Mind Self and Society

Section 12 Universality

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Our experience does recognize or find that which is typical, and this is as essential for an adequate theory of meaning as is the element of particularity. There are not only facts of red, for example, but there is in the experience a red which is identical so far as experience has been concerned with some other red. One can isolate the red just as a sensation, and as such it is passing; but in addition to that passing character there is something that we call universal, something that gives a meaning to it. The event is a color, it is red, it is a certain kind of red-and that is something which does not have a passing character in the statement of color itself. If we go over from particular contents of this sort to other objects, such as a chair, a tree, a dog, we find there something that is distinguishable from the particular object, plant, or animal that we have about us. What we recognize in a dog is not the group of sensuous elements, but rather the character of being a dog, and unless we have some reason for interest in this particular dog, some problem as to its ownership or its likelihood to bite us, our relationship to the animal is to a universal-it is just a dog. If a person asks you what you saw you reply that it was a dog. You would not know the color of the dog; it was just a dog in general that you saw.

There is a meaning here that is given in the experience itself, and it is this meaning or universal character with which a behavioristic psychology is supposed to have difficulty in dealing. When there is a response to such an animal as a dog there is a response of recognition as well as a response toward an object in the landscape; and this response of recognition is something

(83) that is universal and not particular. Can this factor be stated in behavioristic terms? We are not, of course, interested in philosophical implications; we are not interested in the metaphysics of the dog; but we are interested in the recognition which would belong to any other animal of the same sort. Now, is there a response of such a universal character in our nature that it can be said to answer to this recognition of what we term the universal? It is the possibility of such a behavioristic statement that I endeavor to sketch.

What the central nervous system presents is not simply a set of automatisms, that is, certain inevitable reactions to certain specific stimuli, such as taking our hand away from a radiator that is touched, or jumping when a loud sound occurs behind us. The nervous system provides not only the mechanism for that sort of conduct but also for recognizing an object to which we are going to respond; and that recognition can be stated in terms of a response that may answer to any one of a certain group of stimuli. That is, one has a nail to drive, he reaches for the hammer and finds it gone, and he doe's not stop to look for it, but reaches for something else he can use, a brick or a stone, anything having the necessary weight to give momentum to the blow. Anything that he can get hold of that will serve the purpose will be a hammer. That sort of response which involves the grasping of a heavy object is a universal.[1] If the object does call out that response, no matter what its particular character may be, one can say that it has a universal character. It is something that can be recognized because of this character, notwithstanding the variations that are involved in the individual instances.

Now, can there be in the central nervous system a mechanism which can be aroused so that it will give rise to this response, however varied the conditions are otherwise? Can there be a mechanism of a sufficiently complicated character to represent

(84) the objects with which we deal-objects that have not only spatial dimensions, but also temporal dimensions? An object such as a melody, a tune, is a unitary affair. We hear the first notes and we respond to it as a whole. There is such a unity in the lives presented by biographies which follow a man from his birth to his death, showing all that belongs to the growth of the individual and the changes that take place in his career. Now, is there something in the central nervous system that can answer to such characters of the object, so that we can give a behavioristic account of an object so complicated as a melody or a life? The mere complication does not present serious difficulty, because the central nervous system has an almost infinite number of elements and possible combinations, but can one find a structure there in the central nervous system that would answer to a certain type of response which represents for us the character of the object which we recognize, as distinct from the mere sensations?

Recognition always implies a something that can be discovered in an indefinite number of objects. One can only sense a color once, in so far as "color" means an immediate relationship of the light waves to the retina of a normal nervous system. That experience happens and is gone, and cannot be repeated. But something is recognized, there is a universal character given in the experience itself which is at least capable of an indefinite number of repetitions. It is this which has been supposed to be beyond the behavioristic explanation or statement. What a behavioristic psychology does is to state that character of the experience in terms of the response. It may be said that there cannot be a universal response, but only a response to a particular object. On the contrary, in so far as the response is one that can take place with reference to the brick, a stone, a hammer, there is a universal in the form of the response that answers to a whole set of particulars, and the particulars may be indefinite in number, provided only they have certain characters in relation to the response. The relationship of this response to an indefinite number of stimuli is just the relationship that is repre-

(85) -sented in what we call "recognition." When we use the term "recognition" we may mean no more than that we pick up an object that serves this particular purpose; what we generally mean is that the character of the object that is a stimulus to its recognition is present in our experience. We can have, in this way, something that is universal as over against various particulars. I think we can recognize in any habit that which answers to different stimuli; the response is universal and the stimulus is particular. As long as this element serves as a stimulus, calls out this response, one can say the particular comes under this universal. That is the statement of the behavioristic psychology of the universal form as over against the particular instance.

