The General and the Particular

Recently I have been pondering how many deep, philosophical issues are bound up with the issues of naming, categorizing, and generalizing. What is it that makes so many different, individual, particular objects identifiable by the same name: “tree”? How can so many things with such wide diversities partake of the same essence (which we will call “treeness”)? What is the essence of treeness? At what point can one draw a line and say, “This qualifies as a tree, and this does not”?

Scientists specialize in this sort of thing, of course, but who is to say that their classifications reflect an objective reality? For instance, modern scientists classify whales as mammals and not as fish. Therefore, when we read in the book of Jonah about a big fish swallowing the wayward prophet, modern readers sometimes tend to assume that it could not have been a whale because whales are not fish, and the Bible explicitly says “big fish.” But to make that assumption is to miss the fact that the writer of Jonah had no conception of scientific categorizations, which in this case appear somewhat arbitrary. Why should we categorize animals on the basis of physiology (as modern scientists do) instead of on the basis of appearance (as the ancients did)? If we take the latter approach to categorization, a whale certainly is a fish because it looks like one. The main point here is that while scientists do have methods of categorization, one can always question whether their methods in any particular case are the best.

So let’s come back to the essence of treeness. What is a tree? Is it a living organism with roots, a trunk, branches, and leaves? Of course, not all trees have leaves, so we can identify leaves as an accidental, not an essential, property of treeness. What happens if you cut all of the branches off of a tree? Is it still a tree? I would think so, but we are now approaching the question of at what point an object loses its essence as it undergoes change. If you put a tree through a wood-chipper, it is pretty evident that it is no longer a tree. The essence of treeness has been lost for that particular conglomeration of matter, but this does not help to decide what is the minimal essence of treeness. All we know from this example is that a tree is not little bits of wood.

Plato believed that the varying particulars in our world are unified by eternal forms that exist in another world. For instance, in a spiritual realm there exists a perfect tree, the very form of treeness, the object from which all other trees derive their essence. No tree in our world perfectly reflects this form of the tree, but everything that qualifies as a tree reflects it to some degree. Trees can be classified as such because they all partake of the essence of treeness, which exists as an objective reality in another world.

Aristotle disagreed with his teacher Plato and argued that the universal forms do not exist in another world but rather exist in the objects themselves. The form of tree exists not in a spiritual realm but in every particular tree. A great chunk of the history of philosophy has been simply a footnote to the different ways of interpreting the world laid out by these two men.

I see postmodern philosophy as a rejection of all attempts to categorize or generalize. I do not claim to have much familiarity with Nietzsche (although I do know how to spell his name), but it seems to me that his atheism took him to the logical conclusion that the categories of this world that we take for granted are simply arbitrary. There are no universals, only particulars. Universals would require some objective, authoritative standard. Some authoritative arbiter would have to tell us, “This qualifies as a tree, and this doesn’t.” Since God does not exist, neither do the objective realities that we supposed enabled us to interpret this world.

We are reaping the fruit of postmodern philosophy in our society today. Boundaries have been crossed. Categories we once took for granted have been obliterated. We are told by some that the basic human distinction between male and female is nothing but a social construct, not an objective reality. Therefore, virtually any perversion of human sexuality is now acceptable: cross-dressing, transexualism, homosexuality, the masculinization of women and the feminization of men. But the male-female distinction is the design of the Creator (Gen 1:26-28; 2:7, 18-25). It is not arbitrary. One cannot be human except one be male OR (not “and”) female.

And that is finally where I go to resolve the problem of the general and the particular. This is God’s world, and he has ordered it according to his own wisdom, an order that he has made us able to comprehend at least to some degree. This is why I believe philosophy must always include some level of pure common sense. I don’t mean that I subscribe wholeheartedly to Scottish Common Sense Realism, but the basic idea makes sense: if God has created this world and has created us with the mental equipment to understand it to some degree, then we have the right to trust what we understand by reason and intuition to be plainly evident (under the authority of Scripture, of course; I admit, there are exceptions to this, but God has made those things evident in Scripture). To say that the male-female distinction is not an objective reality but a social construct smacks of complete detachment from reality. We know from nature that men and women are just different, and that some people belong to one group and the rest of the population belongs to the other. To rebel against the order of creation, the universals that encompass the particulars of God’s world, is to deny that what God has made is good.

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