The Meaning of Individuals: Atoms in the Void
The word “atom” literally means “not-cuttable”; that is to say, an atom is the last particle—the final division—beyond which one can divide no further. In its indivisibility, an atom is a fragment of unification, a remnant of a group, and so, an etymological cousin of “individual,” a word that means “not-divided” (at least if one takes the prefix in– to mean “not,” though it can mean several other things, including its opposite).
While science fascinates itself with the pursuit of the last division of space, which I will here call the “atom” (regardless of its subatomic brethren), human interest fascinates itself with the pursuit of the last division of the human—the particle of the self, the “individual,” beyond which one can, again, seemingly go no further.
Yet, when one has cut the individual into a singlet, can “individual” any longer have meaning? The individual seems to be borne out of a desire to be known in one’s utter uniqueness, outside of the realm of prejudice. Yet, the result is a word that must indicate complete exclusion. An individual is alone in the void. The price of definition is isolation. To be known as one self one can only be known by one self.
Does the individual in empty space, then, finally feel “defined,” or is the individual only the ghost of a definition? Without another individual, can one individual be anything but a meaningless abstraction? Yet, with another individual, an individual is no longer the only one of its kind. The word “individual” applies (unfortunately) to every single thing. Individuals and atoms seem to be simultaneously basic and elite. They make the whole, and yet, they are the only true wholes.
To define oneself at all requires that one be part of a group, but not identical to the group. Dissatisfaction is thereby inevitable, since the individual is necessarily that of which the group is void—an outsider among its very homies. A “true” individual would lack meaning entirely, since the moment one is something, one is potentially part of a group. So, is to be an individual to defy understanding? And, if one defies understanding, does one even exist?
There is an interesting kinship between definition and void, since definitions involve limits and restrictions, precisely the sorts of things an individual that seeks definition would be rebelling against. The individual is—like the atom—unavailable without the presence of a void that nullifies as it confirms its independence.
This brings me to my final query: are individuals and atoms necessarily restless in the face of nothingness? Are they then never definite but only hypotheses? Individuals and atoms cannot and must be plural, for the further their eccentricity extends, the less identifiable they will be in and to themselves. Perhaps a fragment of Parmenides is of use here: “for to think and to be are the same thing, ” or “for the same thing is both to think and to be” (DK 3). This means not so much that being is thinking, but rather, that existence must be thinkable (thoughtful), and that thought requires sameness to identify existence. To be an individual is always to be more than one self.