The Study of Individuality


Leighton, J. A. “The Study of Individuality.” The Philosophical Review 11, no. 6 (1902): 565. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177021


THE subject of individuality has come to the fore in recent discussions in both epistemology and metaphysics. In metaphysics, Professor Royce has dealt with the matter most thoroughly; and in recent discussions on the epistemological relations of the natural sciences and history, Wideband and Rickert have emphasized the individual as the center of interesting philosophical consideration of history. It seems timely, therefore, to offer some reflections which I have made in approaching the subject from a somewhat different standpoint. What has most interested me recently has been the problem of method, and my consideration of the question has proceeded in the following order. First: Can the problem as to the nature of individuality be attacked by a method distinct from that of ordinary psychological analysis? Second: What are the limits of application of such a method, and what do these limits imply in regard to the real nature of the individual? Third: What are the ethical and metaphysical bearings of this study? The first and second phases of the problem I treat in this paper under one heading. Before proceeding to the discussion of these phases of the main problem, I wish to indicate very briefly the general logical aspects of the subject.


I The Logic of Individuality. In science, and still more impractical life, judgments of individuality occupy a peculiarly important position. This fact has been overlooked wherever the methods of natural science have dominated general thought. For in the more exact of the natural sciences the individual figures as a mere particular, and hence is a vanishing quantity. Lawes universal tends to be hypostatized, and the universal is regarded as the only object of knowledge. Even biology treats the individual only as an example of the class. This procedure of natural science is entirely justified within its own limits. But it becomes illegitimate when it is made an absolute principle and all knowledge is limited to universals. When the individual is not admitted being an object of science, the inference is either that the real is unknowable, or that the individual is unreal. This attitude is a prejudice engendered by the undue preponderance of natural science. We find it even in recent idealistic philosophy. Indeed, it goes back to Aristotle; for he, while holding that the real is individual, yet regarded the universal as the true subject matter of science, "for one knows anything only insofar as it is one and the same and has a universal." And he goes on to say: "If there is nothing besides the individual, there is nothing thinkable, but all things are perceptual and there is no knowledge." Now, there is an alternative position, viz. that knowledge is not limited to universals. In the above statements, Aristotle is still under the influence of the Platonic dualism of ideas and things. It is time that philosophy freed itself from this prejudice inherited from an earlier stage of science, and that it recognized the inseparability of the perceptual and conceptual elements in knowledge, and the mutual relations of the universal and the particular as complementary functions of the developing individual.

It is obvious that the most important practical judgments we make are our judgments of individuality. The conduct of business and of life are based on judgments of individual character. But these have always a universal aspect. I never make judgment about a particular person, e.g. John Smith is an honest man,' without thereby uniting in one pulse of thought the universal and the particular. Moreover, my judgment in such a case, if valid, has a universal character in another aspect, since it must hold for all men judging under like conditions. Any valid judgment, then, no matter how particular its subject, is a genuine bit of knowledge, and, as such, entitled to a place in the universal system of knowledge. No real judgment is merely particular. The universal is implied in the simplest judgments, such as 'it rains,' 'the sun shines.' Every judgment is an individualization of knowledge. The particular, in being conceived in terms of universals, is defined, i.e., given an individual character. The universal is differentiated, i.e., limited and defined by its application to this particular. The more universals we can attribute to a particular item of perception, the more we have individualized it. The richest knowledge is the most highly individualized. embodies the most intimate union of particular and universal.


Now, since the human individual is more than any other individual conceivable and describable in terms of universals, and since, in being so described, it gains in uniqueness of character, it offers in its own nature the clue to the solution of the problems to the relation of the universal and the particular in thought. If we think an atom of matter or a unit of force, the particular tends to evaporate wholly in the universals involved in our thinking. On the other hand, if we think and define a human person, the universals of the definition only serve to give thereon a more distinctive character. The human individual, as I hope to show more clearly, exists only in so far as it is in constant process of realizing the union of universal and particular, of that which is immediately given and that which is thought in other words, the human individual is always potentially and in process, actually although imperfectly, the concrete universal. He takes on universality as he develops from a merely natural individual into a person, i. e., into an individual whose impulses and tendencies are being organized into a system. This, I take it, is what is meant by the attainment of individual character. In this connection, Hegel's treatment of the individualism of great importance. His significant statement, that personality is at once universal and particular, puts the problem before using its logical aspects. The reality for him is the concrete universal. But, when it comes to the relation of the concrete universal to the empirical person, Hegel's treatment is unsatisfactory. He gives no definite or clear account of the groundwork of human individuality, and in his ethics, he slights the individual. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the solution of the logical and epistemological problem lies in the direction indicated by Hegel. I must proceed at once to my main topic.


