For those wishing to attempt to define individualism today, Weber’s exhortation to take into account the complexity of this concept[i] is still extremely topical since the term is laden with diverse and protean meanings depending, as pointed out by Steven Lukes,[ii] on the historical, ideological or even geographical context in which it is used. At times exalted, at times condemned, with an intricate core of anthropological and political, social and moral problems, individualism seems to be liable to a multitude of positions and interpretations, among which it is anything but easy to take a position unless we choose a privileged point of view to reread it from.

Now, there is no doubt that in the most recent debate, the renewed interest in this topic is essentially linked to a critical reflection of modernity and its pathologies. As the “essence of Western civilization” and “epicenter of modernity,”[iii] whose emancipatory project it perhaps embodies more than any other, individualism also contains the intrinsic pathological degenerations of modernity, which are increasingly visible in the erosion of the relational and communicative fabric and in the loss of the social bond: or, in a word, in the weakening of the community.

This problematic aspect emerged all the more clearly the more the concept of individualism was subjected to greater and more complex differentiation. Withdrawn from all-round identification with the paradigm of homo oeconomicus, which for a long time had allowed even very different voices to converge—from the liberal tradition to Max Weber, and Louis Dumont—the concept underwent an epochal differentiation, the first testimony of which we could perhaps find in Simmel’s distinction between a universalistic individualism and an individualism of uniqueness or difference, originating in the late eighteenth century.[iv]

At present the idea of different models of individualism corresponding to the different phases of modernity seems to be particularly central in sociological reflection, from Richard Sennett to Christofer Lasch and Robert Bellah.[v] This reflection mainly tends to contrast a utilitarian and rational individualism typical of early modernity with a hedonistic (or expressive or narcissistic) individualism, characteristic of second modernity.[vi] While the first model presupposes an individual driven by an instrumental rationality, aiming to pursue his own interest and capable of self-limitation, the second reflects the image of a hedonistic and irrational individual, narcissistically wrapped up in himself and tending towards limitless self-assertion. Taking over from the prudent and far-sighted homo oeconomicus of early modernity, able to combine individual interest and common good, we have the postmodern homo psychologicus, concerned only with self-realization and with no sense of the future—seeking an authenticitywhich leads him to both psychologize reality, which becomes a mere mirror of his own desires, as well as to withdraw from the public and social sphere.

This differentiation without doubt manages to account for a deep transformation in the relationship between the anthropological configuration of the individual and the forms of social bond, but it risks being too simplistic. First of all, it makes too clean a break between the two models of individualism which have instead, as we will see, a common source; second, it proposes a reductive vision of both models since it seems not only to ignore the complexity of the motivations of homo oeconomicus, but also to deny that individualism’s authenticity­­—what is more, hastily equated with pathological narcissism—has any potential for emancipation.

If we are to introduce the topic of the passions[vii]—surprisingly on the sidelines of these diagnoses in confirmation of their rank, in the words of Jon Elster, as the “stepchildren” of the social sciences[viii]—in my opinion this differentiation can be restored to its legitimate complexity. What is more, inclusion of the passions can also open up unusual normative perspectives. 

First of all, this framework allows us to disclaim the presumed autonomy and rationality of the modern individual, which has been corroborated by the liberal tradition (from the theory of possessive individualism to methodological individualism and rational choice theory). Indeed, beginning with Montaigne, an image emerges of a weak and deficient Self, conscious of his own unprecedented possibilities but also of his vulnerability and imperfection; that is, the image of an essentially ambivalent Self. With Montaigne, modern individualism arises from the irreversible and definitive crisis of premodern individualism: that is, from the decline of the heroic-aristocratic Self, inspired by the ethic of honor, moved by the “disinterested” passion of glory, and capable, as still transpires from the reflections of Descartes, of generosity and self-expenditure (see ch. 1 of the book).

What comes about is an anthropology of emptiness and lack which remains the fundament—from Hobbes to Locke, and Mandeville and Smith’s Political Economy—for the paradigm of homo oeconomicus and the utilitarian individualism of early modernity. Indeed, one only has to carefully reread classic liberal thought to realize that homo oeconomicus can by no means be boiled down to a rational and calculating agent only moved by an instrumental and cold interest. On the contrary, he seems to be driven by a complex set of motivations that I propose summing up under two fundamental emotional constellations: acquisitive passion and passion of the Self, that is, the desire to possess wealth and material goods and the desire to distinguish himself from the other and to obtain his recognition. These passions are how he responds to the state of deficiency and fear, weakness and uprooting that characterize him in spite of his autonomy—or rather, precisely because of his autonomy, which at the same time generates sovereignty and deficiency, self-assertion and vulnerability.

