Jan 2, 2018 - 8 minute read

We Are Individual

I have always imagined that the word individual, referring to a person, was antithetical to the concept of interdependence, the idea that all of us inextricably make up the ecology of the world. For individual implied to me an independent entity, distinct from its environment. But in a recent moment of gnosis it occurred to me that the word itself might be saying something about division, not dependence. Sure enough, looking up its etymology reveals its roots in the Latin word individuus, “indivisible”. Very interesting, isn’t it? It’s suggesting that what we are as individuals, our essential identity, is something that cannot be split in two. The idea, a little fantastic as it sounds, tickled my fancy. What does it mean to be indivisible? And what is its relationship, if any, with interdependence?

A couple taking a photograph
There have never been two mes, as far as I can tell, and I have trouble imagining a situation where there are two of me. It is also clear that while my friends may appreciate my speed at looking up stuff on my smartphone, or my skills at the piano, they never consider my phone or my hands that play the piano as me. So if I were to somehow lose them or be separated from them (which incidentally has happened at times) I remain whole. My range of abilities may have decreased, but there's no less of _me_, and no part of my _me_-ness has gone somewhere else. So while it may be unsettling to think of ourselves in an abstract way, as some kind of a _consciousness_ that can not be divided, this way of conceptualizing ourselves is consistent with our experience and thought experiments. But isn't our body something tangible, and don't we ultimately somehow reside in it? Let's consider this. What exactly does our body do? It has got organs that are responsible for the senses we perceive with. And it has the physicality we execute our decisions with. That makes its character that of an instrument or a tool, not that of something that possesses a sense of _I_-ness. The sense of _I_-ness can not be found in any part of the body. Some of us may visualize it to reside somewhere in our body, such as between our eyes. But clearly, this is a projection. So let's put aside the body, and see where our investigation of the person as _individual_, that which can not be divided or unravelled, leads us. Wait---what about death? What happens to the individual when the body grows old and draws its last breath? The way we have been talking, nothing seems to really happen to the individual---a.k.a. the sense of me, or that which we truly love in a close friend or family member---even as events change the body and what it is capable of. But what about death?

“We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”

-Sigmund Freud. Reflections on War and Death.

As bizarre as the Freud’s claim above seems, if we query our direct experience, it has a ring of truth to it, no? Do I really really really believe I am going to die?

A variation of Freud’s contemplation supports our individual-ity: Whenever we try to imagine ourselves being split into two, separated, or cloned, we remain whole as the observer of that procedure.

Our deductions here may sound rather unscientific and untestable. That is probably true. What we are after is an understanding of our identity, which is not quite observable and measurable like the phenomena science typically studies. And unlike science, the goal of this enquiry is not to arrive at a model that makes valid predictions, but a manner of self-satisfaction. An end to—or at least a respite from—an existential unease.

And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him.

And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”

For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.”

So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.

-Mark 5:6-13. The Bible.

Legion struggles with his identity as an individual. Even the passage struggles with it—notice its inconsistent use of pronouns when referring to Legion: My name, we are, he begged, they begged. While we might have seen this as just an interesting story, in light of our current discussion we see the hole in Legion’s premise. The “we are many” premise. Because the one claiming to be many—the one speaking—is patently not many. The one struggling with his identity as an individual, is an individual. Legion need only look to his direct experience. I am not discounting his suffering; just pointing out that if he has a problem, it is not that of being a disconnected multiplicity of consciousnesses.

Maybe we’re being too hard on poor Legion. After all, each of us struggles with our identity too. And I often wonder what voice and pronouns to use myself when writing essays such as these, as any choice seems to work. And while we may be content, smug even, about our understanding of the term individual, we haven’t yet explored what happens when different individuals interact with each other.


When I meet someone for coffee, perhaps just to enjoy their company, it certainly feels like a meaningful experience. Some kind of an overlap between the indivisible individual me and the indivisible individual coffee friend is taking place. We can illustrate the situation with a Venn diagram:

individuality

In this representation, a portion of my individuality is shared with my friend’s. This is shown in the diagram above as the area enclosed by the dashed line. But we now run into a contradiction: we are dividing me into two parts, the part left of the dashed line that is somehow private, and the part to the right that is shared with the friend. But we just defined me as an individual, as an entity that is not divisible!

We can address this critique by changing the representation of the situation to this:

individuality

Here, my indivisibility and my friend’s indivisibility are indivisible together. To obey the axiom of individuality, if there is any communion at all between two individuals, their union has to be complete. Otherwise there would be borders and boundaries within an indivisible consciousness, which is self-contradictory. So if we buy into being an individual, we have to accept that we can not have two differentiable individuals interacting and interfacing with each other. This might seem counterintuitive, but this is where our reasoning leads us.

I have seen arguments like this made in different contexts, often in classic non-dual philosophy where the distinction between subject and object in experience is deconstructed. Therefore, when I engaged in this contemplation of what it means to be individual, the result was not so surprising to me. Regardless, are these arguments merely intellectual exercises, that have no impact in how we go about our lives?

For me, self-enquiry nudged me into a “Could it be?” state of mind, where I was open to viewing my experience differently. And yes, over time I did start viewing my experience differently. How? Let’s see…I’d say it became less personal. My experience was just experience. My companion’s experience was just experience. Equally valid.

Can you actually imagine some other consciousness, some other individual, that is not your own? Do you really really really believe that you and your friendly neighbor are fundamentally disparate? If these questions were put to you before you read this essay, and before you’d encountered similar concepts, would you have answered differently, or at least with different conviction?

Now, let’s take our line of thought to its logical end. Any individuals we can think of, by virtue of our ability to think of them, means there’s a conmingling of their individuality with ours. As we have discussed, any such conmingling cannot be a partial one. In other words, we don’t have individuals, plural. Thinking so would be making the same mistake Legion made. While we may seem to have problems, even with each other, it is not that of being disconnected people. For we are individual.

individuality

Individuality is then not an antagonist of interdependence; it is its ultimate superhero. By being indivisible we are more than just connected to each other, more than just dependent on each other. In the way that matters, we are each other.