The next point is rather a matter of degree, illustrated by the more complex objects such as a symphony, or a life, with all their variations and harmonious contrasts. When a music critic discusses such a complex object as a symphony can we say that there is something in the central nervous system that answers to the object which the critic has before him? Or take the biography of a great man, a Lincoln or a Gladstone, where the historian, say Morley, has before him that entire life with all its indefinite number of elements. Can he be said to have in his central nervous system an object that answers to that attitude of recognizing Gladstone in all his changes as the same Gladstone? Could one, if he had the mechanism to do so, pick out in the historian's brain what answers to Gladstone? What would it be, supposing that it could be done? It would certainly not be just a single response to the name Gladstone. In some way it must represent all of the connections which took place in his experience, all those connections which were involved in his conduct in so far as their analogues took place in Gladstone's life. it must be some sort of a unity, such a unity that if this whole is touched at any point it may bring out any other element in the historian's experience of Gladstone. It may throw light on any phase of his character; it may bring out any of the situations in which Gladstone figures. All of this must be potentially present in such a mapping of Gladstone in Morley's

(86) central nervous system. It is indefinitely complex, but the central nervous system is also indefinitely complex. It does not represent merely spatial dimensions but temporal dimensions also. It can represent an action which is delayed, which is dependent upon an earlier reaction; and this later reaction can, in its inception, but before it takes place overtly, influence the earlier reaction.

We can conceive, then, in the structure of the central nervous system such a temporal dimension as that of the melody, or recognition of the notes and their distance from each other in the scale, and our appreciation of these as actually affected by the beginning of our response to the later notes, as when we are expecting a certain sort of an ending. If we ask how that expectation shows itself in our experience we should have difficulty in detailing it in terms of behavior, but we realize that this experience is determined by our readiness to respond to later notes and that such readiness can be there without the notes being themselves present. The way in which we are going to respond to a major or minor ending does determine the way in which we appreciate the notes that are occurring. It is that attitude that gives the character of our appreciation of all extended musical compositions. What is given at the outset is determined by the attitude to what is to come later. That is a phase of our experience which James has illustrated by his discussion of the sensory character of such conjunctions as "and," "but," "though." If you assert a proposition and add, "but," you determine the attitude of the hearer toward it. He does not know what you are going to introduce, but he does know there is some sort of an exception to it. His knowledge is not stated in reflective form, but is rather an attitude. There is a "but" attitude, an "if" attitude, a "though" attitude. It is such attitudes which we assume toward the beginning of a melody, toward the rhythm involved in poetry; it is these attitudes that give the import to the structure of what we are dealing with.

There are certain attitudes which we assume toward a rising

(87) column or toward its supports, and we only have to have suggestions of the object to call out those attitudes. The artist and the sculptor play upon these attitudes just as the musician does. Through the indication of the stimuli each is able to bring in the reflection of the complexities of a response. Now, if one can bring in a number of these and get a multiform reflection of all of these attitudes into harmony, he calls out an aesthetic response which we consider beautiful. It is the harmonizing of these complexities of response that constitutes the beauty of the object. There are different stimuli calling out an indefinite number of responses and the natures of these are reflected back into our immediate experience, and brought into harmonious relationship with each other. The later stages of the experience itself can be present in the immediate experience which influences them. Given a sufficiently complicated central nervous system, we can then find an indefinite number of responses, and these responses can be not only immediate but delayed, and as delayed can be already influencing present conduct.

We can thus find, in some sense, in the central nervous system what would answer to complex objects, with their somewhat vague and indefinite meaning, as they lie in our actual experience -- objects complex not only spatially but also temporally. When we respond to any phase of these objects all the other values are there ready to play into it, and give it its intellectual and emotional content. I see no reason why one should not find, then, in the organization of the attitude as presented in the central nervous system, what it is we refer to as the meaning of the object, that which is universal. The answering of the response to an indefinite number of stimuli which vary from each other is something that gives us the relation of the universal to the particular, and the complexity of the object may be as indefinitely great as are the elements in the central nervous system that represent possible temporal and spatial combinations of our own conduct. We can speak, then, legitimately of a certain sort of response which a Morley has to a Gladstone, a response

(88) that can find its expression in the central nervous system, taking into account all of its complexities.

[So far we have stressed the universality or generality of the response as standing over against the particularity of the stimulus which evokes it. I now wish to call attention to the social dimension of universality.]

