Publish at November 22 2022 Updated November 22 2022

Individualism and learning

How to learn together if you are alone

source : Pixabay

"The positive side of modern individualism is to give everyone more responsibility and autonomy,  its negative side is to degrade solidarities and increase solitudes"

Edgard Morin

The following text is inspired by the thoughts of Pierre Le Coz, philosopher, specialist in ethics

The question that runs through Pierre Le Coz is that of the contradictions between "being together" and "working together," which I will extend with "learning together." How can we learn together if individualism is the only horizon? Throughout our education, poured from the earliest age into a school system of ranking the best that seeks to extract the brightest individuals, the collective dimension is minimized, learning together is suspected.

The whole question that runs through the philosopher's thought is the intersection between individual and collective interest. At work we see the emergence of a variety of forms of collectives, start-ups, cooperative societies that seek alternatives to the sole satisfaction of the individual interest of the business owner. The collective resounds as a resource or an asset. But in order to make it happen, the question of support methods arises. Which practices to value so that the time of the collective comes to pass?

Back to ethics 

For Aristotle "Man is by nature a social animal". But, to free himself from this decree, each one takes the leisure to choose his collective. This choice gains all the spheres of the life. Self-love progresses to a point where individuals seek to emancipate themselves from the personal past, they do not hesitate to divorce, they are also able to free themselves from the routine social and seek novelty, sensations, and when the economic no longer suits them they change companies.

If man is a social animal he is not a sheep. A part of individualism is perceptible. But individualism is not necessarily narcissism, selfishness or even withdrawal. Individualism is a mode of social organization opposed to the holistic model. The notion of individualism has a political significance that was disseminated by Tocqueville and is based on the right to individual independence from the precepts of religion and to choose one's preferences and destiny.

This anchoring of individualism goes back to the Enlightenment and Rousseau's social contract. The collective no longer owes its legitimacy to history, the past or religion, but to individual choices. The expression of Article 6 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man states, moreover, that "The law is the expression of the general will and results from a calculation of particular wills."

Individualism is still the right to be disinterested in the public space. It is a right of individual independence; a right to participate or not to participate, particularly used in Western democracies. 

Trajectory of individualism

Individualist culture is a civilizational process. Louis Dumont (2015), an anthropologist, put Christian and Eastern cultures in perspective. For example, the Indian caste is a collective that cannot be challenged by the individual because religion does not allow it. The individual has no substance in the Indian religion. The individual has no absolute value, whereas the Christian Bible proclaims an unconditional love for each being, the kingdom of heaven belongs to all. Christianity prepares contemporary individualism.

Marcel Gauchet goes so far as to assert that Christianity is "the religion of the exit from religion." The last avatar of the Christian religion would be "The Rights of Man" and the "Social Contract" as the culmination of a doctrine that bet on the individual. The declaration of the rights of man makes of the individual freedom the very nature of the man. It declares as early as 1789 "All men are born free and equal in rights". Let us note in passing that freedom comes before equality.

To what does individualism open us?

Individualism privileges new values of creativity and tolerance since singular ways claim to be legitimate beyond the traditional collectives. This individualism is opposed to the holistic society, the "community" (Tönnies, 2015) for which sacrifice, dedication to the group cemented by religion is a purpose. The purpose of the life of individuals is to perpetuate and transmit the knowledge of the elders, the prophets. In the community system, the individual sacrifices himself for the collective. His place is set from birth. It is determined by the social trajectory of the parents. Individualism turns against holism. It is henceforth the collective that is at the service of the individual.

With modernity, the past is outdated. There is a flavor of adventure with individualism, progress as continuous and collective improvement takes on a whole new meaning. What begins to emerge with individualism is happiness of which Saint Just will say that it is a new idea in Europe. While the life of a Christian is in theory a life of suffering and self-denial in order to better reach paradise, individualism promises to be happy here and now. The culture of entertainment, of the emancipation of minds and bodies is very recent.

