‘Individuality’ versus ‘Singularity’ in Hegel: preliminary thoughts
Martin Donougho

May 10, 2024, 2:00pm - 4:00pm

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  • Université de Fribourg


Université de Fribourg
Chinese University of Hong Kong

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Seminar Series Presentation

A bizarre paradox runs through the history of philosophy. Since the time of Aristotle, philosophy has been defined as the knowledge of the universal, and what is singular is excluded from the domain of what is knowable. At the same time, however, the history of philosophy has continually been confronted - starting with Aristotle, and even earlier with Plato - with the problem of defining what it means to be singular.

The notion of 'singularity' is intertwined with - and distinguished from - other fundamental terms in the philosophical lexicon: the one, the individual, the person, the absolute, but also the contingent, the unrepeatable, the unexpected. It seems to define at the same time what is lowest and irrelevant (a detail, a contingency) and what is supreme and of utmost importance (the absolute, God).

In modern thought, the possibility of clearly distinguishing between the singular and the universal is radically called into question. Philosophical interest in history and art leads one to challenge the idea that philosophy cannot deal with the singular. The birth of Aesthetics and Philosophy of history, as well as the philosophical meditation on the contingent and evenemential aspects of human life, constitute a new stage in the relationship of philosophical thought to the category of the singular.

The aim of this seminar series will be to discuss the notion of the 'singular' starting from the history of philosophical thought, but also in relation to the use of this term in the contemporary debate. The research hypothesis is that philosophy still has to come to terms with the notion of the singular, and that thinking deeply about this notion can help us to shed light on some theoretical problems still open today.

Talk Abstract

In a recent book (Hegel’s ‘Individuality’: Beyond Category, 2023) I examine Hegel’s appeal to this overlooked category (or non-category).  In fact Hegel was joining a lively conversation about ‘Individualität’, from Leibniz to the Romantics. The term came to play a central role in many of his works, notably the Phenomenology, the Encyclopedia Physics, Organics and Anthropology, and not least, the Aesthetics.  Hard to pin down, it is often confused (by translators and scholars alike) with ‘singularity’ (Einzelheit).  Yet we should be quite clear: Hegel contrasts their meaning, tacitly if not always explicitly.

I offer a brief exegesis of Individualität (difficult to do when by definition it resists definition), drawing on material from my book.  Then I ask what might follow for a proper understanding of Einzelheit.  Could it be the case that the pragmatics of ‘individuality’—specifying tacit assumptions and implicit terms of address—transcends the rule-governed logic of syllogism (Universal, Particular, Singular)?  Or might singularity realize itself in much the same way, that is, as a movement of ‘in-clusion’ or ‘over-grasping’ (Überreichen) of otherness?  In short, would singularity turn out in some respects to be individuality?  Finally, I wonder why Hegel remained so coy about individuality and its virtues, never discussing the term and or stressing its significance.  

Starting time: 2pm CET

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