The Universal and the Particular

I don’t think I will ever contemplate enough the mysteries of the distinction between the universal and the particular, the general and the specific, the ideal and the actual. This contemplation brings you into living contact with the question of what is real.

What is real? The Universal? Or the Particular?

Am I a human being or am I a particular human being named Jeff?

That is a supremely significant philosophical question with absolutely HUGE implications.

If I am a human being in the universal sense that means that there is one essence that is at the core of what it means to be human, and that is what I really am. Is there only one essence to being human? Are all human beings one thing or is the word human only a category for the collection of all particular human beings?

Maybe there is no such thing as a human essence. Maybe there are just particular human beings that have particular essences. Those are the real things. The only things that ontologically exist as something are individual human beings. The word human may be just a category of things, a word that denotes the collective of all real things that share certain characteristics, but without ontological reality itself.

On the other hand maybe there is a real essence of being human. Maybe being human is one thing and that is the real thing. In this case then what I am is an imperfect reflection of what a human being actually is.

The first case, where only particular human beings are held as real, is called nominalism. The great benefit of nominalism is that it gives the weight of reality to the individual. It allows the infinite variations among human beings to all be considered real and true and worthy of respect. The negative of this view is that it leaves little room for the existence of any overarching standards or ideals toward which all human beings are supposed to aspire. Why would you have ideals if only particular human beings are real and true – and all equally so?

The great advantage of the view that there is a universal essence of human-beingness is that it implies that there are standards that individual human beings should strive to live up to. This view is called idealism, and the negative aspect of it is that it can lead to the diminishment of the individual. If there is one essence of being human and that is ultimately the only real way to be human, then anything other than that is less than fully human. Since no one lives up to ideals it means that everyone’s being is seen as less than what it really means to be human.

This duality is worthy of intense contemplation because human life as we know it depends on both. Our sense of individual self worth and the maintenance of mutual respect depend on our seeing every particular human as equally real and true. At the same time our ability to hold higher standards for others and ourselves depends on our belief that there are ideal ways of being human that are inherently more valuable and ultimately more real and worth striving for.