Thinking takes place in terms of universals, and a universal is an entity that is distinguishable from the object by means of which we think it. When we think of a spade we are not confined in our thought to any particular spade. Now if we think of the universal spade there must be something that we think about, and that is confessedly not given in the particular occurrence which is the occasion of the thought. The thought transcends all the occurrences. Must we assume a realm of such entities, essences or subsistents, to account for our thinking? That is generally assumed by modern realists. Dewey's answer seems to be that we have isolated by our abstracting attention certain features of spades which are irrelevant to the particular different spades, though they have their existence or being in these particular spades. These characters which will occur in any spade that is a spade are therefore irrelevant to any one of them. We may go farther and say that these characters are irrelevant to the occurrence of the spades that arise and are worn out. In other words, they are irrelevant to time, and may be called eternal objects or entities. But, says Dewey, this irrelevancy of these characters to time in our thought does not abstract their being from the particular spades. . . . . Dewey quite agrees with the realists aforesaid that the meaning is not lodged in the word itself, that is, he is not a nominalist. He insists, however, that the meaning resides in the spade as a character which has arisen through the social nature of thinking. I suppose we can say in current terminology that meanings have emerged in social experience, just as colors emerged in the experience of organisms with the apparatus of vision.[2]


Meaning as such, i.e., the object of thought, arises in experience through the individual stimulating himself to take the attitude of the other in his reaction toward the object. Meaning is that which can be indicated to others while it is by the same process indicated to the indicating individual. In so far as the individual indicates it to himself in the role of the other, he is occupying his perspective, and as he is indicating it to the other from his own perspective, and as that which is so indicated is identical, it must be that which can be in different perspectives. It must therefore be a universal, at least in the identity which belongs to the different perspectives which are organized in the single perspective, and in so far as the principle of organization is one which admits of other perspectives than those actually present, the universality may be logically indefinitely extended. Its universality in conduct, however, amounts only to the irrelevance of the differences of the different perspectives to the characters which are indicated by the significant symbols in use, i.e., the gestures which indicate to the individual who uses them what they indicate to the others, for whom they serve as appropriate stimuli in the cooperative process.[3]

The significant gesture or symbol always presupposes for its significance the social process of experience and behavior in which it arises; or, as the logicians say, a universe of discourse is always implied as the context in terms of which, or as the field within which, significant gestures or symbols do in fact have significance. This universe of discourse is constituted by a group of individuals carrying on and participating in a common social process of experience[4] and behavior, within which these gestures or symbols have the same or common meanings for all members of that group, whether they make them or address them to other individuals, or whether they overtly respond to them as made or addressed to them by other individuals. A uni-

(90) -verse of discourse is simply a system of common or social meanings.[5]

The very universality and impersonality of thought and reason is from the behavioristic standpoint the result of the given individual taking the attitudes of others toward himself, and of his finally crystallizing all these particular attitudes into a single attitude or standpoint which may be called that of the "generalized other."

Alternative ways of acting under an indefinite number of different particular conditions or in an indefinite number of different possible situations - ways which are more or less identical for an indefinite number of normal individuals- are all that universals (however treated in logic or metaphysics) really amount to; they are meaningless apart from the social acts in which they are implicated and from which they derive their significance.[6]


  1. Abstraction and universals are due to conflict and inhibition: a wall is something to be avoided and something to be jumped, and while both it is mental, a concept. Language makes it possible to hold on to these mental objects. Abstractions exist for lower animals but they cannot hold them (1924).
  2. [This paragraph is selected from a manuscript, "The Philosophy of John Dewey,." To be published in the 1936 International Journal of Ethics.]
  3. [Paragraph selected from MS.]
  4. A common world exists .... only in so far as there is a common (group) experience (MS.)
  5. Our socalled laws of thought are the abstractions of social intercourse. Our whole process of abstract thought, technique and method is essentially social (1912).
    The organization of the social act answers to what we call the universal. Functionally it is the universal (1930).
  6. All the enduring relations have been subject to revision. There remain the logical constants, and the deductions from logical implications. To the same category belong the so-called universals or concepts. They are the elements and structure of a universe of discourse. In so far as in social conduct with others and with ourselves we indicate the characters that endure in the perspective of the group to which we belong and out of which we arise, we are indicating that which relative to our conduct is unchanged, to which, in other words, passage is irrelevant. A metaphysics which lifts these logical elements out of their experiential habitat and endows them with a subsistential being overlooks the fact that the irrelevance to passage is strictly relative to the situation in conduct within which the reflection arises, that while we can find in different situations a method of conversation and so of thought which proves irrelevant to the differences in the situations, and so provides a method of translation from one perspective to another, this irrelevance belongs only to the wider character which the problem in reflection assumes, and never transcends the social conduct within which the method arises (MS.).

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