The term individualism describes a view of life that places the individual over the society or the political system in which he lives. Man is perceived in his uniqueness, his distinctive identity and should be able to develop accordingly. The Community is defined as a framework condition within which the individual freedom of each individual has the highest priority.
Individualism can also be seen as a human being’s path into his inner life. The inner, ie the individual experiences, emotions and intuition shaped reality plays in comparison to the external reality of society or the political system has a superordinate role.
From a philosophical point of view, individualism looks back on a long tradition and paved the way on many levels for a modern social and economic order. At the present time, however, man is caught between the pursuit of individuality and the need to adapt in order to be recognized professionally and socially.
Individualism – origins, and development
The notion that the state or other social entity is merely the sum of individuals is closely linked to the models of liberalism and the Enlightenment. These philosophical doctrines presuppose the freedom of man – and thus his self-responsibility claim – as his fundamental right or even natural right. With the Enlightenment, in the course of the eighteenth century, people began gradually to turn away from the limitations of the absolutist systems of rule. The philosophical ideas behind this social development centered on rational, which is rational thinking. This made it possible for the individual to critically question religious, political and cultural constraints, which inevitably led to an awareness of freedom, intellectual independence, and concomitant self-determination.
Over the next few centuries, liberalism and individualism have become central to economic and social progress, and more specifically to free competition and scientific, philosophical and cultural achievements.
The enlightened individualism characterized by philosophers such as Kant or Voltaire, on which the ideas of equality and freedom of the individual are based, is opposed by romantic individualism. This conception puts the distinction and difference, that is, the peculiarity of each person, in the foreground. The concept of romantic individualism is defined by the concepts of originality, uniqueness and, subsequently, the genius cult, and since the late sixties of the 20th century has returned to the forefront of social developments.
It is the romantic individualism that paved the way for today’s search for identity, self-discovery, and self-realization. In recent decades, the trend of self-dramatization gradually developed, which, on closer inspection, contradicts the original idea of the individualism of the Enlightenment.
Identity search and self-fulfillment – the pursuit of individual life
Individualism faces conformity and collectivism. Individualists refuse to subordinate to social norms but endeavor to implement independent ideas, decisions and thinking in all areas of everyday life. This can relate to different aspects of the private and professional environment. In principle, an individualist always opposes the mainstream, that is to say, the generally accepted understandings, tastes, and opinions.
An essential feature of the late twentieth-century individualism created by the ’68 movement is the pursuit of self-fulfillment. This requires an inextricable occupation with one’s own ego. The constant search for identity and originality inevitably leads to a certain ego-relatedness, which to a certain extent bears narcissistic features. Whether the pursuit of authenticity must be considered as simple egocentricity or as a reflective and future-oriented liberation or rejection of traditional values is the subject of philosophical discussions. However, self-actualization individualism, which first established itself in alternative circles in the early 1970s, led to a social and social development that many philosophers today define as the dilemma of modern man.
Individualism today – the unmistakable as a uniform compulsion
The direct consequence of the self-actualization individualism born in the 20th century is the isolation of man due to his constant occupation with his inner world. A problem in this context is that the conscious detachment from traditional values, in the western world, in particular, the turning away from Christian morality, left a vacuum. Since no orientation aids exist as a substitute for the vanished value systems, self-presentation has become the central ideal of life.
People today are driven by the need to realize themselves in all facets of life, to create a picture of themselves and to present this to the world at its best. Modern individualism suggests endless freedom in shaping and unfolding one’s personality. The individual taste, lifestyle, and career are no limits – theoretically. For with all the possibilities and freedoms to masterfully stage even insignificant aspects of everyday life in order to be different from any norm, there remains the need to adapt to be professionally successful as well as socially recognized and respected.
This always raises the question of how much individuality and effective self-staging actually tolerate the career and the social environment. This inevitably leads to even the most individual habits and aesthetic preferences becoming a cliché. People want to be different – but only if enough like-minded people want to be just as different. Individualism in the original sense of unmistakable self-determination and intellectual freedom is an illusion in today’s society.
Most of the people who yesterday worked to be special and unique can today be assigned to a specific niche, and thus become involuntarily standard. Those who want to live individualism have to completely ignore rules and trends and are thus alone – which always involves the risk of isolating themselves socially.
Self-realization individualism also leads to isolation on a social level. If every single person is so busy designing and staging a picture of themselves, there is little time, energy and motivation for interpersonal engagement and family commitments. In this context, modern individualism can also be seen as the cause of a certain cultural decline in the Western world.
Without individualism, as it was formulated in the early eighteenth century, cultural, scientific and economic achievements would not have been possible. However, if the constant need for self-fulfillment leads to a lack of children, a decline in family values and loneliness, individualism as it is practiced today destroys Western civilization in the long run. What remains are people who believe they are individualists. In truth, they can easily be subdivided into trendsetters and imitators – what both typologies lack is the critical questioning of social developments. And that is actually the essence of true individualism based on self-determination and free-thinking.