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Universals and Creativity

  • Jonathan Westphal


There are many problems of universals, at least the four distinguished by Jenny Teichmann. Consider her second one. ‘How can we form a general term when we are faced with easily distinguishable, widely differing examples?’ The term ‘blue’, for example, covers a wide range of—well, what does it cover a wide range of? A wide range of the colour blue? This is nonsense. What it covers is a wide range of blues—shades of blue. But we do not form a general term when faced with or referring to these items. We distinguish them: cerulean, ultramarine, cyan, cobalt, navy blue and so on. ‘Blue’ is not the name of any of these shades of blue. It does not ‘cover’ anything except the colour, of which it is the name. ‘Blue’ is the name of the colour blue. There are no widely differing, easily distinguishable examples of that. The colour blue cannot differ widely or easily be distinguished from the colour blue. Leibniz's law prevents it. It is shades of blue (blues, a blue, this blue, that blue) which differ and are easily distinguishable. The moment we try to say, ‘But this differs from that’, the question will be, ‘This and that what?’ If the answer is, ‘This colour (the colour blue)’ and ‘That colour (the colour blue)’, then a mistake has been made. For there is no differing and distinguishing in this case. (But cf. ‘This colour blue’ and ‘This blue colour’.) Teichmann's problem cannot even be stated. If we say that what differ are this blue and that blue, which is the right thing to say, then we have two count nouns which mean ‘shade of blue’. There is no general term for these different shades. There is no answer to the question, ‘What is the name of all these differing shades?’ Certainly they are all blues, but each has its own name, and it is not ‘blue’. Teichmann's question cannot arise here either. The question, ‘What do blues have in common in virtue of which they are blue?’ is either elliptical or bad logical grammar. Which it is depends on the construal, or misconstrual, of ‘are blue’. The question should be either, ‘…in virtue of which they are blues’ in the plural—they are not identical with the colour blue—or ‘…in virtue of which they are shades of blue.’ The plural agreement must come somewhere.



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1 Teichmann, Jenny, ‘Universals and Common Properties’, Analysis (04 1969), 162.

2 Teichmann, Jenny, ‘Universals and Common Properties’, 164.

3 There is a complicated problem about the relationship between physical and phenomenological systems of concepts, though. ‘Does it mean anything to say, ‘more of this red? When I'm not talking about pigments.’ (Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Remarks (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), 275.)

4 Thorp, J. W., ‘Whether the Theory of Family Resemblance Solves the Problem of Universals’, Mind (10 1972), 569.Bambrough, Renford, ‘Universals and Family Resemblances’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 19601961, pp. 207222.

5 It is a pity, though, that red is used as the example, not blue. When Wittgenstein wrote in the Brown Book that ‘we could easily imagine a language (and that again means a culture) in which there existed no common expression for light and dark blue’ (The Blue and Brown Books, (New York: Harper, 1958), 134), he must have had Russian in mind, which he had started to learn from Fania Pascal in late 1933 or in 1934 (Pascal, Fania, ‘A Personal Memoir’, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections ed. Rhees, Rush (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), 29), in whichgoluboi means the light blues and sinii, the darker ones. But if you ask ‘a man of this tribe’ what a light blue and a dark blue have in common, he does not say, ‘Nothing’. He may say that they are both sinii, which also functions as a translation for unspecified English ‘blue’.

6 Harrison, Bernard, Form and Content (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973).

7 Chomsky, Noam, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (The Hague: Mouton, 1964), 7, from Harrison, , Form and Content, 14.

8 Harrison, Bernard, Form and Content, 1415.

9 Harrison, , Form and Content, 15, my emphasis. The only sense in which we can name unfamiliar shades is the sense in which in 1856 W. H. Perkin named (baptized) the colour or shade of his new coal-tar aniline dye ‘Perkin mauve’ after himself and the mallow plant. As to the alleged creativity involved in the use of compound terms, to say that an unnamed shade is a bluish green is to describe it, not to name it.

10 Here I follow David Sanford's criticism of a confused proof from David Armstrong which purports to show that ‘redness is not a property common to all red things’ (‘Armstrong's Theory of Universals’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 31 (1980), 76). Armstrong's proof is this. ‘Suppose that redness is a property which all red particulars, whatever their shade of red, have in common. Since properties are universals, this entails that the particulars are identical in a certain respect: in respect of their redness. Now consider particulars of different shades of red. It is in this very respect of redness that they differ. Yet it is impossible that things be identical and different in the very same respect. It is undeniable that different shades of red are different properties. It follows that redness is not a property common to all red things.’ (Armstrong, David, A Theory of Universals II, (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 117.)


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