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Treatment of the philosophical concept of individuality

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Individual, Individuality (Lat. individuum; Germ. Einzeln; Fr. individuel). An individual being is defined by St. Thomas as “quod est in se indivisum, ab aliis vero divisum” (a being undivided in itself but separated from other beings). It implies therefore unity and separateness or distinctness. Individuality in general may be defined or described as the property or collection of properties by which the individual possesses this unity and is separated off from other beings. What is it that constitutes an individual, or individuality? This is a problem which has exercised most of the great schools of philosophy. It may be considered from the metaphysical or the psychological standpoint, though these are intimately connected. Again, there is a sense in which individuality presents interesting questions to ethics and pedagogics.

METAPHYSICS.—The surrounding universe manifests itself to us, at all events at first sight, as a plurality, a collection of individual things. We recognize as individually distinct beings a multiplicity of material objects—animals, men, and the like. We speak of the stacks of corn or the stones scattered over a field as so many individual things. Yet a little reflection reveals to us that the nature of the unity, and consequently of the individuality, possessed by many of these objects is of a very imperfect kind. A stack of corn is after all merely an aggregate of separate ears; and a stone is merely a group of smaller stones or particles of matter in accidental local contact, and bounded off by some other kind of matter. The unity of such an object is entirely extrinsic and accidental, whilst the separateness is due merely to the discontinuity beyond its surfaces of the kind of material of which the object is composed. Portions of lifeless matter have thus only an inferior or imperfect kind of individuality. Higher in the scale of beings come plants and animal organisms, though in the lower forms of life it is often a difficult problem for the scientist to decide whether a particular specimen is better described as a single living being or a colony of beings.

However, the broad fact remains that we look on the real world presented to our senses as made up of a vast number of separate individual beings. On the other hand, as soon as our mind begins to think, judge, or reason, or to make any sort of significant statements about these objects, it conceives them under universal aspects. It does not manipulate them as mere disconnected individuals, but groups them under certain common points of view. If the mind is to make any progress at all in knowledge, it is compelled to organize its sensible experiences, to handle the individual facts presented to it by means of universal ideas. The psychological genesis of these ideas, their precise character, and the nature of the reality outside of the mind which corresponds to them—in other words the great problem of universals—were keenly discussed by Plato and Aristotle, and became a still more burning question in the Christian and Arabic schools of philosophy from the tenth to the twelfth century (see Idea). But a counterpart of the same problem is the question of the individual. And this latter topic in the form of the controversy respecting the principium individuationis became almost as prominent in the schools during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

What constitutes an individual being? What gives it its own peculiar individuality? By what is it distinguished from all other beings, and especially from other beings of the same species? One obvious answer is given in the enumeration of such differences as those of place, time, figure. But these are merely extrinsic relations. Nor is perfect identity, even in place, between two beings wholly inconceivable. These extrinsic differences, in fact, presuppose intrinsic differences. Two things must first differ in relation to each other before they can differ in relation to a third or extrinsic thing, such as space. Hence the question which exercised the philosophical schools referred especially to intrinsic difference. What is the intrinsic principle of individuation by which one being is distinct from another? In the Aristotelian theory the corporeal objects around us are composite beings ultimately constituted of two principles, one passive and determinable (matter), the other active and determining (form). The latter gives the being its specific nature. The former is the ground of divisibility and multiplicity; and this is for Aristotle the source of individuation. The question, however, received much fuller development and discussion in the Middle Ages, and we find a number of different replies advanced by different philosophers.

