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An individual ( Latin individual , 'indivisible', 'single thing ') is a thing , an entity or a single being , insofar as it can be clearly distinguished from objects, i.e. H. if identity criteria can be specified.

The term "individual" is particularly used to refer to people as moral subjects; H. to be identified as the bearer of rights , responsibilities and duties . In this sense, the term “ persons ” is used instead of “individuals” . In the case of people, individual characteristics , interests and peculiarities are also distinguished from those of the population group ( community , society , collective ) from which they come and assigned as subjective elements of the personality of the individual .

History of ideas

One of the first to address the relationship between the individual and the community in the culture of the European West was Aristotle , who in his politics referred to humans as zoon politikon , that is, as community creatures. In contrast, there is the private person , referred to as idiotes . More recently it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who treated the subject anew by distinguishing between the will of all (of all individuals) on the one hand and the general will (will of the community) on the other. The clear formulation of a gap between the interests of the individual and the systematic interests of an organization , which in turn serves certain interests of the individual, has since become primarily an economic issue . Game theory in particular examines the resulting conflicts and balance of interests, see e.g. B. the free rider problem .

In the liberal economic theory following Adam Smith , however, it is assumed - in complete contrast to the statement of Rousseau and Adam Smith themselves - that the sum of the individual egoisms can automatically lead to "the greatest possible happiness of the greatest number" ( Jeremy Bentham ). The state should limit its activities to a few exceptions - the guarantee of external and internal security - which has often been polemically referred to as the idea of ​​the night watchman state .

The importance of the individual in intellectual history fluctuates very strongly in relation to culture . The Modern , which today Western world determined emphasizes the individual in the historical as well as in intercultural comparison very strong. This strong emphasis on the individual is also called individualism and is in contrast to collectivism .

The question of intellectual history is that of the importance and autonomy of the individual in comparison to the community in which he lives. In more recent times, this has become particularly clear in the extreme positions of Max Stirner ( The Only One and His Property ) and National Socialism (“You are nothing, your people are everything”). Thought systems such as anarchism or liberalism are very much in keeping with individualism . The opposing positions to individualism take particularly socialist systems. However, there are exceptions to this rough orientation. The liberal Max Weber , for example, emphasizes the people as a high value, while there are socialists who strive for a social order in which the individual can live without social ties.

The sociologist Émile Durkheim has worked out the dependence of morals and ethics on society . According to him, there is morality in the first place through the collective . The individual as such knows no morality. According to Durkheim, crimes are nothing more than a violation of “collective feelings”.


  • The sociology deals with the integration of the individual into society.
  • The philosophy deals with the subject individual and the community at large. Special areas such as anthropology and political sciences single out individual areas of the individual. Ralf Dahrendorf came up with the term Homo sociologicus , which describes the individual as a being located in society.
  • The social psychology focuses on interactions between the individual and his social environment.
  • The behavioral research focuses on the genetic conditions of the individual and the group.
  • The law treat the standards that a company (the state 's) single individuals and determines the relationship between the individual and collective interests. See also Homo juridicus .
  • In biology , individuals are single organisms of a species .
  • The theology takes the relationship of the individual to God and focuses on the morality.
  • Research on artificial intelligence aims at both a tangible definition of the term "individual" and a construction of it.
  • In game theory , the individual can be described as a player in the crowd, the n-person game , who pursues his interests selfishly.
  • In economics, the individual is often represented by the homo oeconomicus model .

Systems theory

In principle, every material system is to be regarded as an individual, since it has properties (i.e. system properties) that none of its elements have detached from the other elements of the system and, in this specific form, as a result of its development in a specific specific environment, no other system. According to this, water would be an individual in the sense of systems theory, since it has different properties than its parts, the water molecules.

As an individual, every living system ( living system ) delimits itself spatially and qualitatively from its environment with which it interacts.

This results in the relative independence of the individual, the ability to develop on his own due to inherent driving forces, movements and reactions peculiar to him to influences from the environment. The actio = reaction of mechanics does not apply to living systems. An action of the environment can be individually answered differently by every living system.

Individuation and integration

The degree of relative independence, particularity and peculiarity ( individuation ) is also called the degree of individuality. The degree of individuality of each system depends on that of the superordinate comprehensive system and that of its own elements.

In integration processes, the degree of individuality of systems usually increases and that of their elements decreases ( integration (philosophy) ). The absolutization of individuality, especially of the individual, is called individualism .

In the sense of the above-mentioned conception of the individual, however, other absolutizations of individuality (e.g. a territorial unit, a professional group, a people, a nation, human civilization on earth) can also be understood as different forms of individualism. This also results in the reason of state .


In biology there is no generally accepted, comprehensive definition of individuals (the term largely corresponds to the terms organisms and living beings , understood as individual carriers of the property “being alive”, life ). This is because there are numerous borderline and doubtful cases, the nature of which varies depending on the definition used.

