Friday, January 28, 2022

539. Universal and particular

 A perennial quandary in philosophy is the choice and relation between the universal and the particular, and this comes up in various ways in the dilemmas discussed. Universal ideas or rules are fixed and apply everywhere, in contrast with the particular, chaotic, variable and changing phenomena we experience in the world. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato universal ideas exist in an ideal world that constitutes what is really real. Many philosophers have been attracted by the pristine clarity, simplicity and certainty of universals, shedding all the confusing variety and variability of experience. Proponents of universals argue that without universals we could not learn from experience, with generalisation from one particular to a similar one, in scientific laws, and there would not be language, with general concepts of things, such as the concept of a cat that covers all cats.

In particular, we need universals, or something at least general, regarding laws, regulations and morality that do not allow for unspecified exceptions. Under equal circumstances the same rule should apply, regardless of the consequences, otherwise we open up to arbitrariness, inside dealing and corruption. If morals are relative, specific to a person or to the conditions and history of a nation or community, the arena is wide-open to injustice and suppression, and international law becomes a matter of power. This is inevitable. Conflicts are settled by whoever is in the Security Council of the United Nations.

If there are no universal natural laws, how can we rely on science and technology, in building and using artifacts? Will you dare cross a bridge? In deontological ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative is universal: engage only in actions that you would like to raise to a universal principle. The paradigmatic case is the ancient Golden Rule: do (not) do unto others what you would (not) want to be done to you.  

 On the other hand, an opponent of universalism will claim that it has been shown to lead to imperialism, suppression, discrimination and exclusion of those who deviate. In any case, the universal is a prejudice and an illusion. No one can be certain of some idea or ideal, and universality deteriorates into a suppressive ideology. Ideas and ideals arise, develop and change in time. Ideas and presumed laws have changed, even in natural science, and physics is now in turmoil, with rival views.

We have a rule against driving through a red traffic light, but in Amsterdam, where I live, bicycles, motors and scooters drive through red lights in throngs. I might do so myself at night, with no other traffic, or if I am driving a dying person to hospital. I may go against rules out of conviction or necessity, although I then have to accept the fine. Some people go against the rules instituted to control Covid-19, and some even call it state terrorism.

In contrast with his former teacher Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that only the particulars really exist. He did not deny that there are universals, but those have no existence in a separate world. There is no world of pure ideas. Aristotle proposed that moral judgement requires phronesis, taking into account circumstances in making a moral judgement. I cannot be expected to save a drowning person if I cannot swim, or if I am hand-in-hand with a small child on a slippery slope. There are lies of goodwill, to avoid hurting someone. But where does this relativity derail in feeble excuse? Poverty may be an excuse for theft, but mere desire is not. There are lies of goodwill and lies of blatant self-interest.

The currently dominant idea in morality is that of utilitarianism, which is a form of  consequentialism, looking only at outcomes, not motives. By contrast, duty ethics, deontology, looks at motives, regardless of outcomes. According to the ancient golden rule one should (not) do to others what one does (not) want done to oneself. But people differ in what they would or would not like to be done to them. I am not a soccer fan, and would not appreciate a ticket to some match, but others would. Nevertheless, under same circumstances the rule should apply. The problem is that circumstances are never exactly the same, and it requires Aristotelian phronesis to judge to what extent they are. It is better to speak not of rules but of principles. Taoist philosophy is against universal rules (wu-wei) and in favour of recognising differences between individuals. Tapping from the Taoist philosophy of the Zhuangzi (2007), Yong (2005) proposed to replace the Golden Rule with the ‘Copper Rule’ of ‘Do unto others as they would have us do unto them’. I would hit only masochists.

 My position is that we do need general rules and linguistic and scientific generalities, but those are not strictly universal, yield exceptions,  and are provisional, subject to change of our ideas. We once thought that parallel lines do not intersect, but later we found that on a globe they do, like lines of longitude on the world globe. We abhor slavery but once it was part of normal business. The bible does not contest but condones it.

