Maarten Maartensz

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CHAPTER X

ON OUR KNOWLEDGE OF UNIVERSALS

Note 1: This may seem obvious, but it hard to believe this on Russell's account. For he said that our experiences are all of particulars, and therefore what is in our experience are, then, only this white and that white, this loud noise and that loud noise, and so on. If these are all particulars, we cannot be acquainted with universals, in Russell's own sense of acquaintance. Of course, Russell has his answer to this, which we will remark on when coming to it below.

On my account, on which all our experiences are universal or of kinds of things ("things" used in the broadest possible sense, of anything we may think of, whatever it may be, so that the hypothesis may be sloganised as: for the human mind, every thing is of some kind), there is no problem. What is more problematic on my account are particulars, which for me come by assumption: those kinds of things we assume to be unique i.e. to occur at any time on one place only. Back.

Note 2: This is Russell's account of how we arrive at universals: by abstracting something that is common to particulars we experience. But this involves several problems.

First, what we abstract is not a particular, and since all experiences are particular, on Russell's account, what we abstract cannot be an experience. In cases involving white or whiteness, and many other similar cases, this seems false.

Second, Russell does not explain what he means by abstracting. It may be fairly inferred he meant something like: selecting something by disregarding something else that comes together with it, but if so, the problem is that again, in the cases under consideration, what we select seems of the same kind (particular or universal) as what we select from.

Third, it seems that in case of such universals as Russell mentions, which are all of the kind of what he calls sense-data, one needs not perform any mental operation, such as abstraction of patches of white, to perceive a universal whiteness. One simply sees several patches of white, which are several instances of a universal, since the universal white recurs identically in them. Back.

Note 3: On my account, sensible qualities are simply given and need not be abstracted at all. Insofar as mental operations are required for their cognition, experience and recognition seem to be all that need be involved. Back.

Note 4: It seems to me that there are sensible relations in the same way as there are sensible qualities: we simply experience or recognise them. Back.

Note 5: Again it seems to me that before and after in time are simply given in experience and do not involve some highly dubious process of abstraction. Back.

Note 6: I don't think so since the relation of resemblance differs from the universals we have considered so far.

One way of bringing out the difference is thus: so far we've considered claims to the effect that "there are several things which have something in common, and it is such-and-such", where such-and-such is a sensible quality like whiteness or sensible relation like left of. At present, we deal with the somewhat more general or slightly different: "there are several things, namely this and that, which have something in common".

Thus, the recognition of some resemblance or similarity is involved in the recognition of any sensible quality or relation, but one can truly claim that several things resemble each other without saying what the resemblance is, or without claiming they resemble each other in respect of some sensible attribute.

So it is here, in judgments to the effect that things resemble each other, without thereby judging what the resemblance is, or without thereby judging the resemblance is a sensible attribute, that it seems a genuine process of - what may be called - abstraction is used. The reason to qualify the term "abstraction" is that it seems less dependent on some form of disregarding as it does depend on language: it is easy to see how we arrive in this way at "this triangle and that circle have something in common" since they are both geometrical shapes, and very difficult to see how one can abstract the notion of shape from seeing a triangle and a circle.

In other words, the process of abstraction Russell really used seems to me to be different from what he thought it was, and to involve my earlier "to the human mind, every thing is of some kind" and language, that generally makes it easy - for one familiar with a natural language - to supply various words for qualities and relations that are (supposed to be) true of some things one is thinking of. Back.

Note 7: It seems to me my previous note explains the reason for the knowledge we have of relations between relations better. It seems in most cases to depend on language. Indeed, what is involved if we for the moment indulge in a few elementary formalities, seems to be this: Given two pairs of things, a and b and c and d, and two relations R and S between these, so that a and b stand in relation R and c and d in relation S, we may also know that there is some respect T (whether quality or relation) that is true both of the relation a and b have and the relation c and d have. This respect T, if it is itself a relation, may be considered a relation between relations.

In most cases where human beings believe themselves to know that several relations are related this belief is due to their linguistic skills, if only because it is far easier to perceive a relation between the terms used for things (and having isolated it attribute it to the things the terms stand for) then to perceive a relation between things.(Indeed, this is part of the reason for the cognitive successes of the human mind: in general it is far easier to think about the terms for things than about the things themselves, since the terms and their relations are far simpler than what they stand for.) Back.

Note 8: The proposition Russell wants to establish is false. To show this all we need to establish is that there is - in Russell's or our opinion - a priori knowledge that does not deal exclusively with the relations of universals, and one such proposition is "There is an independently existing reality"; another is "There is experience" and one Russell ought to insist on, given his earlier text, is "I exist". Back.

Note 9: This is shoddy reasoning. First, Russell does not consider the denial of what he seeks to prove, but a special case of it, the proof of which he declares here ought to establish the more general proposition. This way of arguing is capable of proving anything. Back.

