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Transformation into Structure:

a Gadamerian Answer to the Problem of Universals

Jacob Fisher
Phenomenology
Dr. Borden
12/08/05
Word Count: 3958
In our world of experience there are only particular things. We come into contact with this

tree, this painting, and this human being. However, our understanding of these particulars are always

in terms of universal concepts. Note the necessity of using the words ‘tree,’ ‘painting,’ and

‘person’—all of which are terms of kind—to refer to particulars. Yet it is clear that each of these

words can be applied to many other individuals in addition to the object to which one is directly

referring. Not only is it the case that this is a tree, but so is the thing out the window and the thing

in the park. Though none of these objects are the same particular, they are all of the same kind or

what the medievals termed species. So while there are only particular things that exist, all our words

are universal—i.e., they can be attributed to multiple particulars.1 The problem of universals arises

at this apparent disjunct between concepts in the mind and particulars. How then are universal

concepts related to particulars objects?

Frederick Copleston observes two historical ways of forming the question, what he terms the

ontological and psychological approaches respectively. The ontological approach is stated as such:

“What, if anything, in extramental reality corresponds to the universal concepts in the mind”?2 This

is a question of the ontological status of universals and will be answered primarily in service of the

epistemological concerns raised by the psychological approach. The psychological approach phrases

the question in terms of how the process of discerning universals occurs in the intellect. In the end,

modern epistemology requires us to treat both questions together in slightly revised, though still

fundamentally similar, terms. How can we justify both our individual claims to truth (i.e., our use

of universal concepts) and our hope for interpersonal understanding in light of the contemporary

1
Perhaps the only exception to this is the use of proper names which are essentially a formalized and
individuated way of saying ‘this thing.’
2
Frederick Copleston. A History of Philosophy: Volume II. (NY: Doubleday, 1993): 139.
challenges of our purely subjective way of knowing? It is the goal of this paper to affirm the

subjectivity of the content of concepts (what has been tentatively termed ‘universal’) while at the

same time affirming the possibility of true understanding and legitimate conversation between

people. In essence the latter affirmation will be an attempt to justify argumentative claims in the

midst of subjectivity by arguing for a subjectivity that exists in, and is therefore dependant upon, a

historical community.

But before proceeding with the proposed solution to the problem of universals, we must first

analyze—and in the end reject—a common answer henceforth referred to as essentialism (though

granted it is a very particular form of essentialism). In essentialism, the relation between universal

concepts and reality is justified by positing essences as the extramental basis of universals. In Plato’s

ultra-realist account, essences were found in the true world of the Forms. These were metaphysically

separate from particulars; that is, they existed independently of individual things. However, this has

been an extremely rare view for over a millennium. Instead, the legacy of Aristotle has often proved

more convincing and remains far more widely accepted. Yet despite differences a fundamental

agreement remains between these two great essentialists: universal concepts have an extra-mental

basis and do not depend upon the psychology of particular knowing persons, thus all people referring

to a certain object are abstracting the very same universal. It is this general supposition of

essentialism that will be the object of our critique. For simplicities sake we will take a certain

philosopher, Edmund Husserl, as an exemplar of traditional essentialism and focus on his positing

of essences for the eidetic reduction.

According to Husserl, the goal of the eidetic reduction is to determine what is essential to a

particular object, what makes it to be a member of its kind: its essence. This operates from the

assumption that there are set categories or species to which one can classify a particular. (This will
turn out to be my fundamental disagreement with traditional essentialism.) The static nature of these

species are what justifies the claims of the universality of concepts, therefore making claims of

absolute truth and falsity possible.

The eidetic reduction begins with a particular with all its idiosyncrasies (what are called

accidents). One then proceeds to mentally vary individual accidents, making the thing to be different

until it is deemed to be a ‘different sort of thing’ or ‘essentially different.’ The hope is that through

this process one will be able to discover what properties are essential to a particular, and therefore

determine to what universal species the particular belongs. Husserl calls the end result of the eidetic

reduction the essential definition, basically the definition of the universal concept or essence.

