Posts Tagged ‘universals’

This is a series working from the Penguin edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

The first chapter ended with Aristotle suggesting that “wisdom is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (6, emphasis mine). Now, to understand what this particular knowledge is, Aristotle begins with the wise person. The wise person has knowledge that goes beyond particulars, has a knowledge which is not immediately available to all people, can teach this knowledge accurately, and chooses their knowledge for the sake of the knowledge itself rather than treating it as instrumental to some external goal. The wisest person is the one with the most general knowledge, that by which all other subject areas can be known. This is the discipline of metaphysics, which examines principles and causes.

Aristotle goes on to compare metaphysics with other sciences: “And the most fundamental of the sciences, more fundamental than that which subserves it, is that which discerns for what end each thing must be done” (8). The sciences are not undertaken for their own sakes but only insofar as they are instrumental to particular ends. We might learn more about bees in biology so we can better utilise them for their honey. Metaphysics, however, has no end external to it because its end is itself: “So it is clear that we seek [this knowledge] for no other use but rather, as we say, as a free man is for himself and not for another, so is this science the only one of the sciences that is free. For it alone exists for its own sake” (9). (Thus, though we might undertake a biological investigation for its own sake, I would imagine that Aristotle would point to a more general knowledge which this points to and as such must in some sense be undertaken for another end, even implicitly). In this sense metaphysics is “better” than the other sciences that aim at ends outside themselves. Moreover, metaphysics is the highest science because it aims at the highest knowledge, the knowledge of god: “For god is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a kind of principle” (10). That is not to say that god is necessarily the subject of this knowledge, only that god already has this particular knowledge at which metaphysics aims.

When reading the Nicomachean Ethics I noticed this preference of Aristotle’s for things that are for themselves and not instrumental to other things. He probably unpacks it a bit more elsewhere. I wonder though to what extent metaphysics is its own end. This is probably crude and a gross misunderstanding but if someone undertook a metaphysical investigation would not their end be different from their beginning? A metaphysical investigation is not static. It aims at the unknown beyond itself. I would add, who knows an end in the beginning? I might undertake a metaphysical investigation for its own sake, yet if metaphysics aims to share in god’s knowledge then isn’t it quite possible, whoever this god is, that it will arrive at a knowledge that it is indeed instrumental — there is something better beyond metaphysics at which it should aim. At least this is how I as a theologian would read Aristotle. Thus the cross and the resurrection of Christ look more than a little different from philosophical contemplation on principles and causes. Obviously this is no judgement on Aristotle but only a consideration for how he is appropriated.

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So it’s summer and I’ve taken a break from theology to dip my toes into some Aristotle. I just finished Nichomachean Ethics last week, and had some good thoughts here and there but nothing I really developed. As I’ve been reading the Metaphysics today I’ve had so many thoughts that I just had to share them. I’m working through the Penguin Classic edition with Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London, 1998 (Reprint 2004)). What’s extra awesome about that is there is not only a reasonably extensive introduction, as with most Penguins, but also a running commentary, at the beginning of every chapter, which are usually only a couple of pages each! This is much preferred to those fiddly endnotes in other books!

In Book Alpha, ch.1, Aristotle begins, “By nature, all men long to know” (4). He makes a connection between human desire for knowledge and their “delight in the senses.” From the senses he notes two distinct forms of knowing. Experience is a more implicit knowledge that works with someone’s memories to inform their actions in particular situations. Skill, however, arises from reflection on experience, generalising from particular situations to develop universal knowledge that is applicable in situations of that type. Aristotle uses the example of two sick people. The experienced person can heal one sick person and then use that experience to heal another. The skilled person generalises from this to infer that the particular way in which these people were healed can be applied to the category (species) human. This is universal knowledge because it applies to every kind of this situation, whereas experience as particular knowledge is focussed on the link between two particular situations. Experience remains important because it is the link between the theoretical knowledge peculiar to skill and the particular situations to which it is applied. Generally, because of the universality of skill’s knowledge, it is to be privileged over experience. It is concerned not just with the basic facts of things but their causes, reasons, purposes, etc. This is what Aristotle names wisdom, “knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (6).

