The Individual and the Dividual

Individual action presupposes that there is an individual that can take action. My research on relational paradigms that are grounded in process philosophy, systems thinking, ecology, and indigenous knowledges makes me question this assumption.

We can distinguish between four different perspectives of the individual: the individual, the dividual, and the transindividual and - as Layman Pascal recently pointed out - the interindividual.

Individual An individual describes a person and how they think and act as a closed entity that physically ends at the skin and metaphysically ends at the brain circuits. An individual’s organs are separate inside their skin. As an individual, we are different from our surroundings and other beings, both physically and in a deeper sense. Being an individual allows us to collaborate with other individuals, act autonomously, and have our own agency.

Dividual A dividual means that we are not just ourselves but many selves all working together. It’s like having a symphony or a mix of different sounds that make up who we are.

The term was primarily introduced by the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. In her influential book “The Gender of the Gift” (1988), Strathern utilized the concept of the “dividual” to analyze social and kinship structures in Melanesian societies, particularly in Papua New Guinea.

Strathern’s understanding of the dividual challenges the Western notion of the individual as a self-contained entity with fixed boundaries. Instead, she emphasizes the relational and interconnected aspects of personhood, where individuals are seen as composed of multiple social relationships and connections. In her terms, the dividual is ‘a person constitutive of relationships.

According to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the dividual challenges traditional notions of individuality by emphasizing the multiplicity and fluidity of identities. He argued that the dividual is not a fixed, unified subject but a collection of different and interconnected elements. He viewed individuals as composed of various social, cultural, and political forces that shape and influence their identities. Instead of focusing solely on individual characteristics or traits, Deleuze emphasized the relational aspects of identity formation.

The dividual, for Deleuze, exists within a network of social and power relations. These relations are dynamic and constantly changing, allowing individuals to adopt multiple identities or be influenced by different social contexts.

Many scholars today join Deleuze and Strathern’s understanding of the Dividual. For example, the biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber says that “living agents bring each other into being by establishing relationships.” The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term interbeing as the quality of the Dividual, which was also picked up and made prominent by the philosopher Charles Eisenstein.

The concept of the dividual challenges the idea of a stable, self-contained individual and highlights the interplay between subjectivity and the external forces that shape it. It underscores the complexity and multiplicity of human identity, moving beyond the notion of a singular, fixed individual and acknowledging our existence’s diverse and fluid nature.

We can also experience our dividual-ity. Depending on the situation, different parts of ourselves pretending to be the main person we think of as ourselves. Our thoughts and feelings are often all over the place; they come from different parts of us that work together or sometimes fight with each other. With sufficient self-awareness, we begin to see that we are made up of many different selves forming a unique whole or self - a dividual.