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The problem of universals arises when philosophy attempts to give an account of the relationship mind and objects, between language and the world. How do words succeed in being about things? In this paper I show how the problem of universals arises out of a particular theory about the relationship of words to things and that when an alternative theory is accepted the notion of universal dissipates and is replaced by the concept of meaning. Meaning, however, has its own problems. In the end I conclude that there are no universals.

First I explain the simplest theory of reference and its consequences. In the second part of the paper, I introduce an alternative, meaning-based theory of reference, which we owe to Frege. I then trace the destiny of this meaning-based theory from Husserl's subjectivization of Frege and Derrida's criticism of Husserl, to interpretations of the theory by some Naturalists - Putnam and Burge. I conclude this tour through the twentieth century by briefly presenting Rorty's rejection of both meaning and reference.

The Theory of Immediate Reference

Imagine that words were related to the world in the following way: Every time we were to meet a new individual object or event we would create a distinctively new term. Sometimes we do this. When I first meet Jane, I make up or learn the name "Jane". When I meet, John, I have a new, different name, "John". I will call such words "singular terms" and the individual objects to which they relate their "referents." Words are like labels we paste onto the objects to which they refer. Let me call this explanation of the relationship of language to the world, the Theory of Immediate Reference. This theory is shared by people as diverse as Plato, St. Augustine and the early Wittgenstein.

Our language also includes general terms. By "general term" I mean a word that refers equally to many referents. The term "person," for instance, refers to Jane, John, David, and millions of other individuals. Similarly, "tree" and "water," refer to many trees and much water. The set of all objects to which a general term refers is called the term's "extension."

If all my words were singular terms, I would live in a Heraclitan world in which every object would be different and unrelated to any other. I would see no order or structure in the world. My experience would be a mass of buzzing confusion. General terms structure my world so that when I see Jane I can think of her as being the same as John and as different from a tree. General terms bear the burden of order in the world.

If we accept the Theory of Immediate Reference, we have a problem with general terms: the "Problem of Universals." The Oxford Companion to Philosophy defines "universals" in the following way. "Universals are the putative referents of general terms like 'red', 'table' and 'tree', understood as entities distinct from any of the particular things describable by those terms."(1) Such an understanding of general terms presupposes the Theory of Immediate Reference: All words refer to objects. It sets up "reference" as the defining characteristic of all terms or concepts, not just singular ones. Philosophers introduce the notion of Universals, then, as part of one way to account for the relationship of language to the world. The problem of universals is the question of whether they are objects, and if so, what kind of objects.

Plato, for instance, assumes that general terms are like singular terms in that they have an object to which they refer. Just as the word "Socrates" refers to a singular object I can see in the visible world, so the word "personhood" must refer to a "general object," the eidos or Form of Person, which my soul saw in the invisible world. Like singular individuals, Universal Forms are objects in themselves in the sense that their being does not depend on our perceiving them or referring to them; they just sit there, waiting for us to refer to them by means of our general terms. I have argued elsewhere that this theory is based on an analogy with visual perception: thoughts and words relate to objects in a manner analogous to the way the eye relates to visual things.(2) A position like this I will call "Platonic Realism": Universals are real.

Frege's Theory of Reference as Mediated by Meaning

In the last century, the most important philosopher to be labeled a "Platonist" was probably Frege. Despite the label, Frege rejects Plato's notion that general words should be understood as simply referring to universals. His new, alternative theory of signification, which applies to all words and signs not just general ones, involves three elements rather than two. Each word, whether singular or general, has a meaning (Sinn) and it is through its meaning that it succeeds in designating its referent. For example, the singular term "the evening star" refers to Venus not because we arbitrarily happened to have pasted that label onto it, but because Venus is the brightest star in the evening and that is what the term "evening star" means. Instead of Plato's twosome, word and referent, we now have a threesome, word, meaning and referent. Let me call this the Theory of Reference as Mediated by Meaning.

