About the Uniqueness of Each Individual

Dr. Udo Gößwald
6 min readFeb 9


Thesis #1

Every person is different and special. This must be appreciated and protected.

Hans Memling, Portrait of Italian Merchant, Late 15th Century, Courtesy of Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium

It was ecclesiastical philosophers who first recognized in the late Middle Ages that every being in nature is unique. The scholastics attributed an independent existence to the blackbird that builds its nest in the monastery garden. No other blackbird does so at this moment and in this way. No other mountain is like Mont Blanc. They called this phenomenon individuum, but did not yet include man in their consideration.

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne finally opened the door to modern thought and transferred the idea of the uniqueness of the individual to the human being. In the first two volumes of the Essais, published in 1580, he makes his own self the object of reflection and embarks on a journey of discovery into a reality that he is convinced consists of an infinite number of details. According to Montaigne, man experiences himself above all as an individual. He experiences himself as different from others and actively contributes to expressing this uniqueness to others.

The social and economic upheavals that took place in the Renaissance, especially in the cities of northern Italy, favored the emergence of individuals who were able and willing to set themselves apart from others. As never before, people such as merchants (see illustration above) or artists were able to rise out of their ancestral environment into higher social positions. This experience intensified their need to present their own social success to others as something special and thus to emphasize their uniqueness. This is how fashion emerged in Central Europe at the beginning of the 16th century. It is known from Albrecht Dürer or Erasmus of Rotterdam that they did everything in their lifetime to preserve their uniqueness for posterity.

But the humanism of the Renaissance also promotes the possibility of each individual — regardless of his social status — to bring his uniqueness to bear. For the first time, the citizen appears as an independent, autonomous subject. The equality of man before the law, as first enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, establishes the prerequisite for everyone to have the right and the opportunity to develop their otherness.

This raises some fundamental questions: Who am I in relation to my fellow human beings? Is what distinguishes me from others recognized as such? What value does my life have in relation to that of others? The French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir formulated the following thought in this regard: “One’s own life has value as long as one ascribes value to the lives of others.” With this position, Beauvoir places the individual in a necessary, existential relationship to the other and emphasizes that the value of one’s own life depends on the appreciation of the other.

“Without You, the I is impossible,” the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi writes in one of his Fliegende Blätter from 1785. Jacobi, who sets himself apart from Kant’s philosophy and speaks out against submission to the general duty of an impersonal reason, focuses on the human being as a concrete individual. In his view, the constitution of the self takes place in the relationship to another human being.

The Austrian-Israeli philosopher and theologian Martin Buber also refers to this idea in his 1954 publication The Dialogical Principle. According to his conviction, it is only in the interpersonal relationship that the “glory of the human being” comes to full fruition. What matters is that “each of two people experiences the other as this particular other, each of them becomes equally aware of the other and for this very reason relates to him, not considering or treating the other as his object, but as his partner in a life process.” And, Buber adds, “This is the decisive thing: non-object-being.”

The particularity of being human, these thoughts suggest, unfolds only in the interpersonal. And that is when one respects and recognizes the other in his or her specialness. The ability to accept the other person in his or her being, however, is not something we carry within ourselves without further ado. Rather, it requires the active, self-conscious and repeated experience that two human beings face each other as individuals with equal rights. The dominance of hierarchical relationships, which force one to be subordinate to the other, prevent people from being willing to accept something from each other.

With regard to the relationship of teachers to students, Mathilde Vaerting, who was the first professor of education to be appointed to a German university, argued as early as 1931: “Any subordination to the power of a powerful person is very harmful to the character. The teacher, to the extent that he demands subordination from the pupil, eliminates himself from any positive educational influence, unfortunately not also from the negative.” According to her, the condition for the child’s character to develop positively is when learning experiences are shaped in the relationship of togetherness. Provided that the child is involved in the solution of a problem, it can be avoided that the child experiences its not knowing as a kind of powerlessness. Rather, it reinforces the child in the knowledge that he or she has the ability to gain a new insight.

However, this type of learning success is rather rare. Negative learning experiences dominate, conveying the subliminal feeling of a permanent deficiency. Such a deficit imprint determines many learning situations and often leads to negative experiences later in life. However, moments in which a positive, equal learning experience occurs between two people can be perceived as very enriching because neither person’s integrity is compromised.

The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han has pointed out that the Other threatens to disappear as a real counterpart in the age of digitalization. He sees the special form of interhumanity that manifests itself in the gaze or voice of another as endangered. Through the predominance of the digital, we lose the concrete reference to another person. In order to establish a relationship, Han argues, an “independent counterpart” is required. “Without any counterpart, without any you, we only revolve around ourselves.”

This crisis in the ability to relate, which also manifests itself in increasing isolation, has an impact on the ability to engage with others. As a result, community also threatens to lose its unifying function. “No one can love me the way I do” is the refrain of the song Be My Own Boyfriend by British jazz singer Olivia Dean, which can be understood as the slogan of a generation. The success of dating apps like Tinder “degrades the other person to a sexual object. Robbed of his otherness, the other also becomes consumable”. Accordingly, relationships are based less and less on interest in the other voice or a different view of the world, but are subject to the one-sided satisfaction of needs.

Byung-Chul Han therefore pleads for a “revival of the other”, because we need the other in order to experience and realize what is meaningful in the world. Simone de Beauvoir formulated this thought as one of the core theses of existentialism: “We are guided precisely by concern for other people, especially, but also by concern for our own happiness, and the two are of course inseparable, because I believe that everyone is connected to others, and no one can realize himself in any other way than through others and with others, and one cannot accomplish anything effective for others and with others if that is not based on something that is deeply anchored in oneself”. It is this interdependence of the individual and society that makes valuing the individual so essential. This means not seeing the uniqueness of the other as competition in the battle for recognition in the vanity market, but rather appreciating in him or her the humanity that unites us.

This essay is written complementary to Thesis #1 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at https://48thesen.de/en/. This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-udo-g%C3%B6%C3%9Fwald-077a711a7/.



Dr. Udo Gößwald

Former museum director, now freelance writer and blogger