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The term individuality ( Latin : undividedness) refers in the broadest sense to the fact that a person or object is individual and differs from other people or objects. The term is used in philosophy , theology , psychology , sociology , pedagogy , anthropology and human biology, among others . The meaning of the individual is often discussed under opposites such as individual and social group , individual and state , individual and population .

Individualism is a system of thoughts and values in which the individual is the focus of consideration.

Philosophy (selection)

The idea of ​​individuality has played a major role in philosophy since ancient times . The question of the principle of individuation , that is, the question of what is responsible for people and objects being individual, was discussed in particular into the 19th century .

Philosophers have developed fundamentally different ideas of what individuality means and how it comes about. According to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas , objects become individual through matter, according to Thomas Hobbes and Rudolf Carnap through space and time, according to Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel through the self-becoming of the spirit.

Another frequently discussed problem area of ​​individuality is due to its ambivalent nature: On the one hand, individuality characterizes the unmistakability of people; on the other hand, all people are individual. This ambivalence in the concept of individuality has caused some philosophical currents to give up the attempt to conceptualize individuality since the Romantic era . Instead, Arthur Schopenhauer , Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche try increasingly to express individuality performatively or artistically (see philosophy of the person , the self , self-determination , responsibility , free will ).

The idea of ​​individuality also plays a major epistemological role: according to a widespread understanding, the reality to be recognized consists of individual things and facts. However, the terms that serve as a means of knowledge are general. The question arises whether, in view of this structural difference, reality can be recognized at all through concepts. Doubts about this possibility are already articulated in Aristotle's statement that no science is possible from the individual. In the course of the history of philosophy, these doubts intensify and finally lead to the view, made famous by Goethe , that the individual cannot be grasped by thinking in general ( individuum est ineffabile ).

In the philosophical anthropology , in personality psychology and the various psychotherapy -Schulen diverse views have been developed by individual and individuality. Although these interpretations seek a basic, valid provision to be but also the image of man be influenced the authors and from the typical cultural values of their world (see mentality history ).

Cultures, theologies and religions

In the conception of human individuality, European thinking has long been largely shaped by Judeo-Christian theology. In this tradition, the individual stands as a person towards his Creator God. Theologically, human individuality is based on an unavailable, immortal soul that distinguishes human beings from all other beings.

In Hinduism, too, there is a belief in an imperishable essence of the Atman, while in Theravada and Zen Buddhism the idea of ​​a metaphysical I (self) is considered a fundamental self-delusion. According to the teaching of Anatman (not-self) there is only a bundle of interconnected consciousness processes instead of a unified self.

From the point of view of cultural philosophy and cultural psychology , the differences between the European-Christian tradition and non-European thinking are interesting. Differences can be seen, for example, in the discussion about the content and hierarchy of human rights . What is the relationship between the individual's rights of freedom to unlimited self-realization (personal pursuit of happiness) and the social limitations due to duties towards family and community? The distinction between western individualistic and eastern collectivist basic convictions, which is sometimes asserted, is, however, very simplified because the great differences that also exist within cultures are overlooked (Asendorpf 2005; Marsella et al. 2000; Thomas 2003).


Psychologically, the individuality of a person can be recognized as a peculiarity of action and behavior (acting and reacting). Individual differences can be seen in personality traits , attitudes, interests and value orientations, religious, philosophical and political convictions, in self-concepts , in social behavior and communication style. In a broader sense, individuality also includes the personally designed living and working world (Gosling et al. 1995). Differential psychology deals with the systematic description of all psychological characteristics . Individuality here means a very rare or unique combination of many (or noticeable) individual features of a person or a human work. In individual cases, u. U. only a few traits or behavioral patterns characteristic.

Another view of individuality is based on the awareness of the individual. The uniqueness and uniqueness of the individual should be spoken of above all when it comes to inwardness and sensitivity, subjectivity and intentionality of the person. In personal well-being, in experiencing our own body, in perceiving the external world, we are given an inner reality. It has a special quality, its own phenomenal quality, because it is felt and experienced and is only directly accessible to us. This reference to the self is an aspect of subjectivity in addition to personal memories, the perception of intentions (intentionality) and the insight into being able to act in a self-determined manner. The loss of this self-reference, i.e. H. A persistent experience of foreignness, external control, and other ego disorders ( depersonalization ) are conspicuous signs of psychopathology in certain psychiatric diseases.

There are two things in self-reflection : the immediate and unconditional knowledge to distinguish oneself from other people, and the certainty, in spite of everything, and the like. U. deeper changes to be identical with oneself over time. Individuality here means the unmistakable world of consciousness (subjectivity) of the individual and the uniqueness of every human biography .

In Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis , the terms I-becoming and I-maturation refer primarily to the developing control of reality and the increasing control of affective-drive impulses. Carl Gustav Jung uses the term individuation for the psychological process of self-development . The term individualization , which comes from sociology, refers to the increasing isolation of people in society .

The social psychology is primarily concerned with the socialization process of socialization , and the tension between individual and social group or community. From the generalizing point of view of social psychology and sociology - as in general psychology - the great variability of human characteristics and the practical consequences of these individual differences are often overlooked (“ sociologism ”). A rediscovery of personality in the empirical social sciences was called for (Schumann 2005).

The individuality of a person also includes the physical individuality: the appearance of a person as well as a variety of anatomical, physiological and biochemical characteristics in which there are great individual differences - see below: physical (somatic) individuality and constitution .

Developmental psychology

The developmental psychology pursues the question how this individuality is formed from the genetic traits among the early childhood conditions and the educational influence of parents and other caregivers. Which processes of learning and identification take place, how are self-concepts formed and how do they change during the life span? The development of these cognitive systems and the knowledge about oneself are current research topics in psychology. The infant's process of self-discovery has also stimulated neuroscientific theories about the processes underlying the maturation of certain brain functions.

Child research today assumes that with the development of language skills a toddler is influenced by “socially determined empathy ” (usually the caregiver). This then creates a 'socially determined individuality', which, however, for example Niklas Luhmann (1993, see above) takes as given.

The individuality given in the reflection includes the self-understanding and the entire individual view of life of a person , potentially the totality of all aspects of their life that are essential for them: the individual as a world in itself (see Hans Thomae ). In this sense, the biography of a person formed in the life story is unique. Nevertheless, it is important to describe this peculiarity in general psychological terms - a task that suggests scientific theoretical discussions. Undoubtedly, a great deal of what constitutes psychological individuality can be described in scientific terms, because individuals have many fundamental things in common through their social and cultural developmental conditions and their biological species. The characteristic traits of an individual's biography and subjectivity can also be largely described in psychological terms. Whether or not an indescribable innermost being, a metaphysical principle, a soul , exists beyond this individuality cannot be answered empirically, but remains a philosophical and theological question.

The psychological individuality thus includes all characteristics of the experience and behavior of a person in the context of the biography.

Early childhood individuality and empathy

Some psychologists - including M. Hoffman (1975), but especially Arno Gruen - assume that individuality develops “naturally” if it is not suppressed in the individuation phase. From the current perspective of psychology and pedagogy, individuality arises initially through recognizing the limits of other individuals (in the early childhood phase, the limits of the caregivers). By recognizing their limits, the toddler already gets to know his own limits and develops them step by step through trial and error .

To recognize these limits, however, empathy is a prerequisite, this serves as a "bridge" to recognize the limits of others and thus also to recognize one's own limits. Arno Gruen sees “natural” empathy as an innate ability which, however, is not recognized or perceived in the first two years of life and is therefore atrophied or even filled with fears. According to Arno Gruen, the development of individuality can be encouraged or slowed down in the first two years of life. In this way, individuality can be promoted, if especially very young children (in the 1st and 2nd year of life) are already helped to perceive the limits of others and their own, but without triggering negative emotions (especially fear) at the same time.

Martin Hoffman (1981) asserts that together with empathy, an “empathic altruism” can already be assumed to be present in small children, so that natural empathy and natural altruism are initially a unit, the elements of which cannot remain individually.

According to Hoffman (1981) and Gruen (2003), innate empathy is necessary to develop social competence and this empathy is at the same time accompanied and promoted by natural altruism.

According to Gruen and others, individuality is the basis for creativity , motivation and innovative ability and general social competence in the further course . However, if this individuality is suppressed (among other things through traditionally shaped "upbringing"), individual unsuccessfulness arises in the further course due to a lack of empathy and substitution of natural altruism by egoism (often in the form of individualism ) . Arno Gruen sees this as the cause of the increasing tendency towards individual aggression in industrial societies.


Traditionally, it was the view of sociology that individuality leads to isolation, which is to be understood more in connection with the term individualism . On the other hand, individuality is mainly characterized by the quality of bonds to a group and differentiated from identity . It is assumed that physical identity and physical individuality are synonymous terms, but that there is a psychic existence independent of the physical, and that a very clear difference must be defined here. The psychological identity is defined by a fixed and often even psychologically indissoluble bond to groups (family, clan, nation state) in which only limited role variability is possible and usually presupposed.

Individualized people in societies who do not prevent or even promote individuality form (ideally) open, releasable ties to groups and variable roles in these groups. According to this definition, individuality is the ability to overcome traditional and cultural boundaries, and thus also moral ones. It should be noted that psychological (e.g. gender-specific) identity still exists - individuality is only the extension of a "constantly deficient state" that can arise through exclusive psychological identity.

