Wednesday, October 21, 2015


222. Forms of universals

The theme of universals versus individuals has been pervasive in this blog (see items 16, 17, 118, 129, 135, 129, 184, and 197). Here I will not repeat all that, though I will give the shortest possible summary of it, and I will next expand on it a bit.

I rejected Platonic absolute ideas, universal and eternal, existing beyond the world of variety and change that we experience.

I argued that universals, in claims of general truth or value, are needed for the sake of generalization from experience, and for interaction between people, but in a more modest form, seldom strictly universal, and subject to shifts, which arise, in particular, from debate from variety of experience, in variety of contexts.

I elaborated on this along the lines of the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (36): a general idea becomes concrete, focused, or individualized, in specific contexts, where it is combined with other ideas, in a unique constellation of meaning, which can shift the general idea, to be abstracted from the context, ready to be applied anew elsewhere (37). That is in line with my story of the ‘cycle of discovery’ (31, 35).

All this is in line with my pragmatist stance: ideas are applied until they run into problems or novel opportunities, and then they shift. Truth is never final and unalterable, but it is to be supported by arguments, in ‘warranted assertibility’. In morality, norms also are not final and unalterable but part of ‘debatable ethics’.    

To proceed, what forms of universals might there be? I propose a distinction between attributive, normative and intentional universals.

First attributive universals. They are of the kind: humans are featherless bipeds (the classic one), thinking animals, mortal, use language, strive to manifest themselves (‘conatus essendi’), have an urge to survive, and an urge to be a legitimate member of a social group. Another example of a universal: all chairs have legs.

Here, I propose, the universal is often strict, applying to all singulars. All humans are indeed mortal. However, animals are mortal as well. Apes also are featherless bipeds. Some animals appear to come close to thinking and using language (whales, dolphins, some birds perhaps). The universal is not always strict, allows for exceptions. Psychopaths have no moral sense. There are chairs without legs. And when all individuals do share a feature, they generally don’t have it in an identical way, in a shared essence. As Mari Ruti noted: ‘universalizing is not intrinsically homogenizing’.[i] Also, things may be grouped together without sharing one single feature, as according to Wittgenstein’s famous notion of ‘family resemblance’. That would apply, for example, to chairs.

Is truth a universal? If truth is indeed to be taken as warranted assertibility, as I propose, then the warrant can be more or less strong, and there may be disagreement about what is an acceptable warrant .

Next, normative universals. Those are seldom strict. Earlier I contested the universality of Kant’s categorical imperative. It is bad to lie, or to kill, but not always. There are things that I would want for myself but would not want to impose upon others, and vice versa. One may tolerate rules that one  would not accept for oneself, and that is indeed the essence of democracy. Yet it is difficult to accept the savage butchery and slavery perpetrated by ISIS under any conditions.

To craft an ethic strong enough to resist excesses of inhumanity such as the holocaust, Levinas went overboard in a strictly universal ethic of unconditional surrender to the ‘face of the other’ (see item 61). That ethics appears to take out the self.

Finally, I propose intentional universals. They are intentions towards others in action and understanding. They are seldom strictly universal, and perhaps should never be, as a matter of normative universality. Perhaps one should always remain open to doubt and prepared to discuss one’s own intentions and those of others. For example, consider Levinas’ unconditional awe and surrender to the other. Would one, should one extend that also to one’s torturer?

Here the difference between normative and intentional universality kicks in. We may morally condemn someone while yet achieving some empathy, or at least understanding of the underlying impulse, for even the most extreme behaviour. Condemn and fight the barbarism of ISIS while seeing how it arises, for some at least, from an sincere motive of transcendence, no matter how illusory we might consider it to be.

All this is part, I think, of Aristotelian practical wisdom.



[i] Mari Ruti, 2015, Between Levinas and Lacan; Self, other, ethics, Bloomsbury, p. 68.