Saturday, November 5, 2022

 Blog 553. Universality and individuality.

 In 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.

 The 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.

 One 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.

 Another 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 of conduct.

 An 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.

 Another 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.

 How 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.

 Aristotle 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.

 In 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.

 If 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 public virtue

 This account was pieced together from bits from a book I just finished, and for which I am now seeking a publisher.

No comments:

Post a Comment