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7.8 Program for the Study of Germany and Europe

Beyond the Union of Social Unions: Civil Society, Political Society, and Liberal Individuality in Wilhelm von Humboldt and John Stuart Mill

1997 – Steven Young


This paper examines the relationship between the vibrancy of civic life and the cultivation of individuality in the works of two nineteenth-century liberal thinkers, John Stuart Mill and Wilhelm von Humboldt. In much of the lib­eral tradition, it is assumed that individual development and civic engagement are mutually contradictory. In the tradition of civic republicanism, there is a strong emphasis on the relationship between political participation and character development. But civic republicans stress the development of civic virtues, not the development of unique individuals. The two theorists examined in this paper focus on the role that participation in public affairs plays in shaping unique self-standing individuals. For both thinkers, the development of a flourishing associational life is crucial for the cultivation of individuality. However, Mill and the later Humboldt also demonstrate the limitations of civil society as a means for the cultivation of democratic individuals. through a critique of Humboldt's earlier lib­ ertarian model of civil society, and an analysis of his later work on representative institutions, the paper demon­ strates the advantages of supplementing associational life in civil society with institutions that allow for direct par­ ticipation in the political system per se.