The Problem of the One and the Many

When thinking of how people relate to each other and to God, we have the following questions:

1. How can a finite man relate to an infinite God? How can an infinite God communicate with finite man?
2. Why is it that we can look at a group of individuals and see a “group”?
3. Do the individuals truly have something in common, or is the connection only in our minds?
4. Why do our minds see a distinction between individuals, instead of a great mass?
5. If the individuals have separate existence, they have nothing in common, and we cannot have anything in common with each other or with God, and communication with God is impossible. On the other hand, if individuals have a common existence, there is no distinction of individuals, pantheism is true, and there is no God. (Pantheism says all that exists is one, and all differences are an illusion).

When comparing several individuals, we only have three options. Their being (existence) is either equivocal, univocal, or analogous. Resolving these has come to be known as the problem of the one and the many.

Equivocal means that individuals have a different being (existence). An equivocal being means that individuals are truly different, totally different, and have nothing in common. If equivocation is correct, then two individuals are totally distinct, in the sense that they have nothing in common. We cannot say that there are “two men” for no two things have anything in common. There are no common qualities that tie the individuals together, so we can make no judgments about them as a group. This presents problems, in that we can come to no conclusions about being. If one person’s being includes existence, then other individuals’ being could not include existence in the same sense. Yet it appears that they do. This view prevents communication between God and man, for God is “wholly other” and therefore has nothing in common with humans.

Univocal means that things have the precisely the same being (existence).  In a univocal view of being, multiple individuals have the same being. So individuals would not truly exist as separate; instead, there would be one being in all of reality. The univocal concept also presents problems, such as our senses telling us that we are separate from other beings, and the host of problems that arises with pantheism, which teaches that only one being exists in reality.  If being is univocal, then there is only one being. This view eliminates communication between God and man, dismissing it as just part of the illusion that we experience.

Analogous being says that in individuals, some things remain the same while other things are different. Bob, Mary, and the chair all exist in the same manner that things exist. However, the essences of the three are different, and they have three instances of existence — they might not all exist at the same time. So individuals have some things in common, and some things different. Existence is univocal in the sense that all things either exist or do not exist. The essences of the individuals are analogous, with some attributes the same and some different  Therefore there are many individuals that all exist in the same sense, but yet they are truly individual beings.

The analogous view is the only view that explains how humans can relate to God or communicate with God. God can speak to us and tell us to be good, but “good”  means more to God than to us, for we understand “good” in an analogous sense.

Thus pantheism is refuted, human relation to God is maintained, and we have part of the explanation of how humans can view a group of individuals and see both individuals and a group.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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