ding an sich

Haecceity [hek-see-i-tee] (from the Latin ‘haecceitas’: ‘thisness’) is a term from medieval philosophy first coined by thirteenth century Scottish theologian Duns Scotus which denotes the discrete qualities, properties or characteristics of a thing which make it a particular thing. Haecceity is a person or object’s ‘thisness,’ the individualizing difference between, for example, the concept ‘a man’ and the concept ‘Socrates’ (a specific person).

American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce later used the term as a non-descriptive reference to an individual. It may also be defined in some dictionaries as simply the ‘essence’ of a thing, or as a simple synonym for quiddity (‘whatness’) or hypokeimenon (‘underlying thing’). However, such a definition deprives the term of its subtle distinctiveness and utility. Whereas haecceity refers to aspects of a thing which make it a particular thing, quiddity refers to the universal qualities of a thing, or the aspects shares with other things (which is relevant to taxonomy, the science of classification).

Duns Scotus makes the following distinction: ‘Because there is among beings something indivisible into subjective parts — that is, such that it is formally incompatible for it to be divided into several parts each of which is it — the question is not what it is by which such a division is formally incompatible with it (because it is formally incompatible by incompatibility), but rather what it is by which, as by a proximate and intrinsic foundation, this incompatibility is in it. Therefore, the sense of the questions on this topic [viz. of individuation] is: What is it in [e.g.] this stone, by which as by a proximate foundation it is absolutely incompatible with the stone for it to be divided into several parts each of which is this stone, the kind of division that is proper to a universal whole as divided into its subjective parts?’

While terms such as haecceity, quiddity, noumenon (the idea of a thing, rather than the thing itself) and hypokeimenon all evoke the essence of a thing, they each have subtle differences and refer to different aspects of the thing’s essence. Haecceity thus enabled Scotus to find a middle ground in the debate over universals between Nominalism (a position that denies the existence of universal entities or objects, but accepts that particular objects or entities exist) and Realism (the view that universals do exist over and above particulars).

The concept of haecceity found currency again in the 1960s with the development of ethnomethodology, a tool for understanding the social orders people use to make sense of the world through analyzing their accounts and descriptions of their day-to-day experiences. UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel is the founder of Ethnomethodology, and teacher of Harvey Sacks, one of the founders of Conversation Analysis (an approach to the study of social interaction, embracing both verbal and non-verbal conduct, in situations of everyday life). Garfinkel used the word haecceity in his seminal ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’ (1963), to enhance the indexicality of any expression, behavior or situation.

In linguistics and in philosophy of language, an indexical behavior points to (or indicates) some state of affairs. For example, ‘I’ refers to whoever is speaking; ‘now’ refers to the time at which that word is uttered; and ‘here’ refers to the place of utterance. For Charles Sanders Peirce, indexicality is a phenomenon far broader than language; that which, independently of interpretation, points to something — such as smoke (an index of fire) or a pointing finger — works indexically for interpretation. Social indexicality in the human realm has been regarded as including any sign (clothing, speech variety, table manners) that points to, and helps create, social identity. According to Garfinkel, members display the social order they refer to within the settings of the situation they contribute to define. The study of particular situations in their ‘haecceity’ – aimed at disclosing the ordinary, ongoing social order that is constructed by the members and their practices – is the object of ethnomethodology.

In his famous paper generally referred to as ‘Parson’s Plenum’ (1988), Garfinkel used the term Haecceities to indicate the importance of the infinite contingencies in both situations and practices. He was drawing on German philosopher Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology (which, instead of asking about what we ‘really’ are, focuses on phenomena) and British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s conception of logic (the science of valid reasoning). Phenomenology is the field of studying the phenomena as such, and can thus be seen as a contemporary philosophical version of the medieval concept of haecceity, though it does not focus on the quiddity of phenomenon or their essence, but rather on the practices and perceptions that construct the phenomena.

English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins drew on Scotus — whom he described as ‘Of reality the rarest-veined unraveller’ — to construct his poetic theory of inscape. ‘[Hopkins] felt that everything in the universe was characterized by what he called inscape, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity. This identity is not static but dynamic. Each being in the universe ‘selves,’ that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other beings in an act that Hopkins calls instress, the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness. Ultimately, the instress of inscape leads one to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it.’ James Joyce made similar use of the concept of haecceitas to develop his idea of the ‘secular epiphany.’

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