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International Phenomenological Society

The Philosophy of Linguistic Analysis and the Problem of Universals

Author(s): H. J. McCloskey
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Mar., 1964), pp. 329-338
Published by: International Phenomenological Society
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The emphasis of the 'school' of linguistic analysis has been to the

effect that the main function of philosophy consists in the logical clari-
fication and elucidation of the use of language and its constituents.
Accordingly, attempts have been made to deal with the traditional major
problems of philosophy, including that of universals, along these lines.
Flew reports Ryle as expressing, in 1931, this view thus:

The main, if not the only proper business of philosophy is the detection of the
sources in linguistic idiom of recurrent misconceptions and absurd theories.'

Flew himself, putting forward this optimistic approach as recently as

1950 cautiously expressed it:
As such discoveries have been developed and applied in field after field, enter-
prises of metaphysical construction have seemed less and less practicable, less
and less respectable. For anyone who has seen how much muddle and per-
plexity, how much paradox and absurdity, has already been traced back to its
tainted sources in misleading idiom or in unexplained and unnoticed distor-
tions of standard English, must suspect that any further metaphysical con-
struction which he might be tempted to erect, would soon meet with a similar,
humiliating and embarassing debacle under the assaults of the new 'logic and

And more recently, in 1956, Waismann has written:

Gone are the days when philosophers were trying to prove all sorts of things:
that the soul is immortal, that this is the best of all possible worlds and the
rest, or to refute, by 'irrefutable' argument and with relish, materialism, posi-
tivism and what not. Proof, refutation - these are dying words in philosophy.3

In this paper an attempt will be made to show that the problem of

universals is a genuine metaphysical problem which appears not to admit
of being disposed of by conceptual analysis; and that the failure of

1 Logic and Language, Vol. 1 (Oxford, Blackwell, 1951: ed. A. G. N. Flew)

p. 6. See also Ryle's statement on p. 36.
2 Ibid., p. 9. See also p. 7.
3 Contemporary British Philosophy, Vol. 3 (New York, Macmillan, 1956; ed.,
H. D. Lewis). F. Waismann: How I See Philosophy, p. 447. See also Pp. 460, 461,
and 469. Also relevant here is A. J. Ayer's Phenomenology and Linguistic Analysis,
Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. XXXIII, 1959, esp. p. 123.


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attempts by linguistic analysts in this area must cast doubt on the sound-
ness of the bold claims indicated above which have so often been can-
vassed by linguistic philosophers.
Linguistic analysts have now applied themselves to the problem of
universals for more than a quarter of a century, yet they seem not to
have dealt with the problem in a satisfactory way, although it is no doubt
true that most of the writings which bear on this problem contain points
of real worth. However, valuable as these contributions are, they seem
neither to answer nor to dispose of the problem to which theories of uni-
versals are advanced as solutions; and, more imnportantly, these contri-
butions seem not to admit of development along the lines of satisfactorily
dealing with the problem. It is impossible to consider all the contributions
of the linguistic analysts which bear on the problem of universals, and I
propose to confine my attention to three contributions, namely those of
Ryle (Systematically Misleading Expressions),4 Wittgenstein (family
names discussion in Philosophical Investigations 5 and Bambrough's
recent restatement of it 6) and Pears (Universals).7 It is not clear to what
extent Ryle in his discussion, and Wittgenstein in his, think of themselves
as making substantial contributions towards dealing with the problem of
universals - they may have felt that what they wrote was relevant but
only a small part of the whole story - but because they are so often
thought by others (e.g., Wittgenstein by Bambrough) 6 to have made
important contributions in this area, it is desirable that their contributions
be examined in conjunction with that of Pears. In any case, there is little
doubt that Ryle did at least think that he was disposing of one of the
main arguments of one of the most notable exponents of the doctrine of
real universals, Plato.
If we may then, for convenience, assume that Wittgenstein's discussion
of family names is part of his treatment of the problem of universals, we
may characterize all these three discussions; as discussions which proceed
by regarding the problem to which theories of universals are advanced
as answers, as the problem of naming i.e., the problem of explaining how
it is that names such as, abstract and common names function in the
language. Ryle speaks as if the theory of Forms was advanced by Plato,
at least partly and apparently chiefly, as an account of the way in which