Theoretically, this definition discovers what is universally attributive to all particulars in a set

species.

Now there is nothing problematic in the eidetic reduction per se. However, Husserl’s

assumptions regarding the resultant content of the reduction (that it is univocally universal) becomes

difficult to maintain in light of what I will call the criticism of historicity. This difficulty is perhaps

best explicated by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method. As previously stated, Husserl follows

the tradition that maintains that there are mind independent essential classes (or species) and that

essences are contained in the particular. With such ontological status, the essential definitions are

considered to be universally valid, as opposed to definitions of use which vary depending upon

context, personal experience, et cetera. On this account, everyone should (theoretically) be able to

agree on the content of a certain essence. Yet after faced with Gadamer’s account of the

epistemological priority or prejudices, the hope for universal validity and consensus becomes

unrealistic.

The argument for the rehabilitation of prejudices in Truth and Method is made under the
subheading “Prejudices as Conditions of Understanding.”3 Here Gadamer argues that all our

understanding is historically conditioned and indeed constructed by the tradition that has formed us.

Essentially prejudices are the very particular contents of our worldview. That is to say, prejudices

are fundamentally individuated and this according to our particular tradition; they are a perspective

on reality. Our tradition is the entire formative history of those prejudices with all of our past

experiences being the point of connection to that tradition. Yet it must be emphasized that this

formative history is not just the history of our individual lives, but far more, the entire history of

humanity that has brought us each to where we are now. Thus, it is evident that our tradition is both

historically and culturally expansive.

To use a rather dangerous analogy, our prejudice is similar to the end result of a causal chain;

it is our tradition ‘coming to a head.’ But before having a knee-jerk reaction to such deterministic

phraseology, one must remember that personal agency and habit (even our own) also contributes to

tradition.4 Thus, our worldview, our particular understanding of things, is going to be individually

different as our traditions differ. And while it remains true that traditions differ to a degree so that

fraternal twins are likely to have an extraordinarily similar tradition, there are still always going to

be differences due to the undeniable particularity of human consciousness as perspectival.

When Husserl’s eidetic reduction is considered in light of this account of the prejudicial

nature of human understanding, the difficulty posed to claims of universal validity becomes obvious.

Such a hope requires, it seems, an objective perspective.5 But if one always approaches an object or

3
Hans-Georg Gadamer. Truth and Method. Second Revised Trans. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald
Marshall. (NY: Continuum International, 1989): 277-307.
4
I am in no way denying human freedom, but only claiming that freedom is limited by what one is
given—i.e., one’s environment—which is itself constructed, partly by way of human agency, by its own tradition. I
maintain that this view of tradition is compatible with a strong account of freewill.
5
Is not ‘objective perspective’ itself a contradiction in terms?
concept with a preconceived understanding, a prejudice, how can one ever determine what a thing

is apart from that prejudice. Indeed, one will always and only know from the perspective of one’s

prejudices.

The realm of linguistic prejudices is especially relevant since Husserl’s essential definitions

attempt to use language to explicate an essence in a way not determined by word use—hence his

distinguishing between essential definitions and definitions of use. Now to be fair, Husserl would

likely grant that our language use is going to produce variations in the terminology of our essential

definitions. However, his conclusions regarding the reduction itself seem to be that, despite slight

language variations, our definitions—if correctly analyzed—will mean the same thing. That is, the

definitions will signify the same mind independent class or essence. But can we maintain the

distinction between these two kinds of definitions while taking seriously the concept of prejudice?

