Exceptionalism is the perception or belief that a species, country, society, institution, movement, individual, or time period is "exceptional" (i.e., unusual or extraordinary). The term carries the implication that the referent is superior in some way, whether specified or not. Although the idea appears to have developed with respect to an era, today the term is particularly applied in national or regional contexts. Other uses include medical and genetic exceptionalism.
The German romantic philosopher-historians, especially Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), dwelt on the theme of uniqueness in the late 18th century. They de-emphasized the political state and instead emphasized the uniqueness of the Volk, comprising the whole people, their languages and traditions. Each nation, considered as a cultural entity with its own distinctive history, possessed a "national spirit", or "soul of the people" (in German: Volksgeist). This idea had a strong influence in the growth of nationalism in 19th-century European lands—especially in ones ruled by élites from somewhere else.
Claims of exceptionality have been made for many countries, including the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Greece, India, Pakistan, Imperial Japan, Iran, Israel, North Korea, South Africa, Spain, Britain, the USSR, the European Union, and Thailand. Historians have added many other cases, including historic empires such as China, the Ottoman Empire, ancient Rome, and ancient India, along with a wide range of minor kingdoms in history.
Belief in exceptionalism can represent erroneous thought analogous to historicism in that it overemphasizes peculiarities in an analysis and ignores or downplays meaningful comparisons. A group may assert exceptionalism in order to exaggerate the appearance of difference, to invoke a wider latitude of action, and to avoid recognition of similarities that would reduce perceived justifications. This can be an example of special pleading, a form of spurious argumentation that ignores relevant bases for meaningful comparisons.
Exceptionalism can represent an error analogous to historicism in assuming that only peculiarities are relevant to analysis, while overlooking meaningful comparisons. Political scientist Noritada Matsuda writes, "[W]hat is seemingly exceptional in one country may be found in other countries."
In ideologically-driven debates, a group may assert exceptionalism, with or without the term, in order to exaggerate the appearance of difference, perhaps to create an atmosphere permissive of a wider latitude of action, and to avoid recognition of similarities that would reduce perceived justifications. If unwarranted, this represents an example of special pleading, a form of spurious argumentation that ignores relevant bases for meaningful comparison.
The term "exceptionalism" can imply criticism of a tendency to remain separate from others. For example, the reluctance of the United States government to join various international treaties is sometimes called "exceptionalist".
Use of the term "HIV exceptionalism" implies that AIDS is a contagious disease that is or should be treated differently from other contagions or entails benefits not available to those suffering from other diseases.
Genetic exceptionalism is a policy program that medicalizes genetic information. Like the exceptionalism surrounding HIV testing, genetic exceptionalism is based on the belief that the average person needs a licensed health professional for guidance and support through the discovery of information with health implications, even if this information is common knowledge, such as that the person has red hair, which is associated with a higher risk of sunburns and skin cancer. In countries with strong genetic exceptionalism laws, permission from a physician is necessary to obtain information about one's genes.
- American exceptionalism (United States of America)
- Chosen people
- Cultural exception
- European exceptionalism
- God's Own Country (Australia and New Zealand)
- Holy Rus
- Mission civilisatrice de la France
- Hindutva (India)
- Nihonjinron (Japan)
- Sonderweg (Germany)
- Third Rome
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- Hans Kohn, "The Paradox of Fichte's Nationalism", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 10, No. 3 (June 1949), pp. 319–43 in JSTOR
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