The Universal and the Particular

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 5 Comments

I don’t think I will ever contemplate enough the mysteries of the distinction between the universal and the particular, the general and the specific, the ideal and the actual. This contemplation brings you into living contact with the question of what is real.

What is real? The Universal? Or the Particular?

Am I a human being or am I a particular human being named Jeff?

That is a supremely significant philosophical question with absolutely HUGE implications.

If I am a human being in the universal sense that means that there is one essence that is at the core of what it means to be human, and that is what I really am. Is there only one essence to being human? Are all human beings one thing or is the word human only a category for the collection of all particular human beings?

Maybe there is no such thing as a human essence. Maybe there are just particular human beings that have particular essences. Those are the real things. The only things that ontologically exist as something are individual human beings. The word human may be just a category of things, a word that denotes the collective of all real things that share certain characteristics, but without ontological reality itself.

On the other hand maybe there is a real essence of being human. Maybe being human is one thing and that is the real thing. In this case then what I am is an imperfect reflection of what a human being actually is.

The first case, where only particular human beings are held as real, is called nominalism. The great benefit of nominalism is that it gives the weight of reality to the individual. It allows the infinite variations among human beings to all be considered real and true and worthy of respect. The negative of this view is that it leaves little room for the existence of any overarching standards or ideals toward which all human beings are supposed to aspire. Why would you have ideals if only particular human beings are real and true – and all equally so?

The great advantage of the view that there is a universal essence of human-beingness is that it implies that there are standards that individual human beings should strive to live up to. This view is called idealism, and the negative aspect of it is that it can lead to the diminishment of the individual. If there is one essence of being human and that is ultimately the only real way to be human, then anything other than that is less than fully human. Since no one lives up to ideals it means that everyone’s being is seen as less than what it really means to be human.

This duality is worthy of intense contemplation because human life as we know it depends on both. Our sense of individual self worth and the maintenance of mutual respect depend on our seeing every particular human as equally real and true. At the same time our ability to hold higher standards for others and ourselves depends on our belief that there are ideal ways of being human that are inherently more valuable and ultimately more real and worth striving for.

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10 years ago

Last week I was so lucky to see the movie ‘the wall’ of Pink Floyd again. I think that is THE most beautiful monument of post modernity. Everything is in it. The longing for individuality, the pain it creates, the fear for dominator leadership. it was totally fascinating to see it again and reading your post I realized how much our idea of what it means to be a human being is evolving. I think our thinking now goes to the universal human being, but with the beginning of ‘what the bleep do we know’ followed now by the amazing… Read more »

Frank Luke
10 years ago

What are we to make of psychopathic and homicidial maniacs, including murderous despots? Can we see them as cancers of humanity equal to the larger part of the human race? Extending compassion and understanding, can we nevertheless consider them threats to the rest of us? Can psychopaths be rehabilitated, are there stats to confirm this or not?

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
10 years ago

Jeff, this is probably your best blog since I started following them early this year. Passionately personal yet fixed on the universal or perennial questions. And that is the answer isn’t it? We must bring both close and in right relation to find integrity.

10 years ago

Interesting in movie the wall was that in the end the individual recognizes all evil in himself. Part of postmodernism is -due to all theralies- is that evil is recognized as part of the human condition. When it is seen as individual it drives one mad, but when it is known as part of the universal it is different. The acting on evil impulses is individual but when we look at wars it is clear what ‘normal’ individuals are capable of.

10 years ago

Duality is most fundamental; to be or not to be. Everything is in a flux of probability between existence and non-existence. There is only one thing that is only one thing and that thing is everything. Doesn’t that make sense? Things can be and also have to be equal AND opposite at the same time…