Are you an individual? Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? You’re you, right? You aren’t anybody else. But it’s not quite that simple. First off, being good philosophers, we have to define our terms. What do we mean by “an individual?” There are many answers to that question. Let’s begin at the beginning.
Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy
Ancient Greek philosophers, most notably Plato, said there are particulars (individuals) and universals. Plato wrote that particular objects are the types of objects they are because they share a universal form. So, all those particular trees are trees because they partake of universal Treeness. And that means that each individual tree is less real than the universal Tree. That’s because any individual tree is only a poor copy of the universal Tree.
Sounds daft? Well, Plato’s conception can explain why we recognize things as the type of things they are. We can recognize that that’s a particular tree because we know the universal reality of treeness. We compare the particular things we experience with the forms of the universal to identify stuff. Plato said the way to understand anything is to consider its perfect essence. If I want to understand trees, Plato says, I contemplate what a perfect tree is like — this is the universal essence of Treeness that all particular trees must be like to be a tree. So, we don’t need to study all those particular trees — just drop out, tune in, and turn on to the universal essence, baby.
The same applies for identifying human beings in Plato’s philosophy. I’m a particular human and you’re a particular human because we partake of the universal form of humanness, but we are each less real than the universal human being. What’s more, because being human is similarity to a universal form, the more unique a person is, the farther away from being “human” that person is. That doesn’t mean anything as drastic as if you are much taller than average or lose a limb you are no longer a human being, but it does mean that being different is being less ideal of a human. So, if you are weird enough, you may no longer be considered human which is a big disincentive to want to be an individual.
Plato took these ideas to their logical conclusion in thinking about how to structure a just and well-ordered society. Plato reasoned that because particular humans partake of the universal form of humanness, social policies should be derived from the objective interests of humans as a whole, not from the desires of individual persons. To understand what people need, we need to contemplate what a perfect human being is like and what is best for that ideal of Humanness. This is why Plato objected to democracy — the idea that individuals should be allowed equal voice in political decisions. It is not that individuals shouldn’t be allowed to speak, but that individuals should understand that alone or even banded together into groups, they are shortsighted as to what is best for the society. Only by understanding the universal form of Humanness will we see what are the best way to order the society.
Plato’s student Aristotle disagreed with Plato on some matters, but he also opposed democracy for similar reasons. Aristotle said that humans are a political animal — “political” meaning in his time “of the city” or polis. Any human without need or desire for the community was a beast — a sub-human. Thus, anyone wanting to be a lone individual or depart from how others are is a bit suspect. Unlike Plato, Aristotle didn’t think universals like Treeness and Humanness existed in a higher realm, but Aristotle did think that particulars are what they are because they partake of the form of a universal.
For the Ancient Greeks, then, “am I an individual” is the wrong question. Individuals don’t matter.The polis, or society, is what matters. Only by looking at the social community as a whole will we see what are the best way to order the society.
This wasn’t just a Greek idea. The Roman orator Cicero described the Roman Republic as a body and said individuals who were harmful to the body politic were a plague. His remedy for subversive individuals was banishment — remove the disease afflicting the body. It would be easy to attribute this strictly to men in power trying to quash dissent, but more than that, suppressing individuality was based in a worldview that individuality was a kind of disorder or disease that needed to be cured or stopped. Of course, dictators abused this idea, but it was an idea already woven into the social fabric available for dictators to exploit.
If you thought you were an individual, you just might get burned at the stake for it. No really. The word “heresy” is from the Greek haíresis and Latin haeresis which means to make a choice, take a course of action, or to prefer something. As the word “heresy” came to be used, to be a heretic was to prefer thoughts and actions that diverge from social norms. Romans persecuted Christians because the upstart faith diverged from how normal Romans were. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, it maintained the practice of denouncing those who took actions different from the norm. It was never really about religion, it was about surgically removing the disease of individuality from the body politic. Like the song from the 1960s said: “step out of line, the men come and take you away.”
Could someone in ancient times be an individual? Well, not as we would understand it today. The ancients saw people more as parts of the social body, not as individual beings, and their understanding was driven by the assumption that a particular individual anything wasn’t fully real.
Can you think for yourself? Well, can you? Maybe you can, but maybe you never do. And if you do, maybe you shouldn’t. Believe it or not, people had those conversations in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: the 10th to 18th centuries.