The well-known thesis by Hirschman,[ix] who sees modernity as the passage from passions to interest, must therefore be correct in part. Indeed it is legitimate to assert that interest is opposed to the “disinterested” premodern passions; nevertheless, it first appears as an intense and aggressive acquisitive passion, intrinsically capable of creating conflict and social disorder: suffice it to think of the desire of power in Hobbes which, despite having essentially self-preservative ends, prompts the state of war, or to think of the mix between acquisitive passion and passion of the Self, which in Mandeville and Smith gives rise to the heated rivalry of mercantile society. Therefore, it would be more opportune to assert, as does Jean-Pierre Dupuy, that interests are “contaminated” by the passions, and that this emotional contamination helps to explain, in part at least, the hegemony and persistent force of the utilitarian model (see ch. 2).

Nevertheless, it is indeed true, suggests Stephen Holmes,[x] that in this model the interest also acts as the final moment in the emotional dynamic, as the normative dimension, ultimately driving individuals to control their destructive impulses in order to preserve themselves and improve their condition. In other words, in the individualism of early modernity, the passions generate forms of conflictual relationality, in which the other is essentially seen as the enemy (Hobbes) or rival (Smith). However, the other is also the reality with which to inevitably come to an instrumental agreement in order to pursue one’s own individual purposes. Hence, modern politics emerges, as well as the economic balance of bourgeois civil societies, which both presuppose the formation of a merely instrumental social bond.

Precisely because of its emotional foundation, this instrumental perspective nevertheless involves costs at both the social and the individual level. As shown emblematically by the reflection of Rousseau, the acquisitive individualism ratified by the Political Economy not only results in the creation of an unjust and unequal society, but also in the genesis of pathologies of the Self that taint all his sovereign vocations at the very root. But the problem is not, as insists a certain critical tradition, from Max Weber to Sigmund Freud and Norbert Elias, about self-repression and sacrificial instincts. Compared to the repressive model, Rousseau rather shows that, as a result of the coercion towards acquisition promoted by the need for distinction and recognition, the acquisitive and competitive passions generate the birth of a false identity, a distorted and inauthentic identity. This Rousseau contrasts with the image of an authentic Self, who is able to give rise to a social bond based on equality and justice, as he is capable of departing from the dynamics of acquisitive passions and reactivating the passions that I propose calling communitarian passions.

Hence, the search for authenticity, considered by many authors (Sennett, Bell, Lasch etc.) to be the origin of the narcissistic inversion characterizing second modernity individualism, appears as a critical and emancipatory project to imagine a better world and more just and equal bonds between men. It comes about as a reaction and response to the pathologies of utilitarian individualism since it generates the mobilization of other passions, in which loyalty to oneself and the capacity to escape the alienating bent of the acquisitive dynamic combine with unprecedented attention to the other; indeed these passions become the precondition for recognizing in the other not only an enemy or rival but a friend, a brother: in other words, authenticity can be the fundament for philia.

It is true that Rousseau’s model is still doubtlessly imbued with aporias. First of all, the possibility to establish friendly social bonds appears limited to the small community as separate from “big society” on the basis of a clear opposition between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, a dualism which would be fully codified in twentieth-century reflection and still hovers in contemporary communitarianism. Secondly, above all it seems to be the prerogative of the female subject, and therefore founded on a partial sacrifice of the Self. Through his unprecedented enhancement of the female individual, Rousseau indeed outlines an alternative emotional structure to that of the acquisitive individual, basing it on care and love for the other, which would embody the very model of modern female subjectivity. Nevertheless, he confines her to the private sphere, thus deepening the split between the public and social individual and the intimate and private individual so widely debated by contemporary feminism and so shows the implicit effects of inequality between the sexes. Thirdly, in Rousseau there is effectively a narcissistic drift that can be seen in his excessive emphasis on the Self and in the withdrawal from the social sphere that runs through the last phase of his reflection. Hence, it is plausible to recognize the start of the “fall of public man,” to use Sennett’s words, and the crisis of the social bond peculiar to the individualism of self-fulfillment. But in the Rousseauian model, narcissism preserves the critical and even utopian taste of resistance, first of all emotional, against the alienating effects of the acquisitive passions. We can then find traces of this model every time that the emphasis on the Self highlights the desire for a more authentic, richer and fuller existence, in contrast to the hegemonic model of acquisitive individualism; as happens for example in Romantic expressionism, or in the American individualism of Emerson and Whitman, or in Marcuse’s image of an anti-Promethean Narcissus, the symbol of alternative values to those of homo oeconomicus (see ch. 3).

