A few months ago, I began writing out a series of personal notes and ideas about individuality and individualism that gradually lead to the creation of the following essay. In purpose, this essay is a conceptual matrix of information aimed at the inspiration of ideas. In form, this essay is an analysis of different perspectives of the relationship between the concepts of “Individuals” and “Individuation”, and a comparison of the foundational theories that would support both the arguments and the metaphysical assumptions they respectively make to support their conclusions. It is divided into four sections of analysis followed by a fifth for theoretical implications and conclusions (for the convenience and ease of readers, sections IV-V [4-5] will be included in a second post following the publication of this post):
I. The Origin of “Individuality”
II. Conceptions of the Individual
III. The Individual Being
IV. Individuality without Individuation
V. Individuality and its Moral Implications
Some of the philosophic assumptions and foundations of a large number of people’s world views and those of even some societies rely upon individualism and ideas of individuality to reinforce and justify their attitudes and actions. Considering the fact that the existence of individuals is so integral to the arguments and conceptual frameworks of many cultures and philosophies, it is important to review the metaphysical assumptions to determine just what people mean when they refer to individuals and whether or not there are varying degrees of individuality or states either characteristic or not characteristic of individuality that can be realistically differentiated or identified.
I. The Origin of “Individuality”
The Self and Subjectivity
The “I”, the personal representation of one’s Self, is a reflection or imagination of the idea of one’s own being, but the subject of experience, not that which the Self is represented by but that which it refers to, lies behind the relation between the “I” and the unconsciously manifested being of the observer. Different metaphysical assumptions result in different interpretations of this terminology, but for the purposes of this essay contemplation, the following terminology will be used. The “I”, or self, is the name for that personalized sense of individualistic being which we use for the purposes of social interaction and self-referential communication. It is Hegel’s self-consciousness, Hume’s bundled construct of self, the Buddhist’s ego, and psychology’s personal identity. The term Self used in this essay is a borrowed term from many spiritual philosophies that exists as something of a meta-self, or being that is extended beyond the conscious functions and personal identity of an individual human’s conscious mind. The relationship between the Self and the self is one of expression and localization where the self is the expressive, localized representation of the more generalized and universal Self. The Self is the larger totality of being, all that which one can be said to be as it relates to existence, whereas the self is the localization of identity within a particular consciousness or conscious frame of mind and mental processing. To avoid confusion between the two terms, the lowercase-S self will be referred to as the “I” or the ego of a person.
The “I”, or ego, is not exactly the individual, but its borders and distinctions, that which separates all it is applied to from what is other. The person is the ego identified as a being, and in the context of subjective experience, this person is who an individual assumes the identity of. While one can experience influences that affect one’s attitudes and values, it is also possible for an individual person to voluntarily undergo a transformation of the ego that results in the fulfillment of a desired change in the construction of the personal identity. This however does not mean that the ego can change itself, but rather paradoxically that the ego is also associated with an other that changes its construction, connecting the sense of identity to an idealized abstraction. It is this subconscious construction of one’s conscious persona and identity, with the implied latent ability to become content within the conscious mind’s use of short-term memory, that reveal the relation of the subject of experience and the object of it.
Imagine the conscious and unconscious functions of the mind as being spaces for processing. Within the conscious mind, the processing and usage of short-term memory allows for the explicit use of a small amount of information and knowledge to construct an abstract representation of the identity assumed by the persona, including the relevant perspectives of value, self-association, and volition, as well as the objectives and manners of the person as they are expressed through this self-conception. An explicit aim or orientation need not be assigned by the content because it is the necessary function of the conscious mind to interact with the object of experience in terms of the abstract values held within one’s conscious formulation and of the necessary drives for self-preservation. This does not always imply that a person would avoid self-destructive or self-harming tendencies. Considering the existential burden of the self-aware person, the distress or cognitive dissonance one may encounter in experience will influence a person to associate their being with either contemptible conditions to be despised, which would incline one’s consciousness to a personally pathological and destructive habit, or it may influence a person to associate their being with some alienated ideal which they must strive to embody or emulate in their own values and behaviors.
This former construction of one’s relationship between self and other that allows for the identity associations that construct the borders of one’s self-conception is like a template for the idealization of a particular self-image. It is this formulation of a self related to an idealized self that allows the consciousness of an individual to reflect on his/herself and to serve as the platform of experience by which different transformations of personality can be consciously reviewed or tested, as in meditation or introspection, in differing formations of consciousness. This also enables the individual to adopt differing, contextually appropriate constructions of consciousness and self-identification for different purposes or objectives that the individual as a living being can pursue.
