Individualism Piece on IEP

Erica Brindley, author of Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics, just published a piece on “Individualism in Classical Chinese Thought” for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Brindley’s whole article is worth a careful read, not to mention the aforementioned book; I assume the article is in part a distillation of the book. Here are a couple of excerpts:

To the extent that the self is conceived as physical, embodied, and dynamic, the early Chinese “self” necessarily entails a different definition of  “individual.” While there is no clear term in Classical Chinese that might translate consistently into “individual,” this latter term facilitates discussion of those aspects of the self that emphasize its particularity within a whole. We use the term “individual” here to refer to early Chinese notions of self that concern not so much the subjective, psychological sense of “self,” but the qualities of a person that mark him or her as a single, particular entity capable of exerting agency from within a web of relationships. In other words, we refer to the individual not as an atomistic, isolated, and undifferentiated part of a whole, but as a distinct organism that must serve particular functions and fulfill a unique set of relationships in the worlds of which he or she is a part. The individual is thus a unique participant in a larger whole—integral to both, the processes that define the whole, as well as to the change and transformation that stems from itself.

One cannot speak of individualistic movements in early China without at least coming to terms with what we know about Yang Zhu, or Yangzi (c. 4th century B.C.E.), and his legacy. Mencius claimed that Yang Zhu promoted a doctrine of egoism, which the former deemed tantamount to anarchism. Though there is no solid evidence that anything Yangzi may have authored has been transmitted through the ages, we can still gain insight into his views from descriptions and condemnations of his teachings by Mencius and other writers of the slightly later Han period. It is possible that what we have described as primitivist above is nothing more than a strain of thought influenced by Yangist tenets and beliefs.

Yang Zhu, like Mencius, appears to have viewed the self and human body as an important resource for universal, objective forms of authority through xing. We see this through the following quote from Mencius, which states: “Even if he were to benefit the world by pulling out a single hair, he would not do it.” It appears that Yangzi’s so-called egoism is founded on a principle of preserving some aspect of one’s self or body over and above anything else. A later author claims that what Yangzi valued was self in and of itself, while others described his thinking in the following way: “Keeping one’s nature whole, preserving one’s genuineness, and not letting things tire one’s form (body) – these Yangzi advocated but Mencius denounced.” In this example, the self to be valued consists in xing, the body, and in “genuineness” – a vague concept that seems to refer to a spiritual ideal – inherent or original to the individual. Based on such a description, Yang Zhu appears to have idealized certain aspects of the self that help define its essence, whether material, spiritual, or both. By insisting on a sharp separation between that which is internal or associated with the person on the one hand, and external things that might tire it on the other, Yang Zhu joins Mencius in basing his ideals on a fundamental inner/outer distinction. However, his recommendation that one keep the self and its aspects free of outside contamination, if accurate, would constitute an even more extreme form of individualism than what we have encountered with Mencius.

Thanks to friend of the blog, Leanne Ogasawara, for the tip. Comments about the IEP piece, reviews of Brindley’s book, and so forth are welcome.

10 replies on “Individualism Piece on IEP”

  1. Thank you, Leanne and Manyul, for bringing this piece to our attention. I think we need much more work along these lines.



    “Individualism” is used here to denote inborn and inalienable prerogatives, powers, or values associated with the self and person as found throughout much of the Chinese philosophical tradition.

    I guess she means the view that all adult people have inherent and unremovable(?) prerogatives, (moral?)powers, or values(attitudes of valuing? ways of being valuable?).

    In two key ways, it seems to me, “individualism” doesn’t mean just that some important things (normative or otherwise) are or should be of or up to each person. It means rather that what are in some sense the main or basic things are or should be of or up to each person rather than the group.

    So it seems to me that although the word “individualism” is extremely flexible, it is not so flexible as to allow the use Brindley defines. So I think she isn’t quite talking about individualism. She seems more or less to concede this point in her next sentence, but for a different reason.


    Unlike individualism in modern European and American contexts, Chinese manifestations of “individualism” do not stress an individual’s separation, total independence, and uniqueness from external authorities of power.