4 Proceedings of Aristotelian Society, Vol. XXXII (1931-2) Pp. 139-170.

Reprinted in Logic and Language, Vol. 1, ch. 2.
5 L. Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations (Oxford, Blackwell, 1953), Pp.
6 J. R. Bambrough: Universals and Family Resemblances: Proceedings of Aris-
totelian Society, Vol. LXI (1960-1), Pp. 207-222.
7 D. F. Pears: Universals: published as ch. 3, Logic and Language, Vol. 2
(Oxford, Blackwell, 1953, ed., A. G. N. Flew).

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abstract names function; Pears explicitly argues that theories of universals

are the result of attempts to answer two problems (a) 'Why are things
as they are?' - a question which he claims to be answered by scientists -
and (b) the problem of naming. He then goes on to speak as if it is the
problem of naming which is the more usual problem that is treated in
this context. And Wittgenstein's account of family names can only be
regarded as contributing significantly to the problem of universals if the
problem is thought of as being essentially a problem relating to the
manner of functioning of names.
Against this assumption I wish to argue that, whilst philosophers who
have postulated the existence of universals have not always been clear
about the nature of the problem, and have at least sometimes thought of
it as the problem of naming, and even more commonly spoken of it as
such, the problem is not primarily one of naming, but rather that of
resemblance. It is the problem of explaining how it is that things can be
said to resemble one another, i.e., of explaining what is, implied by asser-
tions of the form A resembles B. Further, even were the problem simply
the problem of naming, as Pears claims, it would still not be clear that
the linguistic analysts can completely sidestep the problem in terms of
their account of meaning. Certainly they do succeed in showing that there
has been a great deal of muddled, loose thinking about universals, but
the core of the problem remains. This becomes apparent if the analysts'
contributions are considered in the light of typical traditional formula-
tions of the problem.
In Book 10 of the Republic, Plato reminds us of one of his arguments
for the Forms - the argument from common names - thus: "Well then,
shall we proceed as usual and begin by assuming the existence of a single
essential nature or Form for every set of things which we call by the same
name" (sn. 595, Cornford translation). However, it is evident from Plato's
discussions earlier in' the Republic, and in his other dialogues, that he
argues as much from the fact that things resemble one another, as from
the fact that they possess a common name. Russell, equally significantly,
in his discussion argues scarcely, if at all, from names. He argues rather
from the nature of qualities and relations, from resemblances, and from
the possibility of a priori knowledge.8 Thus, suggestions. that the problem
of naming is not a real problem, or that it is one that can be solved with-
out reference to universals, leave Russell's. treatment untouched. Ewing,
in his popular level treatment of universals, gives much the same sort of
exposition of the problem as that given by Plato in his accounts of the
of the One and the Many argument. Ewing writes:

8 Bertrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford, 1912), ch. X.

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It is strange and significant that hardly any of the words we use with the
exception of those called 'proper names' stand for particular things. They stand
for kinds of things, or for qualities, relations or actions, which do not exist
by themselves at all. But, while one sees plenty of particular tables or parti-
cular men, one never sees a table in general or a man in general. For what
then do such universal terms stand; and if they do not stand for anything in
the world, what is the point of using them? This is the problem of universals.
The natural answer to the question is that they stand for what a number
of particular things have in common, and it is this common element which
is called by philosophers a universal.

