Haecceity (/hɛkˈsiːɪti, hiːk-/; from the Latin haecceitas, which translates as “thisness”) is a term from medieval scholastic philosophy, first coined by Duns Scotus
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, 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 individualising difference between the concept ‘a man’ and the concept ‘Socrates’ (a specific person). Haecceity is a literal translation of the equivalent term in Aristotle’s Greek to ti esti (τὸ τί ἐστι) or “the what (it) is.”
Charles Sanders Peirce later used the term as a non-descriptive reference to an individual.
Haecceity may be defined in some dictionaries as simply the “essence” of a thing, or as a simple synonym for quiddity or hypokeimenon. 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, its “whatness”
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, or the aspects of a thing which it may share with other things and by which it may form part of a genus of things.
Duns Scotus makes the following distinction:
Because there is among beings something indivisible into subjective parts — that is kelme futsal, 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
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, 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 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 and Realism.
The Social Construction of Reality, ethnomethodology, and conversation analysis are the main streams that elaborated during the ’60s a new kind of sociology which influenced later sociology, philosophy and political analysis. Harold Garfinkel is the founder of ethnomethodology, and teacher of Harvey Sacks, one of the founders of conversation analysis. He used the word haecceity in his seminal Studies in Ethnomethodology (1963)
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, to enhance the indexical inevitable character of any expression, behavior or situation. According to him, the 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.
Garfinkel was drawing on phenomenology and Edmund Husserl, logic and Bertrand Russell, and perception theory and Nelson Goodman. 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.
Gerard Manley Hopkins drew on Scotus — whom he described as “Of reality the rarest-veined unraveller” — to construct his poetic theory of inscape.
James Joyce made similar use of the concept of haecceitas to develop his idea of the secular epiphany.
James Wood refers extensively to haecceitas (as “thisness”) in developing an argument about conspicuous detail in aesthetic literary criticism.