2. Some Methods and Principles of the Study of Individuality. Whether we approach this subject from the standpoint of a general world-theory or from the standpoint of the empirical study of man, the central philosophical problem is the same, viz., as to the existence and nature of the principle of individuation. Is there any inherent principle of unity in the individual, or can he be wholly accounted for in terms of heredity, environment.? To put the question abstractly, is the individual more than the meeting point of universal elements of being? While the current treatment of man in history, literature, ethics, and politics makes assumptions on this matter, the fundamental questions involved are not adequately handled by any existing empirical science, notwithstanding much vague talk about the psychology of individual character, of genius, of religion, etc. It would seem the obvious answer to say that these are questions for psychology. This science does, indeed, enable us to take the first step. Evidently, we cannot determine the nature of the principle of individuation without a preliminary analysis of the conscious self-intuits universal aspects or modes. This analysis psychology offers to us in the familiar distinction of cognition, feeling, and volition, an analysis which has its roots in the everyday thought and speech of men. It may be that (as I hold) a two-fold division into cognition and feeling-impulse or conation is more fundamental; but in view of the present lack of agreement on this point the current division may be used provisionally. Our results will not be materially affected, and the study of individuality may shed some reflected light on this very problem of psychological analysis.


But psychology carries its analysis still farther, and some progress has been made towards a psychology of individual differences. These are treated, for example, by Dr. L.W. Stern under the following heads: Differences of Sensibility, of Intuition Types, of Memory and Association; Types of Conception, of Attention, of Capacity, of Combination, of Judgment, of Reaction, of Feeling and psychological Tempo and Energetic. Inquiries of this sort undoubtedly have a value and interest of their own. Their results do shed some light on the ultimate differences between individuals, and Stern is right in claiming that they have a bearing on the problem of individuality, which he calls the twentieth century problem par excellence. But these differential analyses do not get beyond the periphery of the matter. Statistics and measurements of these highly specific differences bear about the same relation to the innermost nature of the individual that the statistics of certain colors or flowers, as mentioned by Browning or Tennyson, bear to the creative imaginative genius of these poets. These differences, counted and measured by the psychologist, are not the striking and important variations which lie at the roots of character. The latter can be best indicated by a comparison of the relative grades of intensity and the proportion of mixtures of the universal and elementary aspects, cognition, feeling, and volition. The data are concrete cases of unitary selves studied in action. By the comparative method we get certain broad types of men, in whom (i) intellect is subordinated to will, (2) will to intellect, (3) both to feeling, etc.


If we study individuality, as compounded of these universal human elements, we may arrive at a fairly exhaustive classification by the method of comparison. Of course, it would be impossible and useless to consider every possible shade of difference between selves. But such a classification would result in the establishment of relatively well-defined types. These types would be constituted and characterized by the relative intensity or proportion in which the fundamental aspects or modes of consciousness are combined in individuals. There would be types in which one aspect predominated, types in which two were balanced, types in which all were harmoniously blended, etc. Now, we have ready to our hand in the creations of the great dramatists and novelists striking types of individuality corresponding to the indicated division. Every great character of fiction is a type incarnating in a striking manner some universally human attribute or combination of attributes. Thus, imaginative literature furnishes us with material for a comparative study of individuality and gives us important suggestions for delimitation of types. "The great epochs in the history of poetry in Europe are at the same time divisions in the poetic conceptions of the individuation of universal human nature." Moreover, history offers striking experiments in individual differentiation. I have only to suggest the contrasts and resemblances between Rousseau and Napoleon the First, Coleridge and Carlyle, Bismarck, and Nietzsche, to show at once the data which history offers for a comparative study of individuality.


