The Concept of Individualism at East Wind Community

By Kruger, Mark | Utopian Studies, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Concept of Individualism at East Wind Community

Kruger, Mark, Utopian Studies

Individualism and Community

The concept of Western individualism emerged as a result of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophical thought. The end of feudalism marked the passing of a social system where the accumulation of wealth and social status was based on birth. The newly emerging capitalist middle classes sought to replace those social bases with a new ideology that empowered a greater portion of society and that provided them with an avenue for the obtaining of such wealth and status. A new ideological concept that emphasized the dignity and empowerment of ordinary persons emerged. It emphasized the social and political centrality of individual persons instead of monarchy, state, or church. As a result, the concept of individualism has generally been considered to include the dignity, self-development and empowerment of individual persons (Lukes 45-72).

Individualism has historically been recognized as an American national trait. In the eighteenth century, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur suggested that it was the differentiating characteristic of members of the new American nation, and nineteenth century visitors to the United States such as Alexis de Toqueville and Harriet Martineau described it in their writings (Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer; Tocqueville Democracy in America; Rafson). Frederick Jackson Turner believed that the individualism forged in the furnace of the American frontier was largely responsible for the character of democracy in the United States (The Frontier in American History 358-359). Similarly, the concept of individualism was an important part of the writings of nineteenth-century American writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. John Dewey believed that classical individualism should be replaced with one more social in nature, where the independent individual is not separated from but rather contributes to the social whole (Individualism Old and New).

While the United States was recognized for the individualism of its inhabitants, at the same time it was also the location chosen by a myriad of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century communitarians for the establishment of intentional communities. Religious societies that settled in the United States and sought to create egalitarian communities included the Shakers, the Harmonists, the Amana Colonies, and the Oneidans. Secular communities included New Harmony, the Icarians, a number of anarchist communities, and various Fourierist experiments (Oved; Nordhoff; Hines). However, as active as those centuries were in terms of the founding of communities in the United States, it was dwarfed by the search for community in the 1960s, a decade during which it has been estimated that tens of thousands of communes, involving a million members, were created (Miller xviii; Gardner 3).

The question of individualism in a communal setting is a sensitive one. The issue that every intentional community must confront is the relationship of the individual to the community (Bellah et al., The Good Society 81). John Dos Passos viewed the relationship between the individual and the community to be one of space or "elbow room"; Conway Zirkle sought the biological physiology behind individualism and the human need for social support; Richard Weaver explored the role of the individual in the modern setting, where it is shaped by a multitude of social organizations (Morley). Michael Sandel viewed human behavior as an attempt to unemcumber the self from society at the same time as people grow and develop from socially directed actions (Avineri and Shalit).

An intentional community must be concerned both with the welfare of the group and also with the importance of social relations between all members of the community. Too much emphasis on individual independence and self-centeredness may have the effect of weakening community ties and focus. If the individual is considered to be supreme within the community, not only the philosophy of communitarianism but also the effective functioning of the community may be adversely affected. …

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