“‘Individualism’ in the Mid-Nineteenth Century”

David Westling comments on an article titled “‘Individualism’ in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” by Koenrad W. Swart. Swart’z article is from Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1962), pp. 77-90 (Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press | DOI: 10.2307/2708058 ).

This article was in the archives of Egoist Archive. In an effort to get that material back on the web, if it cannot fit within the framework of the website somewhere else, it will be posted to the blog.

Note: William McCall’s 1947 book was titled Elements of Individualism.

Review of “‘Individualism’ in the Mid-Nineteenth Century”, by Koenrad W. Swart

Koenrad Swart states his thesis early on when he states: “The term ‘individualism’ with its perplexing varieties of meanings is responsible for many inconclusive debates in the history of ideas.” He goes on to identify three “highly dissimilar clusters of ideas”: individualism as 1) the idealistic doctrines with egalitarian implications, such as the “rights of man” made popular by/in the French Revolution; 2) the anti-statist utilitarian doctrine of laissez faire, economic liberalism; and 3) the aristocratic cult if individuality, Romantic individualism, such as put forth by Wilhelm von Humboldt and Fredrich Schlegel. This contingent was at odds especially with the egalitarian aspect of what had been termed individualism up to that time (c.1830), and stressed the diversity and inequality of talents and abilities. On the other hand, many thinkers at this time considered individualism, including laissez faire capitalism, to be the logical outgrowth of the ideas which spawned the French Revolution, pointing out that the founding fathers of this revolution were inspired more by self-interest than love of humanity.

Individualism as a positive term made its first strides toward acceptance in England in the work of William McCall, whose Principles of Individualism gained a fairly wide readership; one of his early enthusiasts was George Eliot. McCall was apparently influenced by J.S. Mill and Carlyle, but above all, by the German Romantic ideas by authors discussed above, and, although Swart does not explicitly say so, it would seem that Max Stirner may have figured into it as well; McCall’s book was published in 1847, two years after Stirner’s book Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum.

Many of the writers, especially in Germany, stressed the long history of German independence as a widespread cultural trait; their love of freedom could be traced to the old Germanic tribes which had successfully resisted Roman domination and which later insinuated itself into medieval institutions such as the feudal system after the Germanic invasion of Roman territories. This love of liberty was considered a strong cultural trait until German unification in the 1870’s, with the rise of Prussianism.

The individualist tendency is seen by Swart as culminating with the thought of the Young Hegelians, in particular Max Stirner, in rejecting the claims of society upon the individual, in the 1840’s.

An interesting contrast between the individualism of laissez faire capitalism and what was termed “infinite individualism” was developed by Karl Bruggemann in 1842 in which he asserted that this infinite individualism was based in a German infinite self-confidence to be personally free in morals and truth.

Individualism gained a lasting impetus in the publication of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860. From this moment on the term was a force to be reckoned with in the ongoing battle of ideas still being waged today.


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Filed under 1845-1945, 1946-Today, Bibliographic, Book, Max Stirner