Thursday, August 9, 2012

16. The problem of universals

The ‘problem of universals’ is ancient, and it is still with us. It concerns the status, regarding existence, nature and origin, of a general idea or category (the universal) that embraces a number of individual cases that ‘belong to the category’. For example ‘the horse’ or ‘the human being’. Does the universal, as with Plato, have an independent existence, in a separate immaterial world? In Plato’s view individuals are weak images or shadows of it. Recall his metaphor of the cave. People only see shadows on the wall of the cave, of ‘real’ entities behind them that are lit from a fire outside the cave. Or does the universal, as with Aristotle, exist only as thought in the human mind, and does it refer to some essence more or less shared by the individuals, construed by abstraction from the individuals, by eliminating all other features? If universals exist only in the mind, are they then unreal, purely subjective? How then could science exist, since that rests upon universals? With Aristotle the idea was that they are not without realism since they are derived from observations by abstraction.

Aristotle’s view sounds much more reasonable than that of Plato, yet I do not go along with Aristotle either. An essence in which all individuals take part would entail that in the abstraction the individual is lost. With Plato, compared to the universal individuals do not matter. With Aristotle, all corresponding individuals share an essence, and can in that aspect be seen as interchangeable.

My idea on universals goes back to the 14th century philosopher William of Ockham and is called nominalism. The universal refers to a resemblance, not some shared thing. If things resemble each other in some feature, do they have that feature in the same way, with the same quality or meaning, with only a difference in quantity? That would mean that in that feature they are interchangeable. And there again is the moral implication of indifference, literally and figuratively, concerning the individual, and subordination of the individual to the universal. The individual is not relevant as a unique carrier and a complex whole but only insofar as it is an exemplar of a reproducible feature (worker, consumer, voter, colleague, nationality, race, …). To avoid this, an individual should have any feature in its own way, in a unique configuration with other features that affects the quality of each.

How universalism can lead to totalitarian thought emerges sharply in Rousseau’s idea of the general will, as of a collective subject. The nightmare of his thought is that one is only really free when one completely subjugates oneself to that general will, which is supposed never to be in conflict with what one really wants (or should want). If one wants something and it turns out that the collective wants something else one must admit that what one wanted was a mistake. In this way freedom is enforced. The echo of that sounded in Stalinism.

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