This applies to colonies of individual organisms such as state jellyfish and other modular organisms. Since each individual organism is also built up modularly (from organs and cells ), the hierarchical delimitation is sometimes difficult. Some biologists even consider the states of eusocial species such as ants to be individuals making up a superorganism . The boundaries of an individual can also be difficult to define. Fungi, for example, form a mycelium in the ground without a defined shape or demarcation, so that the boundary of an individual is, by definition, arbitrary. Another problem arises from the close coexistence of different organisms in symbiosis ; in endosymbioses, the endosymbiont is often no longer viable without its host, and vice versa, so that some biologists attribute this to the individual. The following criteria were given for an individual: anatomical and physiological independence; Uniform development (from the same germ cell (occasionally also from other diaspores ) and thus uniform development and life cycle. Most influential, however, are definitions on a genetic basis: According to this, an individual would be characterized by genetic uniformity: all cells largely have the same genome , with genetic individuality : different individuals are also different genetically All of these criteria are different well applicable to various types, preferably on. vertebrate species, rather poor on many plants or fungi (see, for example, the concept of. Genet at least the individuals of most and Ramets). However, animal species are functionally integrated, and individual parts of them are not viable.

Some biologists believe that the individual need not be a fundamental category in biology and that different biologists are free to choose a definition provided that they disclose it. At least evolutionary biology is absolutely dependent on a definition, since individuals act as units of selection and basic concepts such as the population without individuals make no sense.

Individual and mass

With the emergence of the special meaning of "each" individual, terms such as mass and personality emerged . Individuals become a "lonely mass", as the sociologist David Riesman called it , without social integration . A revolt of the masses diagnosed the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset . It arises from the union of those who have become individuals.

A personality is generally understood to be an individual who has managed to stand out from the crowd. So the criticism of individualism sees two possibilities: The anonymous absorption of the individual in the crowd, which may be organized by collectivist movements and then become steeped in history. The other possibility is the higher development of the individual to an independent, emancipated personality.

This results in two directions of movement. An optimistic assumes that most individuals can develop into personality and that individualism is therefore a step on the way to a better society. The opposite, pessimistic, assumes that individuals cannot do this, but are or will be played by a minority as a crowd or are exploited by demagogues , and that individualism is therefore a mistake.


In modern logic, an individual is used to denote any object outside and within consciousness that possesses properties and has some kind of relationship, but does not itself form a property or relationship.

The individuals in this general and abstract sense with their properties and relationships constitute individual domains to which the logical expressions, statements, etc. a. Respectively. Since the laws of logic apply in general to any (not empty) individual domains, it is usually not specified in more detail what nature these individuals are. If the validity of a logical law depends on the number of individuals who belong to the underlying individual domain, only this number is given. The concept of the individual is one of the basic concepts of modern logic, which are assumed to be indefinite within their framework and which cannot be defined there either.

When applying logic, however, it must be precisely determined what is to be regarded as an individual in the context of the individual area under consideration. If, in particular, the distinction between individuals on the one hand and the properties and relationships attributable to them on the other hand is not strictly adhered to, there is a risk that more logical, ie. H. syntactic antinomies . In the context of various applications of logic, however, one and the same object can be viewed as an individual at one time and a property at another. Do you want z. B. examine certain properties and their relationships without also taking into account their relationships to the individuals whose properties they are, they may be treated as individuals and their properties and relationships may be treated as those of the first order.

The advantage of this procedure is that one does not have to make use of the level logic and its associated difficulties, but can manage with the much simpler predicate logic of the first level. In representations of predicate logic, individual variables are used in order to be able to make existential or general statements about the individuals in the corresponding individual domain. In applications of logic one may also have to introduce individual constants.

See also


  • Larry Siedentop : The Invention of the Individual. Liberalism and the Western World. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2015, ISBN 978-3-608-94886-8 .
  • Francisco Suárez : On individuality and the principle of individuation (Fifth Metaphysical Disputation) , Latin - German, edited, translated and provided with explanations by Rainer Specht, Hamburg 1976.
  • Charles Taylor : Sources of the Self. The emergence of modern identity. Frankfurt a. M. 1996.

Web links

Wiktionary: Individual  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. See Idiot , see also Marek J. Siemek: Demokratie und Philosophie (1999) on the origin of the term.
  2. ^ Scott F. Gilbert, Jan Sapp, Alfred I. Tauber (2012): A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals. Quarterly Review of Biology 87 (4): 325-341. doi : 10.1086 / 668166 (open access)
  3. ^ John W. Pepper & Matthew D. Herron (2008): Does Biology Need an Organism Concept? Biological Reviews 83: 621-627. doi : 10.1111 / j.1469-185X.2008.00057.x
  4. Ellen Clarke (2010): The Problem of Biological Individuality. Biological Theory 5 (4): 312-325. doi : 10.1162 / BIOT_a_00068