Note 10: The understanding of words does not necessarily involve an acquaintance with the objects they denote, as ought to be obvious when we consider words that denote things we do not have experience of either because we did not have the chance, so far, or because this is impossible as the objects do not or cannot exist, or can be grasped only linguistically (such as "all natural numbers" or "all human beings, whether past, present or future").

Most of the words we understand depend on the understanding we have of other words, and thus on our capacity to think of things or imagine them (where both processes are equally a matter of fantasy, but only the latter involves sensible possible signs of things: we can think of far more things in terms of symbols than we can imagine in terms of signs, and that is another reason for the cognitive successes of the human mind.). Back.

Note 11: Often that is impossible, or at least very problematic: what if the things meant by a proposition are impossible or non-existent? It is easy to think of people who believe (what we think are) manifest absurdities and contradictions, but if this is true we are thinking of something that cannot exist. This shows the power of symbols, in that symbols may represent what cannot possibly exist (if only to deny existence to it), which is something that should be accounted for. Back.

Note 12: In one way, this is true, but in another way gravely misleading: I insist that we do know something about all the couples in the world, namely that their number is two, and that, therefore, the number of any two couples is four. And the reason we do know this, on my account of universals, is that they all have the same attribute, i.e. what is (a) universal is something that identically recurs. Back.

Note 13: This is misleadingly expressed. First, the statement is not about the term 'couple' but about anything the term may be true of, and secondly, since it is about any thing that is a couple, it is also about this and about that couple (which are two particulars - this and that - that have a universal - being a couple - in common). Back.

Note 14: Sure, but this way of putting it, and especially the term "perceiving" doesn't make this clearer. And rather than ordinary perception linguistic skills seem involved, that easily move from "this is green" and "that is green" to "there is something this and that have in common", and from the additional premise "green is a colour" and "if this is a colour, this is a quality" to "this and that have some quality in common". Back.

Note 15: On my account of universals, that is based on the assumption that the human mind reasons in terms of kinds, this is not mysterious. Back.

Note 16: Really? What about the very proposition Russell gives? And my point is not that one can somehow know truths of experience without experience, but is rather that we do seem to know or assume quite a few general things about things capable of being experienced, and about our capacities to experience, without it being necessary to experience those things. (Thus I know that anything I will see but have so far not seen will have some sort of shape and colour; that if I keep being conscious I may judge and classify anything I experience; that if I cannot assign any kind to what I experience it must remain a riddle, and many more propositions of the same kind.) Back.

Note 17: This seems wholly false to me. We may not know there really is anyone named Brown etc., but that is not relevant, for we are considering a conditional proposition for which such knowledge is not required. Back.

Note 18: No, and in view of Russell's notion that universals are a special kind of thing in their own world it is odd he says this. In any case, the difference between an a priori general proposition and an empirical generalisation is one of meaning, and therefore the two kinds of proposition have a different relation to evidence. The difference is that the a priori general proposition generally assumes a relation of inclusion between kinds ('human beings are animals'), that, if true, imply empirical generalisations ('everything that is a human being is an animal'), whereas empirical generalisations do not assume a relation of inclusion between kinds ('everything that is a human being has been born on the planet Earth") and thus are compatible with the notion that the kinds involved in the empirical generalisation may cease to be empirically included. Back.

Note 19: I don't believe this. What I believe is that men are so constituted that they must die; that they cannot grow taller than 100 feet; that they cannot fly by flapping their arms; that they are able to learn natural languages; and many more such propositions, and that, men being thus constituted i.e. being or not being of such and such kinds, that therefore we are able to see innumerable instances of the truth of these propositions.

The mere occurrences of instances that may illustrate certain general propositions is no reason at all to formulate or believe such general propositions, especially not if we do not believe that these instances belong to the kind of pattern we can explain by assigning them to some relation of inclusion between kinds. Thus - for example - being Dutch, my whole life is replete of instances of women who happen to be white, incapable of speaking Chinese, and not fond of Italian music, yet this has never moved me to any general proposition to the effect that all women are thus disposed.

So unlike Russell I believe we do formulate such principles because we believe there is some sort of connection between two kinds of things. Back.

Note 20: The foregoing note entails I also disagree with this. It seems to me that our inductive generalisations about the real world, if they do not explicitly concern mere correlations or coincidences, are all based on some presumed constant relation between kinds of things, for which presumption we try to find empirical evidence.

One way of phrasing a pertinent difference is that I hold that we do not move from the perception of instances to a general law, but rather from a guessed general law to a gathering of instances of it. It is true that such a general law may be guessed from a few instances of it, but this need not be so, and in any case any finite number of instances may be explained by any number of different generalisations about them, each of which is supported by those instances. Back.