Concerning issues of good and bad, I adopt neither deontology nor utilitarianism, but Aristotelian virtue ethics, with the cardinal virtues, i.e. virtues around which things turn, of prudence, i.e. rational deliberation, courage, moderation and justice. In its attention to justice virtue ethics is consequentialist, in its orientation to moderation it is more deontological. The virtues are not only instrumental in achieving goals, but also have intrinsic value, as part of the good life, eudaimonia, in being the person one wants to be.

People live in particularity. Abstractions are manifested in the particular, and particulars are the soil from which abstractions blossom. This was discussed before in the notion the hermeneutic circle from linguistics, which is a circular to-and-fro between a paradigmatic axis and a syntagmatic axis. The paradigmatic axis is composed of the generalised concepts, of a cat, for example, and the syntagmatic axis of particular uses of the concept in specific contexts, in sentences, this particular cat on the mat. The general concept may be seen as having a variety of possible particular meanings, in specific things it may refer to. However, I associate the notion ‘cat’ with my particular tabby, with blue-gray stripes. Particular things may be odd, exceptional in some way, but remain seen to belong to the concept, and may in their peculiarity shift the concept, in being included in the general notion, or may constitute a new notion. I have used the example of a picture I once saw of someone sitting in a dent in a stuffed cow, with the caption ‘see him sitting in his cow’. This may lead to a new industry of manufacturing cow chairs, of different colours of hide (Nooteboom, 2021).

            A point here and in other dilemmas is that the change of meaning and knowledge never ends. The world is never fully known. Perfection is never achieved. My motto is imperfection on the move. One need not accept what we have, and there is always room for improvement, but that will not achieve perfection either. I find this also in Taoism.

What is the relation between particular and universal or general? The universalist will see the universal as the essence of a type of thing, and the particular as a reflection, shadow, or exemplification plus inessential details. A particularist will see the general as a generalisation or abstraction of particulars, shedding detailed features, and their history, neglecting what remains hidden in the particular. The idea that a particular has hidden features, is partly ‘withdrawn’ goes back to the philosopher Martin Heidegger (Harman, 2002). Things have a potential that may not yet be manifested, and are thus not completely shown, and that potential may change.

In linguistics, in a treatment of what meaning is, a distinction was made (by Frege, see Thiel, 1965) between reference, what an expression is intended to refer to, as the notion of ‘cat’ refers to the collection of all cats, and sense as ‘the way in which something presents itself’. The classic example of sense is the planet Venus that shows itself at daybreak, and then is called the ‘morning star’, as well as in the evening, and then is called the ‘evening star’. I turn the idea of sense around a bit, and see it as the way in which we identify something as being of a certain kind, such as the cat’s pointed ears, fur, tail and soft paws with sharp claws. Reference is not ontological but intentional. We never know whether or to what extent an expression refers to reality, but pragmatically we do intend to refer. Life would be impractical without it. What a term is meant to refer to is part of public language, universally shared, with which we mostly agree, and sense is made up of personal associations by which we identify the particular as belonging to the general concept. Sense is personal meaning, connected with particular experiences along the path of one’s life. Reference is stable, shared and public, sense is variable and personal. As mentioned before, the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called the first ‘langue’ and the second ‘parole’ (Saussure, 1979). In his ‘Other than being’, Emmanuel Levinas (1991) distinguished between the process of saying (‘le dire’), comparable to parole, and its arrest, freezing, in the said (‘le dit’). In linguistics, an idea of how shared, public langue is related to personal, particular parole, is given in the notion of the hermeneutic circle, mentioned before, with general, public meanings or langue along the paradigmatic axis, and particular, situation-specific meanings or parole along the syntagmatic axis. A general concept, taken from the hermeneutic axis is inserted in a sentence, the syntagmatic axis, in a specific action context, and becomes a particular. Langue becomes parole. A cloud condenses into rain. In that sentence the concept can adopt new associations, which when adopted by others turns into an expansion or shift of the general meaning, and is adopted in the public meaning along the vertical axis. Together, these movements between the vertical and horizontal axes constitute a circle. This is a model of how one can go from order (langue) to disorder (parole) and back again, in an ongoing development. General concepts also change in the long run. Order regulates disorder, but is shifted in its practice.


