AskDefine | Define individualism

Dictionary Definition



1 the quality of being individual; "so absorbed by the movement that she lost all sense of individuality" [syn: individuality, individuation] [ant: commonality]
2 a belief in the importance of the individual and the virtue of self-reliance and personal independence
3 the doctrine that government should not interfere in commercial affairs [syn: laissez faire]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The tendency for a person to act without reference to others, particularly in matters of style, fashion or mode of thought.
  2. A belief system that places great importance on the ability of people to act as individuals.
  3. The basic moral premise that only individuals can act, benefit and suffer. The opposite of collectivism, which holds that abstract groups or transcendent entities can act, benefit or suffer, necessitating an abstract structure (such as the state) to support these groups or entities.


  • Croatian: individualizam
  • German: Individualismus


  • OED2

Extensive Definition

Individualism is a term used to describe a moral, political, or social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty. Individualists promote the exercise of individual goals and desires. They oppose most external interference with an individual's choices - whether by society, the state, or any other group or institution. Individualism is therefore opposed to views based on collectivism or statism, which stress that communal, community, group, societal, or national goals should take priority over individual goals. Individualism is also opposed to tradition, religion, or any other form of external moral standard being used to limit an individual's choice of actions.
Individualism has a controversial relationship with egoism (selfishness). While some individualists are egoists, they usually do not argue that selfishness is inherently good. Rather, some argue that individuals are not duty-bound to any socially-imposed morality and that individuals should be free to choose to be selfish (or to choose any other lifestyle) if they so desire. Others, such as Ayn Rand, argue against moral relativism and argue selfishness is a virtue. Others still argue against both moral relativism and egoism.


The concept of "individualism" was first used by the French Saint-Simonian socialists, to describe what they believed was the cause of the disintegration of French society after the 1789 Revolution. The term was however already used (pejoratively) by reactionary thinkers of the French Theocratic School, such as Joseph de Maistre, in their opposition to political liberalism. The Saint-Simonians did not see political liberalism as the problem though, but saw in "individualism" a form of "egoism" or "anarchy," the "ruthless exploitation of man by man in modern industry." While the conservative anti-individualists attacked the political egalitarianism brought about by the Revolution, the Saint-Simonians criticized laissez-faire (economic liberalism), for its perceived failure to cope with the increasing inequality between rich and poor. Socialism, a word introduced by the Saint-Simonians, was to bring about "social harmony."
In the English language, the word "individualism" was first introduced, as a pejorative, by the Owenites in the 1830s, although it is unclear if they were influenced by Saint-Simonianism or came up with it independently.

The Essence of Individualism

At its core, individualism is nothing more than a dedication to careful thought. Individualist principles cannot be found in moral, political or economic “action” because action can only be valued with respect to the reasons that guide it. For instance, imagine that hard work is objectively valuable; you may feel inclined to judge a hard-worker favorably. But then imagine that her sole reason for working hard is that you will judge her favorably for it; imagine that she will stop when no longer observed. If you know this, you may judge her quite differently. Similarly, after brief observation, you may incorrectly label idle workers as lazy. The point is that snippets of action tell us nothing about the principles that guide action, and in this respect, individualism cannot be ascribed to individuals who have not testified about their thought processes.
But it is natural to infer others’ reasons in order to judge actions immediately. Should you rescue a child from a burning building, others will be quick to praise you under the assumption that you were guided by selfless care for another’s safety. They will not only ignore the proposition that your bravado was feigned for the sole purpose of receiving accolades, but they will also refuse to question whether the motives they’ve inferred are even objectively valuable. This strikes at the essence of individualism; a true individualist reevaluates core assumptions and inferences because, with a firm grasp of logical principles, the individualist knows that all ideas that are not logically provable are subject to change upon the existence of new compelling evidence. The individualist recognizes that another person should not be able to recognize an individualist on the basis of his observable actions. If one chooses to reject prevailing authority, she may be a thoughtless rebel or a thoughtful individualist; the action alone gives no indication as to which.
The essence of individualism is to choose the standards one aspires to. One may choose majority standards, minority standards, original standards, or no standards at all. Again, the actual choice does not prove individualist reasoning – one must look to the reasoning itself. Thus the only defining quality of an individualist is that she uses a personal command of logical principles to give all options a fair and equal evaluation before making a decision or conclusion. This process should certainly include evaluation of existing standards widely held. The individualist relies on her own judgment only to the extent that, after much evaluation, she finds it objectively superior to that of another.
Without delving deep into linguistics and the effects of connotation, it’s fair to point out that the immediate conditioned judgments humans make are mostly rational and mostly beneficial and are not necessarily anti-individualist. Also, they’re easily adjustable upon acquisition of new information. They can be thought of as “pre-reasoned” responses based on our vocabularies and our experiences and observations. Mostly, they serve us well, especially at times when judgments are irrelevant or when it is terribly inefficient to ask and answer questions endlessly. Evolutionary scientists see conditioned judgments as survival tools derivative of the fundamental dilemma: fight or flight. Our conditioned responses make economical use of our minds, so that we may devote our time to other thoughts and concerns. There is but one caveat: conditioned responses are shortcuts; they cannot provide answers to complex questions, and if their owners do not maintain them with frequent adjustment, they may serve to propagate logically misguided information even with respect to simple concepts.