But when we have made a fairly exhaustive comparison and classification of individual types, on the basis of the manifested intensity of the fundamental modes of human consciousness and their relative proportions in combination, we have only reached the threshold of the philosophical problem of individuation. We have established some principles and perhaps laws of differentiation, we have accounted for the individual in terms of the common elements of humanity; but have we got to the roots of individual differences? Have we probed the secret of individuality? No, we have heretofore left wholly out of account that which is presupposed in every combination of basic differences, namely, the unity of the individual. The central philosophical interest lies in determining the principle of individuation, and our method has so far only concerned itself with the principles of differentiation. It has assumed the individual unity as a datum. But the individual is not an indivisible unity of conscious life and purposes solely by virtue of the peculiar proportion of mental elements which differentiates him from others of his own species. This differentiation may render him striking and picturesque in the eyes of his fellows, it may make him a saint or a tyrant, a ruthless embodiment of will, a sensitive dreamer, a cringing coward. By virtue of the proportions and relations of the elements of consciousness, he will be describable from the outside, and as he exists for the spectator of his actions. He can be compared with others, his nature can be conceived and communicated in terms of universals, since he will express the characteristic quality of his interests and purposes in his uttered thoughts and deeds. From the sum total of his work, we can infer with more or less certainty the inner character of his personality. What is so presented to us is the persona or mask by which he chooses to appear before the world, and by which the world sees and recognizes him, but we have not yet penetrated to, much less accounted for, the unity which fuses this particular differentiation of the common life into an indivisible whole. The elements of the unique individual may all be present, but without the principle of individuation they must remain forever external to one another. These elements do not make the living whole. The inner bond of connection is missing.


We must not confuse the principles of differentiation with the principle of individuation. By reason of their absolute distinctness, no account of the individual in terms of physical and psychical heredity and of physical and social environment can explain the coalescence of these inherited and acquired qualities into one indivisible conscious life. It would seem to follow that the principle of individuation cannot be identified with any single element or aspect of consciousness as this is analyzed by the psychologist. Thought tends to universality of function. It is individuated only insofar as I feel it to be going on in me, and in so far as its free or impeded exercise gives rise to pleasure or pain in me. And the persistence of thought's activity depends on a volitional continuity. The evil seems to express, through the utterance of the self's interests and purposes, the uniqueness of the individual life. Nevertheless the will can hardly itself bathe principle of individuation, since it is, after all, dependent for its inception on the unity of direction given to impulse by the unshakable feeling-life of the individual, and for its continuance and coherence on the progressive attainment of some measure of harmony in that feeling-life. Will gets its coloring and its bent from feeling, and its guidance from thought. Hence, will indeed expresses the individual life, but, on account of its purely out-going or externalizing function, it cannot be identical with the inner unity from which it originates and which it is never able to bring to more than partial utterance. What is, I think, the commoner view, rightly regards the principle of individuation as a feeling of self, but not a separate and distinct feeling, capable of being analyzed and compared with other specific feelings. It is not a feeling in the specific psychological meaning of the term, but rather lies beneath analysis. The term feeling, when used in this connection, indicates the essential intimacy and inwardness or immediacy of the individual selfhood. But the immediacy of self-feeling which constitutes the individual does not exclude mediation or development. The principle of individuation is not to be conceived as an iron circle which forever prevents expansion. The individual expands and develops by increasing differentiation of expression. The content of the immediate self-feeling, which constitutes the unity of the individual, expands correspondingly. The immediacy of the inner life gets content from the mediacy of the growing and differentiating self. The inner feeling of unity is inclusive of the most varied elements of experience. Hence the greatest possible differentiation of contents is not excluded by the feeling of individuation. This feeling has both conserving and expanding functions. My conclusion, then, is that the principle of individuation is an immediate state of feeling, which at once constitutes a permanent unity of life and holds developing and differentiating content of consciousness.


The expansion and deepening of the immediate feeling-life by the growth in complexity and harmony of the differentiating elements of selfhood, marks the development of the natural individual into personality. At the outset, by reason of the lack of organization amongst the differentiating tendencies and impulses in the self, there is a want of stability and harmony in the inner feeling life the unity of the individual in feeling and the differences in his impulses fall apart, because of the discrepancy between the immediate unity and the many impulses. The unity is very imperfectly realized. The activity of the self is anarchical and unstable. The gradual organization of impulses into a system is, on its inner side, the fusion of the differential factors with the individuating principle. On its outer side, this organization appears as the growth of a stable personality, which, by virtue of its harmony and consistency, becomes increasingly conceivable and describable, that is, takes on universal aspects. The individual, then, is constituted by the union of a group of differentiating impulses with an inner unshareable feeling of self-hood.


