A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Against “Particular” as A Noun

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on February 23, 2007

I’m not sure how often is this in other people thinking, but I was used to think of universal vs. particular as some kind of dichotomy in which both “particular” and “universal” appeared as nouns, pointing to opposite things. But now it seems to me that such view is confused. Here is why…

1) “Particular” is A Universal

Particulars by being particulars already fall under the universal – “particular”. You might as well use “things”. The situation would be same, “thing” is a universal. You can’t fully get rid of universals – as long something is thought, it is thought as a universal. Changing “particular” from adjective (e.g. “particular thing”) to noun might be thought to be a way to avoid universals, but it doesn’t succeed in it.

In order to avoid universals we might try to just point and say “that”, but surely we are point to something. For example… by pointing to the tree – are we pointing to the whole tree, or to the trunk, or just to some part of the trunk?
Or, to say it differently… we can’t just think “particular” (as adjective), we can think only “particular something“. Some specializations of something may be “thing” or “phenomenon” (or if we want to speak funny “particular(adj.) particular (noun)“).

2) All Universals presuppose particularity anyway

It might be thought that particular (as a noun) is somehow special, as it presupposes particularity, and that there must be something wrong with the previous point.

What can be pointed to, though, is that this is not a problem because not just “particular”, but really any other universal already contains particularity. In such way – to be an apple, is to be a particular apple. One can’t imagine an apple without imagining it as a particular apple.


3) How about “That particular is an apple”? Doesn’t “particular” have special role there?

In the subject/predicate propositions, when we say “A is B”, the subject (A) is richer than the predicate (B), as it is the predicate, but is not merely the predicate. For example a cow is an animal, but not merely an animal, it is an animal further determined. I want to point how the “particular” as a noun doesn’t do much but obscure the things…

First connected to what was said in the previous point, we have propositions like:

  • a)”An apple is a particular”“An apple” is the subject here and “a particular” is the predicate. So in this case it is “an apple” that contains the predicate of being “a particular”, but is further determined.(see point 2).

This is compatible with what was said about subject/predicate relation, as the subject contains more determinations than the predicate. Any apple is a particular, but further determined (as apple). This proposition is a priori. An apple is necessarily a particular. Of course, as “particular” as universal isn’t in anything special, but merely points to something very general, instead of “particular”, one can use “thing” or “something”, without loosing anything from what is meant.

Secondly we have the propositions like:

  • b)”That particular is an apple”“That particular” is the subject in this proposition and as such is richer than “an apple”, which is predicate.

But if the previous propositions pointed that “an apple” is richer than “a particular”, how is that in this case “that particular” is now richer than “an apple”?

First we need to point that the word “particular” in the phrase “that particular” is not something special that makes this kind of relation possible. The same situation can be brought about by pointing to the sentences:

  1. “A Red Delicious is an apple”
  2. “That apple is a Red Delicious”

So, again this fact has nothing to do with “particular” as a noun. It has to do with “that”. Of course “that” is not a magic word. We can also use the definite article – “the”, and say “The particular is an apple” or “The apple is a Red Delicious”, or we can use “particular” as adjective in order to amplify the particularity and say “the particular thing is an apple”. Or we can avoid all those things, and use proper names. So we can name a particular apple – “Jenny”, and then we can say that “Jenny is a thing”, “Jenny is an apple”, “Jenny is a Red Delicious”, etc…

So, while there is for sure a difference to point to between the propositions a) and b), it seems that talking about particular/universal distinction, where those both sides are imagined as self-subsistent is not the right way to approach it.

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