When trying to analyze the essence of a concept, we already consider it to be something, to

be defined as such and such a thing. To do an eidetic reduction is simply to explicate the boundary

of a particular word as determined by one’s prejudices. Or to put it in slightly different terms, such

a reduction is nothing other than determining the personal/subjective semantic range of one’s

concept. Let us briefly consider an example, the concept of ‘gift,’ to make this objection more

concrete. When one attempts to give the essential definition of ‘gift,’ this definition is going to be

primordially dependent upon one’s past use of the word gift, one’s linguistic prejudice. One person

may include, for example, Christmas presents in her definition while another person may restrict his

use of the word to unqualified sacrifice of one’s life for another. The differences in definition arise

from the different uses and personal prejudices each has concerning the signifying word.

In the end, any essential definition is going to be reduced to an individual’s definition of use.

What else does one have access to when defining the concept other than the word used to signify it
and thus the prejudices that supply the word’s conceptual content? Simply put, one’s definition of

‘gift,’ and any other concept for that matter, is going to be the result of one’s individual experience

as determined by tradition. Since our only way of defining essences is by way of language, and our

language is fundamentally prejudiced, to posit essences primordial to language and therefore

independent of prejudices is to posit an inaccessible dimension. This dimension of language-

primordial essences suffers the same fate as Kant’s inaccessible noumena: if it is not accessible, why

then should it be posited? In the final analysis, this is a critique leveled against a residual metaphysic

inappropriate to the conversation of phenomenology.6

So where has this gotten us in our search for the status of universals? In the end, it seems that

traditional essentialism as exemplified by Edmund Husserl fails to stand up to the critique of

historicity expounded above. But this has been far more than simply a critique and rejection of

Husserl’s essentialism. Instead, it has laid the necessary groundwork of prejudice and tradition that

will in the end prove essential to a more modest answer to the problem of universals, one that takes

into account the epistemological relevance of human perspectives.

The proposed solution to the problem of universals is distinctively Gadamerian. Owing to

the linguistic nature of the solution (what will eventually be termed “analogical universals”), it is

natural to begin with Gadamer’s hermeneutic of language.

An appropriate starting point to the question of language is Gadamer’s infamous declaration:

6
One attempt at defending Husserl is to claim that prejudices simply result in different people attributing a
single word to different essences, thus multiple valid uses of ‘gift’ signify multiple essences. This fails on two
counts: first, the essence is still a metaphysical speculation (lacking phenomenological evidence) and thus falls to the
critique of the inaccessible dimension argued above; secondly, it would require a possible infinity of essences in
order to explain all possible definitions of use. For example, in the concept of ‘gift’ the degrees of selfless purity are
infinitesimally divisible. This may be termed the objection of the Parmenides because of it use of the principles
found in Plato’s dialogue. Of course these objections are extremely condensed and cannot at this time be explicated
any further. Yet it is important to realize that even this attempt to defend Husserl remains problematic.
“Being that can be understood is language.”7 This has been interpreted in different ways ranging

from the more conservative understanding of language as ‘the medium of intelligible experience,’

to the actual reduction of all being to language (called linguistic idealism). However, if one takes into

account Gadamer’s entire hermeneutic, one will quickly discover that language-as-medium excludes

the possibility of such an idealism and instead presumes a realistic epistemology.

In the very same section as the above quote, Gadamer goes on to say, “For man’s relation

to the world is absolutely and fundamentally verbal in nature, and hence intelligible.”8 Thus the

medium of language is not a bridge from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ but the arena in which one relates to the

world. The problem facing linguistic idealism is that it thinks of language as a barrier to experiencing

the noumenal world or ‘really real’: “if there was a world ‘out there’ language would block any

experience of it, thus one should not posit such a world.” However, to make spacial distinctions

between the subject and object is to assume a dichotomy between self and world quite foreign to

Gadamer’s hermeneutic. Making use of Heidegger’s structure of Mitdasein, Gadamer claims that

“there is no question of a self-conscious spirit without world which would have to find its way to

worldly being; both belong originally to each other. The relationship is primary.”9 We are always-

already relating to our world within the intelligible arena of language.

