We Need a General Theory of Individuality

Posted on June 25, 2010 

We Need a General Theory of Individuality

Needed, an oxymoron: a general scientific theory of individual differences. To focus upon individuality is to celebrate particularity, whereas any general theory must, by definition, submerge the individual case in a wider sea of pattern. Each of us cherishes our own separate, individual personhood, making much of the “fact” that we are different from everyone else (while also insisting, of course, that we aren’t all that different). But attention to individual differences runs the risk of being unscientific, insofar as science aims at generalizing, raising our heads above the individual trees to recognize the forest. Yet the need is there. When Kierkegaard insisted that his tombstone say “That Individual,” he was identifying both an existential truth and a profound scientific dilemma.

One of the unspoken secrets in basic scientific research, from anthropology to zoology (with intervening stops at physiology, political science, psychology, psychiatry, and sociology) is that, nearly always, individuals turn out to be different from one another, and that—to an extent rarely admitted and virtually never pursued—scientific generalizations tend to hush up those differences. It can be argued that that is what generalizations are: statements that apply to a larger class of phenomena and must, by definition, do violence to individuality. But since science seeks to explain observed phenomena, it should also be able to explain the granular particularity of such phenomena. In fact, generalities lose potency if they occur at the cost of artificially leveling otherwise significant features of reality.


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