Thus, like Plato in so many of his discussions of the Forms, Ewing

starts off by discussing how names function but very quickly shows that
he views the problem of universals as primarily a problem arising out of
resemblance, not naming. We speak of particular things as resembling
certain other things, and when asked to explain this resemblance, we
often point to their possession of some common attribute. Where we
point to a common attribute, the problem then arises as to its nature
and mode of existence; and where, as with similar shades of color, a
more complex explanation is required, the problem consists in seeking
to explain the precise nature and ontological implications of the kind of
identity we point to as the basis of our assertion of a resemblance be-
tween objects of similar shades of color.
Now, when we look at Ryle's discussion we see that it is a completely
adequate answer to any argument for universals from abstract names.
Its defect in this regard is that Ryle implicitly suggests that this is an
important (and by implication perhaps, the most important) argument
for universals in Plato's writings and in philosophy generally. In fact,
Plato and others who have spoken of universals, have advanced many
arguments of radically different kinds; the main arguments being perhaps,
those from resemblance and common names, abstract names being seldom
alluded to by any philosopher in this connection. Plato, more than most
philosophers, does allude to abstract names, but even so, not as if they
constitute a complete argument for the Forms. And the argument from
names is simply one version of one argument used by Plato, the One and
the Many, and this, as already noted, is simply one of a number of argu-
ments of significantly different characters.
Ryle's contribution appears under the heading "Statements Seemingly
about Universals or Quasi-Platonic Expressions." Ryle, in this discussion,
is concerned to show that an argument in support of universals based
upon an assimilation of abstract and proper names is unsound, in that
it is based upon a failure to understand the function of abstract names.

9 A. C. Ewing: The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy (London, Routledge

& Kegan Paul, 1952), p. 212.

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Ryle takes as examples 'Unpunctuality is reprehensible' and 'Virtue is

its own reward'. He observes that:

At first sight these seem to be on all fours with 'Jones merits reproof' and
'Smith has given himself the prize'. So philosophers, taking it that what is
meant by such statements as the former is precisely analogous to what is
meant by such statements as the latter, have accepted the consequence that
the world contains at least two sorts of objects, namely, particulars like Jones
and Smith, and universals like Unpunctuality and Virtue.'0

To bring out the difference in the logic of terms seemingly about

universals, as compared with proper names, he points to the inappropri-
ateness of predicating of universals the predicates we can predicate of
singulars. Ryle argues that we cannot speak of a universal as meriting
reproof, but that we can speak of an individual in this way. He then
observes that what we intend to assert with the aid of these 'universal'
terms, is more clearly expressed in terms of a longer expression not con-
taining such terms. For instance, 'Unpunctuality is reprehensible' means
what is meant by 'Whoever is unpunctual deserves that other people
should reprove him for being unpunctual'. Now, the fact that this second
statement expresses what the first expresses, and expresses it more clearly
and without the aid of the terms which suggest the universal, 'unpunctu-
ality', shows that whilst on a superficial examination 'unpunctuality' may
seem to denote a subject of which an attribute is being predicated, it
really turns out to signify the having of an attribute; and in such an
expression we are really saying that anyone who has that attribute, has
the other. This argument, outlined in respect of unpunctuality, is rightly
assumed to be equally valid with other abstract names. However, sound
as is Ryle's argument, as far as it goes, it leaves both the argument for
universals from general names, and the other argument, from resem-
blance, untouched; and of course, it has no relevance at all to Plato's
other arguments, such as those from knowledge and mathematical stand-
ards. Thus, although Ryle is right in claiming that the seeming universal
terms to which he points do not function as names of a special kind of
object, and that they function rather as abbreviations, the abbreviations
are such as to contain general names, the functioning of which, one of
the main arguments for universals seeks to explain.
Wittgenstein, in his discussion of family names, is concerned to draw
attention to the logical features of some - perhaps of all - general names.
He writes:

66: Consider for example the proceedings we call 'games'. I mean board-
games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common
to them all? - Don't say: 'There must be something common, or they would

10 Logic and Language, Vol. 1, p. 20.

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not be called 'games'' - but look and see whether there is anything common
to all. - For if you look at them you will not see something that is common
to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series at that. To repeat:
don't think, but look! - Look for example at board-games, with their multi-
farious relationships. Now pass to card-games, ---. Compare chess with
noughts and crosses. --- Think of patience. --- Think now of games like
ring-a-ring-a-roses ---. And we can go through the many, many other groups
of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of
similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, some-
times similarities of detail.
67: I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than
'family resemblances'; for the various resemblances between members of a
family --- overlap and criss-cross in the same way. - And I shall say: 'games'
form a family.5