So language truly is a medium of experience, not in the sense of an in between mediator, but

instead as the atmosphere or realm of occurrence. Language is not equivalent to world; language is

where world is disclosed. Hence, one belongs to the world in and through language. So Gadamer’s

infamous statement does not equate ‘being’ and ‘language,’ but ‘intelligible experience’ and

7
TM, 477.
8
TM, 475-476; emphasis added.
9
TM, 459; emphasis added.
‘language.’ Language is what gives structure to our experiences of a world that is there; it is what

makes experience intelligible. So certainly, when looking for the point of correlation between a

world of particulars and what are presumed to be universally attributive concepts, language as the

medium of experience is the proper arena of inquiry.

Our own intelligible experience is then put in terms of the language-world. Yet this is not

referring to the concrete world, but instead, the arena in which one comes to understand. One’s

language-view is the particular perspective one has on the language-world. (When critiquing Husserl,

we called this language-view ‘linguistic prejudice.’) Our language-view is a window through which

we enter into dialogue with others and construct the language-world (our construction of the

language-world will be dealt with further on). Simply speaking, the language-world is the totality

of all uses of language. Thus, the language-world is primarily historical, though it culminates in and

is made manifest in a horizontal movement between current language-views.

It is worthwhile to examine this historical nature of language-world by recalling the concept

of tradition. Earlier we used tradition to refer to an individual’s formative history. But tradition can

also be used more generically. In this sense, generic tradition is the totality of all individual

traditions. It refers to the interplay between all persons, their individual traditions, and the world. To

bring it back to the concrete: it refers to all the traditions of every current concept associate with the

word ‘gift.’ Every time the word ‘gift’ is used, it is an application of that person’s prejudices, it is

his experience “coming into language” via his language-view.10 That application recalls the entire

formative tradition of that particular prejudicial use. ‘Gift’s’ place in the language-world is found

in all historical uses of that particular word, including its etymological evolution. This evolution is

the process of language-world construction earlier mentioned.

10
TM, 417.
If we are going to define language-world as the totality of word uses, it naturally follows that

the language-world is always becoming. There is no “way the language-world is,” it is always being

added to, evolving, and transforming depending upon particular applications of words. Even a

superficial look at language etymology soundly demonstrates this point. Thus, if all our

understanding is within language, then all our understanding occurs in terms of an evolving medium.

Yet after all this has been said on the subject of language, its precise relevance to the question

at hand remains to be discovered. Certainly, such a view on language was fundamental to our

critique and ultimate rejection of traditional essentialism, but what does it contribute to the search

for universals? Will the perspectival nature of language-views force us to adopt either a radical

relativism or an extreme skepticism that denies the genuine communicative nature of concepts?

Certainly if anything is phenomenologically evident it is that we can genuinely understand one

another and this in terms of common concepts. But if these concepts have no mind independent basis

and are constructed solely by word use, how can we justify the necessary structure needed for

communication?

Actually, the problem is not nearly as sever as it might seem. In fact, all that is necessary to

a Gadamerian answer to the problem of universals has already been explicated in our use of the

concepts ‘tradition,’ ‘prejudice,’ and ‘language-world.’ We will now proceed to give order to this

solution.

But first, we must more concisely define the objects of our search. To this point in our

discussion, the search for the correlation between mental concepts and particular objects has

consistently used the word ‘universals.’ While it is understandable why such a word is commonly

used—i.e., because particular words can find multiple applications—it is, on a Gadamerian account,

a deceptive portrayal of the status of these concepts.


As we have argued, the meanings of words depend upon the individual tradition that compose

one’s language-view. Since everyone has a different individual tradition, the content of one’s

language-view—one’s linguistic prejudices—will always be particular. That is to say, words will

always have different meanings to different people. No two people understand the world in exactly

the same way. Thus, there are actually no universally understood concepts, if this is meant to imply

univocality. At best there are only analogous concepts.11 We must therefore qualify our hope of

simply ‘justifying universals,’ but instead, seek to justify analogous universals as verbal structures

of intelligibility. As we shall see, this will lend the structure needed for the communication of

concepts while granting that these concepts are not univocal universals.