    Brindley here says in effect that by “individualism” she will not mean what the word means in the contexts in which it has been used.

    As for the details—I can’t help thinking that the sentence got mixed up in transmission. Maybe what she means is that the part of individualism we don’t much find in the Chinese tradition is an emphasis on each person’s differences from and separateness from each other person, and (causal?) independence from other people and from the community.


    Like her second sentence, Brindley’s first sentence is about independence in a way: it says that we have various (normative?) things inherently and unremovably(?). That is, our having them is independent of what others do.

    So maybe Brindley’s overall point in those two sentences is that Chinese individualism is about normative independence, while Western individualism is also about difference, distinctness, and non-normative independence?


    Rather, individualism in the Chinese tradition emphasizes one’s power from within the context of one’s connection and unity (or harmony) with external authorities of power. So while both the modern Western and Chinese contexts share a belief that individuals are morally valuable and may attain an outstanding status as such, the Western tradition tends to view the individual in an atomized, disconnected manner, whereas the Chinese tradition focuses on the individual as a vitally integrated element within a larger familial, social, political, and cosmic whole.

    Here are two different interpretive hypotheses that start off the same:

    Brindley holds that while Chinese and Western individualism both see people as normatively independent from others, a key difference is that

    I. China sees people as profoundly causally affected by others.

    II. China sees a person’s neighbors as not fully other than that person, so that her complete normative independence from others is logically consistent with her profound normative dependence on her neighbors.

    Hypothesis I connects better with the opening sentences, if my guess about those was right. But offhand, it seems like an implausible claim to make about serious thinkers in the Western tradition.

    The rest of the piece has not helped me decide which of these (if either) she means throughout. She could mean both.


    Brindley observes that there is no classical Chinese equivalent of the word “individual,” so that if someone asks you whether the early Chinese thought of the self as an individual, you might want to be careful about the word “individual.” I think that’s a very small issue, since usually the word as used in English differs very little in meaning from “person.” (Mainly, I think, we use it to make clear that we aren’t talking about people collectively. For example, we might say “How much of that property is owned by individuals?” because if we said “…by people” we might seem to be including groups.) There is another term about whose transport Brindley seems wholly unconcerned, whereas I think one should always be rather anxious even about one’s own use of it or, as I prefer, avoid it entirely: “self”.

    She uses the word “self” throughout the article as though it means something on the order of “tree” or “person,” i.e. something the ancient Chinese presumably had a conception of.

    “Self” as a free-standing noun is hardly in common use. Note that being able to understand yourself doesn’t imply that you have a “self,” any more than an oven’s being self-cleaning implies that it has a “self.” As a general rule, I think, the burden of giving meaning to the freestanding noun “self” lies with the writer in each case, though writers rarely try to carry it. Early Chinese thinkers had the reflexive terms 自 and 己, but did they ever try to make freestanding nouns out of these?

    When I use the word “I”, am I usually referring to a person or to a self? How about when I use the word “you” or the name “Erica”?

    A possible attraction of the word “self” might arise when one wants to believe the following two obviously conflicting things:

    1. X did not distinguish human persons from living human bodies.
    2. X did not regard persons as wholly separate and distinct from each other.

    One can avoid noticing the conflict by using the word “self” as a fudge factor, sometimes meaning simply “person” and sometimes not. Or one can notice everything and use “self” to mean something other than simply “person,” and deny 2 and accept 2a:

    2a. X did not regard selves as wholly separate and distinct from each other.

    What do these views (2a and the denial of 2) suggest about whether X regarded individuals as wholly separate and distinct from one another?

    Though Brindley sometimes speaks of non-separateness of persons (or whatever), she more often suggests that persons are like distinct body parts of bees: vitally integrated into larger wholes. This image doesn’t require overlap between the individual parts.


