Say you woke up one day as the head of a brand-new country with 1,000 citizens. You have to make policies about how the new country's government will work. Do you focus on how the new policies will impact the group as a whole, or how the policies will impact each individual citizen?

Individualism Individualism

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    Individualism focuses on the latter. As one of the founding principles of modern western thought, individualism focuses on personal fulfilment, rights, and self-interest. While this can help preserve individual rights, it can sometimes be at odds with the interests of others and the good of the collective. In this piece, you will find how this ideology influences more than just behaviour and has found its way into politics, economy, and philosophy.

    Individualism: definition

    Individualism emphasises individual freedom and personal achievements, independent of a collective (and sometimes disregarding it). It's considered one of the most important societal influences today, especially in American and European cultures. As a concept, you could apply individualism to many fields, such as economics, sociology, philosophy, theology, and politics.

    The opposite of individualism

    Collectivism is a philosophy that emphasises the needs of the group or community over personal freedom and individualism.

    Individualism Ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius promoted notions of collectivism

    This concept is prominent within the Chinese Confucianist philosophy and socialist or communist nations. It focuses on self-sacrifice for the benefit of society.

    Individualism carries positive and negative connotations in the political landscape. Fundamentally, individualism opposes collectivism, which can cause conflict when it comes to nation-building and governing.

    The History behind individualism

    The first use of the term individualism was in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It held a negative connotation as it was associated with selfishness.

    French Revolution

    A historical period in which the French formed different movements to bring about political and social change in France. This Revolution began in 1789 and ended in 1799.

    Most politicians used it to describe social instability and general anarchy. However, the philosophy behind individualism was already present long before the French Revolution, and in fact, informed some of the driving values behind it. Let's chart the history of individualist thinkers.

    Individualism Maximilian Robespierre Reign of Terror StudySmarterFig. 2 - Maximilian Robespierre, an architect of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution

    Political theory of individualism

    There have been many political writings on individualism. These span several centuries and break down the concept in different ways. Let's examine some of the important thinkers involved in theorising individualism.

    After reading these you can decide which thinker has the closest interpretation to your idea of individualism.

    Individualism in political science

    In chronological order, let's break down the fundamental history of individualism as a political philosophy by looking at some critical works.

    ThinkerWork on IndividualismPhilosophical standpoint
    Thomas HobbesLeviathan (1651)English philosopher Hobbes believed in the absolute rule of the monarchy, but also in the self-expression of an individual. However, this is only in matters outside of royal jurisdiction, described as 'possessive individualism'.
    John LockeTwo Treatises on Civil Government (1689) Locke challenged Hobbes's views on the monarchy and the centuries-old 'divine right of kings'. Ultimately, he suggests that man is in control of his own destiny, or as he puts it, his life and liberty. Hobbes and Locke can be viewed as atomised individualism (see example).
    Jean-Jacques RousseauDiscourse on Inequality (1754)Although seen as a proponent of individualism, Rousseau initially suggested that man follows his own individual needs and desires. He would later contradict this assertion by suggesting our inherent understanding of others in The Social Contract (1762) is an important caveat, whereby rulers and the ruled each have expectations.
    Immanuel KantGrounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)Out of all the thinkers, Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant perhaps had the most forthright view of individualism proclaiming it as a necessity for a person to be a human.
    Friedrich Hegel The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)For Friedrich Hegel, a more modern philosopher, individualism is moulded by three key components: family, civil society and the state, marking a true departure from atomisation.

    Spawning out of these various theories, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the United States as an individualist society in the nineteenth century.

    In Democracy in America (1835), Tocqueville critiqued the individualism of Hobbes and Locke. He saw first-hand how American society became atomised on his travels. For Tocqueville, this radical individualism had the potential to cause an unintended uniformity, whereby individuals with common traits follow one another in mass assimilation or tyranny of the masses.

    Difference between liberalism and individualism

    Liberalism is a political ideology rooted in individualism. As a reflection of the latter, liberalism mirrors many core beliefs of individualism, such as limited government, freedom of economy, and individual rights.


    A political theory based on individual freedoms. It recognises the importance of government to protect individual rights and holds each person as equal in the eyes of the law. It generally supports individual rights, the rule of law, secularism, economic freedom, human rights, free market economy, and private property.

    While extreme forms of individualism, such as Libertarianism, can completely erase the government, Liberalism takes a moderate approach, recognising the importance of a sovereign entity that protects individual rights to maintain peace. It exchanges some natural freedoms for social order.

    Individualism Individualism and Liberalism Difference between individualism and liberalism StudySmarterFig. 2 - Liberalism and Individualism, StudySmarter originals

    Liberalism is grounded on the belief that individuals are rational and, therefore, can exercise freedom under nature. Thus, when individuals consent to a government and civil society, they will do so as long as said government protects their natural liberties under the rule of law.

    Individualism justifies many liberalist beliefs, as ultimately, both value the individual more than the society. You could view liberalism as a moderate take on individualism that values the necessity for a social organisation without abandoning the fundamental importance of each individual.

    Liberal examples of individualism

    While some areas of Europe held individualistic tendencies in contempt, Germany, England, and the United States are examples of countries that quickly assimilated individualism into their social and economic structure in the twentieth century, particularly after World War II.

    Germany has a unique capitalist model, with a free market and protection for private property. However, it does have a degree of government regulation to prevent businesses from abusing the market. Germany is also famous for being a socially conscious nation, with an emphasis on welfare.

    Individualism Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel StudySmarterFig. 4 - Former German chancellor Angela Merkel

    In the United Kingdom, the free market was introduced as an alternative to the post-war economic recovery plan after the industry was nationalized. Conservative Keith Joseph introduced free markets as an idea, and throughout his career, he influenced conservatives to adopt and encourage free market policies.

    The U.S. adopted a liberal market influenced by Laissez-faire economics during the office of President Ronald Reagan. These policies are currently called 'Reaganomics', and its four pillars are:

    • Reducing government spending.

    • Reducing the federal income tax for individuals and businesses.

    • Reducing regulations on businesses.

    • Supporting slower money growth in the economy to reduce inflation.

    Their high regard for private property also represents their desire for individual

    Individualism - Key takeaways

    • Individualism is a personal philosophy that values individual freedoms before collective interests. It holds a significant influence on economic and political ideologies.

    • The term 'individualism' was first used in France, where it held negative connotations. Through Hegel, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau's influence, its meaning quickly changed, and it was adopted in other countries.

    • Individualism derives from individual motivation and separates the individual from society.

    • The individual's moral autonomy is supported in liberalism through the advocacy of economic freedom, private property, competition, self-interest, self-sufficiency, individual rights and liberties, and the rule of law.

    • Liberalism and its beliefs are justified through Individualism, as liberalism takes a moderate stance on individualistic philosophy.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Individualism

    How are Individualism and Liberalism related?

    Liberalism stands on the philosophical beliefs and origins of Individualism. Liberal policies are generally justified as a means to protect individual rights.

    What is an example of Individualism?

    The high regard and protection of private property in the United States is an excellent example of Individualism, as an individual commodity is fiercely protected in public spaces.

    What is the importance of Individualism?

    Individualism is the key to understanding modern western political thought and culture, as the protection of individual rights and modern liberal constitutions are grounded in individualistic beliefs.

    What are the advantages of Individualism?

    Some advantages of Individualism are high regard and protection for the rights of men, government accountability, a political focus on welfare, and the protection of state laws.

    What countries are most individualistic?

    In no particular order, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom are notable individualistic countries.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is NOT associated with individualism?

    Ideas around the social contract emerged during the

    Social contract theory was important for the development of individualism because it focused on the


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