A Refreshing Refusal of Universality, A History Boy, 23/09/2016

Years ago, when I was doing my Master’s degree, my supervisor* was giving a presentation on philosophy of language. This was the first moment in my education when I was just completely confounded by the reaction of a fellow student. 

* His avatar in this post will be Artie Shaw. Similar enough for people who know us to know who he is, but still doing the duty of a pseudonym. Also, he’d find it funny.

Shaking my head thinking, “Why would you even ask that?” Not at anything aggressive or offensive, but at such cross-purposes to the lecture that no one really knew how to react.

A universe of infinite variety and difference.
It was about a conception of counter-factual propositions as a synthetic a priori – knowledge that you learned entirely through thinking, but which involved reasoning beyond just logical implications of definitions. You had to think through imaginary empirical situations, what could have been.

This lecture was ten years ago, and I largely never again touched the Kripke-inspired philosophy of language that Artie Shaw was ploughing through at the time. So I’m probably messing up the substance of the talk entirely. 

But the point is – this use of the term ‘a priori’ referred entirely to counter-factual reasoning and modal logic, the quantification of possibility. In the Q&A, my colleague The Cartesian asked:

“But what about the universal?”

It was a sensible question from his perspective – The Cartesian was literally a Cartesian. He was steeped in terminology and tradition that conceived of the realm of pure thought as where you discover universal truths. And that’s not what philosophy really does anymore.

I mean, I’ve met plenty of working philosophy professors who still think this way about the discipline. But they tend to produce very unremarkable work on topics that are far removed from the concerns or our day. 

Either the write entirely scholarly material on the works of great philosophers from centuries ago. Or they write on the same problems those earlier philosophers did as if they were still vibrant topics whose answers could grip a society.

I had been leaning this way for a while, even at that young age. But that moment very suddenly pushed me to realize something very important. Problems of universal truth don’t really matter very much, aren’t interesting, and aren’t even productive. They just distract you from the really fascinating issues and ideas of the world.

So I had a wonderful chuckle at Anthony Appiah’s casual rejection of any possibility of truly universal knowledge in human societies. Can we say anything universally true of all humans? In the moral or ethical realm? Probably not. At least not in that traditional sense of the universal as essence, as applying without exception.

This does amount to a blanket declaration, but after more than a century of poking gaping materialist holes of contingency in all those old pretensions to the universal, I think it’s safe to declare it simply. Appiah writes from a solidly pragmatist perspective, and so do I.

There is no universal in human nature. 

Where we think there are universals, there are really just tendencies common enough that we haven’t run into any counter-examples. 

What’s more, we don’t even need shared universals to build empathy between different people. We’re used to the appeals to a shared humanity to encourage peace building. At least in the rhetoric. “Ain’t we all kin?” I sometimes think the idea of a humanity bound by what we have in common comes from spending too long swimming in the conformist language of the nation.

Differences are what fascinates us. If we meet people who are exactly the same as we are, they bore us quickly. Variety and surprise is the basis of our strongest relationships – they challenge us as we come to know them, and open our world to new possibilities.

Even in the most tense and violent places, exploring difference is the foundation of real peace. We’re diverse and unique, and that universal of no universality – the singularity of the world – brings us together.

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