    I agree with the first paragraph about the Analects, with one caveat: Confucius isn’t talking about people in general. Confucius focuses on the pursuit of an exceptionally high moral calling, in the pursuit of which passivity doesn’t work. I don’t think he thinks the point has application to most people (recall the grass of 12.19 and the prima facie paradox of 12.1). In my Youzi paper I made these claims, which agree with Brindley’s first paragraph except for the caveat I’ve mentioned:

    Most of Confucius’ grand views about moral epistemology and practice center on copying external models. First, we should carry forward the ritual pattern of the past (7.1, 7.20, 11.14, 12.1), though sometimes the past gives several options. Second, people do copy (and otherwise reciprocate) the ways of those set over them; so the heart of governance is to be a good example (e.g. 12.18, 12.22, 13.4). Third, copying the people and things we already recognize as good is a main method of moral progress (2.18, 4.17, 7.22, 7.28), as well as being rather natural (2.1, 2.21, 4.25, 12.1); so we should seek such examples (1.8, 1.14, 4.1, 6.26, 15.10). […]

    For Confucius, the greatest virtue is realized in the great transpersonal order. One pursues great virtue by trying to fit into that order (12.1-2). The virtue of individuals does not grow organically from humble roots; rather it is received, actively by a few and passively by the rest (2.1, 12.1, 13.2-3, 13.11, 16.2). Confucius’ main metaphor for individual moral progress is the painting, inscribing, or carving of a given material (e.g. 1.15, 5.22, 12.20, 14.42, 15.10; cf. 16.7), as Slingerland has shown. Representing talent, solid character, or whatever is prior to the progress at hand, good material is such as to receive a pattern and keep it; not resist, impose its own pattern, or melt back down (3.8, 5.10, 6.18, 12.19).

    Confucius would not eat his fill beside a mourner (7.9); he would not sing on a day he had wept (7.10); he would not sit unless his mat was rightly placed (10.12; see Ivanhoe 2000, p. 6…). These marvelous miniatures are more easily seen as techniques of receptivity and participation than as models whose power is in their analogy with other practices. The several virtues are means of receiving and holding the great pattern, not blueprints for it. Filial piety involves absorbing a father’s way (1.11). Humility and respect aid our absorption into the order, our serving and coming to exemplify it (e.g. 14.44). Being trustworthy is instrumental to being taught or led, for a teacher needs to know that when a student grants a point she is really taking it in (2.22, 4.22, 5.10, 9.24). Progress means taking things farther and farther in (2.4, 10.19). Left to themselves the several virtues will not find the way (5.3, 8.2, 9.5, 9.14, 17.8, 17.10).

    Thus I think Confucius lays a special stress on initiative, for a few. As for the effect side, I don’t see that he is more interested in the transformation of individuals in general than in the transformation of society (though he plainly thinks the transformation of some individuals is important for the transformation of society). So I don’t agree with Brindley when she says about the Analects,

    it is clear that the individual holds the most valuable key insofar as he or she serves as the locus for self-cultivation and, hence, for the transformation of himself or herself to contribute to a moral society and cosmos. The individual forms the basis upon which authoritative, moral meaning and behavior is to be constructed.

    I’ll stop here for now. I already owe Stephen and Dan a discussion of whether or subject to what qualifications Mengzi thinks the human heart has practical authority, from the Heart of Deference thread. I haven’t worked out quite what to think.

  2. Nice posts and response! A very provocative issue!

    I am always baffled with the exact meanings of “individualism” in contemporary Western thoughts and maybe this could be a good chance to get some clarification.

    Brindley says for example:

    “The notion of autonomy arguably serves as a distinguishing aspect of any form of individualism. The autonomous agent in many Western discursive models is free from certain external influences. This can be seen in the fact that various individualisms of today generally recast the individual as someone with the potential to be separate and different from his environment and conventional norms. They empower individuals by emphasizing their ability to make decisions and judgments independent of mundane influences and norms in the world.”

    I am not sure where is this notion of autonomy as “free from mundane influences and norms in the world” come from on earth. It is apparently not quite Kantian whose autonomous self did have concerns about the universal validity of his moral choice. Nor does it apply to Mill, whose autonomous self would have the greatest happiness of world as an end. Then which philosopher, on earth, is proposing the view Brindley summarized above – though it does appear to be quite a popular view these days?

