Along with rethinking the term for expressive individualism, I’ve also lately been rethinking the history of the phenomenon. The idea that one should be one’s own true self is part of the air we moderns breathe: we don’t think about it because we assume it. (Some of the deeper thought on the matter comes from Christian conservatives, because they need to think about expressive individualism in order to oppose it.) Very few expressive individualists do the work that they should to defend the ideal philosophically. More attention has been paid to the idea’s history – but this, too, is something that I think we often get wrong.
The big question I want to revisit today is: when does expressive individualism begin? When do people first start thinking that every person has her own unique purpose in her individuality, and that following that purpose is a proper ethical ideal? I’ve argued there are metaphysical precedents for the idea in John Duns Scotus‘s distinction between whatness and thatness, but I don’t think there’s any inkling of individualist ethics in the pious thirteenth-century monk Scotus. Expressive individualism comes later – but how much later?Continue reading