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The Problem of Universals


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Wittgenstein and his attack on universals


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In modern times Wittgenstein has sought to solve the problem of universals in a manner that would be consistent with empiricism. His attack is linked to his theory of meaning namely, that meaning is use and that is considered on another occasion. The tenor of his attack can be seen from the following extract from The Blue Book. "The tendency to look for something in common to all the entities which we commonly subsume under a general term. We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term "game" to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap. The idea of a general concept being a common property of its particular instances connects up with other primitive, too simple, ideas of the structure of language. It is comparable to the idea that properties are ingredients of the things which have the properties; e.g. that beauty is an ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine, and that we therefore could have pure beauty, unadulterated by anything that is beautiful." However, it is not clear from this passage that Wittgenstein has sufficiently defended his brand of nominalism from Russell's point, quoted earlier, that relations of similarity and dissimilarity are the real basis of the need to posit universals. To recap on Russell's point. "But a difficulty emerges as soon as we ask ourselves how we know that a thing is white or a triangle. If we wish to avoid the universals whiteness and triangularity, we shall choose some particular patch or a triangle if it has the right sort of resemblance to a universal. Since there are many white things, the resemblance must hold between many pairs of particular white things; and this is the characteristic of a universal. It will be useless to say that there is a different resemblance for each pair, for then we shall have to say that these resemblances resemble each other, and thus at last we shall be forced to admit a resemblance as a universal. The relation of resemblance, therefore, must be a true universal. And having been forced to admit this universal, we find that it is no longer worth while to invent difficult and implausible theories to avoid the admission of such universals as whiteness and triangularity." We could replace the terms whiteness and triagularity in the above passage by gameness, and so forth. The Platonist would argue that there are relationships of resemblance between games, and these resemblances are (a) real and (b) not to be found in particular instances of games. Hence, there is at least one universal the relationship of resemblance. Nonetheless, Wittgenstein's attack on universals should not be read separately from his theory of meaning as a whole.
Contents of
The Problem of Universals

1 Hume, Empiricism - that ideas are copies of impressions
2 Plato and his argument in The Meno: the doctrine of recollection and the idea of metempsychosis
3 Plato - forms, universals, ideas - the problem of universals
4 Universals and realism
5 Empiricism and nominalism - Hobbes
6 The problem of participation and the infiinte regress in the third man argument
7 Wittgenstein and his attack on universals

Related articles: (1) Knowledge and justification, (2) The Problem of Universals