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

By Sharpe, Matthew | Philosophy Today, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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."

Nietzsche

"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).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?