A Review of Paolo Godani’s Traits: Une métaphysique du singulier (Paris: PUF, 2019)

1 By defining the individual in the traditional manner as a uniqueand irreplaceable entity, who lasts for a while and eventually disappears forever, philosophy comes up against insurmountable aporias. The principle of individuation is nowhere to be seen, beyond the gesture of indication (“this”), which participates in shifting the problem to the realm of epistemology (the modes of knowledge concerning the individual) by pretending that the ontological problem does not arise (the notion of the individual is presupposed). In his resolutely metaphysical investigation, Paolo Godani takes the opposite tack: he maintains that the individual does not exist, and that it should be replaced by the idea of singular collections of shared and heterogeneous traits, all of which have the same consistency and perfection (they lack nothing) (150). The perspective is an anti-nominalist one, although the realism he defends is not the realism of abstract properties (universals) but shared qualities (traits), entities that are at once singular and repeatable. The method consists in resurrecting a forgotten dispute that had lain dormant beneath the misleading “dispute over universals” – the “dispute over individuals” (53). Avoiding the genetic approach of a theory of individuation and its degrees (Gilbert Simondon), Godani proceeds according to a resolutely static perspective: studying what makes up the essence or the supposed nature of individuals.

2 The exploration of the sensory world of childhood – pre-predicative, impersonal and pre-individual, gives rise to a fine meditation on the psychology of the emergence, through qualitative contrast and resemblance, of traits, which are largely independent characteristics. The trait, which is singular as well as common/abstract (9, 13), occupies an intermediate position, between Russell’s demonstrative that refers directly to the thing (without a description) and the Hegelian “this,” intended to conceal a reference to the universal. If only the location gives us access to the individual in the unfolding of the experience, isn’t this because the individual, in their essence, is reduced to a set of simple concepts, of non-individual qualities?

3 This exploration of a “world of qualities” is the focus of the second chapter. Godani borrows Ernst Mach’s idea that predicates are the only elements in reality (parts, of which the subject is merely the sum), in conceiving of the thing as a mere collection of characteristics, just as Robert Musil’s man without qualities is made up of qualities without a man (24), which the hero experiences as subjectless sensations, as promises of a shared world (29), and just as “life” in Deleuze’s work comprises singularities that are neither events, nor accidents, nor universals. A trait (the smile of Martha, Musil’s wife) is an abstract singularity, independent of its bearer: it is not a genre that subsumes a plurality of different individuals, but a quality that is repeated in the same manner with each of its occurrences (30). It differs in this respect from the trope, that “abstract particular” whose singularity cannot be determined without having recourse to the particular object to which it refers (33). That which can be repeated is qualitative and singular: from this point of view, a cat’s smile or Napoleon’s posture are traits, but not a moment of time, a place in the visual field (they have no qualitative nature) or a color (which is not something singular). Moreover, traits (this shade of red), because they are independent of the objects in which they manifest themselves, cannot be likened to the so-called individual “moments” of phenomenology (the red color of this notebook), which Husserl – reviving the realism of universals – contrasts with essences (red, the universal in which various individual objects participate). We may say that traits occupy an intermediate position, simultaneously singular (perfectly determinate) and shared (through repetition), as concepts subsuming a multiplicity of differences (36), provided we distinguish two uses of the demonstrative: as a reference to a concrete, unique individual (“this notebook”) and as the assertion of a determinate, abstract and repeatable quality (“this shade of red”), which Duns Scotus condenses into haecceity (71). As for Whitehead, he remains on the level of thought with his “eternal objects,” abstract ingredients of a qualitative nature constituting – through adjectivization – individual, superimposable events (“occasions of experience”), each having its own duration, but a repeatable content. He abandons any theory of individuation, thereby reducing ontology to epistemology. In reaction to this, Godani’s solution is not to fall back on Deleuze’s idea of intensive individuation (which does not account for the individuation of a given individual, although it does explain that a singularity may be repeated), but to assert that while single traits are indeed definitive specifications, clusters of traits (a stone) – complexes of qualities – are not the ultimate determinations of a type (stoniness), but fall outside of the simple division of the concept, allowing us then to enter the realm of ontology (44). Therefore, the so-called individual is in reality only an aggregate (50), which even biology cannot contest (the biological individual often comprises a multiplicity).

4 Godani then goes off in search of the elusive individual (chapter 3), contrasting classificatory (extensional) abstraction – which takes individuals as fundamental elements of reality in order to extract from them the properties they have in common – with typological or intentional abstraction, which constructs individuals as collections, i.e. sets comprising these properties (53). The individual qua non-communicable, unique, and irreplaceable object cannot be grasped, except to highlight the hidden principle according to which individuation resides within temporality, as a linear and irreversible unfolding (56). Consequently, the solution of the problem of individuation is not metaphysical or ontological but epistemological (the relation to a subject that identifies it as “this”). Traits, on the other hand, far from being identified through their reference to an individual located in space and time, are essences that are subject to repetition. The terror that this inspires, along with the obsession with being (identically) oneself, is why the notion of the individual was created (75). If we assert that the individual is what is here right now, we abandon the ability to use the term for that which endures in time. This is the path chosen by Derek Parfit.