"Thinking Without Thinking"

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, journalist Malcolm Gladwell posits that conditioned responses are extremely beneficial to the expert mind. He gives an example of a therapist who can predict that a relationship is doomed after hearing mere snippets of a couple’s conversations. What Gladwell interprets as miraculous judgment is as easily interpreted as exceptional internal command of the rules of logic. Concocting meanings and patterns in random abstract data is relatively easy, but it is not easy to prove truth from random data with consistency and accuracy. Imagine every possible observation that one could make with respect to a patient: think of a patient’s seated posture, speech patterns, clothing, habits, interests. Numerous correlations will appear obvious, but many will be coincidental, many will be too ambiguous, and many will be imagined. To prove truth with accuracy is to subject data to such rigorous scrutiny that a conviction as to its meaning can be held beyond reasonable doubt. The words of rigorous logical scrutiny are rightfully the same words of criminal justice. The therapist’s accuracy stems not from magical ability to find telling patterns in data but from her constant testing of all perceived patterns against logic, after which she discards the irrelevant and improvident, retains and organizes a working mental catalogue of the valid and provable, and quickly applies the same to new factual contexts by analogy. To do this instantly may require a remarkable intellect, but any average mind, given enough time, is certainly capable of such a process. Criminal verdicts are not the product of experts; they’re the product of randomly selected humans forced to apply rigorous logical rules as instructed in order to reach a thoroughly justifiable judgment. This begs the question of why average humans do not attend other important judgments with such rigor. Brilliant minds may conceive of logic inherently and use it swiftly, but given time and effort, logic can be learned and applied by all. Use of logic helps illustrate this very point: genius is sufficient to grasp it but not necessary. The essence of individualism is partly found in the determination to observe the world through a lens of logical scrutiny. The implication is that conditioned judgments that are the product of such a process may be extremely beneficial. However, sound judgments and unsound judgments cannot be distinguished facially. The individualist understands this, and thus, she remains skeptical of all judgments until she conducts independent analysis using the tools of logic.

Individualism & "Common Sense"

At odds with logic is the principle of “common sense.” The two are sometimes used interchangeably, but they most definitely describe adverse methods of reasoning. The term “common sense” refers, quite naturally, to sense that is common. That is, it assumes there is a correlation between the popularity of a proposition and its truthfulness. For example, “common sense” originally suggested to humans that the planet was flat. Modernly, "common sense" is used to describe propositions that are “facially intuitive” per, allegedly, any reasonable individual’s independent judgment. While this idea disowns the groupthink fallacy, it’s still not an improvement because it remains subject to the flat-earth problem and asks the independent mind to accept a judgment on the basis of facial appearance. This causes the propagation of popular albeit erroneous judgments when facial appearance is deceptive as to objective reality. For example, consider the once facially intuitive proposition that, “Man cannot fly,” and then consider the individualist mentality with which the Wright brothers approached it.
Common sense – one of the most popular sources of conditioned automatic judgments – is by its very nature a logical fallacy. Common sense suggests: “This seems like it’s probably true.” Logic asks: “Is it at all possible that this is not true?” If one values truth, one should ask logic’s question instead of repeating common sense’s statement. Observing and experiencing the world through the lens of logic may lead one to develop conditioned automatic judgments that are virtually unassailable. And, conversely, to refuse this lens is an implicit admission that one’s conditioned judgments and conceptions may have no actual basis in functional truth. This creates some interesting questions. For instance, would human interaction be more efficient if all rules of logic were widely appreciated? Beyond geometry, American public schools do not teach logic; if they did, would conditioned judgments improve or cease to exist? Would marketing and media industries lose power and influence in a nation where citizens are better equipped to interpret and scrutinize data and claims of truth? Or do conditioned judgments make interaction more efficient even when untrue or misguided? These concerns precede the quest to define individualism, yet they’re wholly central to it because individualism consistently invokes implicit rejection of collective thought and “conformity.”