What I like about Aristotle’s arrival at a definition for wisdom is that there is an implied connection with the daily, banal human activities. Aristotle selects medicine as an example (his father was a doctor), but, moreover, throughout, the idea that a distinction between experience and skill, two things essential to the everyday of human activity, illuminates the nature of metaphysics is a beautiful affirmation of philosophy’s relevance to and source in the wider phenomenon of human culture.

That doesn’t stop me, however, from feeling that Aristotle has not laid all his cards on the table. As an introduction to the study of metaphysics, as we might know it, or first things, etc, Aristotle finds an analogy suitable to the assumption that there are universals higher than particulars, and these universals, the first things, are the proper subject matter of metaphysics. Although I love Aristotle’s emphasis on the importance of particulars, my complaint at this stage of the book (three pages in) would be that no skill or universal knowledge is truly universal. There will always be a particular exception to any such statement which identifies as universal. There will always be a way of getting behind it and exposing it for that which it is, a dirty particular, or a collection of particulars, which are in reality the same. So in saying that this medicine heals all people with this disease, it’s important to ask where the boundaries are between this medicine and not this medicine, human and not human (even if some blurry link between these two is no longer extant, this at least causes us to understand a universal as merely functional and not ontological), this disease and not with this disease. If this is the case, then the subject of metaphysics is not first things but in-between things.

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One of my recent posts explored the possibility of God’s particularity. With some more time to think about it, I was assailed by a host of further thoughts yesterday at the laundromat. I’ve never had so much fun waiting for my undies to get clean. Before starting, I should mention that this is really just a bit of fun, although it would be awesome to explore it properly one day. I’m constrained firstly by my classical approach, employing Greco-German categories. If anyone can figure out a way of looking at this sideways then I heartily welcome you. Secondly, although research would undoubtedly be helpful, this is a lazy attempt to create my own solutions and problems to problems and solutions I have come across where I may very well be misrepresenting the concepts so much that I am in actuality saying nothing. Onwards!

* * *


Is God particular or universal? Clearly it would be helpful to first define these two terms. If I’m right, a universal is that which encompasses a set of particulars. So I can say that a particular friend is a friend only with reference to the concept of friendship, though that friend is only a particularised expression of that universal. They are not equal to friendship but occupy some part of it. However, friendship is not the universal, that is, not all things can be defined as a part of friendship. It is therefore necessary to find a universal which encompasses both friendship and that which is not friendship. This is probably an imperfect suggestion but we’ll roll with it for example’s sake: Love. Is it possible to say that love is a universal as all things friendship and all things romance, though they cannot be completely referred to each other, can both be completely referred to love? (For example’s sake just say yes. Thanks). And onwards until all things are under one universal. It might be being. All things are. So love and hate, for example, are particulars of the universal being because they both exist.

The problem with being as the universal (and here’s where some Heidegger or Hegel would have probably helped me!) is that it excludes non-being, that which is not. But in that case, how can non-being even be referenced? If there is nothing then there is nothing to reference. Being is the universal for all that is. It sounds too simple. Non-being, paradoxically is being. It is potential being, possibility. Non-being exists, for example, as that which can be thought or posited though it does yet exist. But not only is its possibility in human reason but in all that is becoming. When being through becoming moves towards non-being then that non-being is actualised into being. Thus being is a universal insofar as non-being is exists within it as possibility.¹

In sum, being is the universal; all else, in reference to being without exhausting its totality, is particular.

* * *

God, then, must be defined in terms of the universal as he encompasses all things and all things have their being in him. The first difficulty with this is that if God is free and sovereign then is he constrained by his being, thus negating these, or does he choose it freely, which apparently would first require being…? In other words, to define God in terms of being is to reduce him to something, so that this designation is always provisional.