Note 21: Indeed. And let us note carefully that, on our theory of universals, the fundamental reason we may have such knowledge is that kinds of things may be thus related, and if they are all the things which are of those kinds will be thus related, and that we do not need to know any specific such things to know this, but that all we need to know is some true knowledge about their kinds. This type of knowledge is of the same kind as what makes us so confident that all widows of the year 2300 AD will have been married: we assume the kinds to be thus related so as to make this true of whatever things are of the kind, wherever, whenever. Back.

Note 22: I don't believe this, and doubt it is really polite. In any case, I feel pretty certain that I am myself, like my readers, among other things, a physical object.

Russell's reason for believing that he could never know anything is a physical object is that it is a judgment about something not given in experience.

I have commented on this before, but repeat that if there are physical objects we may have experiences of, we may validly infer their existence from the experiences of them, just as we infer the existence of objects photographed from their photographs.Back.

Note 23: Here we are firmly within the region of philosophical dreams, it seems to me. I agree there is a real underlying problem, but the way Russell tries to solve it leads into illusions and odd philosophical seeming profundities.

The underlying fact of the problem (or so we shall assume) is that the experience of X is not necessarily the same as X, whereas the only way of knowing an empirical X, apart from correctly guessing it or deducing it from other knowledge, is by experiences of X. This I grant, but it proves as little that we cannot possibly know X as it follows from the fact that the term for X is not necessarily the same as X proves that we cannot know anything about X from the term for X.

It so happens that humans know by means of signs and symbols, and inferences based on them and framed in terms of them, and that the only thing that occurs in a human being's experience are signs and symbols. However, if human beings do know anything at all about the real things the signs and symbols in their experience are signs and symbols of, which Russell calls 'physical objects', they know something about physical objects.

Finally, there is also this consideration. Again I grant that all humans know of any real thing X are the experiences they have concerning X, and that the two do not necessarily coincide. Even so, just like I may know a lot about real hands from inferences about the behaviour of gloved hands, it seems I may know a lot about real things from inferences about my experiences of them. Back.

Note 24: As pointed out before, this denies ESP, and also denies imaginative (partial) identification with other people, sympathy, role-playing and other similar means to know or guess at another person's feelings and beliefs.

Besides, it seems a fair guess that human beings are born with a special facility to understand the private experiences of others, since so much depends on their having a fair understanding of it. Back.

Note 25: I shall not extensively comment on Russell's summary, since I have commented on all relevant points in it before. The only thing I do want to point out is that the main differences between my analysis and his concern that of universals, and my related thesis that all our experiences are experiences of kinds of things, and thus of universals, rather than of particulars (even though I agree with Russell that each of our experiences is a particular experience, since it happens to a specific person at a specific place and time). Back.

Note 26: Since we are going to be involved with analysing what Russell calls 'intuitive knowledge', it is well to repeat the gist of a remark I made before: There is very good evidence to the effect that many of the things people believe to be intuitively true in fact are false, and that there are some necessary and, apart from that, many common illusions and delusions.

The reason to stress this is that these falsities are often overlooked, and that it certainly seems at least a fair possibility that human beings not only may know some truths but may need to be misled (flummoxed, deluded, flim-flammed) by the nature of some of things they try to know.

It may be that such falsehoods are especially those that concern the qualities of our leaders, friends, enemies, and cognitive and moral capacities (our leaders invariably are Great Men, our friends Excellent People, our enemies contemptible idiots, our own cognitive capacities even if not of the very best are still quite able to see and appreciate the fundamental verities just mentioned, while our moral capacities and intentions are, of course, always among the best and the noblest) but it may also be that they concern non-human aspects of reality, such as the structure of space and time, or the relation of evidence to guesses (which tends to be much more dependent on our likes and dislikes than we like to think: very often people believe things to be true because they desire them to be true, and almost as often people bend, bias or selectively prune whatever evidence they have to conform to their desires).

These possibilities will concern us later.Back.

Note 27: It was already clear to Aristotle that all our reasoning must be based on assumptions, and that therefore we have to start with some assumption(s) that cannot themselves (at that point) be explained or entailed by yet other assumptions.

To call these assumptions that are necessary to base any conclusion upon 'intuitive knowledge' seems to involve a rather self-congratulatory account of human capacities. And in any case, a philosopher should be aware that most assumptions men have framed to account for their experiences have been refuted in the course of time, for which reasons it seems better to avoid the term 'knowledge' in the present context, and to stick to 'belief' or 'guess'. Back.

Note 28: This makes sense, but it also involves a problem, which may be brought out thus: People who lost a limb often complain about feelings of pain in the limbs they lost, and also often are given some sort of mental representation of the limb they lost that endures for a long time after they lost the limb.

Strictly speaking, this is not in contradiction with Russell's words, but it does show that it is very natural to pass from the immediate object of our experience to the supposed object they are an experience of, and it also shows that at least the experiences we have of our own bodily organs is somewhat peculiar and special. Back.