According to St. Thomas, who developed the Aristotelian doctrine, the form, in so far as corporeal beings are concerned, gives specific unity and determinateness to the thing. But many individuals can exist in the same species; it is thus the specific form which furnishes the common basis for the universal idea. The form, therefore, cannot be the source of individuation, since it itself needs a principle by which it may be individuated. This principle, the ratio distinctionis, the cause of difference between one individual and another, must be sought in the limiting principle which receives the form, and is the ground of divisibility and multiplicity—the matter. This teaching of St. Thomas is made clearer by his doctrine concerning the nature of intelligentiae, or angels. They are pure forms devoid of any material element. Consequently the angelic nature contains no ground within it for multiplication; there can be only one in a species. Unlike men, who differ numerically in the same species, the several angels must differ specifically. In composite corporeal beings, the matter is the principle of limitation and individuation. But St. Thomas insists that it is materia signata quantitate. How precisely this is to be interpreted has been much disputed by the commentators. Cajetan understands materia here as the foundation and root of quantity, others as matter endowed with actual quantity. (For different views see especially Suarez, “Disp. Metaph.”, V.) On the other hand, Durandus and Averroes taught that form was the internal principle of individuation conferring numerical unity on the subject which it constitutes. Scotus tends partly towards this view, adding, however, a further entity to the form proper. Matter, he argues, cannot be the principle of individuation, because it is essentially universal. Hence the principle must lie in the form, not, however, simply as universal nature, but with a particular formality added. This further difference determining the species down to the individual, he calls by the name, haecceitas (thisness).

The Nominalist teaching on universals led its advocates to a solution of this question quite different from that of either St. Thomas or Scotus. According to them the universal has no existence outside of the mind, no foundation in external nature. Every reality, as such, is individual. As Occam urged: “Quaelibet res singularis seipsa est singularis, unum per se”; hence dispute about an internal principle of individuation is futile. If we speak of a cause of individuation we can only intelligibly allude to the creative will, or efficient cause, which gave existence to the thing. Others, however, who are very far from being Nominalists, also hold this view. Indeed it is adopted by Suarez himself, who maintains: “Omnem substantiam singularem nec alio indigere individuationis principio praeter suam entitatem, vel praeter principia intrinseca quibus ejus entitas constat” (each singular substance is individualized by its own entity, and requires no other principle for its individuation). This solution he holds to be the clearest of all—omnium clarissimam. (There is an exhaustive discussion of the whole question with abundant references to all the chief medieval philosophers, scholastic and Arabic, in Suarez, “Disp. Metaphys.”, V.) A view akin to that of Suarez was advocated by Leibniz in his treatise “De principio individui”.

Nowadays interest in the more subtle phases of the old metaphysical problem has declined, but a more fundamental question, raised by the theory of Monism, has come to the fore. Instead of the question, “How, precisely, do individual beings of the same species differ from each other?” we are asked, “Are there any truly individual beings in the universe at all? Or are the seemingly distinct, independent objects of the world around us, including our fellow-men, merely modes, phases, or aspects of the Absolute, of the Infinite, of the underlying substratum or ground of all things?” For Spinoza “omnis determinatio est negatio”—every individual determination is merely a negation, a limitation of the universal, and nothing has positive existence except the one infinite substance, of which the seemingly distinct, individual, finite beings are merely parts or modes. This denial of true individuality to all finite beings is the doctrine of Monism which, whether in an idealistic or materialistic form, has acquired steadily increasing influence since the time of Spinoza, and especially during the last century. Consequently the question of individuality is now shifted to that of the personality of human beings; for, obviously, it is in regard to them that the question becomes of most interest, and at the same time most capable of decisive proof.

