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What name should we give the ethical ideal I spoke of last time, the pervasive idea that you should “be yourself, no matter what they say”? The answer to that question isn’t easy.

I initially started thinking of this ideal simply as “Romantic”. But “Romantic”, with a capital R let alone a small one, refers to a range of ideals considerably wider than this. I asked my friend Andrew Warren, a Romanticism expert, to define Romanticism, and he responded that Romanticism resists definition. (I recall him once having given the stronger answer that “Romanticism is that which resists definition”, though that isn’t his own recollection.) When I’ve referred to “Romanticism” on this blog before, the context is typically one of nostalgia for the premodern past or an idealization of the natural world, neither of which has anything necessarily to do with the ideal in question, and which can in some ways even oppose it. We need a more specific term.

Charles Taylor, who has probably done more than anyone else to study the ideal in question, has used multiple terms to name it. In his earlier work (Hegel and Sources of the Self), Taylor would sometimes describe those holding the ideal as expressivists, and sometimes also described the ideal as “nature as source”. But both of these also indicate something larger than the ideal of the true self as it has been taken up in contemporary culture, something about a particular conception of nature and our relation to it. To make matters more confusing, Alasdair MacIntyre’s latest book uses “expressivism” to refer to a related but significantly different set of ideas, one beginning with David Hume and extending to the analytic movement of emotivism, in which ethical claims primarily serve to express their maker’s emotions. This is the wider sense that “expressivism” has in analytical ethics, and it is the sense given on the Wikipedia page on expressivism. Taylor had derived the idea of expressivism from Isaiah Berlin, who had instead called it “expressionism”. Taylor modified “expressionism” to “expressivism” to avoid confusion with the artistic movement of expressionism, but it seems to me that “expressivism” is just as confusing in its own way.

Taylor later referred instead to “the ethics of authenticity”, in a book given that title for a global audience (the original Canadian edition had the less descriptive title The Malaise of Modernity). That term has the advantage of capturing a key part of the ideal, that one should be what is authentically oneself. But I also find this term confusing because “authenticity” refers to a very different aesthetic ideal – that aesthetic products like music and food are best in the traditional context that gave rise to them (“authentic Chinese food” as opposed to “Americanized Chinese food”). The ethical ideal I’m interested in is in some ways opposed to this – one should be oneself in a way not limited to one’s heritage, as Prince Ea’s piece proclaims.

So is there a better term? Ideals that assign a high ethical value to personal individuality are often referred to as “individualism”. That term too has a wider referent than the ideal I’ve been trying to examine. Fortunately, there is a helpful way of subdividing the concept of individualism, devised by the early-20th-century German philosopher-sociologist Georg Simmel.

Simmel noted how, in the nineteenth century, German Romantics like Goethe and Schleiermacher came to take an emerging modern individualism in a direction very different from the Enlightenment thinkers, also individualists, who had preceded them. In his “Individual and society in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century views of life”, he claimed that the Romantics’ “new individualism might be called qualitative, in contrast with the quantitative individualism of the eighteenth century. Or it might be labeled the individualism of uniqueness (Einzigkeit) as against that of singleness (Einzelheit).” (81)

Eighteenth-century rationalist individualism, of which Kant was the crowning figure, was “quantitative” in the sense that each individual could be treated as a discrete atom, in important respects interchangeable with each other individual. Kant’s thought puts individual autonomy at its heart – the best actions derive from a law that we give ourselves, rather than from any exterior source. And yet for Kant, this law that we supposedly give ourselves is exactly the same as the law every other rational individual will give to herself. Kant’s follower Fichte put it in stark terms: “A rational being must simply be an individual—but precisely, not this or that particular individual.” (quoted on Simmel 80) From our later perspective, it is hard to view Kant’s and Fichte’s as any real sort of autonomy.

That is because we now see the world through the light of the later, 19th-century, qualitative individualism, which viewed individual difference as crucial: “The important point no longer was the fact that he was a free individual as such, but that he was this specific, irreplaceable, given individual.” (78) I find Simmel’s term “qualitative individualism” helpful here because it points out that individualism is a genus with two very different species, and points toward the importance of individual difference as an ideal within that genus.

The big disadvantage of “qualitative individualism” as a term is that it is a mouthful, eleven syllables. One becomes tempted to abbreviate it “QI”, the sort of abbreviative jargon that makes one’s work more obscure and impenetrable to non-specialists. I am not wedded to the term. But it at least has the advantage of avoiding neologism; Simmel is not that obscure a thinker as these things go, and others may well have encountered the concept of qualitative individualism before. (Jonardon Ganeri briefly refers to the concept in his Attention, Not Self.) More importantly, it has the advantage of clarity and descriptive accuracy, more so than the other terms I’ve considered so far. So for the present, at least, I will go with “qualitative individualism”.