Ann Swidler, Charles Taylor, expressive individualism, Georg Simmel, Isaiah Berlin, Robert Bellah, Steven M. Tipton, William M. Sullivan
The contemporary world (and not just the Western world) continues to feel the power of the ethical ideal that proclaims “be yourself”, which I wrote about in detail) five years ago. I stand by most of what I said about this ideal: it remains philosophically under-studied, it remains pervasive, and I continue to find it persuasive.
What I have come to question over those five years, though, is the name I gave to that ideal.
There is no widely agreed name for this ideal or set of ideals, but it needs one. I don’t think we can think philosophically through what it means to live a good life today without such a name; we need to talk about it and think about it. You can be for it or against it or somewhere in the middle, but you’re missing something big if you’re not thinking about it, and that thinking will get difficult quickly without a name. Charles Taylor has done more than most to think about this ideal, but he keeps ricocheting between different terms for it, which is frustrating to read.
Looking for such a name five years ago, I had chosen the name qualitative individualism, derived from the sociological work of Georg Simmel, as the best alternative I could find. As a general practice I lean against coining my own terms, neologisms; if you want to be understood, it helps to use a term that others are already using. (I also don’t have a good track record on the coinages I have made: the neologism that I’ve made the most use of on this blog in the past is one that I’ve already abandoned myself.) So I chose “qualitative individualism” mainly through a process of elimination, going through the other terms I could find: I was dissatisfied with Isaiah Berlin’s “expressionism”, with Taylor’s “expressivism” and “ethics of authenticity”, with the too-general “Romanticism” and with the similarly general “individualism”. The precision of Simmel’s “qualitative individualism” made it the best of a bad lot.
But for process of elimination to be successful, you need to make sure your list of alternatives is exhaustive. And I think I failed to do that.
In their 1985 Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his collaborators (Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton) referred to something they called expressive individualism. They said: “Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” (323-4) That’s not the exact definition I’d use for what I’d been calling qualitative individualism, but it’s close enough to say that they are talking about the same thing. And much as Simmel distinguishes qualitative individualism from a “quantitative” individualism that treats individuals as substantially similar in the relevant respects, so too Bellah &co. distinguish expressive individualism from a utilitarian individualism which (they claim) understands individuals in more economic terms: both terms identify the ideal in question as a species of individualism, but recognize that “individualism” alone is not a sufficient term to describe it.
So “expressive individualism” and “qualitative individualism” refer to more or less the same thing. “Expressive individualism”, it turns out, is in somewhat wider usage than “qualitative individualism”: there are conservative jeremiads against it, by name, and even Taylor picks up the term in A Secular Age.
And perhaps more importantly, I think the term “expressive individualism” does a much better job of expressing – no pun intended – the underlying concept. When Isaiah Berlin used “expressionism” and Taylor used “expressivism” to name the ideal, they weren’t wrong to identify the idea of expression as something central to it: one needs not just to be one’s true self but to express it. (Something’s missing if being gay or gender-fluid is just what you are on the inside; you need to be open about it in the world.) For this ideal that is so often advocated in pop songs, some of those songs specifically refer to expression. The problem with “expressionism” and “expressivism” was merely that those terms had already been taken by other ideals or movements – which “expressive individualism” has not.
One of the biggest disadvantages of “qualitative individualism” is that it is such a mouthful, eleven syllables. “Expressive individualism” is only modestly better in that regard, shaving merely one of those syllables. But it does a significantly better job with respect to the other disadvantage of “qualitative individualism” – namely that it isn’t very intuitive. Qualitative how? What is that supposed to mean? You can’t tell from the term itself, without additional explanation. Whereas the “expressive” part, like the “individualism” part, gives you some sense of what the term might mean even if you’ve never heard anybody explain it. That’s a big advantage.
The literature on this mode of individualism is still way too scattered. When I was first trying to name it, I don’t think I’d actually heard the term “expressive individualism”, despite having tried to read widely on it. (It is to philosophy’s discredit that one of our society’s most widely held constructive ethical viewpoints has been better named by sociologists – including Simmel – than by philosophers.) But having now heard “expressive individualism” and thought about it, I think it’s the best one. From here on in, I won’t be referring to qualitative individualism, but instead to expressive individualism.
Paul D. Van Pelt said:
It is difficult to put useful names upon concepts. Your point(s) on expression are well made and taken: if one does not look, walk or quack like a duck, one cannot even pretend to be a duck. Therefore, expressiveness is crucial. In the world as it has become, individuals are frowned upon, uniformity is virtually synonymous with conformity. I think this is somehow less than human and it seems almost directly proportionate to complexity. Still, in all, this trend complies with conservative views on a variety of s topics, from ethics and morality to government; law; and politics. Current and recent events point in a regressive direction. It appears, to me anyway, that regression leads to repression. And, for the individualist, this is troubling. The ducks are not aligned in our favor.
Amod Lele said:
I agree that overall, the present age is significantly less sympathetic overall to individualism (expressive or otherwise) than was really any point in the period 1965-2015. I think that holds on both left and right, as the left now builds itself around group identities rather than individual freedom. Still, several of those group identities are determined in a way that is predicated on individual freedom: that’s especially true in the trans movement. It’s disheartening to me how ready the trans movement has been to silence different views, because the movement would make no sense without the idea that determining who we are is, at some deep and fundamental level, up to us as individuals. The freedom to define myself as occasionally a woman is a new and welcome form of individual freedom and expression that really wasn’t available to me before 2018. I hope for a world where I can express both my gender identity and my ideas without fear of repercussions.
Jim Wilton said:
I agree that expressive individualism is a better term for this important concept.
I will be interested in your critique of this concept. How does this concept mesh with Buddhist concepts of interdependence and anatta? Can this concept be better understood as a negative — a rejection of imitation and conformity — than as a recognition of an individual as having intrinsic, immutable qualities? How does this concept mesh with the Buddhist notion of lineage — the idea that the fruition of a relationship with a teacher is a transmission that is like “water being poured into water” — that the recipe for realization does not change but that the bread needs to be made fresh in each generation.
There does seem to be some resonance between this concept and the Buddhist understanding that realization is not an intellectual achievement or even an experience (that intellectual ideas are a “patch that falls off” and experience is like a “mist that burns off in the sun”). In fact, could “realization” itself be no more than a coming to terms with who we already are (the fruition of Buddha nature) once confusion s cleared away?
Amod Lele said:
You’ve seen my first crack at putting the two together, and I think that remains my starting point: there is no indivisible, immutable, or autonomous self, the true self is something made and crafted out of non-self materials. That’s only a start, but it may well also be that further points of contact are also negative.
Especially… Harry Frankfurt, in Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting it Right, makes one of the best philosophical articulations I’ve seen of an expressive individualist ethics, one in which we identify ourselves with what we care about. But that identification is also fundamentally a disidentification: moving toward identifying with those deeper cares and aims and away from an identification with the fleeting desires of the moment. That disidentification is something fundamentally human; it’s not something that nonlinguistic animals can do. And I think it’s also central in its own way to Buddhist teaching: learning to recognize our craving and detach from it, knowing not to identify with those cravings that arise and fall away and trap us in suffering.
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