Individualism   /   Spring 2002   /    Bibliographic Review

A Bibliographic Essay on Individualism

Markella B. Rutherford

Individualism is a complex and vast concept, interrelated with a number of other value-laden concepts—such as autonomy, freedom, rights, equality, justice, identity, and ethics—that permeate public discussions of what social arrangements are appropriate for our democratic society. The varying uses of these concepts are imbued with particular notions of the good, both what constitutes the good life and what constitutes the good society. As one of these fundamental societal values, individualism has been confronted and debated by scholars across a wide variety of disciplines: political theory, moral philosophy, sociology, literary analysis, law, education, economics, and religion. This bibliography strives to give a sense of the interdisciplinary breadth of concern with individualism and the issues surrounding it.

Central is the relationship between the individual and society. Neither is possible without the other, but the two exist in constant tension: Which is prior? How ought we to balance private interest with public goods? Can either the individual or society be given greater importance without crippling the other? Individualism, very broadly defined, is the position that gives priority to the individual as both source and beneficiary of social action and as the ultimate measure of what is good. The books included in this bibliography discuss the meaning of individualism, provide a picture of American individualism, and map the contours of several debates organized around the central tension between the individual and society.

Ideas about individualism defy easy categorization because the labels that are often used in relevant debates (e.g., liberal, communitarian) are sometimes imposed on thinkers that do not themselves use such labels to describe their positions. Furthermore, the recognized “camps” are divided—both champions and critics of individualism are to be found, for example, within the ranks of conservatives, liberals, feminists, and communitarians. There is, therefore, considerable overlap between the categories presented here. For the sake of brevity, however, works have been included in only one section.

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