Medieval Europe suffered from plagues, waves of barbarian invasions, and endless wars between rival nobilities. Life sucked. Nevertheless, the 15th and 16th centuries saw a period of relative prosperity and security. Christian Europe partly owes its renaissance to the Islamic civilizations of Spain, North Africa, and Persia who kept alive and expanded upon Ancient Greek philosophy. Not surprisingly, Islamic philosophers and the Christian philosophers inspired by them kept with the Ancient Greeks’ belief that individuals were not fully real.
If individuals aren’t fully real, then an individual person can’t come to truth on its own. At least that was the widely held theory. Plato said truth is universal, unchanging, and objective. Similarly, Aristotle said that truths are those rational principles that all men of practical wisdom can determine. (Yes, only men; Aristotle was a sexist pig). In other words, there is no room for interpretation or perspective. There is one set of truths understood by those with the correct wisdom and disagreement is error.
And there still was the Ancient Greek view of particulars and universals. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy epitomized the Aristotelian view of every object having form and matter. Thomas compiled all of the Islamic philosophical commentary on Aristotle and put it into language Europeans could grasp. He wrote that the individuality of a person lay in its bodily matter. The individual has bodily autonomy — it can move on its own — but this freedom is unique only in its quantity — this person is this clump of matter and that person is that clump of matter, two instances of the universal human form. An individual person has a corporeal form, but it is an ‘accidental’, not a substantial form. That means your body is an accident — in the original sense of the word “accident” as “a nonessential property or quality of an entity.”
What is essential about you is your immaterial soul, which for Medieval philosophers like Aquinas, includes the rational mind. And these philosophers considered only the rational mind, not emotions, opinions, or perspectives. Inspired by Plotinus (who was inspired by Plato), Medieval philosophers thought there was a cosmic Wisdom or mind. This cosmic mind is to thinking what the sun is to seeing: the light of Wisdom illuminates truth and allows minds to perceive truth. For many Medieval philosophers, the human mind was entirely passive; the only active mind being the cosmic mind. This means that we come to know truth only when it enters us. We do not come to it ourselves much less create it because we do not create our own light. We either take in the light of cosmic Wisdom or we are in darkness. This idea fits well with the concept of heresy mentioned earlier. You should not try to think for yourself because you can’t, not really. And trying to think for yourself only leads to bad things.
But not every Medieval philosopher accepted that you can’t or shouldn’t think for yourself. A small dissenting thread of thinkers persisted in the notion that a small group of people do have the ability to come to truth by using their own minds. One champion of this notion was the Islamic philosopher Ibn-Rushd, known in Christian Europe as Averroës. Ibn-Rushd saw humanity as divided into three types of people: gold, silver, and bronze people. The lowest class — bronze people — lived only by reactions and emotions, not reason. Their minds were entirely passive and they needed to be told what to think and how to live. The large majority of people, the masses, were bronze people. A smaller but higher class were the silver people, who were the religious and political leaders. They tried to establish intellectual justification for their beliefs and were useful in directing the masses, but they sought only to justify common beliefs and did not have fully active minds. The gold people were the only ones with active minds and the highest human intellects. These were the philosophers (hey, what a coincidence, Ibn Rushd was a philosopher!). These few extraordinary individuals could think for themselves and directly discover the truths about life, the universe, and everything. They had active minds.
The concept of the active mind — allowing some individuals to think for themselves — was a minority viewpoint in the Medieval period, but it was influential to later philosophy, as we shall see.
Early Modern Philosophers
Should you have a say in how your society is run? Easy for us today to say, “yes.” We live in a time when democracy, at least in name, is considered an ideal and a right. This has not always been the case.
Prior to the late 1600s, the idea of individuals having input into their government and society was considered heretical. Strongmen ruled (no women allowed), whether they called themselves a king, emperor, duke, prince, caliph, emir, or khan. Political power transferred not by elections but by the previous ruler’s death, often times hastened along by others. In addition to the authoritarian ruler, there was a small nobility, and a larger population of serfs or peasants. The serfs “belonged” to the nobility who also owned the land, and the nobility pledged loyalty to the autocratic ruler. We can see how easily the philosophical vision of humanity being divided into gold, silver, and bronze could be and was adapted to this social hierarchy called “feudalism.”
