Introducing and Critiquing the Concept of Individualism

The origins of the term individualism in American debate, and indeed the English word itself, date to the 1830s conflict over utopian socialism. Although de Tocqueville (1990) certainly offered the most popularized and well-known explanation of individualism, Arieli (1964) notes that Michel Chevalier, Friedrich List, and Albert Brisbane used the term in their works that appeared around the same time as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As Arieli notes, for these European critics and utopian socialists, individualism “referred to the basic principle of the modern uprooted society” (p. 193)—that is, the society where individuals did not have obligations, statuses, and limitations imposed by the larger society. Yet because he wished to criticize the consequences of individualism, de Tocqueville laid out a narrower version of it.

As Tocqueville (1990) set out to see in America “the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions,” he hoped to learn “what we have to fear or hope from its progress” (I, p. 14). What he discovered about American democracy and its distinctive equality of condition pushed him to understand how it influenced the mores of the American people. It is here that he found a tendency to individualism. Tocqueville described individualism as “a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself” (II, p. 98). By individualism, he did not mean ordinary selfishness or egotism—“a passionate and exaggerated love of self” (II, p. 98)—that was common to men at all times, but a unique withdrawal from the traditional ties of society. Whereas Tocqueville believed that selfishness was a blind passion, he argued that individualism arose from a faulty judgment about the individual’s autonomy in modern society.

For Tocqueville, individualism was a malign force that threatened to undermine the project of political liberty. Those who embraced individualism, Tocqueville argued, believe that they “owe nothing to any man; they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands” (p. 99). It is important to note that Tocqueville does not portray individualism as a literal physical withdrawal from society or lack of willingness to interact with other men. Instead, it is a psychological trait and cultural disposition that guides men in their interactions. Whereas aristocratic and traditional societies had ready-made hierarchies that stipulated how men would interact and that imposed various social obligations, democratic societies in which individualism took root had evolving notions of social obligations. Where individualism grew, he argued, public virtues would decline and citizens would neglect their social obligations until they reverted to mere selfishness (II, p. 98).

Despite what he saw as the dangerous tendency of individualism, Tocqueville believed that Americans had found a means of combating its effects. By adopting a vision of “self interest rightly understood,” Tocqueville noted, the Americans had moderated their individualistic tendencies by casting them as being tied to the social interest. Individualism became something of a foreground assumption that required an adaptation to social circumstances. Americans, Tocqueville observed, “content themselves with inquiring whether the personal advantage of each member of the community does not consist in working for the good of all; and when they have hit upon some point on which private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate, they are eager to bring it into notice” (II, p. 121). In other words, Tocqueville believed that Americans had convinced themselves to moderate their individualism and to continue to accept social and public obligations because they could also serve private interest. Inasmuch as examples of this are multiplied, he continues, “it is held as a truth that man serves himself in serving his fellow creatures and that his private interest is to do good” (p. 121). For Tocqueville, then, individuals should sacrifice some private interest to the public good lest the decay that supposedly results from individualism imperil that private interest itself.

Crucial to understanding how Americans came to perceive their own tendency to individualism is understanding the characteristic mental formulation of self-interest that Tocqueville describes. Americans, Tocqueville observed, “are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state” (p. 122). Through this doctrine of “self-interest rightly understood” Americans absorbed and celebrated their individualism even though Tocqueville had meant his thoughts on it to be a warning, not a prompt to indulge it. Nevertheless, he observed that despite their individualistic tendencies, Americans in fact had not retreated into their private interest, but frequently and characteristically undertook associations with other citizens for collective undertakings.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, Americans came to adopt the term individualism as a stand-in for their broader beliefs in selfgovernment and self-determination. As Arieli (1964) noted, individualism “supplied the nation with a rationalization of its characteristic attitudes, behavior patterns, and aspirations. It endowed the past, the present, and the future with the perspective of unity and progress” (p. 345). Americans themselves stretched and pushed the concept beyond its original meaning. Some adopted the idea that individualism meant a literal physical separation of individuals from settled society. As the boundaries of the United States expanded during this period, individualism came to stand as a celebration of the virtues that pioneer settlers exhibited in forging a new life for themselves (Kohl, 1989, pp. 133-144). Yet still others adopted the mantle of individualism as an identification of the type of character that would emerge in a laissez-faire economic environment (Arieli, 1964, pp. 323-330). Sensing the deep value of selfreliance and economic independence, political economists denounced centralized economic decision making as contrary to the American tradition of individualism. Regardless of how it came to be applied, the American conception of individualism displayed a protean nature that allowed it to mean many things to many people.

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