5 What are the temporal implications of this ontology of traits (chapter 4)? In order to avert the risk of idealism that inheres to the recommended solution, Godani endeavors to put together a theory of multiplicities. It is not simply a matter of demonstrating that something exists that does not depend on thought (Quentin Meillassoux), but of clarifying how being is, explaining its meaning by specifying all of its determinations (87). For Godani, each one of these is eternal, and their appearance and disappearance are contingent: the constellation of repeatable traits has to take the place of the “bare particular,” [1] an indeterminate substance linked to the empty reference of space and time, the phantom of the thing in itself. As a result, we get rid of the mysticism of meaningless entities, by freeing ourselves from the mystery of the ineffable individual (94). The consequences are important: if we accept that the persistence of an individual behind their properties is an illusion, it becomes possible to use an individual’s particularity to deduce the presumed particularity of their properties (97). We may then break away from the spontaneously presentist ontology that derealizes past and future, secretly motivated by the privilege granted to the (unique, irreplaceable) individual, an ontology that can only make death an ontological catastrophe that deprives a being of its intrinsic power. On the contrary, by examining things sub specie aeternitatis, “through” individuals (105) we see the traits that survive them eternally.

6 What remains is to show that the true elements of reality are more ethereal and abstract than so-called concrete individuals (chapter 5). Following Alexius Meinong, Godani attempts to question the supremacy of actuality, and to explain Musil’s philosophy (110). Understanding that actuality depends upon the possible (112) means becoming aware of the indifference of traits with regard to their actualization in a given individual. Godani sees this as an ontological confirmation of a major thesis of the contemporary philosophy of language (from Gottlob Frege to Deleuze): the indifference (neutrality) of the semantic content of a proposition toward its affirmation and its negation (114). Don’t we then risk confusing the real and the imaginary? On the contrary, Godani emphasizes that a work of fiction has the same traits as the world we share (which is why it has the effect that it does on the reader), and that the “segregation” of fiction (Käte Hamburger) can in fact be attributed to outside factors (a different position vis-à-vis the actuality of the enunciating subject). But while Gérard Genette correlatively widens the breach between narratology and the ontology of literature, Godani narrows it: he suspends the privilege granted to the enunciating subject and their spatiotemporal perspective – which is accused of “bias in favor of actual reality” (117). Furthermore, he maintains that Aristotle subordinates history to poetry because poetry places less emphasis on individuals than on traits. Poetry uses proper names as common nouns, as if by antonomasia: traits are what constitute us, just as they constitute fictional characters (124). By relying on Lévi-Strauss or Stoic logic, Godani defends a descriptive conception of proper names rather than a designative one. The function of this descriptive conception is not to grasp that which is individual, but to make sure that a bundle of qualities becomes individualized through indication, with the operator “as” [“en tant que”] reducing individuality to an example (128).

7 However, the conclusions of this argument, concerning the specific case of the human individual (chapter 6), are hard to accept, because the notion of “person” combines the sense of the uniqueness and the persistence of the individual, but also the senses of dignity and responsibility. In opposition to Leibniz, Godani defends the idea of a vague individual (Adam), a set of singular and shared traits and a referent of proper names. The continuity of the person can thereby be explained through overlapping constellations of traits rather than through the permanence of a naked substance. Against Husserl’s idea (based on a circle) according to which the uniqueness of the flow of consciousness ensures the individuality of each of the states of its experiences, and more generally against the notion of the substratum, Godani advances Parfit’s arguments. But they do not go far enough in affirming the shared nature of the traits of a constellation (144). From this he concludes that is it necessary to de-dramatize death, which does not designate a disappearance that grounds the individuality of life (Heidegger) so much as a new disposition of traits, where there is no evidence to suggest that these traits disappear forever (Spinoza).

8 Godani’s book is a healthy dose of insolence, dense but clear, provocative but gratifying. It develops a triple reversal. The singular is preferred to the individual (who does not exist). Ontology (describing the singular as a property of things in the world, the trait of a constellation) is preferred to gnoseology (or “epistemology,” as the author puts it), affecting the individual’s modes of knowledge. Finally, the approach is ante- or non-scientific (and technical), intended as preliminary to any other form of questioning, in opposition to a scientific metaphysics (in Bergson’s sense), giving science the upper hand before speculating on the ultimate nature of reality. Deftly handling numerous classical or atypical references, the author transcends sterile oppositions (analytic/continental, argumentative/historical) in favor of a precise approach to a problem. In addition to metaphysicians keen to discover this original ontology of the singular, the work will intrigue readers interested in the notions of personal or fictional identity, or even those who are captivated by its moral horizon (death is nothing to us).

9 The suggestive hypothesis gives rise to some reservations, however. Although it is true that the reality of the individual in the modern world requires an alternative to traditional metaphysics, which was mainly inherited from Aristotle, we may still wonder if the philosophy of language used by the author is the only one suitable. The proposition and its logico-grammatical analysis are still seen as the horizon of meaning, without taking into account the contributions of the theory of discourse. These contributions would afford more leeway for pragmatic (Gilles Gaston Granger), hermeneutic (François Rastier), theoretical (Jean-Claude Pariente) and narrative (Paul Ricœur) considerations, moderating by the same token the scope of Godani’s shrewd remarks. In general, he is not sure that epistemological considerations rule out an ontological characterization. Still more radically, we may wonder why the author does not enrich his metaphysics with what modern science has taught us, if only because biology maintains the difference (even if it has been lessened, as recent work in immunology has pointed out) between the internal and external environment as a characteristic of the individuality of life (at the cellular level and beyond). Can we really claim that the relationship that maintains the unity of my body is no closer than that between a sewing machine and an umbrella (51)?


  • [1]
    “Bare particular”: in English in the text [translator’s note].