Facilitating individuation is an important component of the Live, Love, Learn approach, originating in the ‘live‘ domain. By this, we mean that it is important for students to reach their full potential – not just within a specific module or course, or even as skilled disciplinarians, but rather as human beings.

With all the depth and focus of a disciplinary education, students should also embrace their full personhood – recognise, nourish and exploit all their natural curiosities, passions and potentials. We believe that this will not only make them a better disciplinarian, but it will also enhance their creativity, productivity and originality, increase their engagement with the wider world and enhance their potential as global citizens.

Why individuation and not…?

You might be wondering why we have chosen to use the term ‘individuation’ rather than perhaps a phrase more typical in our context, like ‘self-actualisation‘. As we will see, individuation implies a number of additional elements that are not present in the concept of self-actualisation which are very important to us.

Where does the term come from?

The concept of ‘individuation’ has been around a very long time. The earliest uses relate to the principium individuationis, our use of the term relates to psychoanalytic theory – in particular that developed by C.G. Jung, and later uses of the idea relate to media industry practice of providing mass personalised content (such as through websites that relate the content version of the page you see to your internet history and known interests – also relates to the concept coined by Eli Pariser – the Filter Bubble). 

Principium individuationis

Originating in the work of Aristotle, the principium individuationis is a concept that has persisted in philosophy to denote the characteristics or criteria that differentiate one member from others of its kind. Depending on the philosopher, this might be in a broader descriptive sense, or in a rather specialised numerical or categorical sense. You can read more about this idea in the work of medieval philosopher Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308), Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), Bonaventure Baron (1610–1696) and Leibniz (1646–1716).

This might seem somewhat far removed from our use of this term, but actually, this does add to our understanding of the concept. As well as fulfilling their own potential, our students are always seeking to differentiate themselves from their peers – whether that be in the development of their scholarly identity, personality or desirability for later employment. This informs, to an extent, our approach to the psychological concept of individuation as it provides further motivation to pursue this perhaps seemingly nebulous and non-academic form of personal development.

This philosophical side of the term individuation provides our first glimpse of the additional value of the term individuation over self-actualisation. Individuation also implies this differentiation from others, which is critical as stated above, for our students.

Individuation in the words of C.G. Jung

Jungian psychology is a school of psychoanalytic thought that began with the work of C.G. Jung (1875-1961). Jung thinks and writes at length about the idea of individuation, relating the concept to many areas of human existence and psychology. For example, Jung proposes that one of the reasons for the longevity of human life (living well beyond the years required to rear young and ensure the propagation of the species) is to devote time and energy to individuation. Jung also has many detailed ideas about the symbolic imagery and meaning of individuation beyond our use of the term in education.

However, reducing a lifetime of thought and work to a neat definition, the overall meaning of individuation in psychoanalytic thought is

the task to realise our unique selfhood. This is a work in progress which lasts a lifetime and involves facing aspects of ourselves we do not like and integrating these and other aspects – Goss

In psychoanalytic terms, the idea of integration is key – the development and bringing together of distinct aspects of the individual. Taking this a step further, this includes aspects that might seem negative or, in psychoanalytic terms, ‘shadow’ aspects of the self.

While I don’t dispute the potential importance of this fuller psychoanalytic meaning, there are elements of this that we can bring out in an educational sense. Exploring the ‘shadow’ does not mean exploring things that are innately negative, forbidden or perhaps even illegal. It can also mean exploring aspects of ourselves that we do not see as relevant, important or interesting. So while we don’t want to plunge our students into potential crisis by requiring them to pursue exploration of elements of their identity that might be troublesome or worrisome, we do want our students to pursue exploration of parts of their identity or person that might seem ‘irrelevant’ to them in the context of their studies. For example, a student of theoretical physics might not see the value of integrating their experiences as a five-a-side football player into their approach to their work and interactions with the world. However, there might be many benefits to exploring their use of team working, strategy and physicality in one rather limited setting into their broader approach to their work.

These finer aspects of individuation – the development and integration of different (and perhaps shadow) aspects of the self, takes it a step further still than the idea of self-actualisation, which is simply the fulfilment of one’s potential or talents. It implies an added element of work, struggle or effort than simply performing at one’s best.

Psychology or biology?

In some ways, the work of Jung crosses the disciplinary divide between biology and psychology, with the origins of his work on individuation firmly rooted in biology. Jung believed that in every species, individual members have an innate, biological drive to be the most developed version possible of that species. So for example, a tiger will have a biological drive to be the ‘tigeriest’ tiger that it can possibly be. Within the human species, this concept becomes complicated by the very diversity of our species and by the consciousness that we possess. Consciousness can interfere with this biological driver, suppressing our awareness and pushing some elements of our person into our unconscious. This means that we now have to make a conscious effort to fulfil this innate potential by considering those aspects that might not be readily apparent to us.

So what does this mean in practice?

The Live, Love, Learn approach encourages students to consider as many aspects of themselves as possible as being directly relevant to their work. We do this both on an individual level, and within teams and as a cohort. For example, before allowing students to commence work on a problem solving task, we might ask students to think about three ‘dimensions’, ‘skillsets’ or ‘approaches’ that might help them solve the problem and create a giant Venn diagram to help us explore that. We then ask them to think about something they might know, possess or have experienced that they think other people in their team or cohort might not also know, possess or have experienced. They then write these on sticky notes, and place them on a Venn that represents those three dimensions. In this way, we ask students to integrate seemingly irrelevant or unexpected aspects of themselves in their approach to problem solving. If it is the first time that we have done a task like this with a group of students, this needs strongly scaffolding to provide examples and push students to really reach into themselves for those factors that they can contribute. We might also add a Venn of the things that the students think that many of their peers will also possess. Anything that gets pen on paper and ideas flowing, means that those harder to reach ideas will come forward that little bit easier!

Other big thinkers and individuation

There are many other examples of people pondering the meaning and purpose of individual or self development. One of my favourites is Pythagoras.

No one is free who has not obtained the empire of himself. No man is free who cannot command himself – Pythagoras

References and further reading

Goss, P. (2015) Jung. A Complete Introduction. London: Hodder.

Samuels, A., Shorter, B. and Plant, F. (1986) A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul Inc.

Stevens, A. (1994) Jung. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




This post currently has 2 responses

  • […] theories and concepts that are the foundations of modern psychoanalytic practice. These include individuation, symbols, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious, archetypes, complexes, the persona, […]

  • […] work of the psychotherapist Carl Rogers – in a slightly similar way to the central role of individuation in the theory of Carl Jung. Both Jung and Rogers have a very humanistic approach to psychotherapy, […]

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