If God is universal then whence cometh creation? Creation is a collection of particularities which occupies a space on God’s universality. The problem with this is that creation as finite occupies the spatio-temporal whereas God occupies the eternal. If creation operates within time then when in eternity did God create? If creation operates within space then where in eternity did God create? In creation, God moves from being to becoming. God as the I am, changeless and eternal, brings change and temporality through the act of creation, birthing a history to accompany his being. God as being, all that there is, brings non-being into being, and it occupies a space. This is the pantheistic problem: That which is not is brought into being to occupy a space within/outside all that is (God). How can God, when he is all that there is, bring that which is not him into being? The only, probably heretical, suggestion I have is that God withdraws from or extends a part of himself and calls it not-God.

Both further create the problem that being moves into becoming, and becoming is a problem because it is change. If God is being then at what point (there is no point!) does he become? But if God is eternally becoming then this is essential to his nature and is not change. God’s becoming is rooted in his being, which always is, and thus he is changeless. As Anti-Climacus put it: “The being of God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means the being of God.”² If only being then there would be no possibility, only actuality. Possibility requires becoming. This nuances the main problem with God as particular: At any given time not all things make reference to him; there is that which is outside of him. But this is God only as actuality; as regards possibility he is a universal because all things are possibile, yet he is in actuality possibility so that, paradoxically, as regards his actuality he is both universal and particular.

* * *


Here are some further thoughts, addressing mainly the problem of sin in terms of what has just been stated. God creates in freedom. He is under no necessity to create but enters into necessity through the act of creating. As Hosea records, the dual pain and love of God:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

(Hosea 11:5-9).

Israel has forsaken Yahweh so he too will forsake them. But even after the hurt they have caused him he cannot give them up. In creating, God limits himself to a necessity within that creation, the necessity to care for it and even depend upon it. Ostensibly the freedom to forsake creation is ever-present, but, rather, God has already forsaken his freedom through the choice to create. In creation he loves and cannot do otherwise. God freely creates and creation freely loves him.

For creation to love freely there must be the possibility of not loving, which is not in accordance with God’s will, and therefore sin. God cannot sin because sin is that which is against his will. He can do all things but none of them are sin because he only does what he wills. In creation, however, God enters into covenant, a covenant inherent to the act of creation itself. God loves his creation and is thus obligated to it. He does not sin, but that which he does in accordance with his will is not only understood on his own terms but mediated through creation. No interaction with creation is sin yet creation may ask him otherwise. He freely forsakes his will that creation may take some part in it. This is prayer, the construction of God’s will mediated through his creation. Creation, however, sins because he has given it freedom to do so. It is not himself that sins but that which is not-God, which has been given a share of God’s freedom yet acts otherwise to this freedom.

* * *

¹It is very optimistic of me to suggest that all non-being can be actualised. As this is all speculative at this point, this definition excludes that which can never be actualised. Yet if it cannot be actualised it probably cannot exist as possibility either (imagination doesn’t count, contra Anselm!).

²Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 40.

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Two of my questions for the upcoming ‘xam (two days!) deal with relating a theological concept in a postmodern, postfoundationalist context. For me the defining aspect of postmodernism is particularity. We have lost all confidence in universals and are thus deferred to a world of humble particulars. And that, too, may very well be the crossover point between postmodernism and Christian theology. I read recently, and from a pretty conservative scholar too, that Christianity cannot stand on its own as a set of doctrines, say like Buddhism; it is inextricably bound to the narrative of Yahweh’s work through Israel, the culmination of this in Jesus, and the ongoing work of the Church. There is no Christianity apart from this story.

In the history of theology, theologians have wrestled with what has come to be called “the scandal of particularity.” This is the problem of how such a particular narrative is supposed to have universal significance. Jesus was a man; he worked as a carpenter, to the exclusion of other forms of work; he was born to a particular family, not all families; he was born in Israel, not all nations. Not that these accidentals, among others, cannot be representative of all other particulars and thus have some universal significance, but the point is that God become human inevitably took on particulars in so doing.

