General and individual

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

General ( Altgr. ( To ) kathou ; Latin generalis , universalis ) and particulars (Altgr. To kath 'hekaston (also hekaston ); Latin particulare , singulare , species ) are basic concepts in the philosophical discipline of ontology , but also in the philosophy of language and Epistemology . General and individual together form a pair of terms .

The term general refers to properties that are common to all elements of a set of individual cases in a non-random manner, i.e. H. due to laws or regularities, are own. The question of the ontological status of the general ( problem of universals ) and the relationship between the general and the individual (or - synonymously - to the particular ) is particularly philosophically significant : from this derives the fundamental distinction in "idealistic" (the general determines the individual ) and “empirically” (the general is abstracted from individual cases) oriented epistemology.

Historical general ideas

In mythical thinking is not to find a reflective distinction between the individual and the general. Even modern people are not free from mythical thinking when they think of the good, invigorating feelings in the awakening spring in winter or are plagued by the fears of a violent thunderstorm. In this respect, there is no difference between the individual and the general in one's own imagination. Only when this distinction is made does the myth begin to shatter.

In the era of the myth that was gradually falling apart in ancient Greece, the emphasis on the importance of the general seems to downplay the importance of the particular. Heraclitus , for example, said : “Therefore one has to join in with the general” - i. H. the common, for the common Logos is universal; but notwithstanding the fact that the interpretation is general, people live as if they had private insight. The same applies to Parmenides.

Although Socrates already emphasized the importance of the individual human being, his pupil Plato with his theory of ideas even fell back into an overemphasis on the general, in that the ideas play the role of the general, which as archetypes of all being make up the essence of the world. The individual only has the role of the ephemeral image of the imperishable ideas. Plato's pupil Aristotle rejected the theory of ideas and in his first philosophy (metaphysics) assigned the individual, the Diesda, a function that constitutes reality. Nevertheless, for Aristotle, the universal (as a pure form contained in eternal reason, in which man also has a share), was given a timeless meaning, which is manifested in our current concept of natural law. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle gave a definition of the general that is still acceptable today by saying that something is general when it belongs to several people at the same time.

The philosophy of the Middle Ages deals in universals then almost exclusively with the question of what existential importance of the universal and the individual. In the Isagogue , his Aristotle commentary, Porphyrios (232/233 to 304) examines the three questions of whether the general exists in substance ( realism ), detached from things or in things, or whether it is only a question of the formation of concepts in the intellect ( Nominalism ). A common solution has been that the general lies in things but only exists through concepts ( conceptualism ).

The medieval discussion found its continuation in the modern age. In the course of rationalism , the general regained existential importance, especially in natural science, in which the belief in the existence of an all-encompassing natural law was increasingly widespread. Due to the extraordinary successes of the physical sciences, the idea developed that the general is given for the description of all life processes with the physical laws, so that all research in medicine can only claim to be scientific if it shows how individual phenomena of human or animal organisms can be explained solely by tracing them back to physical laws. This research approach is called physicalistic reductionism .

Due to the insight that every organism behaves according to independent laws, which appear in what is known as chronobiology, for example, physicalistic reductionism has been losing ground for a long time, so that the view is gradually spreading that there is something general about every organism through which the individual processes can only be fully grasped beyond the physical-reductionist modes of description.

On the other hand, in modern times, George Berkeley and then David Hume also have the purely nominalistic thesis that the general arises only from the way people form and use concepts. For the nominalist, existence has only something special. In modern times, Ludwig Wittgenstein formulated the nominalist position in a similar way. The general arises through the formation of concepts. Their meaning results from their use. And use also determines the distinction between the individual and the composite.

"To the philosophical question:" Is the facial image of a tree composed, and what are its components? "Is the correct answer:" That depends on what you mean by 'composed'. "(And that is of course not an answer, but rather a rejection of the question) ”. (PU § 47)

From Wittgenstein's point of view, it makes no sense to try to clarify the nature of numbers. Complex numbers, real numbers, ordinal or cardinal numbers are terms between which there are family similarities without there being any properties that all numbers have (cf. PU § 58). The meaning of terms such as number, proof, thinking, freedom cannot be defined, but only inferred if one knows their correct use in practice. Whether an individual thing falls under a term is then a question of conventions.