Rousseau therefore allows us to understand how, even in its most implosive and “narcissistic” forms, the ideal of authenticity preserves an ethical and societal endeavor, which may legitimize, as is the case in some contemporary proposals, its reinstatement in the normative sense. However, this ethical endeavor makes it illegitimate to liken this ideal to the pathologies of the postmodern Self in which the desire, or, as Rieff says, the “gospel of self-fulfillment,” implies detachment from the social and disaffection towards all that lies outside the Self’s immediate interests.

This form of pathological narcissism presupposes not only the end of all critical distance from the existent and the abandonment of all emancipatory projects, but indeed a sort of desertion of the social and public sphere based, at the outset, on the loss of the emotional bond with the other. The pathological narcissism and the resulting crisis of the social bond can therefore be traced back to an absence of emotivity, to a loss of  pathos and relational endeavor whose origin, in my opinion, does not lie in the search for authenticity, but in the atomistic and entropic torsion of the very same acquisitive passions.

In this connection, his critical diagnosis of this intrinsic process is perhaps Tocqueville’s most precious intuition, as he shows its intimate nexus with the advent of democracy. The democratic individualism described by Tocqueville is the effect of a complex set of factors. On one hand, this individualism is constituted by a sort of entropization of the acquisitive passion (the “passion of well-being”), which no longer manages to transform into the open conflictuality of Hobbes and Smith’s model, but implodes into the desocializing forms of envy and resentment. On the other hand, it is constituted by the conformism produced by the “passion of equality” which makes men “similar” without, however, uniting them. On the contrary, this conformism leads to the dissolution of the figure of the other, leading to a-pathy and indifference.

According to Tocqueville, democracy unties the social bond since it causes a weakening of the passions. It is true that by offering everyone unlimited possibilities, democracy boosts the acquisitive passion and even makes it the central core of the emotional life; but at the same time, democracy empties the emotional life of all flair for planning and Promethean farsightedness, reducing it to a feverish and mediocre hedonism, made of fluctuating and objectless desires. This hedonism absorbs the Self’s energies and directs them in the anxious search for an unobtainable success, causing the Self’s demobilization from public and social life. Furthermore, democracy also produces similarity and homogenization: the individual’s tendency to disappear into the masses, fuelled by an obsessive desire for equality that does not tolerate any differences and is jealous of all forms of distinction, namely by a conformist passion only capable of appearing in the solitary and “livid” forms of envy. Democracy generates an undifferentiated mass of unrelated individuals, closed off atomistically in the pursuit of a well-being that never satisfies them. Characterized by the weakness of the passions and the will, they are each extraneous from the other despite their general similarity. Ultimately, these individuals are willing even to relinquish their freedom out of the need for protection and order generated by their solitude and lack of solidarity. They are inclined to become subjugated to the despotism of an apparently soft power to which every choice and decision is delegated. Indeed Tocqueville captures the configuration of an anonymous and pervasive political power that insensitively penetrates the individuals’ inner being, directing their actions, orienting their choices, and weakening their will. His thinking would gather widespread agreement in post-Weberian reflections on power, the fullest and most recent expression of which is Foucault’s image of modern power as the “government of souls.”

Atomism and massification, solitude and conformism, independence and subjection: the homo democraticus radicalizes the ambivalence of the modern individual and hence the form of individualism undergoes a profound change. He is no longer aggressive and conflictual, but weak and apathetic, indifferent and delegatory. In him we can see the genesis of the pathological narcissism described by contemporary reflection, in which an unlimited desire for self-realization appears as the specular effect of an emotional void, of a loss of pathos that closes the Self in a logic of identity responsible for both the weakening of the individual identity and the crisis of the social bond. Taking over from the conflictual scenario of enemies and rivals distinctive to the liberal model is the democratic scenario of unrelated atoms who are unable even to recognize their own authentic interest; taking over from the purely instrumental bond of early modernity is an absence of bond produced by desubstantializing the figure of the other which transforms conflict into indifference. Nevertheless, we cannot speak of an epochal break, nor invoke a presumed betrayal of the emancipatory project of modernity. Indeed narcissism prompts an entropic torsion of the same acquisitive passions favored, as Tocqueville perfectly grasped, by the democratic social state (see ch. 4).

