Pants. I put them on every weekday.

Here’s a couple of cool words: haecceity and quiddity. Haecceity is what makes a thing a particular thing, its thisness. Quiddity is what makes a thing an example of what it is, its whatness

The abstract nature of language separates the thisness from the whatness of a thing, which gives the illusion that there are thisless whats to which one might add or subtract various individual thisnesses. Chair. Gray chair. The comfortable gray reclining chair in my office that John bought me when I hurt my back. The Mr Potato Head version of ontology.

Hence Plato’s cave and Kant’s noumena[1]. The sneaking suspicion that there are core ideal versions of the things around us is simply a byproduct of the medium through which we understand the world: language. The bottom level of language points at things. I can point at things and make statements about them. Those statements are immediately verifiable. “Look. A red bird.” “Yes, I can see that that is a bird, and it is red.” This gives the illusion that words have backing, that they point to the world. But when I say “Cardinals don’t migrate in the winter,” there is no Cardinal, only cardinals. Taxonomy is descriptive, not prescriptive. 

And when we encounter problems in the development world, there is a largely counter-productive tendency to assume that there is an optimal solution. That there is some solution that is measurably and verifiably better than others and that we need only find it. This is sometimes true for very simple problems. Those are the problems that are generally not worth solving. I see both UX and Engineering waste a lot of cycles chasing some mythical optimal solution to complex problems in their domains. Instead of focusing on the whatness of an optimal solution, they should focus on the thisness of a tenable solution. Defining what is acceptable and iterating until a threshold is met allows you to rapidly move on to the next problem set and only come back to problems for refinement when either a solution ceases to meet expectations, or the expectations change. Haecceity, not quiddity. In other words, quit admiring the problem.


1.  To be fair, Plato’s argument was ontological, while Kant’s was epistemological, but the difference is immaterial to this article. Plato argues that behind every cluster of individual objects there is a single knowable “real” version. Kant argues that within every individual object there is a single unknowable “real” version. Whether the “real” version is knowable or unknowable, effable or ineffable, categorical or individual, are details.

By Matthew Jewell