the Marquis d'Argenson, the physiocrats,
and Turgot in France. Henceforth, economic individ-
ualism became both an economic theory and a norma-
tive doctrine, asserting (if so complex a tradition or
set of traditions can be reduced to a formula) that a
spontaneous economic system based on private prop-
erty, the market and freedom of production, contract
and exchange, and on the unfettered self-interest of
individuals, tends to be more or less self-adjusting; and
that it conduces to the maximum satisfaction of indi-
viduals and to progress.

The nineteenth-century liberal economists carried
the theory and the doctrine further. The whole subse-
quent history of (non-Marxist) economic analysis can
be seen as an ever-more sophisticated elaboration of
the model of this system, with all political and social
factors removed. Léon Walras and Alfred Marshall
provided the fullest nineteenth-century versions of that
model, but thereafter some, though not all, economists
sought to distinguish theory from doctrine, and did not
necessarily wish to make reality conform to the model.
Only those who do are to be counted as adherents of
economic individualism, which is essentially the view
that universal economic liberty is both efficient and
desirable. Its rejection is, perhaps, a generic negative
definition of “socialism”—a term coined in the 1820's
in explicit opposition to its assumptions (Swart [1962],
p. 81).

The most systematic and clearcut contemporary
defender of economic individualism is F. A. Hayek,
who sees it as a matter of preserving those “sponta-
neous formations which are the indispensable bases of
a free civilisation,” in particular an “effectively com-
petitive market” ([1949], pp. 25, 21, and passim for
a somewhat tendentious survey of this position's intel-
lectual ancestry). Throughout its history there have
been disagreements about the best political means for
achieving this result: at one extreme there is doctrinal
laissez-faire (from Frédéric Bastiat to Ludwig von
Mises), at the other, various forms of selective inter-
ventionism (from Adam Smith himself to J. M. Keynes).

9. Next, there is religious individualism, which is
conceptually closely related to the notions of autonomy
and of privacy (see above: II, Secs. 3, 4). This may be
defined as the view that the individual believer does
not need intermediaries, that he has the right, and
sometimes the duty, to come to his own relationship
with his God in his own way and by his own effort.
It is thus both a religious doctrine and, by implication,
a view of the nature of religion; and it points to two
further and important ideas: spiritual equality and
religious self-scrutiny. The former was stressed in the
early Church and the latter found its supreme expres-
sion in the thought of Saint Augustine. Indeed religious
individualism could be traced back at least to Jeremiah,
but its modern forms characteristically date from the
Reformation, when it was expressed in terms of the
doctrine of the “inner light” and of the universal
priesthood of the believers.

It evidently embraces a wide range, from the most
communal forms of Protestantism to cults of private
mysticism, but it has usually been associated with
Calvinism. Here spiritual self-scrutiny and the “inter-
nalization of conscience” were carried to their ex-
tremes. As Max Weber wrote: “In spite of the necessity


of membership in the true Church for salvation, the
Calvinist's intercourse with his God was carried on in
deep spiritual isolation” (Weber, 1904-05 [1930], pp.
106-07; see Watt, 1957 for an examination of the
literary consequences of Puritanism's introspective
tendency). Weber stressed the connection between the
doctrine of predestination and “a feeling of unprece-
dented loneliness of the single individual,” given “the
complete elimination of salvation through the Church
and the sacraments (which was in Lutheranism by no
means developed to its final conclusion)...”:

In what was for the man of the age of the Reformation
the most important thing in life, his eternal salvation, he
was forced to follow his path alone to meet a destiny which
had been decreed for him from eternity

(ibid., pp. 104-05).

This “inner isolation of the individual,” Weber argued,
“forms one of the roots of that disillusioned and pes-
simistically inclined individualism which can even
today be identified in the national characters and the
institutions of the peoples with a Puritan past...”
(ibid., p. 105).

10. The next and last two unit-ideas to be singled
out are philosophical (moral and epistemological)
theories whose conceptual and historical relations with
the ideas discussed above are complex and worthy of
exploration. The first of these, which may be called
ethical individualism, is a view of the nature of moral-
ity. According to this view, the source of moral values
and principles, the creator of the very criteria of moral
evaluation, is the individual: he becomes the supreme
arbiter of moral (and, by implication, other) values,
the final moral authority in the most fundamental sense.
In a sense, this view can be seen as the philosophical
consequence of carrying the idea of autonomy to its
extreme logical conclusion. Moreover, it is intimately
linked with the logical dissociation of fact and value
(and can only be expressed within a vocabulary which
embodies this disjunction). It can thus be seen to have
been latent in the thought of Kant and of Hume, but
both avoided its implications, the former by postulating
an impersonal moral law, the latter by appealing to
the moral uniformity of mankind.

The dilemmas of ethical individualism have only
become acute in this century, though they are clearly
revealed in the thought of Nietzsche and Weber; the
latter argued that when faced with conflicting moral
positions, “the individual has to decide which is God
for him and which is the devil” (“Wissenschaft als
Beruf,” 1919). Most species of existentialism, emotivism,
and prescriptivism—all three denying objective uni-
versal moral principles—are forms of ethical individ-
ualism. Its most coherent contemporary expressions are
in the early writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, e.g., L'exis
tentialisme est un humanisme (1948), and in the work
of the contemporary Oxford philosopher R. M. Hare,
e.g., The Language of Morals (1951).

11. Finally, there is epistemological individualism a
theory about the nature of knowledge, which asserts
that the source of knowledge lies within the individual.
Leaving aside certain varieties of solipsism and prag-
matism, the true epistemological individualist is the
empiricist (though the metaphysics of Leibniz may be
said to imply an individualist epistemology). The tra-
ditional empiricist holds that we know nothing beyond
our own purely subjective experience, enclosed within
the circle of the mind and the sensations it receives,
whether these are Locke's ideas, Hume's impressions
and ideas, or the “sensa” and sense data of more recent
theorists. Often he holds a psychological atomism, the
problem being to reconstruct knowledge out of its
simplest elements; as Hume said: “Complex ideas may,
perhaps, be well known by... an enumeration of those
parts or simple ideas that compose them,” themselves
copies of “impressions or original sentiments” (Enquiry
concerning Human Understanding
[1748], VII, Part I).
The French disciples of Locke and Hume in the eight-
eenth century took this sensationalism very seriously.
It is, in general, obviously closely related to the attempt
to explain wholes, including social and political struc-
tures, by breaking them down into their simplest ele-
ments (see above: II, Sec. 6).

Individualistic empiricism has experienced a revival
in the twentieth century, though less in the form of
a psychological than a logical doctrine, a theory about
meaning and understanding. The crucial objection to
it, and to epistemological individualism generally, has
taken two related forms: first, an appeal to a shared
public world and, second, to a shared “intersubjective”
language, as preconditions of knowledge. The latter
objection has become a commonplace of sociological
and anthropological theory (receiving a classical state-
ment in Durkheim's studies of primitive thought and
religion) and of contemporary post-Wittgensteinian
philosophy. Generally, epistemological individualism
is to be contrasted with all those theories which hold
that knowledge is, in part at least, the product of what
Wittgenstein called “forms of life” and is to be tested
as genuine by reference to a public world.


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The author provided the translations of Tocqueville,
Schleiermacher, Constant, and Diderot.


[See also Anarchism; Authority; Economic History; Genius;
Progress; Reformation; Renaissance Humanism;
Socialism; Universal Man.]