Knowing universally as opposed to knowing a universal

We are less likely to get caught in controversies about universals if we bear in mind that we need to think of them adverbially before we think of them as nouns. The first experience is not that we know universals but that we know the things in experience universally.  We don’t look out at a world of supposed “particulars”, and then, shutting off this consciousness and turning within ourselves, see a world of “universals”. To know as a human being doesn’t consist in spending half of ones day looking at sensible things and then (with all our sense powers made inert and unconscious) spend the other half of the day wandering around the glassy hallways of some Platonic museum. There is a single world of experience, and it is this single world that we see more or less universally. “A Universal” is a noun, to be sure, but it’s a noun like “quickness” – just as the first reality of quickness is really just various things moving quickly, so too the first reality of the universal is just various things known universally.

Say I walk into a random office cubicle. I look on the walls and see a picture of a child. My consciousness doesn’t divide the picture from any other picture of a child. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing I’m looking at is “child” or “memento” or even “office kitsch”. I would have the exact same consciousness if I saw any other child. But this kind of consciousness is very different from the mother who walks into the cubicle and sees the same picture. For her, it is not an experience of “child” but of “That time at Madison’s birthday party when she was wearing that adorable little princess costume and had cake on her face because her brother…” One and the same thing experienced can be understood at greater or lesser degrees of universality.

Note carefully that the difference between the two modes of consciousness is not exactly the difference between a vague grasp and a precise grasp. When all I see is “child” I have a vague grasp, but I can develop this vague grasp by various techniques until it develops into a science or an art. A good photographer develops his understanding of “child” along one path (always photograph them with setting X on a camera, don’t wait until after the dessert to photograph them, get an overhead shot of them to make their eyes look bigger, etc.) a pediatrician develops this understanding of “child” along another path (healthy heartbeats are higher than in adults, etc.) Neither development is the same as the way in which the mother develops her understanding, which is quite a remarkable development to watch -I’ve been startled for years by the degree of penetration that mothers and wives have into the behavior and unique character of particular persons as such (the overlooking of this mode of understanding and the overemphasis and glorification of science has some amount of male chauvinism as its cause.) The two modes of understanding are very different – to mention only one very important difference, the intellectual penetration into the particular usually needs to be mediated by love whereas the penetration into the universal need not be, though in a sense it’s certainly the case that spies and assassins spend some amount of time trying to understand a particular person.

Seen from this angle, it makes perfect sense to say that experience is neither universal nor particular. If it were one or the other, we could only have mother consciousness or scientific consciousness or artistic consciousness, etc. But one and the same experience gives rise to utterly different modes of consideration in diverse persons, or even in one and the same person at different times. The indifference of experience to universality or particularity is manifest from the diverse modes of consciousness that can bear upon it.

And so it is not that the scientist sees “a universal” whereas the mother sees “a particular” so much as, from looking upon one and the same experience, the scientist interprets it universally and the mother in a mode that develops particularity.  Neither mode of knowledge is reducible to the other, or attainable by exactly the same set of methods.


  1. thenyssan said,

    September 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    This is a really nice improvement over the one you wrote last month (or whenever that was).

    Are you trying to separate a little bit the particular mode of knowing from materiality?

    • September 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      The last time this came up, it was responding to the problem of induction, and that might have obscured the idea a bit.

      I don’t know that I’m satisfied with the idea that the intellect apprehends things according to the universal mode. Aristotle proves the point more or less by a challenge: try to describe something without using a predicate that can be said of many. But all this proves is that whenever we express something communicable we must use communicable terms. But not every judgment is of this communicable/ predicable kind. The sorts of judgments we form about things we love – God, friends, wives, children, or even our nation are rational without necessarily being communicable to others or expressible in terms of some general predicate. We can experience within ourselves the reasons for, say, why we should have married our wives without ever thinking that the reason is the sort of thing we could explain or articulate in any sort of communicable case. This is true a fortiori of religious experience. The best we can do is tell stories, write poems, or give testimonies – the experience, which is essentially and irreducibly personal, is by definition not in the public domain and so does not fall under the class of things that we coin words for. If personal relations are really rational and really personal (and how else could they be relations among persons?), there has to be some mode of rationality that attains to the personal. This is not exactly the same as a sense that attains to the particular of all things, or what is unique in anything, but its an element that should be noticed among rational faculties.

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