This account of general names - whether it be taken to be an account

of all or of only some general names - has the merit of bearing on one
of the significant, standard arguments for universals and of detracting
from it by questioning its basic assumption. One of Plato's main grounds
for supposing that there must be universals lay in his assumption that
general names such as 'just', 'virtuous', 'beautiful', 'table', and the like,
must stand respectively for what is common to the things called just,
virtuous, beautiful, table, etc.; and this argument has since figured promi-
nently up to the present time, being pressed, for instance, by Ewing in
the discussion referred to above. Wittgenstein does, I think, succeed in
showing that we cannot assume, as the exponents of this argument have
so often assumed, that there must be something in common shared by
all the particulars which appear to fall under the one apparent general
name. However, in showing this, Wittgenstein does not really dispose of
the argument from universals; and as I suggested earlier, it is unlikely
that he would have claimed to have done so. Nevertheless it is important
to notice why the argument from family names, taken in isolation, does
not invalidate. the argument for universals from general names, at least
as a formulation of a real problem which calls for a much more searching
enquiry than is involved in merely discovering that some apparent general
names are really family names.
In the first place, if the argument from family names were to have any
claim at all to be viewed as providing a solution to the problem of uni-
versals - a solution which showed that there was no need nor basis for
postulating a common attribute common to all instances which come
under the name, and such that its ontological status needed further in-
vestigation - it would have to be shown that all general names are family
names. Bambrough seems to see this and inclines to argue that all general
names are family names, but at the last moment seems to hold back from

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such an obviously indefensible position."1 Obviously it is impossible to

establish a priori that all general names are family names - this is some-
thing which, as Wittgenstein himself stresses, has to be settled by looking
and seeing. And when we look, we see that many general names are not
family names - 'triangle' and 'circle' are obvious examples. Further,
Wittgenstein's discussion of games proceeds as it does on the assumption
that we can speak of individual games. - patience, ring-a-ring-a-roses,
chess, and so on, as games possessing common attributes, and the dis-
cussion proceeds on the implicit contrast between the family name 'game'
and the general names, standing for particular games. It is possible that
these names are also family names, but it is not clear that they are so,
nor that they are thought to be such by Wittgenstein, nor that they mu
be family names, nor that if we continue the process long enough, we
will never reach general names which are not family names. This being
so, it means that the problem of universals, as it arises from attempts to
explain the functioning of general names, simply needs restatement, so
that it is stated in terms of genuine general names and not of apparent
general names which are really family names. And this, would in turn
mean that if the argument from general names does entail the existence
of real universals, the discovery of family names would at most reveal
that certain universals had been postulated in error.
The second limitation of the account of general names as family names
is that it simply multiplies the number of general names. It points to a
family of general names, where traditionalists, pointed to only one general
name, but it leaves untouched the problem of accounting for the mode
of functioning of the individual members of these families of general
names. It explains why it is that so many apparent general names are
indefinable, why it is that we cannot find some general common property,
by showing that the one word may stand for a family of general names.
But the function of these genuine general names needs to be explained.
Wittgenstein, in terms of his account of meaning, indicates the lines along
which such an account would be given; and it is to this that Pears alludes
in his article. First, however, Bambrough's account of Wittgenstein's
solution needs to be considered.
Bambrough suggests that the answer to the problem of universals as
stated in respect of a family name such as 'game' is simple. He states:
"The simple truth is that what games have in common is that they are
games." 1.2 If this assertion means anything more than that, what games
have in common is the name 'game' - and Bambrough specifically claims
that it does mean something other than this - then it is false. However,

op. cit. Pp. 211-214.

12 Ibid., p. 216.

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I suspect it is really meaningless. The whole point about family names

is that they are words which may apply to things which have nothing in
common except the name; they apply to things with overlapping resem-
blances such that there may be nothing in common between members
at the extreme ends of the group. And all that the group has in common
is the thread of family resemblances and the name - to suggest more is
to misunderstand the concept of a family name. How then can it be true,
or even meaningful, to assert that what the members of a family name
'X' have in common is that they are 'X's', where to be an 'X' is some-
thing more than to be called an 'X'? It is, in any case, clear that no one
who regarded the problem of universals as a real problem and who
accepted that many apparent general names are family names, would
wish to argue that there must be something in common between members
of a group falling under a family name. Rather he would see that it was
inappropriate to look for universals corresponding to family names, and
he would reformulate the problem of universals accordingly.
Pears, as already mentioned, is concerned to suggest that theories
about universals are theories which spring from attempting to deal with
the problem of naming; and although he does not specifically state it, he
shows that he regards these theories as attempts to deal with the problem
of naming as it arises in respect to general names. He argues that the
three standard answers - the realist, the conceptualist, and the nominalist
theories - are all unsatisfactory attempts to explain naming, all being
circular. His argument here can be sketched in most effectively by two
brief quotes:
'A thing is called by a certain name because it instantiates a certain universal'
is obviously circular when particularized, but it looks imposing when it is left
in this general form.A2


