29 April 2016

Translation: Are There Universals or Only Particular Things?

Excerpt translated from French from "L'Elégance du Hérisson" by Muriel Barbery, Gallimard edition, p. 314-316.

However, it is fascinating in principle. Are there universals, or are there only particular things? As I understand it, that is the question to which William [of Ockham] devoted the crux of his existence. I think it’s a fascinating question. Is each thing an individual entity — in which case, the similarities between things are just an illusion or an outcome of language, which works through words and concepts; through generalities that designate and incorporate many particular things? Or are there really general forms, in which singular things participate and which are not simple effects of language? When we say a table, when we call the table by name, when we form the concept of the table, do we only refer to the table in front of us, or do we really go back to a universal table entity, which is the basis for the reality of all existing particular tables? Is the idea of the table real or just part of our minds? In which case, why are certain things alike? Does language artificially group them into categories for the sake of making them convenient and understandable to humans, or are there universal forms in which all specific forms participate?

For William, things are singular, and the reality of universals is erroneous. There are only particular realities; generalities exist only in the mind. Believing that there are general realities complicates the simplicity of things. But are we so sure? Just last evening, I was asking myself about the congruence between a Raphael and a Vermeer. The eye recognizes in both a shared form. Both participate in it. It is the form of Beauty. And I believe that that form must be grounded in reality, that it is not simply an expediency of the mind categorizing in order to understand, discriminating in order to apprehend. You cannot classify anything that is not classifiable, group anything that cannot be grouped, or bring together anything that cannot come together. A table will never be a “View of Delft.” The human mind cannot engender this dissimilitude, in the same way that it does not have the power to give birth to the profound solidarity that unites a Dutch still life to an Italian Virgin and Child. 

Everything, like each table, has an essence that gives it its form. All works of art are part of a universal form that alone seals them. Sure, we do not directly perceive this universality. That is one of the reasons why so many philosophers have objected to considering essences as real — because we never see anything but the table in front of us and not the universal “table” form; we only see the painting in front of us, and not the essence of Beauty itself. Yet … yet, it is there, in front of our eyes. Each painting by a Dutch master is an incarnation, a striking apparition that we can only contemplate through the singular, but which gives us access to eternity, timelessness, a sublime form.

Eternity is looking upon the invisible.

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