Now as a large chunk of the history of theology and philosophy would have us assume, there is a God of the universal behind this particular. But what if the scandal of particularity requires the theological move that there is also a God of particularity who became Jesus? Luther’s logic went: “Jesus suffered and died on the cross; Jesus was God; God suffered and died on the cross.” Outside of Jesus and the narrative already mentioned, the most puzzling aspect of particularity in Christianity for me is God entering into time. If God is in a permanent state of isness, if he is the eternal, I am, how does this God operate within the finite terms of the wasis and will be? Maybe this is one of open theism’s strengths in pointing out the immanence of God in time..?

Here are a couple of questions to ponder:

Does the act of Creation (and creating time) depend on God’s prior particularity?

Is there a change in the universality of God through all interactions with Creation, especially the incarnation?

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In Fear and trembling, Johannes de Silentio puts forth a definition of sin using Hegelian terms. Sinning, however, first requires a unique movement:

As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal. Every time single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in spiritual trial […]

(p.54, emphasis mine)¹

In other words, to know what is right and do otherwise is to sin. Temptation (spiritual trial) is the desire to do otherwise. But note this clause of interest, ‘after having entered the universal’. To have knowledge of right and wrong here is to enter the universal, or ethical, that is knowledge of others and their value. The original movement is not so much choice as knowledge, although someone who returns to the aesthetic, a self-oriented worldview, may not consider themselves in ethical terms as a sinner but on their own terms. For reasons I am still discovering in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the universal/ethical is defined by disclosure, or speaking:

The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and psychical, is the hidden. Thus his ethical task is to work himself out of his hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal.


I read the need for disclosure as an entering into the sphere of language which, in vulgar, pre-modern terms, represents the collective values and beliefs, etc, of humanity². Silence characterises the aesthetic because to live aesthetically is to live on your own terms, taking pleasure in the accidental rather than that which is shared essentially, universally. But Fear and trembling is written on the premise that there is a sphere higher than the universal where the individual lives not on their own or humanity’s terms but God’s. This, the religious sphere, takes place at the same site as the aesthetic, the individual. With these in mind, Abraham, the paragon of faith, cannot speak:

Abraham cannot be mediated; in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me. As soon as Abraham wants to express the universal, he must declare that his situation is a spiritual trial […], for he has no higher expression of the universal that ranks above the universal he violates.


Silentio shows that Abraham cannot be understood in universal terms. God calls him to sacrifice Isaac but ostensibly quite arbitrarily. Only Abraham himself can understand it (p.113ff), on the premise that it is right because God himself demands it. In ethical terms Abraham can only be a murderer (p.30). Even if Silentio presented a good case for an absolute duty to God (doing as God asks regardless of circumstance), this would not clear up the ambiguity, from outsider’s perspective, as to whether it really was God who called Abraham to sacrifice his son or whether it is a dark aesthetic desire. If Abraham was to attempt to explain himself in universal terms then he could only bring judgement upon himself. This is the value of not speaking. Mark Taylor puts sums it up simply:

The radical individuality of the believer’s relation to God is the basis of faithful silence. Such individuality cannot be articulated in or mediated by language.³

* * *

I want now to extract this entering the universal from Kierkegaard’s Hegelian terminology and find a usage applicable outside of this limited context. I have a formal definition but it must be noted that Kierkegaard here acts only as a stimulus — my definition misrepresents him a little. Here it is: To enter the universal is to subject something to a set of criteria in such a way that it is necessary to make a positive or negative qualification of that something in relation to the criteria4. Before moving on from Kierkegaard it may be helpful to see this in relation to Fear and trembling. If Abraham enters the universal he is subjected to a set of criteria determining what constitutes ethical action. He must be either qualified positively, as an ethical person, or negatively, in this case as a murderer. Once Abraham enters the universal though, he can only remain there. His relation to the criteria may change if he makes a convincing argument, like Silentio’s tragic hero, which could be something like God bringing a famine upon the land if Abraham did not give him Isaac. This would be understood ethically, as it affects people throughout the land, and thus puts Abraham in a positive relation to the criteria. The criteria will never disappear though. The only circumstances under which they would disappear would be something like memory loss, the whole tragedy quietly slipping from the minds of the people, akin to the adage time heals all wounds.