  3. Hi Huaiyu,

    On the history and meanings of the word “individualism” a terrific little book is Steven Lukes’ Individualism (Harper 1973), nowadays unfortunately a little scarce. I was looking at it again this morning after many years’ absence. He points out that the word originated in the 19th century in France (“individualisme”) as a pejorative term used by socialists and conservatives, and says it’s still a pejorative term in France, suggesting selfishness and opposition to the needs of society.

  4. Thanks Bill. I shall look up Lukes’ book for sure.

    Judging from your description, though, the sense of selfish and opposition to society is a meaning that was assigned by the “opponents” of the individualism (socialists are collectivists). One would wonder whether this sense is affirmed by the proponents of individualism themselves or what their positive definition of individualism would be….

    • Yes! I don’t have Lukes with me at the moment, and I don’t myself recall whether any significant moral or political thinker has used the word “individualism” as a main label for her own views. Judging from my report from Lukes above, Kant didn’t. It seems to me offhand that I have seen the word mainly in absurd pejorative caricatures of Western culture in general.

      I do think the passage you quote in #2 above is a fair description of an aspect of Kantian autonomy.

  5. When I made my own submission to the IEP (“Consequentialism”), the editors demanded many dozens of changes, which as I recall were without exception plain mistakes: of logic, fact, grammar, and even spelling. (I was able to get most of them overturned, with a little help from my friends.) So I’m not ready to hold Brindley quite responsible for anything that appears in her piece. Still I’ll continue to call the piece “Brindley.”

    A few more comments …

    I think that when I guessed (in #1 B above) that Brindley’s opening contrast between Chinese and Western individualism was about the normative v. the non-normative, I was wrong, and rather carelessly wrong. Her writing was clearer than I thought. I now think the contrast she meant is rather between these two:

    (C): “… individuals …,”
    (W): “… individuals rather than the group …”.

    Nowadays, in my opinion, Dan Robins’ work on xing 性 is absolutely essential reading for any discussion, however brief, of Mengzi’s claims about xing. Brindley’s different view plays a large role in her argument about the Chinese tradition, so I think she should least mention one of his relevant articles in her bibliography: “The Warring States Concept of Xing” (Dao 10:1) —
    discussed here:
    Brindley presumably wrote her paper before this key piece came out, though Robins’ dissertation on the topic has been influential for some years now.

    Brindley’s discussion of Mengzi relies very heavily on two notoriously obscure and highly controversial sections of the book: 2A2 and 6A.

    Brindley says that in 2A2, Gaozi presents a view about “the will zhi”; but in fact he is never reported as mentioning that, and it’s not clear to me that he’s reported as saying something implicitly about that.

    Regarding both passages, Brindley says of Gaozi, “His view of moral cultivation strongly denies that an individual’s internal xing could have any moral quality or potential.”

    I submit that there is no significant evidence that Gaozi denies the point at all, and there is pretty plain evidence that he asserts it. In 2A2 Gaozi’s relevant comment is, “不得於言,勿求於心” (“What is not attained in words is not to be sought for in the mind”-Legge). This statement does not deny that anything can be found in the mind; rather it suggests the contrary. (Nor does it say anything about whether 言 in this context reflects 性.) In 6A, Gaozi’s carving and water images similarly leave the point wide open, rather than strongly taking one side. The images can easily and naturally be read to insist on the essential contributory role of the potentials inherent in wood and water. Further, in 6A4 Gaozi’s opening claim is “仁,內也,非外也;義,外也,非內也” (“Benevolence is internal and not external; righteousness is external and not internal” –Legge). On balance, the evidence thus suggests to me that Gaozi accepts the point Brindley says he strongly denies. Of course, it’s possible that the claim in 6A4 is a retreat forced by Mengzi, and that Brindley meant only to describe Gaozi’s previous position.

    Brindley’s claims about Mengzi can only gain in plausibility from weakening her view of Gaozi. Showing that Mengzi disagrees with an extremist says less about Mengzi than showing that he disagrees with a moderate.

