11 “Universals” and Occurrences (1929)

“To deny the universal is to make discourse impossible; both to deny the universal and still to discourse is to contradict oneself.” The position I uphold against this view would be expressed, with all the clarity I desire, by the substitution of “assert” for “deny”. I can thus bring my argument with Mr Merrylees to a sharper issue than was possible in the general references to idealism in the two articles referred to,note although I think that they contained answers to many of the difficulties that have now been raised.

What prevents Mr Merrylees from seeing some of the implications of those arguments is just his obsession with “universals” (the universal being something which is a universal, and yet is not particular) and, in connection therewith, with “reality” (i.e., that which is everything but is not anything). Such is the force of this obsession that he actually refers for support to Plato's Sophist — a dialogue which, in conjunction with the Parmenides and the Theaetetus, affords the most decisive refutation of idealist logic that has ever been presented. It is perhaps natural that Mr Merrylees makes no reference to the Parmenides; he must find it exceedingly difficult to reconcile that dialogue with his assumption that the theories of the Sophist and the Phaedo are identical. I shall endeavour to weaken that assumption by playing Parmenides to his Socrates.

To begin with, he professes to agree with me in standing by the proposition, but considers that my objection to kinds of truth amounts to no more than the familiar truth that “to judge is to assert that reality is so and so”. It amounts, in fact, to something very different. Mr Merrylees has committed himself straightaway to kinds of assertion, and his upholding of the proposition consists in reducing it to a term — of another proposition! It should be evident that if we are able to assert that reality is so and so, then we are equally able to assert “so and so” without the reality. On the other hand, if the latter assertion requires interpretation, so does the former. If, to take the familiar Bosanquettian formulation, “A is B” means “Reality is such that A is B”, then that again means “Reality is such that Reality is such that A is B”; and so on. This infinite regress, like others which I have employed in the articles in question, is merely a way of indicating an initial contradiction; it serves to emphasise

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the fact that if we can understand and accept the second proposition without further “reference”, the same applies to the first. Is A B? The “reference to reality” can have no other effect than to obscure this clear issue.

And just as it is impossible to introduce “Reality” into the proposition, so it is impossible to introduce any of the “universals” of which Mr Merrylees speaks. A particular good, we are told, is “the Good in one of its particular expressions or embodiments”. To say that “X is good”, then, means that “X is a particular expression or embodiment of the Good”, or, more briefly, that “X is expressive of the Good”. It follows that this, being interpreted, means that “X is expressive of the Expressive of the Good”; and so on. Is it not clear that we can understand the interpretation only if we could have understood the original proposition without it? And is it not equally clear that the introduction of “the Good” is an attempt to get behind the proposition, since there is nothing about “the Good” in the original statement? In brief, if Mr Merrylees interprets propositions in this way, he can, like Socrates, be confronted with a “third man” (and a fourth man and a fifth man) for whom there is no room in his theory. And, since he professes to find support in the Sophist, will he tell us that “Theaetetus is sitting” means that Theaetetus is an expression or embodiment of the Sedentary?

The fact indicated by such infinite regresses is that the theory of forms or universals — as expounded by Socrates in the Phaedo, and refuted by Parmenides in the Parmenides — suffers from a fundamental contradiction. “The Good”, we are told, is not a particular. What, then, is so “the” about it? Is it not, in accordance with this theory, not only a particular universal (and even if that is denied of “the Good”, even if it is distinguished from other universals as the universal universal, is not its distinction from them a particularisation of it?) but actually the only thing which is particularly or specifically good? “No particular expresses the universal completely, the universal is, as Plato”, i.e., Socrates in the Phaedo, “pointed out in regard to the idea of equality, an ideal which is not completely realised in any particular”. And such ideals, Mr Merrylees goes on to say, are “essential to discourse”. What has discourse to say to this? Obviously that ideals are particular essentials of discourse! Again, Socrates, in his discourse, says that two sticks are imperfectly equal. The form of equality, then, is not in question here. The sticks embody or express “imperfect equality”, and they embody it perfectly. In short, as the Parmenides shows, we can maintain the doctrine of ideals only by describing things in terms which do not apply to them, but all the time we are using terms which do apply to them, and so are contradicting the doctrine of ideals.

It is, then, not the denial of universals, but the assertion of them, that contradicts discourse; there is nothing in the proposition about “the Good” or any other such entity. There is admittedly a distinction between subject and predicate, but this is a difference of function, not of kind; and granted that the function of the predicate is to characterise or

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describe, the very same term can also have the function of indicating, i.e., can be the subject of another proposition. Thus, every term, as a possible description of something else, has universality or characterises, and, as a possible indication of something else, has particularity or locates. In describing things as “particulars” I merely meant to emphasise this function of locating, and not to deny to them the capacity for characterising. That even Socrates in the Phaedo is unable to maintain a distinction between particulars and universals is easily shown. “Those things which are possessed by the number three must not only be three in number, but must also be odd.” Socrates, i.e., is introducing syllogism, an example of which would be, “The Graces are three; three is odd, therefore the Graces are odd”. Now in one of the premises here three is a “particular”, an instance of oddness; in the other it is a “universal”, a character of the Graces. And, unless it is precisely the same term, there is no argument. We can go on, as Socrates does, to say that odd is not even; we might also say “These are the Graces”. But, apart from the question whether every term may have either function, the fact that any one term can function in these two ways is sufficient to dispose of the doctrine of “universals”.

