Likelihood of Success

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Individualism versus individuality

Posted by Ron Coleman on January 22, 2008

Over in the discussion at another blog I am having trouble getting some people to recognize that the distinction between individualism and individuality is more than semantic. I am adapting from my comments there to raise the issue here.

Is “individualism” a desideratum at all? I think perhaps it is not. Now, individuality is a fact and is something to be embraced. But individualism is primarily defined thus: “Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.” That is: Assertion of the primary importance of the individual is primary.Rush home.jpg

There are many paths to living a meaningful life (which is not to say that there is infinite number of paths). Individuality is unique to humans, and God surely must expect us to utilize it in our lives — individuality, that is — but not to make individual expression the purpose of our lives, which is individualism, a sort of narcissism.

This distinction matters a lot, and is surely not petty nor semantic. There are a number of ways to consider this question, but let me raise one near and dear to my own heart (of course): Certain people, let us say, come to the table with a world of personality and ego. The task of such people is not to gratify their egos, a Sysiphisian task in any event. No, rather it is to use personality, individuality, as a tool and contributing to the human enterprise — either by negation of that power and intensifying some quieter aspect of life, or by harnessing it in its most obvious form and channeling it into service and productivity.

If, in contrast, one insists on expression of personality — with the attendant ego gratification — as the alpha and omega of existence, he is excessively self-centered; he lacks adequate connection to Creation; and he cannot be called an adult or a fully-formed person (a mensch).

Such a one will surely have a world of trouble living in a universe that is too small for both him and God, and even the rest of us are likely to wish he would find somewhere else to sit.

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3 Responses to “Individualism versus individuality”

  1. jan said

    To me, self-reliance and independence are primary attributes of a fully-formed adult, but that they have little to do with personality or it’s expression. But then I’m one of those personally independant and self reliant types, so of course I would think that, right? 🙂

  2. Ara Rubyan said

    I think Ben Franklin said it best: we must all hang together otherwise we will most surely hang separately.

  3. Individualism is no more necessarily shallow and narcisitic then communal action is necessarily deep and generous.

    Individualism as a philosophy is the claim that each person is an end in and of himself, not merely a means to accomplishing some other goal. Of course, some individuals will make their lives meaningless.

    Ara: Yes indeed, that is a strong statement in support of individualism. Franklin acknowledges each persons need to provide their own meaning and counts upon their self-interest to keep them united.

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