It is important not to think of a Fregean meaning as an object to which a term refers. Think of it rather as a device or instrument that a term needs to use in order to reach its object. It is an element that mediates between words and objects and enables words to refer to their referents. Rather than think of the meaning of a general term (which he calls a "concept") as an object, Frege proposed that we think of it by analogy with a (mathematical) function: It maps the term onto the objects to which the term refers.(3)

Words come and go; a million years ago there were none. And on an even longer time scale, planets like Venus are born and decay. The meaning "evening star," however, is eternal: It was there before words were invented to express it, and it will still be around even when Venus has been dissolved by the coming supernova. The term "the mountain made of gold" has no referent, as far as we know, but it has a meaning nevertheless. A term like "the largest prime number" could never have a referent but it still has a meaning; indeed it is because of its meaning that we know it could never have a referent. In Frege's scheme, the eternal, unchanging elements are not generally objects that words refer to, but the meanings of words. If we call Frege a Platonic Realist, then, we must be careful to point out that, unlike Plato, Frege does not believe in Universal Objects. He is a Realist with respect to meanings, which are functional devices, not objects.
The problem of the status of universals becomes with Frege the problem of the status of meanings. Of course, for Frege, the Platonist, meanings are not psychological entities. Frege is not at all a subjectivist. Nevertheless, since Descartes, an emphasis on the role of the subject has been brewing, so it is not surprising that Frege's Platonic meaning becomes in our century a function of the subject. It is largely in the guise of "meaning for a subject" that Universals are discussed in our century, whether by Husserl, by Naturalists or by the Post-Moderns.

Husserl: All Meaning is for a Subject

Let us start with Husserl, who takes up the Cartesian, subjectivist theme. Husserl's phenomenology is founded on his principle of all principles: "that every originary presentive intuition is a legitimating source of cognition, that everything originarily … offered to us in 'intuition' is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there."(4) Husserl's concept of intuition - the word comes from Latin intuere, to look at -- is derived from the experience of sight, in fact he often uses it interchangeably with sehen, seeing (a throwback to the optical metaphor).

For example, in examining the perception of this individual table we find that it is given to us in such a way that we see only one side of it at a time. An individual tone in a melody, however, is given to us in a quite different way; in particular we do not experience only one side of it at a time. On the basis of these individual cases, we can also see that it is essential to any material object whatsoever that it be given from only one perspective at a time and that it is essential to any melody or tone that this not be the case. These essential properties are not due to some limitations on my part; if a Martian, angel or god were to talk of seeing the backside of a melody -- and mean it literally -- we would know that there had been some miscommunication. Maybe she is using the word "melody" to refer to what we call "table." The essence of melody is such that it has no other side for anyone.

Every individual existence, Husserl claims, is "contingent," yet it belongs to the sense of anything contingent that it have an essence and therefore an Eidos which can be apprehended purely. An individual object is not merely an individual object as such, a bare "This here," an object never repeatable. A musical tone, for example, has not only the contingent properties of occurring at 2:15 p.m. and lasting five seconds, it also has "the universal essence tone as such." In this respect it is repeatable. "Everything belonging to the essence of the individuum another individuum can have too."  Just as there is the experiencing, or intuition of something individual, so too there is the intuition or eidetic seeing (ideation) of the pure essence or Eidos.(5)

Husserl is absolutely explicit here about the analogy between ordinary visual perception in which objects are present before us and the givenness of essences. The optical analogy brings with it the implication that an essence is a non-physical object "present" to us in experience. But is this not a step back from Frege? Does it not convert a meaning back into a universal object? Is Husserl then an advocate of Immediate Reference? Is Husserl a Platonic Realist with respect to universals?

