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.