What is Individualism?

Individualism is a philosophical stance that transcends the political, social, and economic spheres of a society. In this article, we'll discuss what it consists of.
What is Individualism?
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Individualism is a philosophical viewpoint that defends the superiority of the individual over the collective. In this sense, it promotes the free exercise of the person’s goals and desires. Likewise, it opposes extreme interventions – whether social, state, or any other institution – in the personal sphere.

Since the person is the center of this position, human rights and freedom are its main axes. It also opposes the collectivist perspective, which defends the superiority of the collective over the individual. Having said this, let’s take a look look at the highlights of this position and in which societies it has been applied.

The origin of individualism

The first ideas of individualism date back to Ancient Greece, specifically in the Cynic school, which defended the total freedom of the individual, through the detachment of material goods, satire, and decision making according to one’s own preferences.

Subsequently, in the Middle Ages, the concept of the human soul and individual salvation arose. However, this Christian idea of individualism was drastically modified in the Industrial Revolution by placing profit and individual wealth at the center of this perspective.

Then, in the 19th century, individualistic ideas emerged against the collectivism developed by the French Revolution. In this case, authors such as John Stuart Mill defended the recognition of individual rights (such as freedom of expression and private property) in order to avoid the tyranny of the State.

Similarly, between the 19th and 20th centuries, there was the great confrontation between collectivist movements inspired by Karl Marx (such as socialism and communism) and liberal individualist positions based on the ideals of Adam Smith and other authors.

Origen del individualismo
Although the origin of individualism dates back to Ancient Greece, its ideas were reinforced between the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Main characteristics

To better understand what individualism is today, here are the essential characteristics of this position:

  • It defends the centrality of the individual over the group or collective. Therefore, each person has rights and must be protected from violations that the group may produce. For example, this includes the violation of privacy and freedom of thought.
  • It’s present in a variety of ideologies, such as liberalism, existentialism, and individualistic anarchism.
  • It’s opposed to collectivism and thus to collectivist ideologies such as socialism, communism, and fascism.
  • Among its central tenets are freedom and self-realization.
  • It therefore advocates the provision of rights and freedoms, as well as the inviolability of these.

Other meanings of individualism

Individualism has also been associated with artistic and bohemian interests and lifestyles. In these cases, self-creation and personal experimentation are advocated in opposition to traditions or social conventions.

In everyday and popular language, the term is often used in a pejorative way and is often associated with consumerism. It’s also used as a synonym for egocentrism, narcissism, selfishness and other behaviors in which individual desire and opinion are placed above the group.

However, in the social sciences there is a method called “methodological individualism,” which holds that all social phenomena can be explained by the properties of individuals, such as their goals, beliefs, and actions.

In this sense, methodological individualism denies that the collective is an autonomous organism that makes decisions and demands that the social sciences base their theories on individual action.

Finally, economic individualism argues that each individual should be guaranteed the autonomy to make his or her own economic decisions, as opposed to those made by the state, the community, or any other organization.

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Individualism today

In contemporary society, we’ve seen how collectivist and individualist ideologies are constantly debated. However, at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, there was a marked trend towards individualism at the global level.

This was especially true after the fall of communist systems in Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the opening of China to global markets. Nevertheless, collectivist projects tend to reappear, as is constantly occurring in Latin America.

A clear example is the progressive and populist governments, as is the case of Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, among others. That said, it’s also worth mentioning the economic differences that are established between individualist and collectivist nations.

That is, there’s a strong relationship between economic development and individualism. For example, at the global level, we see how economically developed regions have more individualistic cultures. This is the case in Western Europe, Australia, North America, and Japan.

Meanwhile, developing regions, such as the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America, have more collectivist cultures.

Individualismo en la actualidad
Today, the individualist idea is still widely debated.

Some final thoughts

In short, individualism promotes independence and autonomy, while collectivism advocates interdependence between individuals and the group to which they belong, since the needs of the collective are considered more important than those of the individual.

In this regard, it’s necessary to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each position. The best practice is to seek to establish a middle ground between the two.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.