The Awareness of Self, by Self
Within culturally constructed mythology, this idealized self-image is heralded as the optimization of personal value, or that persona which one ought to be. Considering personal identity as a constructed formation of consciousness, the forms of its construction can be seen as arbitrary to a degree, insofar as they are oriented and organized by arbitrary ideas and values which seem to compete for influence as something like unconscious impetus stemming from what one may identify as passions. Where the conscious mind’s objectives are often to use the ability of conscious consideration to rationally discern the optimal personal orientation that serves the desires and self-preservation of the individual in whole, it is the unconscious that serves as not only a wealthy library of evolutionary knowledge and instinct, but also a Self-related other with which the persona can always interact with and be influenced by. It is because there is clearly an unconscious space of mind and unknown content that allows for the limitation of conscious activity and content that forms the persona, or ego. In other words, by knowing that there are things you do not have conscious awareness or knowledge of, you are simultaneously knowing that which you are aware of and do consciously know, or hold in short-term recollection, whereas all psychic content that is held in long-term memory is unconsciously known and implied by there being another side to the borders of one’s conscious self.
Used as an abstract idea itself, the conscious mind serves as a function of the individual and its personalized self-representation, being evidence for its own existence. After all, one must exist in order to experience anything subjectively, or according to its relation to the constructed personality. This is how the idea of “individuality” is abstractly conceptualized, not just as the numerical singularity of the being’s personality or physical being, but as that being itself which represents itself consciously by use of a constructed personality for the sake of social interaction and self-reflection. It it in this way that the individual can make of and for itself an “I”.
II. Conceptions of “the Individual”
I Feel; Therefore, I Am
The individual as the pseudo-dualistic unification of experiencing/experiencer or knowing/knower is the symbolic self-representation of the unity of being as expressed by the persona (it being the self-projection of the mind). It stands as an affirmation of existence in totality with the definition “I am”, as the “I” and Self do not exist independently of the “you”, “it”, or Other. This is the image of the individual as the meeting of physical and metaphysical, rather than something of substance belonging to either category.
The sense of individuality may have given way to the conception of the individual, but as with all symbolic representations, the absolute truth of its being is lost in translation. Despite this loss of exactness, symbolic truths retain a trace of being which can be used as a mapping of how one came about the awareness, or conscious knowledge, of the perception from which the symbol was produced and to which it refers. While individuality may be used as a reference to the distinct being of a person, its origin lies in the perception of oneness, unity, and being itself. Metaphysically, and metaphorically, speaking, there is only one individuality as there can only be one essence of being. If a thing is, then it is as it is, and if there is any thing, then it must be that thing which is rather than that which is not, or which it specifically is not in the case of persons. If one not only has experience, but also experiences truth in being such as the raw reality of unique emotional influences or the undeniably frank fact that if anything is to be perceived then something must exist to be perceived even if it is only a reflected perception of the perceiver, then one must believe that there is an essence or absoluteness to being that allows for its perception. However, this does not necessarily mean that this absolute being is in the form of substance, as form and substance imply the extra existence of the formless and so disqualifies itself from the unity of absolute being. One cannot cast shadows without both light and obstacles. In this manner of understanding, it can be said that, though metaphors such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave reference this thing as the cause of reality’s being, the essence of being is the same as that essence of the individual. In fact, if there is any essence at all, it would be this unified essence of existence. I am, and as you are like I, so you are. But the focus is not on what the substance of this essence is, as if one was asking for the substance of God, but on the simple fact of being phenomenologically. I am, and I need not be more than I am. To add modifiers would be to distract from the Self, to an Other.
You, there! Yes, You!
How then is it that we have derived from this idea of essence and being the idea of the nature of the individual person? The conception of one thing’s essence is immensely practical given the cognitive ability to make distinctions between one thing and another. With this formula, one could begin to identify not only oneself, but also the self or being of other things as they can be made distinct from oneself. This can be referred to as naming, though the conceptual distinctions go much farther than simply giving names to objects and phenomena. For instance, the being of self-consciousness (more colloquially called self-awareness) is individualistic by illusory abstraction, meaning the Self, or essence of being, is shared in totality by all subjects and persons rather than divided or appearing as separate instances among each particular organism that is self-conscious. Each person is an expression of the one and only Self, yet symbolically representative of its unity and wholeness in being in many different ways. This is why and the degree to which various groups of individuals develop unique cultures and social norms of manners and mannerisms, for the being of a person is the manner in which they exist. Regardless of the superficial differences in how we may exist, it is true of every person, insofar as they are a person, to say “I am” and “You are”. Whatever may follow those words are only representations of the state of one’s being.
