Exceptionalism is the perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is "exceptional" (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not conform to normal rules, general principles or the like. Used in this sense, such a perception reflects a belief formed by lived experience, ideology, perceptual frames, or perspectives influenced by knowledge (or lack thereof) of historical or comparative circumstances.

The uniqueness theme was introduced by the German romantic philosopher-historians, especially Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Fichte 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" (Volksgeist). The approach had a strong influence in the growth of nationalism in 19th century European lands--especially ones ruled by elites from somewhere else.

Many countries of all kinds, including the modern United States, Britain at the height of the British Empire, Imperial Japan, Iran, Venezuela, Israel, the USSR, France and Germany have claimed exceptionality. Historians have added many other cases, including historic empires such as Ancient Rome, the Ottoman Empire and China, along with a wide range of minor kingdoms in history. In each case a basis has been presented as to why the country is exceptional compared to all other countries, drawing upon circumstance, cultural background and mythos, and self-perceived national aims.


The term "exceptionalism" is often used to describe surprising developments in economic progress, such as the economic growth of post-World War II Western Europe or the ability of Sweden to generate small-business growth while yet maintaining high levels of taxation

Exceptionalism can represent an error analogous to historicism in assuming that only peculiarities are relevant to analysis, while overlooking meaningful comparisons. "[W]hat is seemingly exceptional in one country may be found in other countries As indigenous peoples explore their respective cultural heritages, their seeking to be separately classified or newly-understood may be a form of exceptionalism.

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 is an example of special pleading, a form of spurious argumentation that ignores relevant bases for meaningful comparison.

Groups likewise may be accused of exceptionalism, perhaps for avoiding normal terms of analysis. The term may be a marker for an implication that a point of view is widely misunderstood, such as the notion that Islamic jihad is misunderstood.

The term "AIDS exceptionalism" is used to imply that AIDS is a contagious disease that is treated differently from other contagions or entails benefits not available to those suffering from other contagions

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, as is an assertion that a person or group refuses to acknowledge, and perhaps communally participate in, a widely-accepted principle or practice.

In editorial language, the term "exceptionalism" may be a marker for "the extent to which a region or group is justifiably or factually distinct.

See also



  • 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. 209-216
  • 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: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, Volume 28, Number 2, August 2006, pp. 183-206.

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