Individualism vs. Conformity

When “individualism” is alleged to be adverse to “conformity,” the proposition renders both words functionally meaningless. Conformity, at base level and regarding human relations, describes action for which the intended outcome is some form of increased homogeneity. The word alone should carry no connotation; it’s merely an objective description and can apply to anything from standardized meal consumption times to hygiene expectations. It is impossible to imagine how an ideology, person or group could oppose such a general and naturally occurring concept; to do so would be to spew fanciful sanctimonious delusions.
Any comparison between conformity and individualism mistakenly elevates form over substance. Since human behavior is choreographed by the mind, actions become a proxy for criticism of a thought process, or lack thereof. Thus, the relevant criticisms miss the point and render themselves an embarrassment to the principles they purport to advocate.
Decisions to conform can be made in three ways: intentionally, after conscious thought (i.e. a desire to imitate); unintentionally, after conscious thought (i.e. a desire to act in a certain way that coincidentally imitates an existing way); or indifferently, after conscious thought (i.e. no desire to act, but inaction still amounts to conformity).
Criticism is most likely to be levied at intentional imitation, but this still amounts to hypocrisy as almost all human behavior is a form of imitation. To be valuable, criticism of “conformity” must delve significantly deeper; the only valid target of criticism is one’s reasoning process (not her actions), and the only acceptable argument is against one whose actions are detrimentally unreasoned despite choice and ability to reason. Observable action labeled as “conformity” tells us nothing about individualism in the same way that correlation tells us nothing about causation. The question should not be: “Are one's actions a conformist imitation?” The question should be: “Who or what is she imitating and why?” That question elicits true reflection on independent reasoning; it asks one to independently justify the standards she chooses to aspire to. Again, while one's observable choice may invite inference or assumption, the choice alone does not prove its reasons.

Choice & Free Will

The essence of individualism is to choose one’s own standards, or ignore standards entirely, so long as that decision is well-reasoned. The alternative would be to place action before independent thought – to allow the standards of others to supply the reasons for one’s actions. This may suffice for anyone some of the time, but it should be fundamentally obvious that, for it to be a uniformly sound practice, one must be either inherently indifferent to the outcome of her actions or wholly dependent on another’s interpretation and value-judgment of the outcome. In this respect, one lives by the will and whim of another or by no will at all and is thus dangerously subject to persuasion given at least the minimum level of credible impetus that caused her to act in the first place.
One’s independent judgment reflects her will, her desires and her own reasoned valuations. Thus, only one’s independent judgment can or should command one’s actions if she seeks to be an individual rather than an employee of another’s desires.


Further reading

  • Self-Reliance
  • Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective
  • Individualism
  • The Era of the Individual
  • The Virtue of Selfishness
  • Shanahan, Daniel. (1991) Toward a Genealogy of Individualism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-870-23811-6.
  • Watt, Ian. (1996) Myths of Modern Individualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48011-6.
individualism in Czech: Individualismus
individualism in Danish: Individualisme
individualism in German: Individualismus
individualism in Estonian: Individualism
individualism in Spanish: Individualismo
individualism in Esperanto: Individuismo
individualism in Persian: فردگرایی
individualism in French: Individualisme
individualism in Korean: 개인주의
individualism in Hindi: व्यक्तिवाद
individualism in Icelandic: Einstaklingshyggja
individualism in Italian: Individualismo
individualism in Hebrew: אינדיבידואליזם
individualism in Hungarian: Individualizmus
individualism in Malay (macrolanguage): Individualisme
individualism in Dutch: Individualisme
individualism in Japanese: 個人主義
individualism in Norwegian: Individualisme
individualism in Polish: Indywidualizm
individualism in Portuguese: Individualismo
individualism in Russian: Индивидуализм
individualism in Slovenian: Individualizem
individualism in Serbian: Индивидуализам
individualism in Finnish: Individualismi
individualism in Swedish: Individualism
individualism in Tamil: தனிமனிதத்துவம்
individualism in Vietnamese: Chủ nghĩa cá nhân
individualism in Chinese: 个人主义

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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