    … Gaozi declares the absolute necessity of study and discipline through tradition, culture, and other external inputs. Mencius counters this …
    Mencius insists that only when internal resources such as xing are obstructed, violated, and destroyed through external forces, does immoral behavior arise.

    I think these claims about Mengzi are highly misleading (though Mengzi himself may occasionally be willing to mislead in that way). For one thing, health normally requires nutrients, not just non-interference (cf. 6A7). Mengzi famously insists that proper moral development depends on economic security, and some leisure, and hence normally depends on good government (e.g. 1A7: “As to the people, if they have not a certain livelihood, it follows that they will not have a fixed heart. And if they have not a fixed heart, there is nothing which they will not do, in the way of self-abandonment, of moral deflection, of depravity, and of wild license” –Legge). For example, property must be redistributed (3A3).

    He arguably holds that government-sponsored schooling is similarly important, at least for most people (1A3, 1A7). He says “There is the saying, ‘Some labour with their minds, and some labour with their strength. Those who labour with their minds govern others; those who labour with their strength are governed by others. …’ This is a principle universally recognized” (3A4). In elaborating this point,
    he says:

    “But men possess a moral nature; and if they are well fed, warmly clad, and comfortably lodged, without being taught at the same time, they become almost like the beasts. This was a subject of anxious solicitude to the sage Shun, and he appointed Xie to be the Minister of Instruction, to teach the relations of humanity: how, between father and son, there should be affection; between sovereign and minister, righteousness; between husband and wife, attention to their separate functions; between old and young, a proper order; and between friends, fidelity.” (Legge)

    He says that at least as a practical matter the heart needs guidance from external tools of judgment, as someone who wishes to draw circles needs a compass (4A1f). He thinks the example of one’s ruler can easily lead one astray (e.g. 1A1, 3A2, 6B4). If immorality requires “external forces” that “obstruct, violate, and destroy,” these must be such external forces as normally violate and destroy the natures of the kings in his era. He famously says that one immoral king is bad not because he can’t be better, but just because he chooses not to (1A7), though he has a suitable heart.

  6. A possible source of misunderstanding in discussions of individualism, I think, is a problem about the word ‘individual’ (as applied to humans). I have the impression that sometimes people who write about individualism suppose that the word “individual” actually means people conceived in a certain way, such that if you conceive people that way, or think they should be that way, you are therefore an individualist. I suspect Brindley sometimes operates on such an assumption (though I’m not sure). I think it’s just false of the normal use of the word, though one can of course get such a usage going in a particular paragraph. But whether or not it’s false, being aware of it as a possible view about the word might occasionally help prevent misunderstanding.

    I said above that I think “indivduals” as the word is normally used, even as it is normally used in moral and political philosophy, commonly just means people (taken one at a time). “Tickets may be purchased only by individuals” just means that organizations and aggregates-as-such can’t buy tickets; it doesn’t mean that passive follower-types can’t buy tickets. Here’s what the “Free Online Dictionary” says about the noun as applied to humans:

    a. A single human considered apart from a society or community: the rights of the individual.
    b. A human regarded as a unique personality: always treated her clients as individuals.
    c. A person distinguished from others by a special quality.
    d. Usage Problem A person.

    Usage Note: The noun individual is normally used to refer to an individual person as opposed to a larger social group or as distinguished from others by some special quality: This is not only a crisis of individuals, but also of a society (Raymond Williams). She is a real individual. Since the 19th century, however, there have been numerous objections to the use of the word to refer simply to “person” where no larger contrast is implied, as in Two individuals were placed under arrest or The Mayor will make time for any individual who wants to talk to her. This use of individual is common in official statements, as the examples imply, and lends a formal or even pretentious tone that may be undesirable. The words person and people are acceptable, neutral options that are appropriate in almost any context.