Husserl seems worried about this interpretation. He puts scare quotes around "object," claims that he is using the word in a broader sense than usual, and insists that eidetic intuition is "intuition of an essentially peculiar and novel sort."(7) He even says that "Essences can be an intuitive consciousness of essences [sic], in a certain manner they can be seized upon, without becoming 'objects about which.'(8) He examines the eidetic, universal intuition, "Any color whatever is different from any sound whatever," and claims that this "intuition is not there as one which makes the essence an object."(9) As eidetic investigators, he says, "we are directed not to essences as objects but to objects subsumed under essences."(10)

But these are minor quibbles. Husserl can offer a more sustained defense against the charge of Platonic by reminding us of his crucial qualification to the principle of principles quoted above: "every … intuition is a legitimating source of cognition … but only within the limits in which it is presented there."  Intuition can deliver certainly, but only about how things can be presented to experience. An essence is constituted within consciousness, as present to consciousness, and should not be thought of as an object in the sense of an "in-itself." While his central doctrine of intentionality is a sustained criticism of empiricism for failing to distinguish between the process of experiencing or meaning ("noesis"), and the object as that which is experienced or meant ("noema"), both of these are elements of consciousness. It is this that differentiates him from Platonists like Frege. As Süssbauer puts it:

Ultimately for Husserl essences are constituted by consciousness. An essence is a meaning that is meant by a meaner. Without subjectivity, there can be no meanings, singular or universal. A meaning is not a substance "in-itself" which is the source of its own identity; its being is in its mode of presence before me. If an evil genius were to place in my mind a musical tone, but I experienced it as a table, it would be a table. If she tried to foist onto me a pain that didn't hurt, then it wouldn't be a pain for me, and so it wouldn't be a pain at all. The subject is the final authority over the nature of what experience means for it, that is, over the noema.

Husserl has taken Frege's analysis of the sign and converted it into an overall theory of consciousness. In the process, Frege's notion of sign has become Husserl's noesis and his notion of meaning (Sinn) has been transmuted into noema. But what has happened to Frege's third element, the referent? This is a very difficult and highly disputed area in the interpretation of Husserl.(12) One interpretation, which though very inadequate will have to do for my purposes in this paper, is that the notion of referent simply disappears. For an Idealist, the world is a network of meaning that is always for a subject. Words, and so thoughts, cannot go beyond meanings. Any attempt to talk of referents as in-themselves would be strictly meaningless. (This interpretation of Husserl's Idealism is, I think, the foundation of much of Post-modernism.) Under this interpretation, meanings no longer mediate between words (or thoughts) and referents, for there are no referents to be referred to. Perhaps we should call Husserl's version of the Theory of Reference as Mediated by Meaning, the Theory of the Absent Referent.

Derrida's Deconstruction of Meaning

Nevertheless, despite Husserl's careful reminders that an essence is only for-consciousness, each essence still appears to be an object; it is an objectum, something set up in front of the subject who intuits it. It is this remaining feature of objecthood - presence -- that Derrida attacks. As Derrida interprets him, Husserl's project is to show that general terms derive their validity from the fact that a subject uses them to express an essence that is itself "present" in person before him. My capacity to see the essence "triangle" present this moment before me, and my awareness that such an act could be repeated indefinitely and always give me the identical experience, is the foundation for the meaningfulness of the expression, the term "triangle." It is the repeatability of the essence, of the meaning, that guarantees the stability of the sign, the word. The optical metaphor that Husserl is so reluctant to surrender brings with it the implication that essences, that is, meanings, are still objects of a kind for Husserl, albeit objects of consciousness.

Derrida deconstructs Husserl. That is, he tries to show that Husserl's position undermines itself when examined more carefully. Since Husserl believes that consciousness is always in the flux of time, there can be no actual single "instant" when an essence is simply and fully present before it. Rather, an essence is smeared over time and so consciousness has to intervene actively to constitute the unity of the essence as an object that remains the same from moment to moment. But, complains Derrida, Husserl cannot have it both ways. The presence of an essence to the subject cannot at the same time be primordial and also be a construct. As Derrida would have it, presence is secondary; it is an illusion constructed from, among other things, the repeatable sign, the word. Husserl has been misled here by the analogy with vision. Rather than the presence of the meaning to consciousness guaranteeing the meaningfulness of the sign, it is the repeatability of the sign that allows consciousness to experience the meaning as present before it in the first place.(13)  Far from explaining how general terms can be used, "meaning" is an illusion generated from the prior intervention of general terms. Only with Derrida are the objecthood of essences, the optical metaphor and the Platonic heritage of phenomenology all finally and simultaneously overcome.