The commonality of concepts is found in our mode of being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s

terminology). As previously discussed, our being-in is linguist and our language is historically

defined (by tradition). We are each a member of the language-world, yet we live, think, and

understand in this world as a community. A fundamental characteristic of the language-world is that

one’s intelligible mode of living, or language-view, is dependant upon the tradition constructed by

and with others. There is no understanding apart from others, thus the structures with which one

orders the world is not an autonomous perspective, but instead a communal language-subjectivity.

When speaking of our individual traditions, it must be remembered that these traditions are shared

in a community, an entire language-world. Therefore, one’s prejudices are also shared with others,

so that understanding can always be negotiated. When two people seek an understanding, they seek

to emphasize those perspectives in there language-world which they hold in common, commonalities

11
Here I am using the medieval distinction between univocal and analogous statements. Wheras two
univocal concepts are exact replications of each other having identical meanings, analogous statements have different
yet related meanings. In this case, the analogical relationship between different word uses can be likened to the
genetic similarity between a brother and sister: different, yet with similarities due to a similar genealogical origin.
that are born from a common tradition in the language-world

Ultimately, it is in our traditions that we find the needed structure in human intelligibility.

While what each of us takes to be essential to a concept is always prejudiced, the fact that our

language-views are constructed by our common traditions lends it stability. While concepts are

always transforming into something new with each added use of a word, the fact that this evolution

takes place in history lends it structure. It is of course being assumed here that the past is static—i.e.,

that things were a certain way and the way in which they were is immutable. This immutability is

extended to tradition insofar as tradition is past.12

Yet the past does not exist apart from the present. In a sense, the past is always spilling into

the here and now. Yet this spilling-into is not just a reference to the effects of the past on the present.

In the end, the past never leaves us. History is still found in the present, though not as-present but

as-past. Our language-view is not simply the terminus of our tradition; it is our tradition living in the

present. Thus our prejudices and our concepts are structured in terms of their historical orientation.

So despite the fact that our language-view is always transforming into a new language-view

upon new experiences, it is always transforming into structure. Explaining this process, Gadamer

says that “transformation into structure means that what existed previously exists no longer. But also

that what now exists...is lasting and true.”13 (TM, 111). This explains both the evolutionary and

structural aspects of the concepts we are currently defending as analogous universals. Hence, the

concepts that our words express are always changing with use, yet they become stable since they are

fundamentally connected to the past through our historically oriented language-view. Thus, it is

12
I recognize that there is also a present dimension to tradition manifest in prejudice. It is this present aspect
that is the object of change. Thus to say that tradition is changing is not to refer to the historical tradition, but the
status of tradition as a whole becoming more expansive.
13
TM, 111.
tradition that makes common understanding possible, while maintaining the ‘structurally sound’

nature of subjective concepts.

So in the final analysis, what is our answer to the problem of universals? While the

particularity of our language-views prevent the possibility of univocal universals, we may speak of

universals as analogous. That concepts are universal—in the sense of their being predicated to

multiple particulars—is undeniable. However, Gadamer’s hermeneutic has revealed that each

predication of a concept, each use of a word, is always going to have a particular meaning based on

one’s prejudices and the present context of use. Each use of a word has a genealogical connection

to other uses of that same word, yet its relation is more like a relation to a sibling than a clone. Thus

concepts are different, yet not categorically different. They are analogous. These analogous

universals are inextricably connected to and changing according to our use of language. Yet their

historical orientation via tradition gives them a structural stability that justifies true communication

with others. It is in the end our common language-world—our subjectivity within community—that

allows us to intelligibly know the world and speak of it to others.


Bibliography

Copleston, Frederick A History of Philosophy: Volume II. (NY: Doubleday, 1993).

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method. Second Revised Trans. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald

Marshall. (NY: Continuum International, 1989).

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