Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Universals and language

I am not a classics scholar, so the following may be completely wrong.

One of the things I have noticed is, no surprise to anybody, that philosophy is full of jargon, like any technical speciality (although we don't hold a candle to biologists). This jargon has grown enormously over the centuries, and it includes such terms as ontology, epistemology, induction, and so on. All of them play specific roles in philosophical discourse (there's another one), and they often stand in for what would otherwise be long definitions and scene setting.

Many of these terms derive from Aristotle, who effectively founded professional philosophy in a range of books (of which we only have a fraction today). And one of the most central is universal. A universal is a term that covers more than one thing, as Aristotle says
Some things are universal, others individual. By the term ‘universal’ I mean that which is of such a nature as to be predicated of many subjects, by ‘individual’ that which is not thus predicated. Thus ‘man’ is a universal, ‘Callias’ an individual. [On Interpretation 17a-17b]
Elsewhere (in Metaphysics 1038b) he says
the substance of an individual is the substance which is peculiar to it and belongs to nothing else; whereas the universal is common; for by universal we mean that which by nature appertains to several things.
Universals became a central problem in philosophy - how can a single concept, word or predicate apply to more than one thing? At the end of the classical period, a commentary on Aristotle's logic by Porphyry of Tyre, known as the Isagoge (Introduction) made the passing comment
As for genera and species, [Porphyry] says, I shall decline for the present to say (1) whether they subsist or are posited in bare [acts of] understanding only, (2) whether, if they subsist, they are corporeal or incorporeal, and (3) whether [they are] separated from sensibles or posited in sensibles and agree with them. For that is a most noble matter, and requires a longer investigation.
"Genus" and "species" here mean something different to the biological sense (that's another story, and a good book could be written about that). It means the general term and the special term that could be defined as a part of the general term.

Whether universals were just in the head or not became a major concern of medieval logicians, leading to the Nominalist position that they were just names, a mere flatus vocus, or breath of the voice. Locke agreed, and started the modern philosophical tradition on that basis.

Even so, it remains a philosophical concern. In 1978, David Armstrong published a significant book defending universals, in a version of Aristotle's account. Some problems never go away.

But I got thinking about Aristotle's account (that a universal is something common to all the substances that fall under the term that defines it). In studying Aristotle's use of the term species, I came to the conclusion that when he used it in biological contexts he meant nothing very technical about it - it was just a common word that meant "kind" or "sort", as Locke said in his Essay. So I wondered if he really did intend to start a technical jargon.

The word Aristotle uses is katholou, from which we get Catholic (the church universal, see?). In the Metaphysics text above he says the katholou is koine (the universal is the common). What does that word mean in Greek, exactly? It is a portmanteau word - formed from kata (according to) and holos (the whole; the insertion of the theta replaces the tau and the aspirant). Etymologically, katholou means "in terms of the whole".

So read this in lay Greek: "the in-terms-of-the-whole is what is common". That's not technical jargon. We might say in English that the term for the whole covers what is shared by all things that fall under it. And put that way, it's pretty much obviously true. We are still left wondering how a term for a whole can apply to all the individual things it does, but it's not quite the metaphysical conundrum it seems if we base our reading on the Latinate tradition fo the middle ages.

Perhaps, and Aristotle scholars can correct me on this, Aristotle is more of a "common sense" philosopher, or even an "ordinary language" philosopher, than we might think. Or perhaps he was just trying to use ordinary language to express ideas exactly. There was a philosopher who died recently named David Lewis (who I was privileged to make a fool of myself in front of once), who used as technical terms basic English words like Big and Large to discuss complex issues of logic. If Aristotle was like Lewis (or Lewis like Aristotle), he can be read much more as a lively thinker than the figure shrouded in twenty five centuries of jargon. I'd love to read that translation. The Barnes edition of Aristotle's works tries, but ends up making him sound more like a logical positivist.

Any Aristotle scholars out there want to try?