Do you admire people who don’t care about social expectations? People who march to the beat of their own drummer? Do you think people have the right to do whatever they want without hurting others, including activities that might violate traditional values? Or do you think such people are immature, selfish, sinful, or anti-social?
Individualism is believing in individuality, diversity, and freedom over authority and conformity. Individualism emphasizes the separateness, independence, and uniqueness of different people. It is part of many political and philosophical movements, such as liberalism, anarchism, egoism, libertarianism, existentialism, and humanism. Naturally, it supports full equal rights for all ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations.
Some individualists support selfishness, social inequality, or the destruction of social and political institutions. Individualism is an idea that can be applied many ways. Perhaps the biggest difference among philosophies of individualism is whether they promote concern only for oneself, or for all individuals.
II. History of Individualism
Although individualism has cropped up here and there throughout history, it first became known as a philosophy in the early 19th century, following the American revolution and Declaration of Independence, a statement of extreme individualism:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This is liberalism, a political philosophy almost synonymous with individualism.
In 1793, philosopher William Godwin wrote in support of anarchist individualism, anticipating the revolutionary anarchist movements that would develop later in the 19th century—which were interwoven with the communist movements and Russian revolution. Communism was first promoted by people who believed that it could lead eventually to a functional anarchist society. And anarchism is most centrally a form of individualism. It’s ironic that these movements resulted in totalitarian states!
Voices for individualism diversified during the 1900s. Henry David Thoreau’s wrote of his retreat from society to live in contemplation and harmony with nature. Max Stirner declared that there is no governmental authority over individuals whatsoever. And Walt Whitman made himself an example of individualism in art and personality, foreshadowing the radically individualistic artists of the late 20th century, like Allen Ginsberg, Salvador Dali, and the Sex Pistols.
The twentieth century saw individualism grow into many different movements in politics, philosophy, art, and social activism. Paradoxically, individualism came to support both left-leaning movements such as existentialism and the hippies, and right-wing ideologies, such as Ayn Rand’s objectivism. The main difference seems to be whether individualism is interpreted as “every person for him or herself” as in Objectivism, versus “one for all and all for one” as in liberalism.
III. Controversies about Individualism
Does individualism necessarily imply egoism?
Ayn Rand, Max Stirner, and many others have thought so. The word individual implies that each person is an independent unit. And for this reason, Rand and Stirner argued for ethical egoism, the idea that what is morally right, is whatever is best for oneself. Rand claimed that altruism was evil.
Yet other individualists—Thoreau, Ginsberg, Walt Whitman–while equally insisting on individual freedom, did not argue for selfishness, and seemed to value harmony with other living things. Their advocacy for minorities and concern for the good of their societies embodies an individualism where every person’s individuality is equally important, opposing egoism.
Individualism must imply some degree of egoism, since an individualist must follow their own ideas and feelings about many things, rather than conform, but if you believe in the equal importance of all individuals, you must also respect others’ individuality. Rand would say that one can do that as an egoist, however it is obvious that standing up for others’ rights can require self-sacrifice, so total egoism must sometimes conflict with non-self-centered individualism.
IV. Quotes about Individualism
“Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.” – Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism
Here, Oscar Wilde, a writer famous for his personal individualism, points out that individualism opposes routine, predictability, habit, tradition, and custom, making it a subversive force, one which could (and should?) disturb social harmony, and destroy old systems and ways. Too Wilde (and many artists) this is a spiritual issue — standing against the mechanization of human life.
“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore it if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance and Other Essays
Here, Emerson says that to be “a man” (a true individual, I think he means), one must abandon all pre-conceptions and assumed values, and explore, finally living only by your own true values. And he suggests that if you can do this, the world will approve.
V. Types of Individualism
Political individualism refers mainly to liberalism, anarchism, and egoism. Practically speaking, mainly liberalism, since there are yet no anarchist nations and ethical egoism is fairly unpopular, with its opposition to altruism.
Philosophical individualism includes ethical egoism, egoist anarchism, and objectivism, which all emphasize individual separateness in action and ethics. It also includes existentialism, humanism, and subjectivism which emphasize the primacy of individual experiences and lives, and freedom in art and lifestyle choices.
Methodological individualism is the policy of analyzing economic issues in terms of individual choices, a crucial idea in modern economic science.
Bohemian individualism is the term we’ll use here to describe the social movements beginning in the 1950s characterized by radical diversity and freedom in all aspects of life, such as the American civil rights movement, the Beat poets, the hippies, the sexual revolution, the punk movement, and many others.
VI. Individualism versus Collectivism
Perhaps you saw the 1,000s of Chinese drummers performing in perfect unity before the Beijing Olympics? Collectivism means prioritizing groups over individuals, and has always dominated East Asia; mainland China and North Korea are probably the most collectivist societies today. Collectivism is not necessarily associated with communism or totalitarianism however their association is natural, since collectivists do not see democracy or individual freedoms as important compared to the success of the state.
You may be surprised if I tell you that most Chinese people do not want democracy (yes, I lived there for years, and speak Chinese). They are more concerned with the economic success of mainland China as a whole, which has been accomplished more swiftly by their totalitarian government than it probably could have been in a democracy. It is true that many forms of individuality are socially or legally suppressed in China, such as freedom of art, speech, and information, sexual freedom, and due to social pressures, freedom of personal style and livelihood. It is a severely conformist society.
But modern China has lifted billions out of poverty and ignorance, becoming a major world power in a short time. Chinese people tend to see individualism as attractive but immature. Most of them want to be individualistic in style but not politically, where they value their membership in Chinese civilization over individuality.
Other Asian societies, such as Japan and India, while more collectivist than the West, have become increasingly individualistic with their exposure to Western culture, suggesting that individualism is the wave of the future for some time. On the other hand, the highly successful socialist democracies of northern Europe, such as Sweden, embody more collectivist values than America, with systems in place to reduce income differences among citizens and a general social ethos of not standing out and not being self-centered. Societies may fall many places on the spectrum between total individualism and total collectivism.
VII. Individualism in Pop Culture
Example #1: Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way”
This song, popularized by Frank Sinatra, combined the melody of a popular French song with new lyrics written by Paul Anka. This version, by Sex Pistols bass player and infamous law-breaker Sid Vicious, makes it practically the most individualist anthem of all time; they lyrics speak for themselves.
Example #2:They Might Be Giants’ “Whistling in the Dark”
This more philosophical and enigmatic statement comes from one of the most individualistic pop groups of the past thirty years—They Might Be Giants. The phrase “whistling in the dark” refers to conjuring courage and optimism in a challenging situation. The song tells of how other people are always putting ideas in our heads, although they don’t mean to be unkind. The singer accepts the advice to “just be what you are” but would rather be “whistling in the dark,” which seems to imply actively resisting the darkness (of dangerous ideas?), perhaps by making music? rather than merely being yourself. TMBG are such individualistic song writers that they are often difficult to interpret!