- An individual is what can be referred to by a singular pronoun and identified by a demonstrative adjective. In Aristotle's ordinary philosophical usage and the one which is relevant here a 'principle' (arche) of x is something the concept of which is necessary to the correct description or analysis of x as such.
- The notion of an individual raises two distinct philosophical questions.
- Taking this man as an example of an individual we can ask what makes one man rather than (or perhaps as well as) two arms, two legs, or several bones and a quantity of flesh. For convenience this question can be said to be asking for a principle of unity.
- We can also (though it may look odd in this form) ask what makes him this man rather than another man. To ask this is to ask for a principle of individuation1. A general answer to the general question, what makes one so and so different from another so and so, where 'so and so' means some one kind of thing, would give us the principle of individuation2.
- There are other philosophical questions about individuals: but these are the two that it is most important to distinguish when we enquire what Aristotle considered to be the principle of individuation3. For confusing this with the principle of unity may lead people, if it has not already led one or two distinguished scholars, to mistake the relevance of some of the things Aristotle said about form and matter and so make wrong inferences from them. But it must also be remembered that unity (in this sense) is prior to and implied by individuation4: the flesh and bones have to have made one man, the metal one penny, before either can be or not be the same man or penny as some other man or penny.
- Aristotle believed the principle of individuation5 was matter. To shew that, it is necessary to collect the evidence and arrange it so that facts can be seen to require that conclusion and not be contradicted by other facts. The Aristotelian evidence falls into different groups each of which has to be understood in relation to its own philosophical context or concern. It is then possible also to consider the philosophical merits of the conclusion. These are the two tasks of this article.
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