The Collapse of Naturalized Meaning

Among Naturalists, beyond the walls of phenomenology and quite independently of Derrida, the Theory of Reference Mediated by Meaning has also come under attack. Husserl, of course, is not a Naturalist. He transmutes universal essences into meanings that are constituted by subjects, but these subjects are not parts of nature. Husserl is a Transcendental Idealist, not an empirical or psychological idealist. Meanings depend not on my psyche as one object among others in the hic et nunc of nature, but on my Transcendental Ego, the ultimate origin of all meaning. Essences, he claims, are but the Correlates of the Structured Possibilities that are a priori to the Essence of any Transcendental Ego whatsoever. Or something. Exactly what a Transcendental Ego is, however, remains somewhat mysterious. By the end of his life, Husserl is claiming that Transcendental Subjectivity is finally an Intersubjectivity.

To hard-nosed Naturalists like Hilary Putnam or Tylor Burge, Transcendentalism smacks of mysticism and Idealism seems contrary to common sense. They assume the world is composed of ordinary, natural objects such as trees, chairs and people, the latter being capable of language. They "naturalize" the Theory of Reference Mediated by Meaning (they don't of course use my label) and interpret it as saying that meanings are elements of the psychological states of ordinary human beings. Meanings are mental states that mediate between the words and the objects to which they are referring. As psychological states, meanings are themselves objects, not in the sense of Platonic Eide, but in the sense of entitles within the causal chains of the natural world. Putnam then offers arguments to show that this "traditional theory of meaning is wrong. … the literature today contains many different concepts…and not a single unitary concept of 'meaning.'"(14)
Putnam first characterizes the traditional position as making two assumptions.

Consider assumption (1). If Jane says the general term "cat," then, if she is not just "parroting" it, she must have the meaning of the term in her mind. She must be in a particular psychological state that is different than when she is knowing the meaning of "dog." Whether or not there is a Fregean eternal Sinn for "cat" and whether or not there is a Platonic Eidos of "cat" that the term refers to, Jane can only be knowing the meaning if she is in some distinctive mental state. She could not, for instance, change from knowing the meaning of "cat" to knowing the meaning of "dog" without there being some change in her mental states. So Assumption (1) seems like common sense.

To understand assumption (2) remember that "extension" means the set of objects to which a term refers. Thus the term "cat" refers to the millions of pets throughout the world. The term "unicorn" refers to nothing; the set of unicorns is empty. Extension is contrasted with meaning or "comprehension," those features that define the term.(15) The meaning of "cat" is something like: small, four-footed, furry mammal with a tail. The meaning of "unicorn" is: large horse-like mammal with a long, single horn in the middle of its forehead. The assumption is that a term's meaning determines the set of objects to which it refers. Perhaps I should call this the Naturalized Theory of Mediated Reference.

Before presenting Putnam's argument against this theory, let me first note that in certain special cases it is clearly wrong. When David and Jane both use the term "I" they both use the term with the same meaning: pronoun meaning me, the speaker. Hence they are in identical psychological states. Nevertheless, the extension of "I" is different in the two cases. In one case it refers to David, and in the other to Jane. Although the meaning (i.e., psychological state) remains constant, the object to which the term refers varies with the circumstances. The same could be said of "this", "here", "now", etc. Such terms are called "indexicals". In the special case of indexicals, the Naturalized fails.

Putnam claims that this theory is wrong not just in the special case of indexicals, but in all cases. He argues that assumptions (1) and (2) cannot both be right at the same time.(16) Consider Twin-Earth, a world almost identical to our own, peopled by English speakers like us. The only difference between the two worlds is that the stuff Twin-Earthlings call "water" is not H20 but a liquid which, although it appears identical to the naked eye, has a different chemical composition, call it XYZ. We might just say that this is a simple ambiguity in the words. "WaterTE" on Twin-Earth has a different extension than "WaterE" on Earth and so has a different meaning.

