Universalism as opposed to Individualism means that ‘social collectives,’ such as society, nation, church, and the like, are conceptually prior to their individual members; that the former are the really relevant entities with which the social sciences have to deal; that the latter are but the products of the former; hence that analysis must work from the collectives and not from individual behavior. If, then, we choose to call these collectives sociological universals, then the doctrine in question may indeed be said to oppose universals to individuals. But scholastic Realism opposed universals to individuals in quite a different sense. If I were to adopt scholastic Realism, then my idea of, say, society would claim logical precedence over any individual empirical society that I observe but not over individual men; the idea of these men would be another universal in the scholastic sense, claiming logical precedence over the empirical individuals.
Manifestly, this would imply nothing about either the relation between the two scholastic universals or the relation between any empirical society (a universal in the sense of universalist doctrine) and the empirical individuals comprising it. In particular, I could in this case still be as strong an individualist, politically or in any other sense, as I please. The opposite opinion is thus seen to rest on nothing but an error induced by the double meaning attached to ‘universal’ and ‘individual.’
II. In surveying the history of civilizations, we sometimes speak of objective and subjective cases. By an objective civilization we mean the civilization of a society in which every individual stands in his appointed niche and is subject, without reference to his tastes, to super-individual rules; a society that recognizes as universally binding a given ethical and religious code; a society in which art is standardized and all creative activity both expresses and serves super-individual ideals. By a subjective civilization we mean a civilization that displays the opposite characteristics; in which society serves the individual and not the other way round; in short, a society that turns upon, and implements, subjective tastes and allows everyone to build his own system of cultural values. We need not enter into the general question of the analytic standing of such schemes. But we are concerned with the sweeping assertion so often met with that, in the sense explained, medieval civilization was objective and modern civilization is (or until recently was) subjective or individualist, because this touches, or may be supposed to touch, upon the ‘spirit’ in which people conducted or conduct their economic analysis.
There cannot be any doubt that some of the characteristics fit — religious life in the age of ‘One God, One Church,’ as compared to religious life in the age of hundreds of denominations, is the standard example. But neither can there be any doubt that as a whole those abstract pictures are ludicrously inadequate. Is it possible to imagine a fiercer individualist than a knight? Did not the whole trouble that medieval civilization experienced with military and political management (and which largely accounts for its failures) arise precisely from this fact? And is the member of a modern labor union or the mechanized farmer of today really so much more of an individualist than was the medieval member of a craft guild or the medieval peasant? Therefore, the reader should not be shocked to learn that the individualist streak in medieval thought also was much stronger than is commonly supposed. This is true, both in the sense that opinion was much more differentiated individually and in the sense that the individual phenomenon and (in speculations about society) the individual man were much more carefully attended to than we are apt to think.