The Unique, the Singular, and the Individual: The Debate about the Non-Comparable
That which is beyond all comparison seems to resist meaningful discourse or to require non-standard ways of thinking and communicating. The unique is not the first of a series, the singular is not an instance of a type, and the individual is not a particular of something general. The problem has a long and complex history, but it also has a pressing actuality at a time when singularity discourses abound. What can we 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. Leibniz’s monads, Schleiermacher’s individuals, Kierkegaard’s singular individual, and Hartshorne’s universal individual all contribute to this debate. Leibniz’ monads are microcosmic mirrors of the universe of irreducible simplicity. 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, 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 worship, but in a sense that makes it impossible for us to comprehend God conceptually.
The problem may not only be on God’s side, but also on ours. 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 our networks of terms and escape our distinctions. This has not merely epistemological, but also ethical and hermeneutical implications. If only God is unique, then uniqueness is nothing for which we could or should 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. The unique is 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?
Debates about the unique, the singular, and the individual pose epistemological, hermeneutical, metaphysical, ethical, and theological problems. To address them is the objective of the 39th Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference at Claremont, California, on February 23-24, 2018.