Yet the explanation of meaning is incomplete until a particular universal is

specified, and, when it is specified, the explanation fails through circularity
The detail of Pears' case against the standard solutions as unsatisfac-
tory accounts of naming is not as important here as is his own positive
account of naming and his contention that the problem of universals is
the problem of naming. Pears says surprisingly little by way of explaining
his own account of naming except to suggest that different names need
different explanations, and that, as a result, no blanket account of
naming will ever prove to be satisfactory. But this is a point a Platonist
could allow - for Plato himself took the first step towards doing so, when

13 Logic and Language, Vol. 2, p. 54.

14 Ibid., p. 55.

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he noted that the names of absences of attributes, e.g., barbarian, do not

stand for Forms - and still insist that some words so function that uni-
versals must be mentioned as the basis of their functioning. (A Platonist
could go much further and point out that a different account may be
given of the logical function of words such as nouns., adjectives, prepo-
sitions, and also of emotive and nonermotive words, etc. All he need
insist on is that universals. enter into the accounts of the functioning of
some words.) Further, the Wittgensteinian account of meaning seems to
underlie Pears' talk about naming. According to this, the meaning of a
name is to be explained in terms of the rules governing its use in the
language. Part of Wittgenstein's discussion of meaning consists in showing
that names do not need what he calls 'bearers', and that the meaning of
a name is something distinct from its bearer. This means that if this sort
of account of meaning is tenable, it would dispose of the simple argu-
ment from general names, qua names, to universals as the meanings and
bearers of these general names; and as we have seen, this is an histori-
cally significant, although not major argument, for universals. However,
it does not succeed completely in explaining naming without encountering
the problem of universals, in that an account of names in terms of the
rules governing their use must involve as part of the explanation of the
rules, the fact that the name applies to things of a certain kind and not
to things of some other kind, i.e., the rules must include referring rules.
That is to say, an account of names in terms of rules governing their use,
must explain why a name applies to the particular group of things to
which it applies and not to other things. This would seem to involve
reference to resemblance. It is possible that a behavioristic account of
the problem of resemblance and of referring rules could be offered. But
if so, this would be to evade, rather than to meet the philosopher's
problem of universals. If this problem is faced, the problem of universals
remains, for we have to explain resemblance in terms of aspects of dif-
ferent things which are identical, and hence give an account of these
aspects. To explain: 'Why are certain objects alike?' 'Because they are
all of the same shade of the same color, yellow.' 'What is this quality,
yellow, and what is its mode of existence?' This leads us back to the
question of universals, for the scientist's answer to such a question is
irrelevant to the philosopher's question, which remains after the scien-
tist's answer has been stated.
To conclude: Thus, just as various traditionalist philosophers who
have started out by explaining the theories of universals as answers to
the problem of naming soon come to advance these same theories as
answers to the problem of resemblance, so linguistic analysts, who
attempt to reduce the problem of universals to confusions resulting from
or centering around the problem of naming, seem to be involved in

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facing up to the problem of universals in completing the detail of their

accounts of meaning and of family and general names. And even if this
were not so, the problem of resemblance would seem to remain a problem
to which the various theories of universals would be appropriate answers,
and one to which they have been advanced as answers; and it is a
problem that seems in no obvious way to be capable of being settled or
dissolved by negative linguistic analysis. Hence, whilst the linguistic
analysts have made some important contributions to the literature relating
to universals, and whilst they have exposed some shoddy thinking for
what it is, they have not, and do not appear to be able to develop a
satisfactory account of their own of a kind that would fulfil the move-
ment's persistent antimetaphysical aspirations noted above.



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