Mr Merrylees, in face of this difficulty, would apparently maintain that in the proposition we have two universals, or “a connection of contents”. But the question is — What connection? Both terms, no doubt, are capable of being predicates, but in the actual proposition only one is. Subject and predicate, then, must have different functions; “sugar is soluble” and “soluble is sugar” are different statements. Now in describing the former by saying that “solubility” is located in, or that it characterises, sugar, we are not suggesting (and cannot do so without departing from the standpoint of the proposition) that there is such a thing as the Soluble, or as solubility in general. We can explain the use of an “abstract term” like solubility by saying that it is a contraction for “being soluble”, i.e., for propositions of the form “X is soluble”, however X may be specified in any particular case; or, again, it may be taken to mean the fact that there are soluble things, that certain things have certain characters, just as the term “man” means, if we adopt for the sake of argument the conventional definition, the fact that some animals are rational. In these ways we keep to the proposition; but, in speaking of “the Soluble”, we should be taking the predicate apart from its function in the proposition.

In terms of occurrence, on the other hand, we can distinguish the functions of subject, predicate and copula; the subject is the region within which the occurrence takes place, the predicate is the sort of occurrence it is, and the copula is its occurring. This theory is not, like the doctrine of “universals”, an attempt to get behind the proposition, because, instead of giving a special explanation of individual elements, it deals with the proposition as a whole — as a complex arrangement, S is P. In taking is as occurrence, i.e., as involving Space and Time, we are taking it as it appears in the proposition, in relation to a subject and a

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predicate, and indicating by its position both their connection and the difference of their functions. If we adopt the Bosanquettian position that there is no difference, both being “contents” and all relations being “ultimately” symmetrical, then we are putting ourselves at odds with discourse. Something must be made of the copula. In this connection, the formula of Mr Merrylees, “If sugar, then soluble”, is simply not a proposition at all. We can see what it means only by bringing back the copula. That meaning would be better expressed by “Where sugar, there soluble”, or, again, by “Sugar acts solubly”, but these expressions are not really additions to, or improvements on, what is conveyed by “Sugar is soluble”.

In choosing this example Mr Merrylees has overlooked the necessity of distinguishing between the question of universal propositions (“connections of contents”) and that of “potentialities”. I cannot here discuss the latter question fully. But I see little or no difficulty in saying that “Sugar is soluble” does mean that all lots of sugar which are introduced into a solvent are dissolved. Mr Merrylees prefers to say that it means that sugar is “of such a nature” that the above occurrence takes place, or would take place if the introduction in question had first occurred. The most, I think, that can be made of this reference to “natures” is that the proposition really stands for two “propositions”: (1) All things of the character X, which are introduced into a solvent, are dissolved; (2) all lots of sugar are X. Obviously, until X is specified, these are not propositions. But it may quite well be that, when we say that sugar is soluble, we have in mind some vague notion of a character which would fulfil these conditions. Taking X as this character, then, I grant that the second proposition does not say that introduction into a solvent has taken place. But the first one does, and, in addition, the second asserts the occurrence of the “X-ness” of sugar, i.e., of sugar's being X. It is not, I agree, a question of “evidence”, but of the fact. And it would appear that, in calling the fact a “connection of contents” and in specifying this connection as a “hypothetical” one, Mr Merrylees is really confusing between the propositions “All lots of sugar are X” and “All lots of sugar, which are introduced into a solvent, are dissolved”. This confusion is responsible for the suggestion that there is a “hypothetical” reference to dissolving. But when these two propositions, as well as proposition (1), have been clearly stated, we can see that they are all different, but that nothing has been said to show that they are not all occurrences. And so with “potentiality” in general; if there is in any substance something that we can call a potentiality of its, then its having that potentiality occurs; if not, the reference to potentiality is a mere confusion.

Leaving aside potentialities, then, and taking the proposition “Sugar is sweet”, which would be as much entitled to be called a “connection of contents” as the proposition previously employed, we can hardly avoid asserting that the sweetness of sugar occurs in space and time. In fact, this is merely an emphatic way of saying that sugar is sweet, comparable

