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From Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 29, No. 1 (September 1968), 116-118.  The original title was “Rejoinder to Mr. Kearns”



Rejoinder to a Criticism of My Theory of Universals

Brand Blanshard


I am grateful to Mr. Kearns for the searching attention he has given to my theory of universals.  In this brief rejoinder I can do no more than touch on his main criticisms.  His general thesis is that if I accept the specific universal (e.g. this shade of red) as a genuine identity, I should do the same with the qualitative universal (e.g. redness) and the generic universal (e.g. animality), instead of falling back on resemblance.

He offers several arguments against the resemblance theory.  The first is that it involves a vicious infinite regress.  Suppose we start with two pairs of specific universals; pink and crimson resemble each other, and so do pink and black.  But then these two resemblances themselves resemble each other, and we can say that the first resemblance is closer to complete identity than the second.  This involves again a higher order of resemblance, for the resemblance between these two resemblances will itself more or less resemble other resemblances, and so on without end. And we cannot pronounce the first resemblance to hold unless we have completed this infinite series of resemblances, which of course we cannot do.

I do not find this as convincing as perhaps I should.  I concede that an indefinite series of resemblances is entailed by the first resemblance, but I do not think this must be completed before the initial resemblance is seen.  I can judge that pink resembles crimson, and that this resemblance is closer to identity than that between pink and black, without adverting to any hierarchy of resemblances entailed by those earlier ones.  After I have had my first perception I can by analysis of it see that the later ones are involved, just as I can see that by recognizing a figure as a triangle I have committed myself to the presence of all that being a triangle entails.  But neither in the one case nor in the other do I see that these implications must be recognized or exhausted before the first judgment can be validly made.

Secondly, Mr. Kearns thinks that my opposition to generic and qualitative universals arises in part from confusion, a confusion between two ways in which a genus may be included in its species.  Sometimes the species is formed by adding to the genus something from outside, as when we add red to the genus rectangle to form the species red rectangle.  But sometimes the relation is far more intimate, as it is between the genus rectangle and the species square.  In the former of these cases it may make sense to say that the genus is a little granule of identity in the midst of alien associates.  It makes no sense in the latter. And it is because I have assimilated the second to the first that I have been so tempted by resemblance.  Confronted by cases of the second kind, I have looked round for my granule of identity, failed to find it, and fallen back on resemblance as a way out.  I have failed to recognize that in such cases the relation belongs to neither type; here the species are neither mere composites nor mere similars, but developments of the genus.  They are its very “ways of being.”

No, to the charge of neglecting this last type of genus-species relation I plead not guilty.  The importance of it is a main point of the chapter on “The False or Abstract Universal” in my book The Nature of Thought.  I cannot complain if Mr. Kearns has not read that book; it puts him in a large and distinguished company.  But I can assure him that if I have resorted to resemblance as the unifying element in certain classes, it is not because I have confounded the development type with the association type of genus-species relation.

He is right, however, in saying that in the development type it is especially hard to bring to light any core of identity among the species; just what is the animality that is identical in Aristotle and an amoeba?  In my earlier book I found it not among the individuals, but in the thought itself, conceived as a purpose that might be realized in and through them; the genus exists in the mind, not in nature.  This may or may not be sound.  But in either case it seems necessary to recognize some sort of unity among the individuals in nature, and in my Reason and Analysis I found it easier to unite them by similarity than by the presence in each of an abstractable identity.

Here arises Mr. Kearns’ third difficulty.  He thinks that if I have failed to find such an identity, it is partly because I have set up a mistaken requirement for an abstraction: it must be capable of existing separately.  I agree that such a requirement would be mistaken.  Certainly we can often distinguish in an object before us attributes that cannot exist apart—convex and concave, for example.  In reply I can only plead that I have nowhere knowingly used that test.  There is no such thing as animality existing apart from all animals and wandering about on its own.  But that is not the reason I suspect it.  I suspect it because I have found myself unable to conceive it clearly, as distinct from the characters of its species.

Fourthly, Mr. Kearns thinks that my difficulty in recognizing qualitative universals is rooted in a misunderstanding of their admitted vague-ness.  In the concept of red, how far are we to go among the pinks at one end and the crimsons at the other?  People differ on the point, and differ even from themselves.  And since their concepts are thus unstable at the edges, the abstraction of a stable common element may be impracticable.  Mr. Kearns argues, however, that this vagueness is both natural and curable.  It can be removed by an arbitrary decision as to what shades are to be covered by a given genus and what not.  Once agreement is reached on that head, the vagueness disappears, and with it the difficulty of accepting the qualitative universal.

I agree that the vagueness would disappear, but not the difficulty.  For the difficulty of accepting such universals is that of analyzing out what is meant by a red that, without being any specific red, is identical in all reds, whether their range is defined or not.  It is my failure to find such an identity, not the vagueness of its coverage, that had made me skeptical about the qualitative universal.

Mr. Kearns has done well, I think, to raise these questions.  I am encouraged by his agreement that at least for many universals the granular theory breaks down.  Being a square is a way of being a rectangle, not a mere conjunction of rectangularity and squareness. This is an insight of importance for logic, and if Mr. Kearns can successfully analyze it, we shall all be in his debt.


Posted April 20, 2008

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