Sentimental Individualism and Anti-Slavery in the US and UK

Monday, 11 July 2016: 14:45
Location: Hörsaal 21 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Ralph FEVRE, Cardiff University, United Kingdom
There is considerable agreement amongst sociologists that individualism is one of the hallmarks of modernity. Knowledge of the historical development of individualism can nevertheless be a little sketchy. Many sociologists will know what they know of the history of individualism from reading Durkheim and Weber, blissfully unaware of the seminal contributions of Troeltsch and of the intense debate about the relative contribution of the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation to the rise of individualism. Hans Joas is amongst those who have recently revisited the debate. He comes down firmly on the side of Protestantism, particularly American Protestantism. Indeed Joas prefers to refer to the sacralisation of the person rather than individualism to underline his point. There is an empirical problem with his account, however: the persistence of support for slavery and and the slave trade alongside fervent American Protestantism. This paper presents an alternative view which has the additional benefit of explaining why it was in Britain, rather than the US, that a mass anti-slavery movement was born. It draws on the suggestion originally made in my book 'The Demoralization of Western Culture' that individualism also has roots in a third way of making sense of the world which is sometimes implicit in Protestant or Enlightenment arguments but not reducible to them (and perhaps closer to the account of individualism offered by Durkheim than Joas allows). This Sentimental Individualism developed in the UK before the US and influenced the development of Anti-slavery and many more nineteenth-century social movements besides. It developed in the US at a later date as a junior partner in the American Nationalist ideology of the mid-century.