Georg Simmel defined individuality as a consequence of especially larger cities: "Individuality arises from the intersection of social circles".

Jürgen Habermas sees three stages of ontogenetic development, the first stage being “natural identity”. If this is not forced into a fixed “role identity” of a group (“culture”) (2nd level), it is then possible for the individual, together with a pronounced “I identity” (as the 3rd level), to have an added (acquired ) End role identity and establish or assume other role identities. According to this view, individuality is the continuation of “natural identity”, supplemented by the ability to communicate. However, Habermas also assumes that people can only be social elements once they have begun verbal communication skills (usually children from the age of 2).

Different authors like u. a. Arno Gruen , on the other hand, assume that children are innately able to develop an individuality (especially “natural” empathy) and that they also express this non-verbally (communicate). However, this is lost in the first two years of life due to lack of understanding on the part of the caregiver . Only then are these natural abilities cognitively replaced by respective cultural characteristics ('determined' empathy).

From many sides, individuality is already recognized as a positive force in industrial societies, including:

"On the basis of the decision and the ability to develop an open" individuality ", a spontaneous cooperation that is not mediated through traditional group ties has developed in modern societies".

In the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann (and others), individuality is the prerequisite for creating open systems, making contingencies transparent in a society with no boundaries, enabling communication and solving the problem of double contingency , while identity - measured in terms of exclusion the functional systems - is "a constantly deficient condition" which generally avoids, makes unnecessary or even does not allow communication within the group. Luhmann initially assumes that individuals do not communicate directly with each other, but only socially determined, but only through the "free" (in the sense of: system-determined, but not tied to groups) individuality is a social system possible that requires communication and at the same time exist through it. Personal individualities merge here and a “social individuality” arises through the autopoiesis of the social system. This state still differs fundamentally from identity, however, because the necessary dynamics of a social system are only maintained through the continuing personal individuality (and thus willingness to communicate) of the people involved - an “ emergent order ” arises , which is created through individual willingness to be self-responsible Decisions retain their dynamism, and this is also a prerequisite for a social system.

Biological anthropology and human biology

From a philosophical and a biological point of view, Jack Wilson (1999) discussed the concept of individuality. What makes a biological entity an individual? The individual is indivisible, has a history as a continuously existing unit in terms of time and space, forms a functional, genetic and developmental unit and exists as a unit in evolution .

In addition to the morphological peculiarity, there is undoubtedly also a relatively enduring physiological-neuroendocrine, biochemical and immunological individuality of the human being, which, together with innate functional weaknesses and disease dispositions, determine the human constitution . On the one hand, biological anthropology and human biology deal with the "normal", i.e. H. average-typical structures and functions of the body, and on the other hand have collected extensive findings on the difference between these characteristics as a human biological theory of variation. In addition, a wide variety of deviations, defects and signs of disease are known from medical pathology and pathophysiology .

In biology, phenotypic variability refers to the difference between individuals of a species. Special characteristics within the range of variation are called variants or extreme variants. A frequently used statistical measure of variability is variance . The genetic variability of a species is important for evolution because it enables adaptation to changing environmental conditions through new combinations of systems (Lewontin 1995; Tooby & Cosmides 1990) (see evolutionary biology , genetics ).

Physical (somatic) individuality and constitution

Even the newborns differ in their appearance and therefore encourage their parents to consider which relatives they look most similar: the shape of the face, eye color, hair color, etc. Physical appearance and physical attractiveness are an important part of what makes a person's individuality matters.

The older constitutional doctrines mainly related to the physiognomy and the proportions of the body structure, i.e. morphological aspects, or to the "juices" of the body as the basis of temperament properties. In addition, it was already assumed that the individual constitution is predisposed to certain diseases.

More recently, the variability of body structure has been examined more closely and described statistically ( anthropometry ). Today the differences in the morphology of the internal organs, including the brain, are also included. The morphological (anatomical) variability is shown in the external appearance of body structure, facial structure (physiognomics), the texture of skin and hair, etc. a. Features, however, exist no less with regard to the bone structure and the internal organs as well as the fine structure of the tissue. While the atlases of human anatomy usually only reflect the anatomy of the average person, Barry Joseph Anson also presented the frequency of important variants, for example the course of the great arteries, position and shape of the heart, liver, stomach and intestines. The brain also exhibits great variability in the position and furrowing of the cerebral lobes and in the arrangement of individual structures.

The physiological variability shows itself in all physiological functions, u. a. in sensory, motor, circulatory, breathing, metabolism, hormone secretion, sleep behavior, and in the entire adaptation (adaptation) to everyday stress, etc. a. temperature regulation, circulatory regulation. The biochemical-immunological variability can be seen in the composition and composition of the body fluids (serum, liquor, urine, sweat, etc.), in the blood groups, immune reactions, allergic reactions, transplant reactions, etc. These functional characteristics are also an expression of the genetic individuality and uniqueness of the organism .

