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Where does our deeply held ideal of qualitative individualism – that our differences from other individuals are of the highest significance for our living well – come from? We saw last time that it was most developed by Romantics, especially German ones. But where did they get the idea? Here as in so many cases, a characteristically modern idea has premodern roots. When German Romantics like Humboldt and Herder articulate the idea they often refer to a metaphysical “principle of individuation”, sometimes referred to by the Latin term: principium individuationis. That is, everything, in the human world at least, has a principle that makes it unique, what it is and nothing else. Where are they getting this idea?

Last time I stressed the important differences between qualitative individualism and Aristotle: for Aristotle our best lives lie in conformity to a standard of excellence that is shared in common with other human beings, or at least other human beings in the same category. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s view turned out to sow seeds of the qualitative individualist view, above all as he differentiated himself from his teacher Plato. For Plato, particular or individual entities of whatever kind are illusory or imperfect copies of the universal essences that they instantiate; it is the universals that are most truly real. Aristotle agrees that particular entities all instantiate universals, but the universals do not exist apart from the particulars; they have their reality only in the particulars. Thus begins what I have previously called a descent, a move away from transcendent universals – like the form or idea of Man – and toward particulars, individual men and women.

Westerners then came to forget about Aristotle for a thousand years; in the first millennium CE, Europe was dominated by an Augustinian Christianity, which had far more in common with Plato. Thus it remained in a single-minded form of ascent, where every individual human being’s role was to participate in a divine plan that pointed upward to a better, transcendent world beyond. But when Spanish Muslims returned Aristotle to Christian consciousness around the 12th and 13th centuries, various new ideas became possible.

Perhaps the most important of these new ideas was developed by John Duns Scotus. Duns Scotus developed this idea out of a painstakingly technical reading of Aristotle, and in his hands it is so subtle and abstract that one is easily tempted to dismiss it as pointless scholastic wrangling about angels on the head of a pin. But as with other major issues in medieval Christianity, its implications in the later history of ideas have turned out to be enormous.

Duns Scotus noticed that when Latin Aristotle scholars referred to the “essence” of a thing, what it truly is, they were referring back to two different Greek terms of Aristotle’s: to ti en einai, “the what it was to be”, and to ti esti, “the what it is”. Duns Scotus thought that these were two quite different things, and coined two different Latin terms to translate them: quidditas (from Latin quid, “what”) for to ti en einai, and haecceitas (haec meaning “that”) for to ti esti. There are two common ways to translate these terms into English, both of which are awkward. One can simply anglicize the Latin as the mouthfuls “quiddity” and “haecceity”, or one can re-form them from the English roots that correspond to the Latin roots, so that quidditas becomes “whatness”, and haecceitas “thatness”. (It is a tangent, but not a completely irrelevant one, to note that Sanskrit uses a term for essences – tattva – that also means exactly “thatness”.)

And why would anyone who is not Duns Scotus care about all this clunky terminology? Because it allows one to think about what a thing really and fundamentally is in terms of what it is, the individual particular thing, rather than in terms of the universal category it belongs to. One’s haecceity is one’s nature as simply oneself, rather than as human being or other category. I am no longer just a human being, an American, a manager, a philosopher – these are my whatness, my quiddity. Rather, I am also me, in my own thatness, my haecceity, my uniqueness. From here it is just one step to the nominalism of William of Ockham, according to which universals don’t even exist. Some historically minded conservatives have taken Ockham to be at the root of everything they find wrong with the modern world for exactly this reason: Michel Villey blamed Ockham’s nominalism for the idea of individual rights, Richard Weaver (as Skholiast informed me) for attacking the idea of an objective reality.

Whatever we think of Ockham’s views, Duns Scotus did not go as far as Ockham did. For Scotus there are still essences, in the form of thatness as well as whatness. The key here is that when we identify thatness as an essence, it can have a teleology, a purpose. And that means that my purpose, as an individual, can be considerably different from that of other human beings, or other human beings in the same category, even though we share those more universal characteristics. (I think it is for these reasons that Heidegger studied these debates carefully, in a way that influenced the existentialists: when Sartre says that existentialism means believing that “existence precedes essence”, I think he is prioritizing thatness above whatness.)

Duns Scotus didn’t draw that ethical conclusion from his metaphysical view. It would have been quite difficult to do so in his medieval world. But later on, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz would pick up the idea of whatness or haecceity, and specifically called it the principium individuationis. Leibniz was also not explicit about deriving an individualist ethics from this principle, but his philosophy became enormously influential in German via his disciple Christian Wolff, and through Alexander Baumgarten, who coined the term “aesthetics”. Wolff and Baumgarten made it possible for Romantics like Herder and Humboldt to celebrate individual difference philosophically.

Does this early history have any relevance now? I think it does, because it helps us make the argument for qualitative individualism. I intend to develop that point in future posts.