Now roll back the time to 1750 before either H20 or XYZ were discovered. Even at that time the extensions of the two terms were different; water on Twin-earth was already XYZ, even though no one knew it. However it would seem that the psychological states of the Earthling Oscar when he knew the meaning of "water" and the psychological state of Twin-Earthling, Twin-Oscar, when he knew the meaning of "water," were identical. The extension of the two terms was different, even though the mental states of the two speakers were identical. Hence assumptions (1) and (2) cannot both be correct. "Thus the extension of the term 'water' … is not a function of the psychological state of the speaker by itself."(17) In effect, all universal terms are indexicals: Which objects they refer to, their extension, is determined not just by their "meanings," the psychological states of the speakers, but also by the factual circumstances in which they are uttered.

Burge presents a similar argument.(18)  Mary visits her doctor because she believes, as she says that she has arthritis in her thigh. Even before examining her, her doctor points out to her that her belief is false. Arthritis is a disease of the joints, so it is impossible that she could have it in her thigh. But imagine, says, Burge, another community with a different history in which the term "arthritis" had come to mean any limb pain. In that community her belief might turn out to be true rather than analytically false. Unlike the Putnam case of Twin-Earth, although Mary's previously false belief might now be true, no objects or facts in the physical world would be any different. And presumably Mary's psychological or mental state, and even her brain state, would be identical in the two cases. That is, the same mental state would "mean" something different if Mary lived in the second community. It would no longer mean what we presently mean by "arthritis."

Burge's point is that "meaning" cannot be identified with any state (psychological, mental, brain) of an individual in isolation from their linguistic community. The meaning of an internal process in a subject varies with the linguistic or conceptual community in which the individual participates. It follows that if we could transport Mary without her knowing it from one community to another, without changing anything whatsoever in her internal states, and without modifying anything in her thigh, the mental state which previously "meant" arthritis would now mean "limb pain." Clearly this is not just a matter of which words she uses to express her belief. She might be francophone. What has changed meaning is not her words, but what she "means" by the words. It is tempting to say that what has changed meaning is her "meaning," if that were not so paradoxical. The rather startling conclusion is that people cannot be trusted to know what they mean.

Burge's argument is not just a claim that occasionally people might be wrong, or make mistakes about what they mean. It is rather that meaning is not under the control of the subject in the first place. That is, it is a direct contradiction of Husserl's fundamental principle that the one thing we can be absolutely certain of is what our thoughts mean. Mary's thoughts can change meanings without her thinking anything different, without her consciousness (or brain) being modified in any way, without her even knowing it.

Jerry Fodor attempts to resolve Burge's paradox by distinguishing two senses of "meaning."(19) "Narrow meaning" is what Mary has in her mind regardless of her community; "broad meaning" also takes account of the discourse community within which she is speaking. Narrow meaning is a feature of Mary's mental state; Husserl might call it the "intentional content" of her act. Narrow meaning, however, cannot fix the referent set, the extension of the state. Only broad meaning can do that.

So where are we now? I have been interpreting meanings as the contemporary form in which we meet universals. The Naturalized Theory of Mediated Reference maintains that general terms can succeed in referring to their objects only through the mediation of "meanings." Meanings are themselves natural objects, the mental states of individuals. The recent arguments have fragmented meaning into at least three elements (A) the mental state of the individual, (B) the factual state of the world (water is H2O), and (C) the conceptual history of the discourse community (broad meaning). While I am not in a position here to prove it, I think it is not only the Naturalized version of the theory that has been undermined, but any Theory of Mediated Reference, or at least any that relies on "meaning." If so, then there are no objects called "meanings," no "universals" whether Transcendental or natural. The notion of meaning as the mediator that fixes the referent set for general terms has come apart at the seams. In Putnam's words: "'Meaning' has fallen to pieces."(20)

Rorty and the Collapse of Everything

So how, in the 1990s, do we finish? Which theory of reference should we accept? But wait! Why should we accept any of them? All of the theories we have examined have attempted to answer the question: In knowledge, how does the mind relate to objects? Rorty would have us reject the question to which the notion of meaning and the theories of reference has been offered as the answer.