Therefore, narcissistic individualism seems to have jeopardized the societal dimension once and for all, since it even makes obsolete the possibility of interest acting instrumentally as a normative response. If anything, as a contrasting and complementary phenomenon, it produces the re-emergence of “disinterested” passions which fuel a return of community in forms, however, that are mainly regressive and destructive, as can be seen in the various forms of contemporary tribalism and communitarianism (whether with ethnic, religious, or ideological origins) which oppose the endogamous and violent passionality of cum with the apathy of uprooting and homogenization.

Against this split between a narcissistic individualism and a regressive communitarianism, between an absence of pathos corroding the social bond and an excess of pathos rebuilding it in distorted and exclusive forms, the need emerges to urgently rethink the forms of being-in-common that can reactivate participation in public life as well as sensitivity to the collective good.

The current normative proposals—whether they strive to enhance the emancipatory potentials of the modern project by proposing more sophisticated forms of rationality and understanding à la Habermas, or, on the contrary, enhance the post-modern chances of an ethics of responsibility (from Jonas to Bauman)—nevertheless seem to dodge the problem of the pathologies of the modern individual. Thus they are once again limited to presupposing the image of an individual who is rationally open to understanding and able to recognize his own interest, or merely limited to reproposing the efficacy of a moral imperative with an ontological or deontological basis.

I would like to immediately point out that taking these pathologies seriously, recognizing the obstacle that the Self’s emotional dynamics can set against any normative project or abstract ethical appeal, in my opinion does not mean giving up on a normative solution, but opening up unexpected perspectives, which respect their inconvenient but invincible complexity at this level too. It means grasping the chance to recognize, in the individual’s same emotional structure, a possible pre-normative answer to the drifts of contemporary individualism. In other words, before wondering “what we have to do,” we should maybe ask “what we can count on,” and put ourselves in the diagnostic and critical perspective of philosophical anthropology.[xi] That is, we must ask ourselves whether, in the ambivalent emotional structure of the modern individual, passions actually exist that cannot be traced back to the acquisitive and utilitarian paradigm; and whether there are any communitarian passions, in which the other is no longer just the enemy and rival or fellow individual only ordained with self-referential projections of the Self, nor the endogamous accomplice of an exclusive and destructive “us,” but is constitutive of the Self’s very identity and necessary for the construction of his universe of sense.

In this sense, both Rousseau and Tocqueville give us a possible route to follow when they invite us toward philia as the core of other passions than the ones that fuel the hegemonic path of the modern individual, namely passions that are directed toward alliance and solidarity, pietas and care for the other. However, it is not a matter of contrasting individualism with a banal altruism, or contrasting egoism with an irenic benevolence. It is above all Tocqueville who allows us to avoid this danger when, seeing philia as the remedy to the ills of democracy, he nevertheless prevents it being read in a banally altruistic manner, and embeds it in the same weakness and deficiency of the Self that produced acquisitive individualism. This means that what I defined an anthropology of lack can give rise to a different response at the emotional level, not generating in the Self a purely instrumental need for the other, but on the contrary a desire for the other as the object of the Self’s own relational endeavor, his own need for a bond and belonging.

To me today what seems to effectively represent this possible route is the symbolic reality of the gift (suffice it to think in particular of the contemporary form of the “gift to strangers”): the concrete and unequivocal testimony, as upheld by the theorists of “Maussian” inspiration,[xii] of a desire for a bond no longer seen as the means for achieving one’s own acquisitive and utilitarian aims but as an end unto itself.