PSYCHOLOGY.—It is only of persons that individuality can in the strict sense be predicated. A person is usually defined as an individual substance of a rational nature. It implies independence or existence in itself. Neither animals nor lifeless matter are persons, and so they do not possess this complete individuality. The strongest proof of the reality of human beings in the world around us rests therefore on the evidence for human personality, and for each of us ultimately on the proof of our own personality. My conviction of my personality and individual existence is the outcome of my experience. Rational self-consciousness combined with memory assure me of the abiding identity of my own being. That I am the same person who underwent a dangerous illness long ago as a child, who acquired a knowledge of certain branches of learning during my youth, who have recently gone through some particular experiences, and who am now engaged in writing these sentences, is affirmed with irresistible clearness and force by my intellect. Further, I have been conscious of exercising free volition and determining my own actions. I have found myself acted upon by certain impulses, and I have resisted or freely yielded to them. I have realized in and after such acts that they were mine, and that I was responsible for them. I have had it constantly impressed upon me that there is an external world which no effort of my will can annihilate. My reason assures me of my separateness from it and of its independence of me. If any truth is certain to me, then it must be that of my own abiding existence as a rational person responsible for my deliberate acts. But this implies my own individuality—the unity of my being together with the independence or separateness of my existence.

The self-conscious ego is thus the perfect type of the individual being. But if I assert my own existence as an individual being, I must allow that the existence of other similar beings is, at all events, not impossible. But, the possibility once conceded, all the evidence establishes the existence of other men like myself. Further, experience can establish nothing with more irresistible force for me than that I am not any of these other men, that none of them is myself, that we are distinct individual beings. Finally, the combined experience of my limitations, the self-conscious cognition of my own abiding existence, the self-intimate awareness of my own free volition, the irrefragable assurance that I am answerable for my conduct—all combine to convince me that I am no mere irresponsible mode of some pantheistic Absolute, no mere flickering dream of an impersonal Mind, but a real unitary being, a free, self-conscious, separate personality, possessed of a genuine individual existence of my own. It is clear that any philosophical theory which is compelled to repudiate or explain away this conviction of my own individuality, whatever other problems it may claim to solve, cannot claim to be a very rational account of the universe.

Psychology presents us also with a secondary or derived meaning of the word individuality—the collection of more marked or prominent qualities of intellect, feeling, and will, by which the character of one man is distinguished from that of other men. We speak of St. Francis of Assisi, or Bismarck, or Abraham Lincoln, or Daniel O’Connell, as men of marked individuality; but the term is applicable to normal mankind also. Every adult human being differs from other men by a collection of qualities possessed in varying degrees by each. When the deviation from the normal is marked, yet not of a desirable kind, we speak of it as eccentricity. The root of the qualities which subsequently constitute a man’s individual character lies in his congenital endowment, partly mental and partly physical, though the intimate dependence of soul on body renders it impossible, sometimes, to distinguish them. Obviously, the efficiency of the intellectual powers is conditioned by the perfection of the brain and nervous system. The aptitudes and dispositions due to his physical constitution are the main factors in the formation of the individual’s temperament. (See Character.) It has long been recognized that this is largely due to inheritance. But the scientific study of heredity is still in a most elementary stage. The work of Galton, though useful and suggestive, carries us but a little way. The experiments of Abbot Mendel, however, have started lines of research which promise to shed much new light on the principles governing the inheritance of many characteristics throughout the animal kingdom. At the same time, in studying man we must be on our guard in ascribing to heredity traits which are the effect of imitation, training, and community of family environment. This is especially to be borne in mind in regard to the children of criminals. The total collection of elements which go to make up the mental constitution of man belong to the cognitive or appetitive faculties, or, according to the modern division, to the intellectual, emotional, or conative activities of the soul. Experience shows that each of these three varies in power and range in different human beings. To some, the emotional capacity, to others will-power or intellectual aptitude may be mole liberally allotted at the start. But, strictly speaking, the child is not possessed of a definite, actual individuality. It is endowed rather with potentialities which fix an outside limit in various directions to the individual character possible of realization. For, besides the original capital of congenital aptitudes, there is the manner and degree—certainly of not less importance in the final total product—in which each of these aptitudes shall be fostered or starved. Exercise or indulgence during the plastic period develops each faculty and inclination, whilst each, on the other hand, becomes atrophied and enfeebled by neglect or suppression of function. The observation of young children, even of members of the same family, impresses us with the great variety of native capacity and disposition. Delicacy of sense-perception and observation, power of attention, tenacity of memory, alertness of mind, generosity, passionateness, self-will, already exhibit themselves in quite different proportions in children of the age of three or four years. But the relative strength to which each faculty will ultimately attain will be conditioned by its future activity. The final result is, in fact, the outcome of nature and nurture combined. A very important point to note, however, is that the general aptitudes and tendencies which contribute most towards the determination of the individual character, although so elastic and modifiable during the plastic period of youth, congeal and harden rapidly after the period of manhood has been reached, so that there is little capability of change of character later in life—the aggregate of traits and personal qualities that make up the man’s individuality have crystallized. Hence the priceless worth of the period of youth for education.