Gilles Lipovetsky (1989) in his book "The Age of Emptiness" evokes for the period of the eighteenth century until 1960 a normative individualism with moral values and duties towards the collectives. The work for a collective, the pursuit of collective ideals with the socialist or communist movements (25% of the voters after the war in France), are a pursuit of political utopia and progress. Note that the whole period consecrates the emergence of lifelong education that will become vocational training with the pre-eminence of group learning.

Individualism and the bankruptcy of the collective

Regulatory ideals collapsed in the 1980s, work, family, homeland, political party would leave room for the void. There is no more past, no more future. Only sex, entertainment, the search for personal fulfillment. Does individualism consecrate the bankruptcy of the collective?

Despite the atomization of the social, individuals constitute groups, clans, networks, tribes (Maffesoli, 2019). They remain attached to the family; There are associative commitments 70,000 associations per year are created in a country like France. Places where we continue to live together persist. Places miniaturized on local interests. A society of individuals is being established (Elias 1997).

A search for the regulation of the individualist is set up. For example to be really free is not to destroy oneself it is to respect one's body. The legislator even places limits, for example prostitution is not an expression of freedom, it is forbidden. Abortion is limited to three months. Blood donation cannot be paid for. The state does not allow free use of one's body. Philosophers argue for the notion of dignity to limit the excesses of individualism. Indeed, it is in the name of dignity that employees leave their jobs when they do not feel respected.

From the morality of duty to the ethics of good feelings

More than ever imposing a duty on an individual becomes difficult. For example, a postwar message said "Give your blood, do your duty," but with the collapse of the morality of duty, it is the individual who judges for himself what is acceptable. Incentive campaigns then propose to dispense narcissistic gratifications from the donor, a current slogan would be "Give your blood, share your power." 

Individuals refuse to be lectured. The individual must be touched. Nothing must be imposed from the outside everything must come from the inside. The individual passes from a morality of duty to a morality of the heart. But this morality of love has uncertain results. 

To go in the direction of individuals, we are witnessing another trend that could be designated as "liberal paternalistic", it is to bring the individual by seducing him towards the collective. This is the theory of nudge, which seeks to manipulate behavior by distributing rewards. Thus, during the Covid epidemic, the freedom to be vaccinated will be encouraged by the granting of freedoms, such as going to the cinema or to the restaurant. It is also by using nudges that it will be possible to develop public health policies aiming at the achievement of more physical activity. For example, to encourage people to take the stairs, philosophical quotes are placed on the steps to encourage them to choose effort (which is good for health) rather than the escalator. The nudge seduces training by its way of seducing learners and leading them where the designer of a program wishes to take them.

Consequences of this individualization on the ways of learning together

It is possible to understand from this individualism that the strategy of the new collectives is based on seduction, by free adherence to fashion effects through a menu of choices that each is free to make. Training and education then rush to the fashions, proclaim the benefits of innovation (often technological) to try to capture the energy of learning together that sometimes seems to flee.

The individualistic parenthesis has existed since the eighteenth century, the climate crisis, the public debt and  the major societal issues will be restarted because the solutions are collective and will not rely only on good will. India, China, Brazil and many countries that have entered the era of consumption will accentuate ecological problems. 

The connection of the individual to the collective can pass through a third party that will make people think about what a group is. Freely given submission and shared interests will require moving from debate to dialogue. Arguments that rub up against each other and confront each other seem indeed to be from another age, since the individual is often content to be right for himself.

The "socio-cognitive conflict" will probably have to leave more room for a search for mutual complements and a search for alliance for learning that moves us away from the sole individual success and a little more in the success to collective challenges. 


Wikipedia Pierre Le Coz 

Elias, N. (1997). The society of individuals. Fayard.  

Lipovetsky, G. (1989). L'ère du vide (p. 59). Gallimard.

Tönnies, F. (2015). Community and society: fundamental categories of pure sociology. Presses universitaires de France.

Dumont, L. (2015). Essays on individualism. An anthropological perspective on modern ideology. Media Diffusion.

Abensour, M. (1966, January). The political philosophy of Saint-Just: Problématique et cadres sociaux. In Annales historiques de la Révolution française (pp. 1-32). Société des Etudes Robespierristes.

Maffesoli, M. (2019). The time of the tribes. The decline of individualism in postmodern societies. Editions de la Table Ronde.

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