Epistemological significance of the general

The first useful epistemology was formulated by Plato with his doctrine of remembrance. It is based on his theory of ideas, according to which all sensually perceptible objects are images of eternal ideas. If, according to Plato, the human soul has seen these ideas in the supernatural place before they are embedded in a body, then when it sensually perceives an object, it can remember the archetype of this object, so that it can be assigned to the individual object whose original idea makes. And this assignment is then a knowledge, for example when we say: “This single tree there is a beech”, or “This moving object there is a hare.” The general idea is the idea of ​​the beech or the idea of ​​the hare.

Regardless of how you think of the existential givens of the general or of the individual, this form: an individual is assigned to a general, and is still the most general form of any knowledge today.

The various scientific findings differ only in how they contain the general, how the individual and how the possibility of assigning the two is determined. And as soon as general ideas change, the sciences change too. When Einstein gave up the general idea of ​​the obvious simultaneity of events in different places, the way was paved for the special theory of relativity . And when he expanded the general ideas of possible reference systems beyond the inertial systems with regard to all reference systems that are in any form of movement to one another, the way was free for the development of the general theory of relativity .

The scientific theorist Kurt Huebner restricts the concept of scientific knowledge to the fact that the general in all scientific knowledge - regardless of whether it is scientific or humanistic knowledge - is always given by rules that the particular science follows or has to follow. The concept of rule is the general, under which natural laws fall as well as laws that have been passed by humans, but also all possible rules of human interaction that do not even have a formal legal character.


  1. Cf. the relevant work of the latest myth research, for example by Kurt Huebner: The truth of the myth. Beck, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-406-30773-6 , pp. 111, 114, 127, 130, 133, 138, 140 etc.
  2. Cf. Jaap Mansfeld: The pre-Socratics I, Milesians, Pythagoreans, Xenophanes, Heraklit, Parmenides, selection of fragments. Translations and explanations by Jaap Mansfeld. Reclam, Stuttgart 1995, Heraklit, Fragment No. 2, pp. 244 / 5-3.
  3. Cf. Aristotle: Metaphysics. Book VII (Z) 1038b11f.
  4. Werner Strombach, Nature and Order, provides a brief overview of various existential ideas about the general . A natural-philosophical interpretation of the scientific worldview of our time. Beck, Munich 1968, pp. 35-39.
  5. See Wolfgang Deppert: Relativity and Security. In: Michael Rahnfeld (Ed.): Is there any reliable knowledge? Volume V of the series Fundamental Problems of Our Time. Leipziger Universitätsverlag, Leipzig 2006, ISBN 3-86583-128-1 , ISSN  1619-3490 , pp. 90-188.
  6. See Kurt Hübner: Critique of Scientific Reason. Alber, Freiburg 1978, 1986, 2002, ISBN 3-495-47592-3 , pp. 194f., 305-324.


  • Aristotle: metaphysics. Book VII (Z).
  • Rudolf Eisler: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms. Mittler und Sohn, Königliche Hofbuchhandlung, Berlin 1904. Keyword: General .
  • Rainer Hegenbart: Dictionary of Philosophy. Gondrom, Bindlach 1994, ISBN 3-8112-1125-0 . Keyword: general .
  • Lutz Höll: Individuals, Specials, Generales , in: Historisch -kritisches Handbuch des Marxismus , Vol. 3, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg, 1997, Col. 212.225.
  • Johannes Hoffmeister: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms. Meiner, Hamburg 1955. Keywords: general and general terms .
  • Kurt Huebner : Critique of Scientific Reason. Alber, Freiburg 1978, 1986, 2002, ISBN 3-495-47592-3 .
  • Kurt Hübner: The Truth of the Myth. Beck, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-406-30773-6 .
  • Alfred Kosing : Dictionary of Philosophy. Das Europäische Buch, Westberlin 1985. Keywords: general and individual, special, general .
  • Jaap Mansfeld : The pre-Socratics I, Milesians, Pythagoreans, Xenophanes, Heraklit, Parmenides, selection of the fragments. Translations and explanations by Jaap Mansfeld. Reclam, Stuttgart 1995.
  • Jürgen Mittelstraß : Encyclopedia Philosophy and Philosophy of Science. Metzler, Stuttgart 1995, ISBN 3-476-01350-2 . Keyword: General, that .
  • Michael Rahnfeld (Ed.): Is there reliable knowledge? Volume V of the series Fundamental Problems of Our Time. Leipziger Universitätsverlag, Leipzig 2006, ISBN 3-86583-128-1 , ISSN  1619-3490 .
  • Joachim Ritter : Historical dictionary of philosophy. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1971. Keyword: general / special .
  • Werner Strombach: Nature and Order. A natural-philosophical interpretation of the scientific worldview of our time. Beck, Munich 1968.