ETHICS.—The value of individuality as an element of well-being to the individual and the nation or the race is a problem for ethical and political philosophy. Among the chief factors which go to constitute individuality, or at all events marked individuality, are qualities of will and the conative faculty generally. The man of remarkable personality, of strong character, of striking individuality, is one in whom certain aspects of the volitional powers are predominant. These tendencies may in some cases make for evil. Henry VIII and Napoleon each possessed an individuality not less distinct than that of Blessed Thomas More or George Washington. Still, the possibility of abuse does not annihilate the value of God‘s gifts; and amongst these are those excellencies of mind and heart and will which, when permitted a natural and just development, result in strong and varied individualities. Men are distinguished from the lower animals by the possession of individual characters; and enlarged freedom of opportunity invariably issues in increased variety of attainment. Mankind thus becomes richer. God does not repeat himself in the formation of human faces, nor does He in the creation of human souls. Variety is an essential element in the beauty of the universe—mental and moral as well as physical. It would be a poor world in which men or minds were turned out of a single or a few common moulds. Multiplicity of peoples and languages and forms of government is part of the order of Providence which governs the earth; and the smaller nations have contributed not less precious elements to the well-being of mankind than the largest empires. One disastrous effect of socialism is precisely the crushing out of personal individuality. Indeed a grave evil of modern civilization is the menace to individuality involved in the enormous extension of machinery and of production on the large scale, in the influence of the press, in state education, and the triumph of the largest nations in the struggle for life. In spite of his errors and exaggerations, there is a considerable measure of truth in Mill’s eloquent plea for the worth of individuality to the human race (On Liberty, c. iii).

PEDAGOGICS.—If individuality is a valuable asset in the adult man, then a first maxim for the teacher must be: “Respect the individuality of the pupil.” As a matter of fact, good teachers have always instinctively done so. For what does the maxim mean? Study your pupils. Observe their diverse capabilities. Note the tastes, tendencies, and impulses of each. Ascertain their exact present attainments, and their varying powers of application. Then modify your method of action so as to adapt it to each child.

Do not treat all in the same way. Be sympathetic. Constantly study how to get the most and the best out of each student. What are all these rules, as old as the art of teaching, but diverse expressions of the one universal principle: “Appreciate the individuality of your pupils “? This individuality will often exhibit itself in an inconvenient or disagreeable way. It will at times sorely exercise the narrow or unsympathetic teacher. The temptation to suppress and crush it will often be very strong. The unoriginal mind finds intense difficulty in tolerating individuality. Yet the educator must remember that it is his duty to draw out and cultivate in his pupil every element that is good, to repress only that which is evil; and he should never forget that the individual nature of each is the precious root out of which personal character is to be developed. The chief difficulty is in regard to aptitudes and inclinations, which, though in themselves indifferent, may easily make for evil by over-indulgence or want of sufficient general self-control. Thus, an impulsive disposition or an unbending will are traits of character in a pupil which often come into disagreeable collision with the teacher’s efforts; yet they may contain some precious elements of the raw material out of which, with patience and by judiciously guided development, a fine type of personality may be formed. On the other hand a leveling-down method of education by constant repression and steady discouragement may enfeeble or altogether extinguish what would have been admirable features of individual character.


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