The Soul; Sole Being
Following from the idea that if there is anything at all then what it is can be equated to the existence of one thing from which the conceptual distinction of “many things” is abstractly extrapolated, one can find a certain metaphysical argument underlying the use of the psyche as something equal to the mind and the soul. Whereas the other conceptions of the individual are relatively non-essentialist in that they do not ascribe the existence of an essential substance to individuality, the psyche as soul and mind can be said to be essentialist in substance primarily considering that experience often manifests itself in our awareness by means of (at least) physical dimensions. The notion of an immaterial soul or metaphysical mind directly implies a dualism of physical and metaphysical, material and immaterial; however, this does not imply that either is primary with the other being secondary. The existence of physical and non-physical realities is ultimately another conceptual distinction, and a cause for paradoxical reasoning about existence, such as the conclusion that if everything is of the same reality, then there is no reasonable distinction between the physical and the metaphysical. This is reasoned to be so because so long as a substance can be found, the “thing” can be categorized as physical, but the origin of substances and the potential lack of awareness of a certain substance suggests a metaphysical quality to that which we simply have not found yet. If all of one’s experience is an interpretation of the mind’s perception of sense information, then the physical world by which the senses receive information from external objects to be perceived using the mechanism of a substance called a nervous system is also an interpretation of information. Information is therefore the most fundamental aspect of existence, and therefore reality, because one cannot be aware of anything’s existence unless one is able to process the accessible information regarding its existence.
I will not explore the question of whether this metaphysical interpretation is reliable, as it seems to be a dead-end leading back to the claim that one must on principle trust the senses because their explicit purpose is to accurately convey the information of existence to the observer/perceiver, and if one cannot trust one’s own senses, then how can one trust the idea of empirical reasoning and the sensation of doubt in one’s ability to perceive or sense at all. Instead, I will use the concept of the phaneron to explore the understanding of the individual as being the soul of existence, the essence from which the entirety of reality, per experience, is manifested.
Assuming throughout your lifetime you only ever experience existence as yourself, you are the primary individual reality as demonstrated by your mind’s localization in your particular organism. Since no aspect of existence outside of the phaneron, or the representation of reality as simulated/hallucinated by your mind, can be known to exist in form or substance, it is for all intents and purposes an extension of your mind’s functions and content. This is similar to the solipsistic view of reality in which the person who experiences reality is the only “real” person who truly exists (everyone else is mimicking conscious life), but I will explain how it differs.
The person who experiences reality (reality being the simulated perception of existence) as an extension of his/her own mind and being experiences his/her own reality and the metaphysics of his/her own version of the soul; whereas, since other persons belonging to other souls interpret existence in terms of their own mind, they belong to different (alternate, if you’d like) realities which supposedly manifest themselves in the same ways, along the same dimensions of awareness. The metaphysics of this conception of the individual supposes that there is one, sole individual, but also that this individual is not divided among many instances of personhood at the same time across space, but dimensionally distinguished, like beads on a necklace or points around a circle, in the same way that we would colloquially understand different realities to be made distinct yet relatively similar. In other words, we are all THE one reality, but we are experiencing different perceptual framings of existence, or the space-time continuum if we are being dimensionally specific to the physical representation of existence. That being said, the soul is the only truly real and consistent thing there is, but because of funky metaphysics and the god-like power of being able to manipulate dimensional representation, it exists universally and can allow itself to experience itself in literally multiple, dimensionally distinct ways. In the other conceptions of the individual, the metaphysical assumptions allow for consciousness to be a dimension itself within which perception can occur, allowing for self-consciousness when a mind, being a multi-dimensional abstraction, is aware of consciousness in its self or an other. The metaphysics of the soul assume that the soul is the only substance which exists, which manipulates itself into different dimensional configurations to form the awareness of reality in its self-awareness. Put more concisely, the soul is reality, physical and metaphysical.
Instead of the “I” being the consequence of localized self-consciousness, with the added conceptualization of the Self, the soul is the self-aware essence of being in the Self, but in a manner manifested distinctly from “other souls”. The psychological Self is the metaphysical substance of individuality, being the essence of one’s perception of reality, rather than the persona being the practical, by consequence of physical distinction, substance of each individual.
III. The Individual Being
Wholeness of Mind
The more your mind’s functions and content are fractured and fragmented, at odds with itself, so too the more your “individuality” is the amalgamation of conflicting personalities vying for expression. A whole mind is supposedly one in which the contents and functions, the ideas and processes of the mind, are unified in some singular identity or objective. Instead of having contrasting and conflicting states of consciousness as, for an extreme example, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might have, someone possessing a whole mind, figuratively speaking, possesses something like a container of water in which the current flows so that the waves neither concentrate into a singular, hyper-focused force threatening to throw the water from its vessel, nor compete with and destroy each other through destructive interference.