Suggesting that the serfs — “bronze” people — could have a say in how things were run would have elicited laughter from the “silver” and “gold” people. The peasants were revolting — um, in the sense that they were considered unseemly, not that they were rebelling (for the most part). No, the underclass mostly just accepted their miserable fate, knowing no one cared what they thought or felt.
But back to the strongmen rulers. They were individuals. They had a right to want, say, and do things. They were considered to have their own minds (even when they were stupid) and considered to have free will, a will that was the de facto law of the land. Louis XIV of France (ruled 1643–1715) epitomized the ideology of authoritarian rule, a system glorified by some French philosophers as “Absolutism.” The idea was simple. There was one Truth and one God, therefore there should be one King who ruled over everything. Louis kinda liked that idea.
Political Absolutism had its philosophical defenders and opponents. The three best known ones were Thomas Hobbes (defender), and John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (opponents). Interestingly, all three argued for or against Absolutism using the thought experiment that has come to be known as “social contract theory.” The idea of a social contract, however it was conceived, brought to the fore the role of the individual in politics and society.
Hobbes had a contradictory view of human individuality. He wrote that people are individuals in that we all act independently based on what we want. However, we do not choose what we want because we have no free will. We have different wants and do different things only because forces act differently on the different clumps of matter that are individual people. So, you think differently than other people but not by choice. But, for Hobbes, everyone thinking, wanting, and acting differently leads to conflict. Everyone being individuals is what Hobbes calls the “state of nature.” And it sucks. Life in the state of nature, Hobbes said, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is because, Hobbes believed, humans are individuals who care only about themselves who would lie, cheat, steal, and even murder to get what they wanted. The answer, Hobbes said, was for everyone to surrender all of their rights and freedoms to the Sovereign, the absolute ruler, who was the Individual who embodied all people. The Sovereign’s will was the will of all and the Sovereign would act in the interests of all and keep everyone safe by imposing absolute rule. We sacrifice freedom for security.
Locke’s view of human nature was the opposite of Hobbes’s. Locke saw people not as selfish brutes, but as altruistic and rational. In Locke’s view, people care for others and can use their reason to understand what’s best for everyone. Most of us have freedom of will and purpose. I say “most of us” because Locke had a mental block about including anyone other than wealthy white male Protestants in his definition of people. Still, if you were a wealthy white male Protestant, you were entitled to be part of Locke’s social contract. In that contract, individuals used their benevolence and reason to balance their wants and needs with those of others.
To assist us in balancing our various wants and needs we create a government that works for the welfare and interests of the people (“people” meaning wealthy white male Protestants). Locke brought into light the idea that people had a voice in their government and that government served The People not the other way round. Locke’s ideas on individual liberty and the proper role of government influenced the United States Constitution and social democracy.
Then there was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who opposed Absolutism, but also art, science, education, and civilization itself. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” was Rousseau’s credo. He meant by this that man (not woman) is naturally a free individual but the power of social conventions enslave man. On the individual and government, Rousseau’s vision was that everyone had their individual wants but to avoid conflict we must accept the “necessary evil” of society and government. To minimize that evil, Rousseau said that government needs to serve the “general will” of the people. That is not the will of one or even a group of people but the abstract will of all.
In Rousseau’s vision of the social contract, individuals discuss what they wanted and competing desires cancel out each other and the general will emerges. Each individual then subjugates his will to the general will which is the sole sovereignty over all. Rousseau said the individual develops and thrives within the general will. This means that though everyone’s an individual, no one should go against the general will and must be brought into accordance with the general will for his own good. If this sounds like it wouldn’t end well, you’re correct. The French Revolution was patterned after Rousseau’s social contract and repression and punishments were meted out in the name of the “general will.” The message was: “You are an individual, now shut up and follow.”
Kant and the 19th Century
The question of what is an individual took a significant turn with Immanuel Kant. Kant’s philosophical revolution is his realization that the mind contributes to experience. Kant’s schema explained how the mind contained categories of understanding that enabled sense data to be experienced as objects. The mind must impose a rational structure on the sense experiences, otherwise we’d have nothing but an endless jumble of unconnected impressions. So the mind is not purely passive as earlier philosophers had assumed.
