The Unique, the Singular, and the Individual: The Debate about the Non-Comparable


39th Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference at Claremont, California, on February 23-24, 2018

with a Special Pre-Conference Seminar: Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Die Udo Keller Stiftung Forum Humanum gewährte 10 Forum Humanum Claremont Conference Grants


The theme of this conference was The Unique, the Singular, and the Individual: The Debate about the Non-Comparable. We have chosen this topic because while we talk all the time about plurality, diversity, multiplicity and variety, we sometimes forget the importance of the opposite ideas of uniqueness, singularity and individu­ality. 

They are challenging ideas, for a number of reasons.

DZ Phillips used to tell a story about a meeting of the University's Philosophical Society in Swan­sea/ Wales where a young philosopher gave a paper on individuals in which he extensively belabored the point that as singular individuals we are absolutely different from others because our individuality marks us off from everybody else. Rush Rhees, who as a student at the University of Rochester was expelled for insolent questions, listened patiently but then opened the discussion by asking the speaker: “Yes indeed, each of us is a unique individual. But this is what we all share, isn’t it?”   

There seems to be something paradoxical about terms like ‘unique’, ‘singular’ or ‘individual’ that we can use to mark us off from everything else and at the same time to state what is true of all of us. They function differently from concepts or sortal terms like ‘human’ or ‘student’ that we use to ascribe (sets of) first-order attributes to us or to others. We cannot construe uniqueness as class-mem­bership, for example, because this results in confusion or even paradox. 

So how can we talk meaningfully about the unique, the singular and the individual, which – after all – are not the same? Is the classical distinction between transcendental and categorical terms enough to point a way towards a good answer? Or do we have to pay more attention to questions of in­dexi­cality and the use of non-conceptual localizing terms? 

Moreover, whereas individuality is discussed ubiquitously, uniqueness is rarely explored in depth. Singularity discourses, on the other hand, have multiplied in recent years. The past decades have seen a growing number of singularity discussions in mathematics, systems theory, cosmology and technology. In the study of exponential revolutions, singularity has become a major topic of technological research. Singularities are points or events of no return, or rather – as we shall see – interpretations of events of no return, that completely and definitively change a situation because the rules and laws that govern a particular set of phenomena are annulled in such a way that no reliable predictions about future behavior or developments on the basis of previous behavior or probability calculations are possible any more. The creation of self-regulating thinking machines or human-machine combinations that are significantly more powerful and intelligent than we are today is said to end human history as we know it and to open up a future nobody can foretell. Just as we cannot imagine what humanity looked like before we developed the capacity for language and linguistic communication, so we cannot imagine what human life will look like when we become completely embedded in the networks of information and communi­cations technology (ICT) and controlled by artificial intelligence that affects and directs our capacities, wishes, motivations, interests, and decisions.

This raises interesting questions for philosophy and theology. Is there anything the debate about technological singularity can learn from philosophical studies about singular individuals or from theo­logi­cal debates about the unique or from hermeneutical explorations of ways of speaking about the unique, the singular and the individual?  There are longstanding debates in philosophy that have focused on ontological, epistemological and ethical issues. Plotinus’ transcendent Hen or One, Scotus’ thisness, Leibniz’ monads, Schleier­macher’s individuals, Kierkegaard’s singular individual or Hartshorne’s universal individual are all contributions to this debate. Plotinus’ transcendent One is not the first of a series but that without which there wouldn’t be any series of anything. Scotus’ thisness is the non-repeatable feature that individuates uniquely. Leibniz’ monads are irreducibly simple microcosmic mirrors of the universe. For Schleiermacher individuality is not an ontological given, but the highest ethical value to which humans ought to aspire. For Kierkegaard, too, singularity is an achievement term. We are all part of a multitude, and we become singular only by moving beyond the limitations imposed on us as particulars of the specific multitude to which we belong. And in metaphysics and philosophical theology Charles Hartshorne argues that if there is no god but God, then God is unique, not only in the sense of being the only one worthy of being worshiped, but in a sense that makes it impossible for us to comprehend God conceptually. 

The reason for this is not only due to God’s uniqueness, but also to our limits. Conceptual thinking is a powerful tool for orienting ourselves in the world. But all conceptual thinking simplifies, and all our conceptual schemes and distinctions flounder when it comes to thinking the utterly simple, individual, singular, or unique. What­ever we mean by them, they seem to slip through the cracks of our networks of terms and escape our distincti­ons. 

This not only has epistemological implications, but also ethical and hermeneutical ones. If God alone is unique, then uniqueness is nothing for which we could strive. Our aim can at best be to become singular individuals. In one sense we are all unique by being different from everybody else. Others can replace us in our professional functions and social roles, but not as individual per­sons. As persons we are all different from each other, but none of us will ever be unique in the sense of being utterly unlike anything else. Isn’t the unique not merely distinct from everything else in some respect or another, but something that does not share anything with anything else? But how can anything be radi­cally different from everything else and still be a reality for us? How can we meaningfully communicate about the unique, the singular, the utterly simple and the strictly individual?

These are some of the questions to be explored. The program of the conference was organized in the following way: First we concentrated (primarily, but not exclusively) on problems posed by the uniqueness of God, then on questions raised by human singularity and individuality. We began with exploring some influential contributions to our topic in the medieval period: Scotus’ account of thisness and the debate about Avicenna’s views about the impossibility of having more than one necessary existent in post-Avicennian metaphysics. We then moved on to discuss our topic from more contemporary semiotic (Peircean) and Trinitarian perspectives that engage in distinctly different ways with the philosophical issues and theological challenges of uniqueness, singularity and individuality. The last session continued this critical exploration from the post-modern perspective of recent event metaphysics. 

The second day we continued our discussion by turning to classical modernity and its construal of individuality in the traditions of Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard and Hegel. Then the focus shifted to questions of ethical formation and religious practices that are intrinsic to the making of individuals. The last paper took up the issue of non-comparability from the sub-title of our conference.