this blog I have repeatedly struggled with the old philosophical conundrum of
universality and individuality. I still struggle with it. All people are born
and die, and in between those are unpredictably vulnerable. That sounds
universal, but they occur in an infinite variety of ways.
contrast arises in the tension between ethics, in the recognition of individual
character and conditions, and the universality of justice, equal for all. This
came up, for example, in the philosophy of Immanuel Levinas. He held that one
should recognise the irreducible individuality and authenticity of the other,
with his ‘visage’ that calls forth unconditional care and dedication. This
yields the problem that the other might hurt third parties. Justice requires
that this is prevented, which destroys the unconditional acceptance and
dedication to the singular other.
way to mitigate the contrast between universality and individuality is to
distinguish between universality in place, where something applies to everyone
everywhere, and universality in time, where something applies forever. One can
hold on to universality of something in the first sense, and grant that it may
change, as culture changes.
approach is to deny the universality of the property of something, which I call
the first degree of universality, because things change, and the second degree
of universality of a dynamic principle that always applies to change, or a rule
example is the development of intelligence in children according to Jean
Piaget, where across stages there is ‘decentration’, where the child gives up
its focus on one dimension of time or space, to include other dimensions. This
happens in the famous example of pouring water from, say, high, narrow glass
into a low, wide one, where the child first says that now there is less (or
more) water ‘because now the glass is lower’, or more ‘because the glass is
wider. To catch on to the preservation of matter, the child learns to consider
all dimensions of the glass, triggered by pouring the water back from the
second glass into the first. In puberty, the child learns not to focus
exclusively on itself, but recognizes that others may have different views.
example of universal principles of development is that of evolution. It has thrown
up an incredible variety of different species, but is governed by the same
evolutionary principles of variety generation (in biology mutation of genes and
chromosome crossover), selection and transmission. In evolutionary economics
the same principles apply, but somewhat differently, with variety generation by
invention and innovation, selection by markets and institutions, and
transmission by imitation, education and training.
about ethics? If it is not universal, it has no bite, and one can always come
with special pleading of circumstances. But if it is not geared to the unique
individual and its circumstances, it does not seem ethical. This is the problem
of ethics for the individual versus justice for all that Levinas bumped into.
also was confronted with this. His solution was to recognise the universality
of virtues, but to enact them according to the specific circumstances, which he
called ‘phronesis’, and which he considered the highest virtue.
linguistics, de Saussure proposed a duality of universal, stable, intersubjectively
shared concepts in ‘langue’, and their subjective, variable and changing ‘parole’,
loaded with personal experience. In the ‘Hermeneutic Circle’, the two feed into
each other, introducing shifts of meaning. The general concept (say horses)
covers many specific cases, and which is intended depends on the context, where
the concept bumps into other concepts, as in a sentence, specific to the
context, but thereby injects personal parole, in all its variety, which may
shift usage, generating new ‘langue’. Meaning develops according to this
dialectic of langue and parole.
this dialectic is applied to virtue, it would mean that enactment of a universal,
public virtue, with phronesis, in specific conditions, could in time shift the
This account was pieced together from bits from a book
I just finished, and for which I am now seeking a publisher.