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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, whether or not specified, that the referent is superior in some way.

Although the idea appears to have developed with respect to an era, today it is particularly applied with respect to particular nations or regions.

Other uses of the term 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.[1][2]

Claims of exceptionality have been made for many countries, including the United States, Australia (especially in South Australia[3]),[4] China, France, Germany, Greece,[5] Pakistan, Imperial Japan, Iran, Serbia, Israel, North Korea, South Africa,[6][7] Spain, Britain, the USSR, the European Union, and Thailand.[8][9] 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.[10]


Belief in exceptionalism can represent erroneous thought analogous to historicism in that it overemphasizes peculiarities in an analysis and ignores or downplays meaningful comparisons[citation needed]. 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[citation needed]. This can be an example of special pleading, a form of spurious argumentation that ignores relevant bases for meaningful comparisons[citation needed]. Exceptionalism is often based on poor historical knowledge.[11]


J. Bradford DeLong has used the term "exceptionalism" to describe the economic growth of post-World War II Western Europe.[12]

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."[13]

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.[citation needed]

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".[14]

Medical exceptionalism[edit]

Use of the term "HIV exceptionalism" implies that AIDS is a contagious disease that is or should be treated differently from other contagions[15] or entails benefits not available to those suffering from other diseases.[16][17]

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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Instances of exceptionalism:

Related terms:


  1. ^ Royal J. Schmidt, "Cultural Nationalism in Herder", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 17, No. 3 (June 1956), pp. 407–17 in JSTOR
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ C. J. Coventry, "A New Birth of Freedom: South Australia, slavery and exceptionalism," Speech to History Council of South Australia (HCSA) (2020), https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:33351/
  4. ^ "Speeches". www.humanrights.gov.au. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  5. ^ (jwehner@wehnerweb.com), wehnerj. "Questioning Greek Exceptionalism". www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  6. ^ Dlakavu, Simamkele (24 October 2013). "South Africa IS in 'Africa' - Daily Maverick". Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  7. ^ Raymond Padya, Journalism Editor (October 29, 2013). "South Africa's Worrying Exceptionalism". Iziko Live. Durban University of Technology. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  8. ^ Georg Nolte and Helmut Philipp Aust (2013). "European exceptionalism?" (PDF). Global Constitutionalism. 2 (3): 407–436. doi:10.1017/S2045381713000038. hdl:10419/66220. S2CID 232178437.
  9. ^ du même auteur (2011-01-01). "Becoming Exceptional? American and European Exceptionalism and their Critics: A Review". Cairn.info. Retrieved 2015-11-14.
  10. ^ See Christopher K. Chase-Dunn, Thomas D. Hall, and E. Susan Manning, "Rise and Fall: East-West Synchronicity and Indic Exceptionalism Reexamined", Social Science History, Volume 24, Number 4, Winter 2000, pp. 727–54 in Project Muse
  11. ^ C. J. Coventry, "A New Birth of Freedom: South Australia, slavery and exceptionalism," Speech to History Council of South Australia (HCSA) (2020), https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:33351/
  12. ^ DeLong, J. Bradford (September 1997). "Post-WWII Western European Exceptionalism: The Economic Dimension". Berkeley: University of California. Archived from the original on 28 July 2012. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  13. ^ Matsuda, Noritada (13 August 2003). "Exceptionalism in Political Science: Japanese Politics, US Politics, and Supposed International Norms". Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. Retrieved 26 November 2020.
  14. ^ Park, Jeanne (November 2000). "The New Sovereigntists: American Exceptionalism and Its False Prophets". Foreign Affairs (November/December 2000). Retrieved 2015-11-14.
  15. ^ Hanssens, Catherine (Lambda Legal) (Winter 1997–1998). "Inventing "AIDS Exceptionalism"". TheBody.com. Retrieved 2015-11-14.
  16. ^ Sheryl Gay Stolberg (12 November 1997). "New Challenge to Idea That 'AIDS Is Special'". The New York Times. New York City. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  17. ^ United States Congress (25 October 2010). Congressional Record, V. 152, Pt. 16, September 29 2006. United States Government Publishing Office. p. 539. ISBN 978-0-16-086781-1.


  • George M. Fredrickson. "From Exceptionalism to Variability: Recent Developments in Cross-National Comparative History," Journal of American History, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Sep., 1995), pp. 587–604 in JSTOR
  • Gallant, Thomas W. "Greek Exceptionalism and Contemporary Historiography: New Pitfalls and Old Debates," Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 15, Number 2, October 1997, pp. 209–16
  • Michael Kammen, "The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration," American Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Mar., 1993), pp. 1–43 in JSTOR
  • Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996)
  • Lund, Joshua. "Barbarian Theorizing and the Limits of Latin American Exceptionalism," Cultural Critique, 47, Winter 2001, pp. 54–90 in Project Muse
  • Pei, Minxin. "The Puzzle of East Asian Exceptionalism," Journal of Democracy, Volume 5, Number 4, October 1994, pp. 90–103
  • Thompson, Eric C. "Singaporean Exceptionalism and Its Implications for ASEAN Regionalism," Contemporary Southeast Asia, Volume 28, Number 2, August 2006, pp. 183–206.

Further reading[edit]