From my Wittgensteinian point of view, … Husserlian talk of contents of consciousness and of intentional objects can be replaced by talk about our ability to agree on what we are thinking about -- that is, to agree on what propositions using the same referring expressions we accept, even while disagreeing about the truth-value of others. With Wittgenstein, I regard talk of "intuition" (and of "consciousness" and "intentionally" [sic]) as an unnecessary shuffle -- incapable of explaining our use of language and unneeded if we take that use as primitive. Pragmatism views knowledge not as a relation between mind and an object, but, roughly, as the ability to get agreement by using persuasion rather than force.(21)

Rorty thinks we have been bedeviled since the beginning of philosophy by a misconception that the aim of words, of thoughts, of meanings, of knowledge has been to reach the truth about how things are in themselves. The alternative he proposes is to treat language as an evolutionary instrument that humans have developed to assist in our survival. We do not ask how an opposing thumb refers nor what meaning it contains within itself that permits it to refer to objects. We just use our thumbs that way, and it works.

The metaphors which the pragmatist suggests … are those of linguistic behavior as tool-using, of language as a way of grabbing hold of causal forces and making them do what we want, altering ourselves and our environment to suit our aspirations.(22)

What then are universals, essences, meanings? Don't ask ….

© David L. Thompson
Memorial University
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1.  Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 887.

2.  Thompson, "Individuality: Essence, Horizon And Language," MUN Philosophy Colloquium 1995.

3.  Frege, "On Concept and Object," and ""Function and Concept," both in Geach & Black's Translations… 42-55 and 21-41 respectively.

4.  Husserl, Ideas, 44.

5.  This paragraph is a paraphrase of Husserl, Ideas, 7-8.

6.  Husserl, Ideas, 9-10.

7.  Husserl, Ideas, 10.

8.  Husserl, Ideas, 12.

9.  Husserl, Ideas, 13.

10. . Husserl, Ideas, 20.

11. . Alfons Süssbauer, "Meaning and Language," in The Cambridge Companion to Husserl, 106-137, 129.

12. . See, for example, Kockelmans, A First Introduction to Husserl's Phenomenology, 315-354.

13. . Derrida, Voice and Phenomena, passim, but especially 60-69.

14. . Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, 29.

15. . The distinction is first made by Arnauld in the Port-Royal Logic.

16. . The following is a paraphrase of Putnam, "Meaning and Reference." The same argument is presented in his "The Meaning of Meaning," and in his Reason, Truth and History, 22-48.

17. . Putnam, "Meaning and Reference," 701.

18. . The following is a paraphrase of the central argument in Burge, "Individualism and the Mental," 1979.

19. . Fodor, Psychosemantics, 48-53.

20. . Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, 29.

21. . Rorty, "Texts and Lumps," 88.

22. . Rorty, "Texts and Lumps," 81.


1. Burge, T., "Individualism and the Mental", Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 4 (1979) 73-122.

2. Derrida, Jacques, Speech and Phenomena, Evanston: Northwestern University Pre, 1973.

3. Fodor, Jerry A., Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1987.

4. Honderich, Ted (Ed.), Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

5. Husserl, Edmund, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982.

6. Kockelmans, Joseph, A First Introduction to Husserl's Phenomenology, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1967.

7. Moore, A.W. (ed.), Meaning and Reference, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

8. Putnam, Hilary, "Meaning and Reference", Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 70 (1973) 699-711.

9. Putnam, Hilary, Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

10. Putnam, Hilary, The Meaning of `Meaning', Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 7 (1975) 131-193.

11. Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

12. Rorty, Richard, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Paper Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

13. Smith, Barry and David Woodruff Smith (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Husserl, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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