So badass.

Where else might entering the universal be understood? I think of the opening scene in The Godfather III where Michael Corleone is standing in a church receiving honours for his charity work. There is a flashback to the end of the previous film where Michael watches a man he has ordered to shoot his unwitting brother Fredo while out fishing. In the present the archbishop speaks to Michael, “Do you, Michael, promise to be faithful to the noble purposes of this order, to have a special care to the poor, the needy, and those who are ill?” “Yes I promise,” Michael replies. For those familiar with Michael’s ruthless and determined rise to head of the Corleone family in the previous two movies this film, set years later, presents an interesting question. Has Michael really reformed? Or, Is his promise genuine? The flashback in the present scene, along with the entirety of the previous two films, acts as a kind of disclosure. Now, based on the evidence we have available, we must make the judgement against the criterium of Michael’s genuineness. The possibility of forgoing the question completely is not allowed. Michael has entered the universal and we cannot get him out of there unless we either ignore or forget him. The distinguishing feature of entering the universal is that the criteria to which something (an action, individual/collation of actions, etc) has been subjected is more lasting and significant than the judgement which presupposes that criteria.

* * *

What value does silence have? Is it so Abraham and the Corleone family can do dirty things behind our backs without having to face our judgement? Possibly. One of the desert fathers, Jacob the Deacon, records the legend of St Pelagia and St Nonnus, illustrating the value of silence:

As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after.
The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin.

[…]The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
They answered nothing. He leant his head down on to his knees and shed tears into the handkerchief which he held on his lap between his holy hands. He sighed deeply and turned again to the bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
Again they answered nothing.5

In Silentio’s terms, all the bishops bar Nonnus have entered the universal. They are judging themselves against an ethical criterium of lust. If they willingly look at Pelagia then they take part in the sin of lust but if they look away then they maintain their purity. Nonnus, on the other hand, has not made the movement. He does not subject himself to the criteria and therefore has remained silent. This silence can be construed aesthetically: Nonnus wanted a brief break from priestly responsibilities so made the most of the opportune moment. But that’s probably not the point Jacob is trying to make. Nonnus’ silence allows him to act in faith, according to the religious, rather than the ethical. The religious thus sees Pelagia as beautiful regardless of the categories of sin and purity because these belong to the ethical. To ‘speak’ is to enter into those categories, whereas those categories do not exist over the individual reconciled to God.

The obvious value of silence here is not an issue of personal purity. It is that an essentially trans-ethical action has positive ethical implications. Silentio’s model of faith is very earthly. It cannot stop at otherworldly interests but wants to take the world with it. Thus Abraham sacrifices Isaac to God yet in faith receives the son whom he loves back again. Faith is a restoration of the aesthetic. The aesthetic objectifies everything for its own advantage. In the case of Pelagia, an aesthetic admirer might take a look for the sake of a stiffy. The ethical looks away for the good of Pelagia and the observer. But the religious looks to Pelagia with the aesthetic appreciation of her beauty and the ethical acknowledgement of her humanity6.

* * *

¹Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).

²That is, 19th Century, Northern European beliefs and values. Silentio explicitly dismisses the value of attempting to step out of his own worldview: “Or if Abraham perhaps did not do at all what the story tells, if perhaps because of the local conditions of that day it was something entirely different, then let us forget him, for what is the value of going to the trouble of remembering that past which cannot become a present” (p.30).

³Mark Taylor, cited here, pp. 61-62. Seriously I can’t be bothered with a proper reference.

4This is clearly very wordy and it will probably only make sense to most with use of the supplementary explanation. If anyone has any suggestions for reform of the statement after reading the rest of the post then let me know in the comments section.

5Retrieved here

6Readers may point out that the ethical in this case was just as objectifying as the aesthetic. Taken. Maybe it’s that many intentions ethical in orientation have an unethical expression. It also depends on where you’re coming from as to what constitutes the ethical. I get caught up too easily in the categories, but the point remains that there is a higher expression in silence and the individual which allows us to see the world differently.

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