Saturday, February 3, 2018

355. The universal and its particulars

Žižek adopts Hegel’s view of the ‘concrete universal’: the universal should be seen as incorporating all its particulars, which may be in conflict which each other, and inevitably there are anomalies that do not quite fit the universal.  

Repetition, in the manifestation of the universal in its particulars, is never quite repetition, duplication, but always differentiation. And this may erode or explode the universal, in what Hegel called ‘aufhebung’.[i] Žižek suggests (in his Parallax view) that such dynamics forms the essence of the universal. I will return to the issue of essences in a later item in this blog.  

The philosophical significance of this is that it deviates from the Platonic idea of the universal as transcending the messy world of particulars, and being fixed.

That is also of significance for politics, where the totality of the state should leave room for variety of individuals in the state as well as a variety of states.

Žižek also reminds us that Christ is the personification, particularization, of God the universal.

I now want to compare the Hegelian view with the view of the universal and its particulars presented in this blog (in items 16, 17, 135).

In my view, the universal is not the totality of its particulars, but an abstraction from them, from the rich variety of contexts where the particulars reside. This is in contrast with the Hegelian view that the particulars ‘fall’ from the universal. In my view they ‘feed’ it, form its roots. In its use, to become real, the abstract universal needs to be re-embedded in the richness of the particular context at hand. With a flourish, I would say: the abstract is a hermaphrodite, inserting itself in the context and being impregnated by a host of particulars that may give birth to a novel abstraction.  

For sceptical David Hume the abstract, the universal, is a fiction. I think it is a little more than that. It is rooted in the reality of its particulars, and is a wager on what is invariable across contexts, but this is open since there is no end to possible contexts. Unforeseeable contexts may arise.

An abstraction is itself a universal, an abstraction from varieties of abstraction. The abstraction of abstraction is, as I would now formulate it, that one drops features that do not systematically return in different contexts, in search for what seems essential, though that will never be found. It falls under what in this blog I have called ‘imperfection on the move’. The terms of the abstraction are ambiguous and themselves variable. What, precisely, is a context; is that notion liable to shift? What is essential: does that not imply some judgement of relevance, and how fixed is that? And other criteria may arise: some form that a formalization should have, perhaps. 

The universal is often supported by a prototype that yields an exemplar, that guides identification of particulars as belonging to the universal. I read somewhere that for the English the robin is the exemplar of ‘bird’, while for the Dutch it is the sparrow.

From Lacan, Žižek adopts the notion of a ‘master signifier’ that symbolizes the universal. It is not necessarily an adequate characterization and often serves to bend thought in a certain direction, or hide incongruity, as a support of ideology. For an example, in item 348 of this blog I used the idealized model of perfect competition, as the master signifier of market ideology, while in fact it is never achieved and the endeavour of firms as market participants is to block competition.

The implication of this view of universals is that typically one cannot give necessary and sufficient features for something to belong to a category. For an example, I have used the example of ‘chair’. Once, in a newspaper I saw a man in a stuffed cow with a dent for the seat, with the caption ‘watch me sitting in my cow’. After that, when walking past a field with a cow one might say ‘look what a beautiful chair’.  

For further analysis, I used the notion of the hermeneutic circle, in item 36, as Heidegger also did. Words for concepts, abstractions, along the paradigmatic axis, are inserted into sentences, along the syntagmatic axis, and there are connected with other concepts, and this unique configuration may yield a novel perspective on the concept.

The variation of meaning is one of both context and people. In my discussion of meaning (item 32) I used the distinction, going back to Frege, between denotation/reference and connotation/sense. For Frege, sense was ‘the way in which something is given’: how does an object present itself? I reconstruct it as the way in which reference is established: how does one recognize or select something as a chair? That, I propose, happens on the basis of associations that one has with the concept, collected along a path of life, by which one recognizes something as belonging to the concept. Which connotation is picked out, or triggered, depends on the context. And then, misfits will appear, anomalies, which may occasion a shift of the universal, or a split, or absorption in a novel one. This yields a constitutive role for the individual, not as subjugated to the universal but as feeding it.

How, next, does dialectical change work? That is the topic for the next item.


[i] There is an English term for this: ‘ablation’, but I don’t like it and leave ‘aufhebung’ untranslated. It means at the same time ‘lifting up’ and ‘elimination’.