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Russell on Knowledge of Universals by Acquaintance

  • M. Giaquinto (a1)

Russell's book The Problems of Philosophy was first published a hundred years ago.1 A remarkable feature of this enduring text is the glint of Platonism it presents on a dark empiricist sea: while our knowledge of physical objects is entirely mediated by direct awareness of sense data, we can also have direct awareness of certain universals, Russell claims.2 This is questionable, even if one has no empiricist inclination. Universals are abstract, hence causally inert. How, then, can we have any knowledge of them, direct or indirect? This paper is about Russell's answer to that question. I will argue that given some modification and elaboration of Russell's views, his claim that some universals are knowable by acquaintance is plausible.

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1 Russell Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy (Home University Library, 1912).

2 Russell uses the word ‘universal’ for properties and relations. The universal–particular distinction is Aristotle's, not Plato's; but the differences between them on this topic are not relevant in this context.

3 Franklin J., ‘Aristotelian Realism’ in The Philosophy of Mathematics ed. Irvine A. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2009), 103. Despite my disagreement on this point, I am in general agreement with this fine paper.

4 Russell, op. cit., Ch.10, 101.

5 Russell, op. cit., Ch.5, 46.

6 Russell, op. cit., Ch.5, 55.

7 Russell, op. cit., Ch. 5, 47.

8 Russell, op. cit., Ch.5, 47–8.

9 Writing of the colour datum of a table's appearance Russell says: ‘I know [it] perfectly and completely when I see it, and no further [non-propositional] knowledge of it is even theoretically possible.’ op. cit., Ch.5, 47.

10 Russell, op. cit., Ch. 5, 48–52.

11 Russell, op. cit., Ch. 10, 101.

12 Aristotle, Metaphysics K 1061a29-b2. ‘abstraction’ is the translation of ‘αφαιρɛσις’ (aphairesis), which is also translated as ‘removal’ or ‘taking away’. That a body is not represented as, say, having weight does not entail that it is represented as weightless.

13 The fact that knowing something with behaviour is not knowing a truth allows that knowing the thing is partly constituted by knowing truths about the thing. Russell may have overlooked this.

14 Jackson F., ‘What Mary Didn't Know’, Journal of Philosophy 83, (1986), 291295.

15 This is claimed by Conee E., ‘Phenomenal Knowledge’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 72, (1994), 136150.

16 Russell, op. cit., Ch. 10, 101.

17 Berkeley G., A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. [1710] Dancy J. (ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). [Hereafter: Principles] See Berkeley's Introduction for rejection of mental operations that accomplish what abstracting is supposed to accomplish. See the Introduction § 16 for Berkeley's acceptance of selective attention.

18 For a short critical overview of empirical work on infant categorisation see Rakison D. and Yermolayeva Y., ‘Infant categorisation’, WIREs Cognitive Science (2010), 1, 894905.

19 Quinn al.Developmental change in form categorization in early infancy’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology 19 (2001), 207218.

20 Russell, op. cit., Ch.10, 101–2.

21 Quinn al.Development of categorical representations for above and below spatial relations in 3- to 7-month-old infantsDevelopmental Psychology 32 (1996), 942950. Quinn P. C. ‘Spatial representation by young infants: Categorization of spatial relations or sensitivity to a crossing primitive?Memory & Cognition 32 (2004), 852861.

22 Quinn al.Evidence for representations of perceptually similar natural categories by 3-month-old and 4-month-old infantsPerception 22 (1993) 463475. The asymmetry may be explained by the much greater variability in perceived features among dogs; relatively speaking cats look similar to one another.

23 Berkeley, Principles. Introduction §22. Berkeley talks of ‘an attentive perception of what passes in my mind’ and says ‘so long as I confine my thoughts to my own ideas divested of words, . . . I cannot be deceived in thinking I have an idea which I have not.’

24 Berkeley's other major objection to abstract ideas rests on two mistaken assumptions: (1) any abstract idea would have to be the idea of an impossible thing, and (2) we cannot have an idea of an impossible thing. For a clear expression of this objection, see Volume 2, page 125 of The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, Luce A. and Jessop T., (eds). 9 volumes. ( London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1948–1957).

25 Russell, op. cit., Ch. 10, 101.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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