Monday, June 25, 2012

The Invention of Individualism

A reader passed this on to me, which is a good dosage of reality for critics who accuse me of making this kind of stuff up, or overemphasizing it.
[Herbert] Hoover's many years overseas had bred in him an acute interest in his own country's distinguishing cultural traits, and in 1922 he gathered his thoughts on this subject into a little book, American Individualism...."Individualism" was, after all, a concept that had been invented to describe a social development considered unique to American society. Alexis de Tocqueville had first given the term currency a century earlier in Democracy in America, in which he declared that "individualism is of democratic origin." It was different from mere selfishness, and in many ways more dangerous because more isolating. Selfishness, said Tocqueville, "leads a man to connect everything to himself, and to prefer himself to everything in the world," but individualism was still more pernicious, because it "disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows, and to draw apart."


  1. For whatever it's worth, in the passage excerpted, de Tocqueville is contrasting democracy with aristocracy. He observes that the social ties inherent to the hierarchical relationships of an aristocratic society aren't to be found in a society where all members are equal, and that this risks the "individualism" that can lead to isolation.

    However, Kennedy (the author of the passage you quoted) argues that Hoover came to a different conclusion. In the very next paragraph after the one you quoted, he writes, "Hoover argued...that Tocqueville had it all wrong; that /American/ individualism was in its essence neither selfish nor solipsistic. Rather, it embraced regard for others and attachment to the community as a whole. In Hoover's lexicon, the word that captured the essence of American individualism was /service/."

    It is not certain that de Tocqueville failed to observe this, however. Indeed, just a few chapters after the statement Kennedy quotes, he writes: "The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess...every instant impress upon [the citizen's] mind the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them...his heart readily leans to the side of kindness. Men attend to the interests of the public, first by necessity, afterwards by choice; what was intentional becomes an instinct, and by dint of working for the good of one's fellow citizens, the habit and the taste for serving them are at length acquired."

  2. As usual, Jeffy, you manage to come by and lift your leg to make an irrelevant point. My ONLY point -- made against jackasses like you -- was that I didn't invent this stuff.

    So "whatever its worth" is nothing. I wouldn't expect Hoover to think any other way than that; the man was a politician, after all, and he wouldn't get votes or support admitting to the dark side of his nation's heart. In other words, he was a compromiser who covered up with half-truths and insinuation, just like you. And de Tocquville obviously wanted to puff for any alternative to the authoritarian structures he despised, especially after so many in his family had suffered during the Reign of Terror.

    Typical Jeffy: Too addicted to sound bites to think things through in depth, especially when he hears what he wants to hear.

    Don't bother responding -- you're not welcome here.