You may think that of course our learning, past experiences, and feelings all structure how we perceive what happens to us. Today, we take for granted that our different circumstances and experiences makes us each an individual. This was not the case in Kant’s time. That today we understand that our individual experiences and thoughts help create who we uniquely are has to do with Kant’s discussion of the active mind and what freedom is.
We are each free individuals, Kant says, because our practical reason enables us to know ourselves as a free person who is able to make and commit to moral decisions. Moral decisions relate to the question, “what should I do?” Kant said there are proper moral decisions such as I should not lie. I know as a free person I can lie, but I know as a rational person I shouldn’t lie, so I freely choose not to lie. Kant was definitely not the first to think that we had freedom to chose, but he brought the issue into the center of a philosophical view of what it means to be human.
By saying that the human mind is active and contributes to human experience, Kant opened a door to a new way of thinking about human experience and knowledge. Our mind imposes a form on sense impressions. The leads to the question: how active and free are our minds? Also, Kant assumed that there was one and only one way that a human mind structured experience, just like there is only one moral duty. What if there are multiple ways that different individuals’ minds are structured? What’s more, if we have the ability to freely make moral decisions then can we consciously change the way we experience the world? Can I, as an individual, alter my consciousness?
Johann Gottlieb Fichte was the first to walk through the door Kant had opened and said yes, we can change the structures of our mind. Fichte’s philosophy centered on the exploration of individual freedom. You are an individual subject, Fichte says. You have experiences, you make decisions, and you do things. The world gives you a vast field of opportunities. You create your freedom and who you are through the decisions you make and actions you take. Those decisions and actions in turn structure how you experience the world. In effect, you are creating your own world and this structure that you help determine is the ground of all of your experiences. Fichte says that real freedom is when a rational subject creates itself. This subjective activity is what makes you an individual.
Fichte’s philosophy has come to be known as subjective idealism in that in all of your perceptions you only ever perceive your own state of consciousness. Fichte said everything is thought, and he defined thought as an action. That idea was picked up by G.W.F. Hegel, who said that everything is thought and thought is the action of stringing together rational propositions. Hegel’s philosophy that everything is thought is also considered a form of idealism. Hegel’s idealism was an objective idealism because he believed that there was one universal consciousness, which he called “Spirit.” We are individuals in that we are subjects who experience and think and act, but we’re not individuals in that we are objects of history — the consciousness of Spirit works out its creating of itself through everything that happens in the universe, including us. So, yeah, you’re an individual but you’re not, which is that type of both-and contradictions that fill Hegel’s philosophy.
Hegel’s system of objective idealism because extremely popular from the 1810s to 1910s. It is too complex to go into here, but his conception that we are the objects of history and therefore not full individuals, drew the ire of two philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. They blow up the question of are we individuals and demanded that subjectivity be the center of philosophy and life. The two philosophers were radically different in some ways, but they shared some core concepts. They more or less aligned with Fichte’s idea that we create our own perceptual structures and they both vehemently rejected what they saw as Hegel’s opposition to individuality. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche each in their own way urged people to embrace their subjective experiences. Both said that we don’t have to just accept what we are told to believe, we are free to make our own moral choices and those choices make us who we are.
Kierkegaard said that the awareness of our absolute freedom to feel and think for ourselves is scary. Not scary as in “that animal could attack me,” but scary as in “holy crap, I’m responsible for my own actions and I can mess up my life if I make bad choices.” Nietzsche claimed to have no such fear, claiming instead that all historical belief systems are empty nonsense, there’s no objective truth, so anything goes, go out and make the world yours. While Kierkegaard called for us to be introspective and discover the real meaning of who we are as an individual. Nietzsche called for a hell-for-leather attitude of overcoming our past and society and becoming an Übermensch — literally “overman” who has overcome humanity to become something greater. Kierkegaard saw the need to find our individual moral path within the objective moral universe. Nietzsche saw the need for us to create our own individual morality. Either philosophy has its difficulties, but both celebrated the individual as the center of everything.
Despite centuries of philosophical discussion about the question of individuality, we may actually be more confused than ever. And if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention. Today, there’s an ideological conflict between declarations of individuality in our self-indulgent society and declarations of determinism from cognitive science and analytical philosophy. Few of these colliding ideologies deal in depth with the central question: “are you an individual?”