  7. Regarding the Mohists, Brindley makes two points. The first is that since they “argue explicitly against contemporary beliefs in ming (fate, destiny, derived from Heaven),” they “implicitly grant the individual much agency and control over the course of its life and the type of moral path it wishes to follow.” Actually the Mohists believed in, and strongly emphasized, a different kind of Heavenly control: reward and punishment. Heaven rewards beneficial behavior and punishes harmful behavior. The Mohists thus must have believed – and indeed they did – that people can act beneficially and harmfully.

    Brindley’s other point about the Mohists, really her main point, is:

    the basis of their views on moral meritocracy and Heaven’s Will are grounded on a fundamental belief in an individual’s rational capacity to know and learn about morality, [so] the Mohist individual starts to appear much more individualistic than he would at first glance. Indeed, in early Mohist writings, individuals are required to know and choose the morally correct path – that which conforms with Heaven’s Will – on their own.

    I think this claim is cast in doubt by the essay on “Identification with the Superior” (尚同上), present in three versions in the Mozi. Here is the opening of the version, as translated by Mei and available at the Chinese Text Project.

    Mozi said: In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was “everybody according to his own idea” [人異義]. Accordingly each man had his own idea, two men had two different ideas and ten men had ten different ideas — the more people the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own view [是其義] and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men. As a result, father and son and elder and younger brothers became enemies and were estranged from each other, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Everybody worked for the disadvantage of the others with water, fire, and poison. Surplus energy was not spent for mutual aid; surplus goods were allowed to rot without sharing; excellent teachings (Dao) were kept secret and not revealed. The disorder in the (human) world could be compared to that among birds and beasts.

    Yet all this disorder was due to the want of a ruler. Therefore (Heaven) chose the virtuous in the world and crowned him emperor. Feeling the insufficiency of his capacity, the emperor chose the virtuous in the world and installed them as the three ministers. Seeing the vastness of the empire and the difficulty of attending to matters of right and wrong and profit and harm [是非利害之辯] among peoples of far countries, the three ministers divided the empire into feudal states and assigned them to feudal lords. Feeling the insufficiency of their capacity, the feudal lords, in turn, chose the virtuous of their states and appointed them as their officials.

    When the rulers were all installed, the emperor issued a mandate to all the people, saying: “Upon hearing good or evil one shall report it to a superior. What the superior thinks to be right all shall think to be right; what the superior thinks to be wrong all shall think to be wrong. When the superior is at fault there shall be good counsel, when the subordinates show virtue there shall be popular recommendation. To identify one’s self with the superior and not to unite one’s self with the subordinates – this is what deserves encouragement from above and praise from below.” On the other hand, if upon hearing good or evil one should not report to a superior; if what the superior thought to be right one should not think to be right; if what the superior thought to be wrong one should not think to be wrong; if when the superior was at fault there should be no good counsel if when the subordinates showed virtue there should be no popular recommendation; if there should be common cause with subordinates and no identification with the superior – this is what deserves punishment from above and condemnation from below.” The superior made this the basis of reward and punishment. He was clear-sighted and won his people’s confidence.

    • Hi Bill, Thanks for all these responses. I’m glad that the topic is thought-provoking enough to produce such a serious and committed response. I’m actually too busy at the moment to respond to all your points individually, but let me just refer you quickly to the actual chapter in my book on the Mohists (which discusses the “Shang tong” chapters almost exclusively in this respect). It’s the only chapter from the book that was actually published elsewhere, in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, as Brindley, “Human Agency and the Ideal of Shang Tong (Upward Conformity) in Early Mohist Writings,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34.3 (September 2007), 409-425. Translated into Chinese for the book series, Chinese and Comparative Philosophy, vol. 2. Edited by Center for Chinese and Comparative Philosophy, Renmin University of China (Beijing: Renmin University Press, 2009). The book also has a much longer discussion of why the term “individualism” is fully appropriate as a hermeneutic tool for understanding certain perspectives on the self in early China, and you may find it useful.

    • Hi Erica, thanks for the JCP reference. I’ve just read your paper in JCP, which is interesting and enlightening. I’d love to discuss it here, if you ever have time for a discussion. An excerpt or two would make a great main post; and as you probably know, the blog welcomes guest posts.

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