What is remarkable about the ideal of qualitative individualism is that it is so pervasive yet so rarely thought about in depth. To get a bit more of that depth, I would like to examine next the question of where it comes from.
The idea is modern, I think, though like so many modern ideas it has premodern antecedents. A while ago I breezed a little too easily over the differences between qualitative individualism and Aristotle. I said:
Aristotle – not exactly a great friend of modern liberal freedom – thinks of the best politics in terms of allowing each person to fulfill a highest end or telos, all being the best they can be. Some thinkers would consider this teleology a higher and truer kind of freedom than choice alone. But it seems to me that the freedom of choice is a vital part of the freedom to be what you are. Who would know what you’re meant to be better than you yourself?
I missed something there. If it’s so clear that you’re the person who knows best what you’re meant to be, then why would Aristotle have been “not exactly a great friend” of the political freedom of choice lionized by qualitative individualists today? That question points to differences between Aristotle and qualitative individualism, differences that Charles Taylor again does a good job of pointing out. For qualitative individualists, or “expressivists” as Taylor calls them,
the adequate human life would not just be a fulfilment of an idea or plan which is fixed independently of the subject who realizes it, as is the Aristotelian form of a man. Rather this life must have the added dimension that the subject can recognize it as his own, as having unfolded from within him. This self-related dimension is entirely missing from the Aristotelian tradition. (Taylor, Hegel, 15)
So there are several things that are new, and modern, in the qualitative individualist ideal. It is not just that humans are significantly different from each other – Aristotle would easily agree with that much – but that “the differences define the unique form that each of us is called on to realize.” (17) One’s realization of one’s nature now can involve a conflict between one’s inner self and outer forces that constrain it. And one’s nature and purpose are not pregiven, but one’s own realization of them clarifies them or makes them determinate. It is these differences that underpin a modern political ideal of freedom of choice which Aristotle would likely have been suspicious of. For him, “the wise” who are best informed about humans in general would therefore know best for any individual humans. What Taylor is pointing to is a new conception of the self – a fundamentally metaphysical difference – according to which the differences between humans are so significant that knowing what’s best for one is very different from knowing what’s best for another.
How did we get here? What took the civilizations of Europe and their descendants from views like Aristotle’s to the newer qualitative individualism? Taylor credits the philosophical birth of qualitative individualism largely to Johann Gottfried Herder. But I think Taylor overstates Herder’s role here. He proclaims Herder’s presumed importance for the ideal of self-expression in multiple works, but every time he does this he cites no more than one sentence from Herder, in section VIII.1 of the Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit. There, Herder says: “Each human being has his own measure, as it were an accord peculiar to him of all his feelings to each other.” (The German is, “Jeder Mensch hat ein eignes Maß, gleichsam eine eigne Stimmung aller seiner sinnlichen Gefühle zu einander.”) While this sentence does indeed express a qualitative individualist view, Herder does little to develop it; the section discussing individuality is a few short paragraphs in the Ideen, and having made this brief discussion of individual difference, Herder adds, “It is not the part of the philosophy of the history of man to exhaust this ocean, but by some striking differences to call our attention to the more delicate, that lie around us.” Then he returns to the main topic of the book, which is not individual but cultural differences – a much bigger concern of Herder’s work. Unlike differences between individuals, Herder returns again and again to the theme of differences between cultures, between nations – it may be the largest animating theme of his work.
Much of the qualitative individualist ideal as I understand it, though, sets the individual against the norms of her culture. The culture can be just one more of the oppressive exterior forces that stultify interior growth. Such a claim is perhaps most strongly and famously expressed by Nietzsche, but Nietzsche had significant predecessors – above all in the German Romantic movement, of which Herder was one but only one. Other important early figures include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the poet and author quoted in the first sentence of the Indian Supreme Court decision on gay sex whom a New Yorker piece rightly bills as the German Shakespeare, and Wilhelm von Humboldt – a significant influence on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – who claimed at length that if people are left to make their own decisions they will naturally find the place that is right for them. (Ralph Waldo Emerson felt the Romantic currents in a different place, and was also an influence on Nietzsche.)
It is these early Romantic thinkers as a group, I think, who first bring to flower the idea that we are each special in a way that comes out of our own interiority. None of them put together a philosophy as systematic as Kant’s or Aristotle’s – some of them were opposed to the idea of system – but it is in their works together, I think, that one really sees the idea of qualitative individualism born. I believe they are drawing, in turn, on a metaphysical development that is significantly older, but still represents a major change from the views of Aristotle or Augustine. I will turn to that development next time.