An archaic and permanent structure, removed from modernity and sacrificed, according to Mauss and Bataille’s interpretation, to the logic of utility, the gift makes a new appearance inside the pathologies of individualism with the strength and cogency of a passion, which I propose to define as a passion for the other: the emotional endeavor of a weak and deficient individual, who yearns for sharing,cum, community as a result of recognizing the other as donating the sense of his own existence. This does not mean that the gift is totally without a dimension of interest and that it must be conceived of as a purely altruistic and disinterested act: as a passion, it is indeed “exposure” to the other, dépense, loss of self (Bataille) which nevertheless is prompted by an inescapable need of the Self, by an individual interest in alliance and bonds. Therefore, the gift does not betray the Self’s interest, since it does not demand either sacrifices or forms of oblativity produced by self-oblivion. On the contrary, the gift even respects the Self’s authenticity, being prompted by a loyalty to his own deepest and most inescapable desires; and nevertheless it projects the individual into a sphere “outside the Self” enabling cyclical and unlimited forms of reciprocity to come into being. Homo reciprocus, the subject of the gift, presupposes an individual conscious of his own incompleteness and dependence on the other. It is a “wounded” subject, Bataille would say, who hosts otherness as his internal dimension, as the constitutive difference which prevents him from being recomposed in the illusory self-sufficiency of homo oeconomicus or withdrawing into the narcissistic indifference of homo democraticus (see ch. 5).

In this sense, in my opinion it would be interesting to rethink the nexus between the gift and the female subject, removing her from the ambiguous constrictions of a centuries-old model of which Rousseau, as I have already mentioned, provides the modern paradigm. Reading the gift as a passion for the other would allow us to bring out the giving nature of the female subject, hospitable and open to otherness insofar as she is mindful of the origin and dependence. However, it would have to be stripped of its sacrificial aspects and given back the sovereign power implicit in the authenticity of choice. But I would have to start a whole new chapter on this.

A concrete act repeated endlessly in a cycle of reciprocity in which each person is always the giver and receiver at the same time, the gift contains its own intrinsic, anthropologically and emotionally founded normativity, thanks to which what is morally and socially desirable is already implicit, as a fact, in the individuals’ action. An eminently symbolic event due to its truly concrete nature, the gift combines individualism and belonging, self-realization and solidarity, authenticity and reciprocity, thus overcoming all sterile dichotomies between individualism and communitarianism; indeed, in the gift these two poles appear constitutive of and integral to a communitarian individual.


Elena Pulcini

Lexington (Rowan & Littlefield), Lanham, USA 2012

[i] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other Writings on the Rise of the West, trans. Stephen Kalberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 491 (note 29). Originally published as Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (Tübingen: Mohr, 1922).
[ii] Steven Lukes, “The Meanings of ‘Individualism,” Journal of History of Ideas, 32 (1971).
[iii] Alain Laurent, Histoire de l’individualisme (Paris: PUF, 1993), own translation.
[iv] Georg Simmel, “Die beiden Formen des Individualismus,” in Gesamtausgabe, Band 7 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1995).
[v] But also Daniel Bell, Philip Rieff, David Riesman, Gilles Lipovetsky etc., all texts quoted in ch. 4.
[vi] See also, from an essentially philosophical perspective, Alain Renaut, The Era of the Individual, trans. M.B. DeBevoise and Franklin Philip (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1997). Originally published as L’ère de l’individu (Paris: Gallimard, 1989). Here this viewpoint is reproposed through the opposition of autonomy/independence.
[vii] On the concept of “passione,” see Elena Pulcini, “Passioni” in Enciclopedia del pensiero politico, ed. Roberto Esposito and Carlo Galli (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2000); and Silvia Vegetti Finzi, ed., Storia delle passioni (Rome-Bari: Laterza,1995).
[viii] Jon Elster, “Sadder but wiser? Rationality and Emotions,” Social Science Information, 24 (1985).
[ix] Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977).
[x] Stephen Holmes, Passions and Constraints. On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), in particular the essay “The Secret History of Self-Interest.”
[xi] On the critical potential of philosophical anthropology, which obviously would require separate reflection, I will restrict myself to pointing out the works by Charles Taylor, quoted several times in the text, and by Odo Marquard, amongst which “Zur Geschichte der Philosophischen Begriffs ‘Anthropologie’ seit dem Ende des Achtzehnten Jahrhunderts” (1965), in Schwierigkeiten mit der Geschichtsphilosophie(Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973). I would also like to thank Paolo Costa and Dimitri D’Andrea for their useful contribution to the discussion on this topic during the workshop on “Ermeneutica ed antropologia filosofica dopo il Novecento” (critical theory and social philosophy seminar on Hermeneutics and Philosophical Anthropology since the Twentieth Century, Gallarate, November 11-12, 2000).
[xii] See the texts by Alain Caillé, Jacques T. Godbout and other MAUSS theorists quoted in chapter 5.

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