Cordial Deconstruction

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They’re All Unique (Revisiting a Concept from Fringe S2E8: August)

Posted by Karl Withakay on November 27, 2009

In last week’s episode of Fringe, “August”, when August told his fellow Observers that Christine should be saved because she was unique, he was told, “They’re all unique”, implying that while every individual is unique, that does not necessarily make them special or possibly that some people are more unique than others. It reminded me of conflicts I’ve had with various people about the use of the word unique that goes all the way back to my high school English teacher.

There are those who claim it is improper to use a modifier with the word unique, such as in “most unique”, or “very unique” because unique means one of a kind and thus it is an absolute concept. They claim something is either unique or it isn’t, and there is no such thing as “more one of a kind”.

I’m going to give my deconstruction of that claim in two parts. The first is to simply point out that one of the accepted definitions of the word unique is unusual or not typical. Regardless of the original meaning and use of the word, common usage causes language to evolve over time, and that includes the accepted meanings of words. The word unique is by no means unique in this regard. Frankly, Q.E.D.

However, I also contend that it is can often be (edited 12-4-9 to clarify) acceptable to modify the word unique even when it is used to mean one of a kind. Consider a closed universe that contains only seven objects, 6 of the objects are plastic spheres 6 inches in diameter, each one a different color, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. The seventh object is a transparent glass cube 12 inches on each side. Every object in the thought universe is unique, but the cube is more unique than any of the other objects because it has more unique qualities. All the other objects share the qualities of shape, material composition, size, and that fact that they are all colored. The cube is more unique than all the other objects because it shares none of those properties with the other objects.

From a severely literal and scientific perspective, everything in this universe is unique to some degree or other. No two objects are exactly identical down all their individual constituent particles on a quantum level. In fact, if you take any two seemingly identical objects, I’d guess you probably wouldn’t even have to look at the quantum level to find the differences between them. A very close examination under relatively low magnification, say 100X, should be sufficient to find differences between almost any two objects. Even if you had two particles in identical quantum states, they wouldn’t be occupying the exact same position in time and space, and both particles would be unique in some way.

If you can’t have degrees or qualities of uniqueness, then everything is unique, and the word is irrelevant; it would probably be more irrelevant that any other word. 🙂


4 Responses to “They’re All Unique (Revisiting a Concept from Fringe S2E8: August)”

  1. Bob said

    That all leads to our desire to catalog things in our universe. The lay person will say planet for every celestial body they’ve been told is a planet. They don’t deny that each one is unique because of those qualities you speak of. If we speak from a vantage point of a certain view of an object and when that object does something that we deem to be outside our established catalog of that object it become unique to us. It really becomes a matter of opinion at that point because obviously it is unique, it is just a matter of defining what your talking about. So in that an individual can have a degree of uniqueness because it falls outside there preconceived notions of the object. Scientifically it is a irrelevant; however unique to the non-scientific minded is a word that isn’t irrelevant.

  2. Phil O Sophic said

    You’re not a mathematician, are you? “The unique … that …” is not an uncommon locution, and that there is one and only one object (number, set, graph, whatever) that satisfies the condition is the whole point. And in XML, for instance, all values of type ID must be unique, absolutely and not to some degree.

    Of course, this is not exactly common, everyday English.

  3. cordialdeconstruction said

    I’m not a professional mathematician, but I did take enough calculus and differential equations in college to earn a minor in mathematics.

    It occurred to me when writing the post someone might bring up the concepts of mathematics and data sets/ solutions in regards to uniqueness, but I figured I’d leave that to any comments anyone wanted to make.

    I perhaps should have concluded with, “If you can’t have degrees or qualities of uniqueness, then everything is unique, and the word is irrelevant for describing real world, materialistic objects and phenomenon.”

  4. cordialdeconstruction said

    Again, the point was not that unique is an invalid word.

    My point was that uniqueness is not exclusively an absolute concept, and that the word unique can be legitimately qualified with words like “more”, “most”, “less”, or “totally” in many contexts.

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