Every person has a partly genetic, partly acquired biochemical individuality. This body chemistry can have consequences for the optimal design of medical measures as well as for the selection and dosage of drugs, as well as for possible side effects, intolerances, allergies - as Roger Williams explained - for eating habits including special food preferences.

As idiosyncrasy a striking mode of experience, a behavior or physical reaction is referred to, which is relatively rare and highly specific. These abnormalities and malfunctions are u. U. disturbing, but mostly without disease value. It can be sensory hypersensitivity, unusual motor reactions, severe aversion to food, but also certain symptoms as described in psychosomatics and psychopathology. (see allergy , aversion )

There is a biological (natural) variation in many thousands of morphological and functional features of the human organism, which can be described from different perspectives (Fahrenberg 1995, p. 140):

  • clearly as variants, d. H. conspicuous individuals;
  • statistical u. a. by the range of variation (range between the extreme variants), the variance and other measures of variability as well as by the mean or the modal value of the distribution;
  • normatively evaluating as healthy (natural, normal), deviant (deviant, abnormal) or sick (pathological);
  • systematic from the point of view of the variation between individuals and the variation (changeability) within an individual;
  • comparative as the relative variability of certain characteristics and characteristic areas or with regard to regional (geographical) or temporal differences (course of the day, course of the year, longer-term trends and secular changes) of the variability;
  • depending on biological conditions, especially age ( morphogenesis , biomorphism), gender (dimorphism), race, conditions such as climate, diet, work activities;
  • depending on non-biological conditions, e.g. urban and rural population, work activity and social class.

It should be noted here that the terms physical identity and physical individuality are used synonymously . Since a distinction makes sense, in recent times all somatic characteristics of a person are often seen as part of the identity , while individuality as a differentiating concept to identity should only be based on purely psychological characteristics. Individuality is referred to as a skill acquired afterwards (through upbringing or acquired by oneself).

The biological self

The identification of a person can be based on morphological characteristics (e.g. teeth, papillary lines of the fingertip), polymorphic serum groups, enzyme variants, in immunological characteristics (HLA antigens) and in the DNA analysis, i. H. Marking of the nucleotide sequences ("chromosome barcode", genetic test ) can be carried out. This task arises in the criminal investigation of perpetrators or victims, in forensic medicine and with proof of paternity ( Franz Lothar Schleyer 1995).

The uniqueness of a person becomes clear in their immunological individuality. The human leukocyte antigen system (HLA gene complex, human leukocyte antigen ) located on chromosome 6 enables a multitude of forms (polymorphism) of HLA phenotypes. The immune reactions and histocompatibility antigens develop into a biological self in constant "antigenic" confrontation through "experience of foreign" and of the body's own life. In this respect, a correspondence to the psychological ego can be seen here, which also differentiates itself from innate foundations and reaches self-recognition through experience. Human genetics and immunology have led to a new understanding of biological uniqueness, distinctiveness and "self-recognition" (Cramer 1991, Tauber 1991).

Here, too, the distinction between physical and psychological individuality is important. Innate physical individuality (as described here) is now referred to in more recent texts as part of identity in order to be able to conceptually separate it from the (subsequently acquired psychological) individuality.


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Web links

Wiktionary: individual  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Individuality  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. See e.g. B. De ente et essentia , Chapter 2.
  2. See e.g. B. The logical structure of the world , Berlin 1928, p. 215.
  3. Metaphysics 7, 4
  4. ^ So in Goethe's letter to JK Lavater of September 20, 1780, cf. Dirk Kemper: Ineffable. Goethe and the problem of individuality in modernity , Munich 2004
  5. Arno Gruen, Falsche Götter , 1991, p. 14 ff.
  6. Arno Gruen, 1991, p. O.
  7. Arno Gruen, hatred in the soul. Understanding What Makes Us Bad , 2001; see. Perspectives in developmental psychology , etc. a. Asendorpf 2005
  8. C. Neugebauer, 2002
  9. ^ Simmel, 1908
  10. For example Arno Gruen, Falsche Götter , 1991, p. 14 ff.
  11. Ladeur: The State Against Society , 2006, page 65
  12. C. Neugebauer, 2002
  13. See Luhmann 1993 (4), p. 156f. In: Balgo 1998, p. 206 and Luhmann, Soziale Systeme, 1984, p. 154 ff.
  14. Fahrenberg 1995; Group 2005; Henning and Netter 2005
  15. for example Arno Gruen, Verrat am Selbst , p. 24 f.