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to saying that the sweetness of sugar is a fact or that any proposition is true; this method of statement indicating that the occurrence stated in the proposition may also be a term in another proposition; e.g., the sweetness of sugar (or sugar's being sweet) is a source of pleasure to many persons. Similarly, having said that “This is red”, we can go on to make statements of which “this red” (or this red thing) is the subject. Mr Merrylees seems to think that this is a particularly good example of a “particular”. But, as I have pointed out, “sugar” in the proposition mentioned and “this” in “This is read” are also particulars, i.e., subjects. And, being subjects, they can be predicates. Mr Merrylees appears to hold that there are “particulars”, even though they cannot be known apart from propositions, just as he holds that there are “universals”. Now it would certainly seem that expressions like “this” are commonly applied only to subjects. But that is because they contain, besides a certain term, the sign of quantity which goes with the subject; the same term could be predicate, but it would not take the sign of quantity with it. (The theory of quantification of the predicate, it may be noted, resembles that of connection of contents in failing to distinguish the functions of subject and predicate.) Briefly, then, “this” means “the thing indicated”, “thing indicated” can be a predicate, and “the” is a sign of quantity like “all” and “some”, and is in fact equivalent to “all”. It is from confusion between the function a term has in a proposition (there being various signs of what that function may be) and the term itself that the doctrine of “universals” (and of “particulars” conceived in opposition to “universals”) arises.

The point which Mr Merrylees most insists on, however, is not that a term may have different functions, but that it may have the same function, in different propositions. There are many true propositions of the form “X is good”, and, if we say that all these propositions have the same predicate, we have to explain what exactly this “predicate” is, that occurs in all these different places. Now it may be noted, in the first place, that this question would not arise at all unless the various things really had the character in question; if they only had something like it, then the peculiar character of each would occur once only. Accordingly we do not require to introduce repetition in order to understand a thing's being of a certain sort; a single proposition tells us that, and we have no occasion to think of the “sort” as a peculiar kind of “recurrent" entity. But there is no more difficulty about having propositions which tell us that other things are of that sort than about having propositions which tell us that that thing is of other sorts or has other characters. Any occurrence is the occurrence of a certain sort of thing; that is already indicated in the inter-relation of the constituents of any one proposition.

But there is nothing whatever in propositions with the same predicate to indicate that the various subjects are “members of a system”, which is “pervaded” by that “universal”. The Parmenidean objections to this position have already been indicated. Here it may simply be said that the propositions “X is good” and “Y is good” justify no inference

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whatever as to a relation between X and Y. The fact that various things are good is no proof that the history of any one has anything to do with the history of any other, or that they are in any way collected. That Mr Merrylees means more by “belonging to a system” than “having a common predicate” appears from his treatment of desires which “are all members of the system of Desire”; the fact that “our actual desires conflict with one another” means “that they are imperfect realisations of the universal”. What becomes of the proposition now? There is certainly nothing in the attribution of the same character to different things to tell us that they cannot conflict. The argument seems to be — if two men quarrel, they are not both “perfect” (i.e., good) men; therefore, they are not both perfectly human. Now, apart from the fact that goodness is just as specific a character as humanity, we have here again the “third (or perfect) man”. These Socratic shifts will not serve. Nor will the dragging in of self-realisation by expressing the universal of “my desires” as “myself”, and by saying that the subject is an “attempt to realise” the universal, and thus introducing a new universal which again the particular has to attempt to realise. It is interesting to notice that the attempt to get behind the proposition is made for the sake of that orderliness which Socrates mistook for goodness, but it adds nothing to the logical refutation.

Much could be said in criticism of Mr Merrylees's concluding attack on the realist position, but I propose only to touch on a few points. The fundamental idealist fallacy comes out in the statement that if we do ascribe certain characters to things (and Mr Merrylees admits that we do), “we can do so only in virtue of our sensations”. It may be true that we know certain things only when our mind is affected in a certain way, but it does not follow that we know that mental effect, still less that it is through knowing it that we know things. Knowledge of things is knowledge of knowledge of things — another infinite regress. The real point is that, when we ascribe certain characters to things, they may have these characters, in which case we are right, or they may not, in which case we are wrong; but, in either case, their having some characters is just as much a matter of absolute fact as our having characters. Why should we say that the water is hot “on the strength of” any sensation? If it is the sensation that it is hot, we have no occasion to speak of the water at all. On the other hand, if we do distinguish the water and the sensation, we can do so only by recognising each to have characters of its own.

Further, Mr Merrylees gives no reason for assuming that the same thing cannot have both the qualities, hot and cold. But even if it were admitted that hot is not a quality but a relation, meaning, for example, “hotter than my hand”, it would be impossible to say what was hotter without recognising some of its qualities; and not the slightest reason is or could be advanced for saying that all supposed qualities are in the same position, so that green would mean “greener than my eye”, etc. The general weakness of the argument is clearly indicated in the

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monstrous concluding fallacy — primary qualities exist in relation to secondary qualities, secondary qualities are characters of our attitudes, therefore primary qualities also are characters of our attitudes. The argument is not stated precisely in that way, but that is what it means. The ingenuity of Mr Merrylees fails to conceal the fact that we do talk about things, and that, unless we could distinguish them from our attitudes, there would be nothing for us to take up an attitude to. Our taking up the attitude is one occurrence, the thing attended to is another; and the fact that we know it and discourse about it does not entitle us to say that we, any more than “reality”, are such that it is. For this, as before, implies that we can attribute an independent meaning to the statement that “it is”.