Closely related to the dilemma of universal and particular is the dilemma of theory and practice. ‘There is nothing more practical than a good theory’, a scientist says. Theory serves to learn from experience, identifying regularities across phenomena of a certain kind, with which one aims to predict, and to which one attributes causes, to infer appropriate actions. However, this can go too far, in abstraction getting removed from the issues at hand, dropping significant details, historical provenance and ignoring alternative perspectives. Theory is a view in a certain direction, since one cannot look in different directions at the same time, but practice, as in policy making, cannot afford that, must attend to particularities, and has to be open to different perspectives. Sociology looks differently at society than an economist. A mono-disciplinary theory may lead practice astray, as much economics has done, in market ideology, neglecting social issues.

            The adequacy of a causal theory to a practice depends on how one treats causality. Concerning causality, for social science and economics, I adopt an Aristotelian multiple causality of action. The efficient cause is the agent, individual or collective, such as an organisation. The final cause is the goal or purpose of the agent. Aristotle made the mistake of applying the final cause also to nature, as if falling objects home in on the centre of the earth, but in social sciences it fits. The material cause is the ‘stuff’ the agent uses, such as the wood of a carpenter. The formal cause is the method, knowledge, skill or technology that the agent uses. The conditional cause affects the other causes, enabling or blocking them, such as institutions and markets. The exemplary cause is the example or model followed.

The exemplary cause can be a design or a role model. A painting of a phenomenon takes that phenomenon as its exemplary cause. One can take the conduct of someone as a role model. The interesting thing about such an exemplary cause is that it allows for variety of interpretation, in the choice of matter or form. It gives more room for improvisation and personal interpretation than a direct order, blueprint or rule.

A telling example is that of narrative. In fighting the Covid pandemic, one can impose rules based on statistics and the arguments of medics, epidemiologists and hospital management, but one can also, perhaps more effectively, narrate a poignant case of a strong, young person who disregarded the rules and succumbed. One can issue a rule, but it will not work until people incorporate it in their purpose.

Another example is that of a charismatic leader setting an example. Here also lies the force of ritual. Many people say they cannot join a religious ritual if they do not have the faith. The philosopher Blaise Pascal said that you get the faith by performing the ritual. Rational arguments for divinity are notoriously void, and enacting a religion in ritual is more enticing.

Role models can be constructive but also destructive, as was discussed in the section on democracy and authoritarianism. It can tempt people away from rationality and reality, and lure people into destructive or undemocratic ideologies, as has been demonstrated by president Trump.

Aristotelian multiple causality of action is part of a more general notion of multiple causality, called ‘causal flock’ by MacCumber (2007: 71-72). Objects and phenomena generally have multiple, partly sequential, partly simultaneous causes. For an example, take the lamp giving light on your desk. It is produced by a filament inside the bulb that is heated  to give light from electricity, but the bulb rests screwed in its socket carried by a ceramic vase made by an artist, with a lamp shade causing the distribution of light, after a light switch was thrown by someone, the electricity being fed in along wiring, produced by a generating station, with labour and management. There is no clear, sigular causal chain. Which causes you pick out depends on the context, such as ‘turning on the light’ or ‘paying the electricity bill’, or ‘buying a bulb’. Here, I adopt the multiple causality of action because action is what I am interested in.       



-          Can you name a true universal, admitting of no exceptions

-          Can you give another example of the dilemma of theory and practice

-          Do you adhere to utilitarianism, deontology, or virtue ethics, all of them a bit, or none of them

-          In the above account of causality, do you miss a cause, which

-          Have you witnessed positive role models; and negative ones



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