The turmoil over the question of the individual has its roots in the early 20th century. On the one hand we had Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre who said yes, we’re individuals and that’s scary. Heidegger said that we’re each an individual aware of our own individual existence and concluded that being alive meant we are constantly in dread of impending death. He lived until age 85 so he must have suffered a lot. Sartre said we had absolute freedom and this was terrifying and nauseating (he wrote a book about it called Nausea). But what’s really awful is that existence is absurd and meaningless and we’re condemned to exist and to be free in a society of other equally absurd and meaningless people. Life sucks and then you die and “hell is other people” (from his play “No Exit”).
On the other hand, the proponents of “you are an individual” having not made a positive case for it left us with the positivists who said we aren’t individuals. Positivism was first proposed by Auguste Comte in the early 19th century and adopted by the Vienna Circle in the early 20th century and maintained in what has come to be known as analytical philosophy. In positivism, what matters is the logical analysis of scientific observations. Non-scientific observations are inadmissible, as are any contemplations, speculations, and subjectivity, all of which are dismissed by positivists as metaphysics or worse, nonsense. An inheritor of these beliefs is the field of cognitive science, an arm of analytical philosophy that seeks a physics or biology of mental activity and assumes that mental functioning is objective, not subjective, and leaves no room for human free will. Positivism also spawned the philosophy of language as a discipline which analyzed rules for the logic use of language. Purveyors of that discipline have at times attempted to lay out rules for how people should be allowed to speak (no poetry please, we are analytical philosophers). They have had mixed results.
Philosophy of language has given us some important insights into how to talk about social behavior but it also tends to reduce social issues to problems of language. It ignores not only individuality but humanity and community. This is ironically also a mistake made by the descendants of Hegel’s philosophy by way of Karl Marx. Marx took Hegel’s notion of people being objects of history but substituted economic determinism for Hegel’s Spirit. Hegel saw nation states as the only true actors in history and Marx saw only class struggle as the only true actor in history. This, obviously, leaves little to no room for considering people as individuals. Some philosophers today see themselves as working within a Hegelian-Marxist tradition and though most agree about the importance of social justice issues, there is considerable skepticism about the importance of individual experiences. They focus on political collectives and how these social bodies act.
One of the few areas of philosophy that talks about and values people as individuals is feminist philosophy. In general, feminist philosophy can be seen as acknowledging the importance of both objective structural social inequalities and subjective individual experiences. It places a value on what individuals feel and say and it acknowledges that our learning, our past experiences, and our feelings all contribute to how we perceive what happens to us. Injustices happen to individuals and justice comes from listening to and valuing individuals. We find similar ideas and values in philosophies of race and sexuality which also see the individual as struggling for recognition and justice within an unjust system. A larger debate is underway in philosophy over how much weight we should place on the importance of individual experiences and suffering and how it is best to be understood and remedied.
All of this is taking place in academic philosophy amidst increasing self-centeredness and self-indulgence. People are much more free than ever before to talk about their personal experiences, feelings, and opinions. The idea that we should not judge others unless we understand where they’re coming from is part of our culture. Social media has given anyone and everyone platforms to express their individual perspectives and creativity. And you may have noticed, people often express themselves. But are they just emulating what they see other people doing? The goal on social media seems to be to create a meme that gets as many likes and repeats as possible. The irony is that “individualism” has become a marketing ploy. Corporations sell you prepackaged ways to “express yourself.” Funny how these methods of individual expression all have corporate logos on them.
What do we mean by “an individual?” A distinct lump of matter? A mind with a distinct set of experiences? Or is it something more? The various debates over the centuries over individuality have so often circled around the question of whether it is good or not for individuals to think differently from others. We have seen that there was quite often serious resistance to anyone being different from the norm. But being different for its own sake doesn’t seem to be a good thing. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche emphasized the value of expression genuinely coming from within. That was true of individuality and freedom, they said. But what is genuine self-expression? How could we know we ourselves are thinking and acting genuinely much less if someone else is being genuine?
If we accept that we are an individual, what does that mean? What rights do we have? What obligations do we have? What does it mean to really be ourselves, think for ourselves, and genuinely express ourselves? Perhaps the answer is different for each individual.