This paper focuses on the concept of “animal individuals” and puts forward a nominalistic approach. Nominalism is an ontological thesis (only individuals exist), but also an epistemological claim: that our “nouns” are practical tools for a quick dispatch of things, but do not correspond to anything real. Hence for a consistent nominalist, “animals” do not exist, except as a powerful fiction. First, we show that the word “animal” commits what we call (after Plato) the “fallacy of the crane”: it encompasses a huge range of living entities that have only one thing in common: they are not humans. Differences between our term “animal” and the ancient Greek “zoon” also show the fluctuating boundaries of “animality.” Besides, our ways of speaking systematically deny individuality to nonhuman animals.
The philosophical meaning of the term “individual” implies a genuine dimension of artistic singularity and a political claim for emancipation. Portraits of apes are striking instances of such individuality, captured by photography, as is art produced by particular animals. Methodologically, this leads also to the collection of anecdotes and a focus on animal biographies. The eighteenth-century controversy between Buffon and Condillac helps us understand what is at stake in the tension between species and individuals. Buffon claims that each nonhuman animal species can be represented by a “specimen,” whereas Condillac shows that animal individuals feel like us and that their nature is impenetrable to us. Finally, a focus on individuals is not only a way to renew or extend historical methods. Biologists are also increasingly concerned with individuals. They develop tools to distinguish individuals from one another: “animal bertillonage” for morphology. They question standard norms of behavior and preferences. This emphasis on animal individuality has not only theoretical but also ethical and legal consequences.