To say that the principle of individuation lies in feeling is to say that for science individuality is a limiting concept, an idea which we may approximately express in terms of the universal aspects of consciousness, approximately account for in terms of its own contents, but which must forever transcend description and explanation. While the comparative study of individuality therefore constantly points to a real principle of individuation as the condition of the existence of types and varieties of individuals with their rich and varied contents, the principle itself remains as the limiting condition of our study. The analysis of a personality will never explain or comprehend its unity. On the contrary, the inner immediate feeling of personality, being the condition of its intellectual, emotional, and volitional manifestations, is at once the presupposition and the limit of all analysis. The inner principle of individuality is not to be understood by any process of syllogism or formal inductive inference, but only by the exercise of the sympathetic imagination, by an intuitive apprehension akin to that involved in the appreciation of a work of art. The mental process employed in the interpretation of human selves is, in its final step, of the same order as that involved in the feeling for beauty. Both depend on the reverberation in the observer of a feeling which gets only partial and inadequate expression in the object. The beautiful object symbolizes a feeling; the objective and generalized expression of personality symbolizes the inner feeling-unity of another self. Hence the individual is knowable, but not by mere conceptual and discursive processes of thought. Conceptual knowledge and scientific description rest (in this case even more than anywhere else in the world of fact) on an ultimate basis of immediate apprehension, on an intuitive act or feeling, there is no irreconcilable opposition between the two orders of knowledge. Here preeminently, but everywhere in some degree, they stand in mutual dependence as coordinate factors in the growth of knowledge as a living whole.


Recognizing the fundamental distinction between the limiting concept of individuality and the elements of differentiation, the comparative study of individuals may bear fruitful results in the classification of types, in the interpretation and practical treatment of personality, in the investigation of the conditions and laws of the temporal genesis of personality, etc. It will treat universal conscious elements as the raw material of the individual life and note the outcome in thought and action of various relative proportions of mixture of these elements. Perhaps the value of such a study, which keeps in mind at once the distinction and the relation between differentiation and individuation, will be greatest in its bearings on theoretical and practical ethics and on metaphysics. These bearings I proceed to suggest here in outline.


3. Applications of the Study.

The complexity of individual types shows plainly the futility of any abstract system of ethics, and the impossibility of laying down universal laws for the ethical life. In particular, the complexity of individual differentiations, when considered in connection with the transcendence by the individual unity of life of all existing social contents of experience, would seem to indicate that the ethical end or highest good is definable only in terms of individuality, in other words, definable only in terms of that which is itself a limit to definition, and that hence society cannot furnish ultimate norms of conduct. The individual, of course, must not be regarded as an atomic entity separated from all social relations. But, inasmuch as the individual is not constituted simply by the mixture of the universal human attributes, inherited or acquired, an ethical philosophy which attempts to define the highest good in purely social or general terms leaves out of account the most significant and central aspect of the human self. It follows that no philosophy of history or sociology can be adequate which tries to account for the individual solely in terms of heredity and environment. The individual remains a transcendental factor in history, society, and ethics. From this point of view, one who notes the present widespread tendency to solve all ethical and sociological problems by the shibboleths of the social consciousness and social will, must regard Nietzsche's doctrine as a valuable although exaggerated reaction, in its emphasis on the supremacy of the individual. It would be interesting to trace the bearings of our principle on pedagogics.


And, finally, the methods and results of such a study of individuality not only point the way towards a metaphysics of individuality, but also gives to such a metaphysics a positive, empirical basis. From the standpoint of this paper, it is neither along nor an unwarranted step to the position that human individuals, so variously and manifoldly compounded, and yet not compounds but living and indivisible units, must have an origin transcending the world of present experience, that they must be at least the most significant manifestations of the Absolute.


This study would seem to indicate that the most important qualification we can make of the Absolute is precisely that it is the source and ground of human individuality. It would pass the limits of this article to offer any extended justification of this position. My object is simply to indicate the connection between the methods and principles outlined and the ultimate problems of ethics and metaphysics. In conclusion, I would point out that, looked at in this way, the Absolute, so far from being abstract, becomes precisely the most complex and individual kind of being thinkable by us men. From this point of view, one sees the Absolute to be implied and involved in the heart of human experience. We do not subtract from the significance of human experience, but rather, emphasizing its unique and individual quality, we relate the Absolute with all that has value and permanence in the human individual. To know the Absolute, then, is to appreciate the innermost nature of the individual life and the various types of human individuality from the side of their meanings and implications as elements in the organized system of reality.


3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All