Lexicon of Meaningless Words: “Unique”

Yes, Bill, I was feeling particularly unique today…  Thank you for noticing.

Unique (adj.): being trivially true is no defense against meaning (practically) nothing.

(Don’t pass up this unique opportunity to get in on the ground floor distributing this unique product!)

Okay, this is another one (like hypocrite) that bears some denotational disambiguation.  Properly speaking “unique” means 1) existing as the only or sole example,  2) single; solitary in type or characteristics, or 3) being with like or equal as in unparalleled or  incomparable.  I would summarize these definitions to something like being “the one and only.”

If one were to say, the Hope Diamond was a unique stone one would be saying that it is the only diamond in the world with its exact size, clarity, color, and cut.  However, any gemstone or rock in your yard can boast the same: it is unique in its exact size, composition, color, and dimensions.  So while describing the piece of gravel stuck in your shoe as “unique” is a true statement about the rock, it is certainly not a very meaningful claim.  However, we can plumb the depths of “unique” further still.  Let’s say that a laboratory is capable of producing two, ten, or a hundred-thousand cubic zirconias that are absolutely identical in size, clarity, color, cut, and all other physical qualities.  It would still be the case that each is unique–no two can exist in the same place at the same time.  This is the Identity of Indiscernibles in action: no two distinct things exactly resemble each other–even if they do exactly resemble each other.  The Identity or ‘Leibniz’s Law’  is typically understood to  imply that:

1) if there are two objects

2) those two objects are type-identical

3) then, some not identical property allows them to be two objects rather than one

However, in our example of the type-identical CZs if we stipulated that even to the atomic level the cubic zirconia are identical one could still differentiate one from another because the particular atoms in one stone could not be the atoms that made up another stone in addition to their temporal/ spacial differentiation.  However, this–like the uniqueness of any particular piece of gravel or any particular anything–is only a uniqueness that is trivially true and certainly not what “unique” is properly understood to mean.  That is to say the sort of uniqueness generated by the identity of indiscernibles seems to be a property of every object existing as an object in the world.  If everything is unique then nothing is unique in the sense of the word “unique.”

But, there is still hope for the possibility of “unique” things in the world.  For example, one could argue that the bullet that killed President Abraham Lincoln is unique or Guy Fawkes’ lantern–for those from across the pond.  Presumably one would say that the bullet that killed Lincoln is unique in that it came into contact with the brain matter of our sixteenth president ending his life and the lantern used by Fawkes in the gunpowder plot is unique in that it is the device that would have enabled the conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament.  However, if we were to say that the uniqueness of the bullet is the particular deformation of the lead as it collided with the President’s head or that the uniqueness of the lantern is its particular providence we again arrive at trivially true uniqueness.  Any other bullet produced before April 14 1865 could have been the one that killed Lincoln and, indeed, any bullet before or after its impact with anything is unique in its chemical composition, exact shape, density, etc.  Any lantern produced before November 5, 1605 could have been the one used by Fawkes and the all of its physical or atomic uniqueness is no different than that of any other lantern or any other anything.

Now, perhaps, you are thinking that the uniqueness of the bullet that killed Lincoln or the lantern that almost assisted in the murder of the James I, the members of the houses of the Lords and Commons, and perhaps the Prince of Whales is not properly physical or chemical property of those items, but a historical connection.  To this, I would readily accede, however, before I wave the white flag of truce allow me one more philosophical sleight of hand.

To use a Lockean distinction, there are three species of quality that an object may have: primary, secondary, or tertiary.  A primary quality is a quality of the object proper.  There are only a few: solidity, extension, motion, number and figure.  These are the sorts of qualities that constitute physical or chemical properties as we have discussed them above.  Secondary qualities are those qualities that are fitted to cause sensations in those who observe the object including color, smell, taste, and sound.  In the empirical tradition only primary qualities are qualities of an object in itself.  But common sense would argue that both primary and secondary qualites belong to an object–at least most of the time.  (If a tree falls in the forest…)  However, tertiary properties are those qualities that effect other primary and secondary qualities by a certain fitness to do so.  For example, the internet has the ability to waste my time.  It is neither the internet or my time that has this quality of time-wastingness, but because of a particular relationship between the qualities of the internet (let’s say the property of cat videos) and the qualities of my time (let’s say the property of its finiteness) there is a tertiary property that does not belong to either particularly, but only exists because of their relationship to each other.  If either the internet or my time were to change sufficiently the tertiary property would cease to exist.

So, the “historicality” of Lincoln’s bullet or Fawkes’ lantern would seem to be a tertiary property.  If Lincoln or Fawke’s had not been involved or if the bullet or lantern had been different the tertiary quality of their unique “historicality” would cease to exist or perhaps some other victim, conspirator, bullet or lantern would have that unique tertiary “historicality.”  What is “unique” then in the bullet or the lantern is not any quality of the object because what is truly unique is only the historical relationship.  The objects of the assassins are not “unique” in themselves, but only in as much as they participated in a historical relationship that is unique.  Put another way, the uniqueness is not a property of the object, but a property of the relationship between the object and event.

“But wait,” you say! “A tertiary property (of an object) is still a property of an object!  How can you arbitrarily bracket the uniqueness of an object’s historical relationships from its other qualities?  Okay, fine.  I will acknowledge that the tertiary properties (of objects) are tricky so I’ll give you that one–if you answer this question: “Does another bullet, assembled immediately after Lincoln’s assassination bullet and fired into the dirt floor of a barn in Tupelo, Mississippi–also have the unique tertiary quality of its “historicality?”  Indeed, wouldn’t you have to admit that every object has a unique tertiary “historicality?”Certainly it would.  Thus, tertiary qualities run up against the same problem as physical and chemical uniqueness–it might be true that every object is historically unique, but that is a trivial truth and certainly not the sort of uniqueness that the word “unique” would seem to denote.

Therefore, nothing is “unique” because everything is unique.   Even baring the philosophical sophistry of the argument thus far, it would have to be admitted that most of the contexts in which things are claimed to be unique are incompatible with the idea proper.  For example:

“This is a unique opportunity.”  Can more than one person avail themselves of it?  If so, it is not unique.

“This limited edition coin is unique: cast in gold recovered from a Spanish galleon.”  Is there only one coin?

“That position as the president of the college is unique.”  If the person that currently fills it quiet would the college never again have a president?

For all these reasons, the word “unique” may refer to a state that is true of an object, but only trivially so, since that state is equally applicable to all objects.  Such trivially true uniqueness is not compatible with the denotation of the word “unique” making the word meaningless.

Tomorrow’s entry “anthropomorphism!”  from a guest blogger!


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