American Exceptionalism, Individualism, and the Meaning of Life

The scope of the title of this post is daunting, especially because I do not intend to test your patience with a long essay.

“American Exceptionalism” is usually deployed either as a term of approbation for the greatness of the United States or as a mocking sneer denouncing American hubris.

I am especially interested in the role played by American Individualism in shaping what is “exceptional” about the way Americans evaluate the behavior of themselves and their neighbors. If I were forced by aliens to explain quickly what most clearly distinguishes Americans, I would say “their sense that individuals shape their own lives.” I see their fundamental attitudes toward class, parenting, marginalized groups, governmental regulations, and academic performance through an explanatory lens of individualism, captured so tellingly by the huge banner at the 2012 Republican National Convention: “YES. We Did It Ourselves.”

While it would be easy for Americans to think that our form of individualism with its claim to the virtues of self-reliance, personal responsibility, independence, and consequent personal blameworthiness and credit is the one and proper meaning of “individualism”, that definition is relatively uncommon among world cultures. Little wonder that I once spent a confusing summer interviewing Chinese workers in an effort to understand their boundaries between the self and their community all the while using a frame of reference that was mine and decidedly not theirs.

E.E. Sampson’s essay, “The Debate on Individualism” in American Psychologist, (January 1988) pp. 15-22 has the disruptive effect of demonstrating that a more “community-based, interdependent understanding of the self” creates in most cultures a form of individualism that embeds each person in a web of relationship without destroying the incentive to achieve. (I ordinarily would not recommend an article containing as much jargon as this one has, but I think slogging through it is worth the effort because the significance of his contribution is so important for how we see our world. Of course I would be eager to speak with anyone about the argument in the article. For anyone unable to access the article on-line, I can send you a copy as an attachment if you ask.)

Sampson calls the typical American use of the term individualism “self-contained individualism“. That label refers to the distinct boundaries this version draws between the self and the external world. The individuals who populate this viewpoint control their lives by managing the external world via their calculating rational choices. The effect of this perspective is to read a fact such as “Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett have combined wealth exceeding the total wealth of 50% of Americans, while a UN representative will release in May 2018 a scathing indictment of the massive poverty and homeless problem in the U.S.” and then vote for politicians who provide the largest tax cuts for the comfortable on the grounds that they are the most deserving among us.

Sampson contrasts self-contained individualism with “ensembled individualism”. Metaphorically this self is akin to musicians, actors, dancers, or romantic partners for whom the self exists embedded into a unit.  The unit depends on the selves of its members; the self depends on performing its function inside the ensemble.

This form of individualism results in an understanding of life’s meaning as relational in the spirit of Ken Gergen’s description of the “relational self.” From this vantage point, our meaning flows from complex interactions relationships with others. The project of life becomes the creation of what Aristotle referred to as the highest form of friendships, those non-contractual human interactions where we cannot distinguish the interests of others as distinct from our individual interests.

Ensembled individualism yields a more humble version of the power we possess to arrange our lives, one that places major explanatory weight on fortuity in it many forms, flowing from the birth lottery.


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