Do Universals Have a Reference? on the Critical Theory of Herbert Marcuse

By Sharpe, Matthew | Philosophy Today, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Do Universals Have a Reference? on the Critical Theory of Herbert Marcuse

Sharpe, Matthew, Philosophy Today

"A great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized."


"Do Universals have any reference?" "If so, what is it that they refer to?" These are philosophical questions. It could be argued that they are the philosophical questions. A particular, and admittedly strong, reading of the philosophical tradition, could suggest that there have been two major generative moments of its history. These were the Socratic-Platonic birth of philosophy, and secondly, German idealism, born from Kant's critical philosophy. But both these moments were intimately tied to the question of the possibility and nature of universals. Socrates' whole project turned around how, when one asks, "what is x?" (e.g.: courage, temperance, virtue, etc.), it is unsatisfactory as an answer to list particular examples of x-- ness. He set his method and meaning up in avowed opposition to the sophists, who defended different variants of what we would now call moral and epistemic relativism. Likewise, Kant was awoken from his dogmatic slumbers by Humean skepticism concerning the possibility of universals. Through his critical project, Kant defends the wonder of the starry skies above, and the moral law within, and both of these on grounds of a philosophical reclaiming of a universal dimension to human knowing and doing. Against Hume, Kant suggests that we could not have the awareness of the natural world that we do, were we not always already in possession of categories whose scope is universal and a priori, and that condition the possibility equally of the natural world and our knowledge of it. In the practical philosophy, an irremovable part of what we mean when we speak of morality, Kant argued, is that its dictums have a universal validity, vouched for by reason alone.

This essay means to broach the question: are there universals?-or, given the difficulty of opening one's mouth without invoking universal predicates and names, to what might these contentious terms refer? Are especially sortals (identifying names of types) and especially the more grandiose universals (such as "mind," "person," "nation," or "people") perhaps only the misleading semblances of names? Can their "reference," such that it is, not be broken down, without remainder, into particular simples, so they could be properly discarded by a rigorous philosophical language? Or is there something to them, some referent, perhaps? Can we not hear in them, properly, some surplus of meaning over the given particulars they name, that is irreducible?

Two things about the birth of philosophy in Plato, and its modern apotheosis in German idealism, are relevant for this essay. I want and need to stress these, before turning to the exposition.

The first is that, in both classical Greek philosophy, and German idealism, the question concerning the possibility and nature of referents for universals resounds in two registers. The first is a veridical, or ontological register. When one asks "what is the referent of the universals?" one wants to know about the way the world is, and/or how we can know about "what there is." In Plato, the answer one gets is that a universal is an eidos, or form. Aristotle shares Plato's ontological realism, while being skeptical of its metaphysical, Pythagorean figuring in a story about birth and rebirth, and some wholly extrasensible realm. Universals have reference to traits and even identifying essences, but these inhere in the things themselves. But my point is that this is not the only way that one asks the question. The second register of the question "could there perhaps be some universal referents?" in both Kant and classical philosophy, was a moral one. Socrates was primarily concerned with the "human things," and asked repeatedly about the nature of the virtues. In Plato, if the forms provide the ontological answer to the question of universals, the form of the Good was in some way for him the highest form (cf. The Republic, 509b).

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Do Universals Have a Reference? on the Critical Theory of Herbert Marcuse


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