A whole mind can comprise many parts, even dichotomous parts that are dynamically opposed, but the mind will only be whole if the cognitive dissonance and interference between these parts is reconciled with a unifying identity. This is one of the better functions and purposes of the “I”, the egoic self, as it is able to syndicate differing energies and competing forces of will under the umbrella of a self-sustained and self-controlled psychological impetus. Just as there may be many forces moving through a river, to use another analogy, the river only flows in one direction. A river that flows against itself will cease to be a river all together. So too will a mind that works against itself be not one mind, but many displacing and contrasting each other. The same can be said for personalities, as a persona is the expression of the not-so-superficial Self, the combination of conscious and unconscious.
Using this formula including equal but dualistic identification with the conscious and unconscious aspects of one’s mind, it should be known that an ego is only superficially what a person is, but the individual his/herself is the combined being of all aspects of one’s mind, and acting as this individual is acting in a manner that is not characterized by dissonance or disparity in or between any faculty or process of one’s mind.
Originality of Ideas
Assuming the individual as the structure of Self expression by the psyche indicates that the adoption of behaviors does not hinder the degree of individuality, but that individuality is instead greatly reinforced by the modification of adopted behaviors idiosyncratically. In the case that an individual adopts behaviors which manifest themselves unmediated by the individual’s personal self-conscious, the individual can be said to be psychically possessed by the content and expression of another individual’s mind. This form of possession is characterized by an individual’s expression of behaviors, values, or ideas that originated in the being of another individual. If someone can be said to be determinably influenced by another, there is a reasonable argument to be made that they are not acting as an individual seeing as though an individual is the Self from which a singular persona is generated, and one who acts out the will of another is a medium resonating the personal expression of the other in an unmodified, impersonal emulation or mimicry of the other.
Mixing, analyzing, mediating, and altering or revising the conceptualizations of others are all examples of idiosyncratic modification of ideas, but in keeping with the perspective that the individual is more phenomenological than substantial, individually constructed ideas are rare in themselves, as people do not regularly invent new concepts. Instead, the originality of a conceptualization may rely on the degree to which it is a particular individual who is constructing the conceptual framework, or the degree to which the idea of their own individuality mediates his/her conceptualization. For instance, I am not the first nor the last philosopher to seek a comprehensive conceptualization of individuality, personhood, or moral agency, but I may be the first to do so using these particular concepts, ideas, and philosophies. Though a philosopher such as Nietzsche may have a differently constructed conceptualization, his does not include the mediation of his philosophy with that of Carl Jung, Plato, and Alan Watts. Because of the specific philosophers I have in mind, the degree of my own mediation and utilization of their conceptual framings is reinforced in the fact that it is I who reflects on and mediates their philosophies. In this manner, I am like an artist using techniques invented by others, but personally, stylistically altering their respective customs to better fit my own methodology and goals as a philosopher. Insofar as philosophy is the art and skill of the human psyche, I have defined my own art of philosophy independent of the particular styles or habits of the philosophers from whom I have learned. Because of this, I have defined my own fixations and biases, yes, but also my own foresight and idiosyncrasies as far as conceptualization and analysis go. Though the tools once belonged to others, they are now extensions of my being, hence reinforcements of my own individuality.
Agent of Value
An analysis of the value of the individual cannot be made without a discussion of the value of individuality. Likewise, analysis of the individual in being and the value of individuality cannot be made without discussing the values of individuals themselves. In the manner that every persona is a representation constructed with particular customs and behaviors, personalities are also constructed with particular core or essential values and beliefs. The persona as a representation is manifested from these values and core principles like the emergent functions of complex computer programing. Just as individuality is an idea which is to varying degrees related to other ideas within the content of one’s mind, it too is a value which is balanced with other values, principles, and priorities in one’s self-perception. The more a person values a particular value or principle, the more this person can be expected to behave in a manner that prioritizes the expression of that value as essential to being or being’s understanding. With this in mind, a person may literally think individuality into his/her psychic systems, using it as measure of understanding in his/her engagement with the rest of reality. What stays deeply in one’s thoughts may as well be the foundation of the thoughts, or at least the grounds they lie upon.
Though the idea of individuality itself does little to differentiate the individual from others, idiosyncratic ideas and values that are consciously reflected on and selected for personal identification are more realistic measures of individuation as they and the abstract networks of conceptual framing they construct are more likely to be personally unique. The practice of individuality is the acting upon these personal values and principles with higher priority than acting on the regulation of values or principles not consciously reflected upon, or selected or associated with identification with Self.
This concludes sections I-III. Sections IV & V can be found on the post On the Concept and Phenomenon of Individuality (part 2/2).