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Are events universals, particulars, or neither?


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are events universals, particulars, or neither?
Date: 12th January 2011 12:58

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 4 January, with your essay for the Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Are events universals, particulars, or neither?'

Reading this, I had a welcome sense of clarity, as if everything just fell into place. Maybe this time, however, there are some niggling worries.

If you wrote something like this in an exam, I think that you would come under criticism for treating the whole topic at too high a level of generality. From that altitude, things do appear very clear. ('There are just these three possibilities, and if you say this, then you have to say this...' etc.) However, there has been a lot of debate on the question of events (which from memory you have discussed in previous essays). I think that mentioning more names (i.e. not just Davidson) would improve your answer, give it more 'grip'.

The level of generality also gives me some problems, in that I can see the possibility -- which you seem inclined to ignore -- that the rubric for what you term 'conceptualism' could be applied in different degrees to different subject matters. Suppose one accepts as an axiom that 'what marks the boundary' of a particular, or a universal, 'is our cognitive purpose'... boundaries can change as our cognitive purpose changes'. There is an extreme reading of this, which one finds in a famous passage in Kolakowski (have I mentioned this before? sorry if I have) where he states,

'In abstract, nothing prevents us from dissecting surrounding material into fragments constructed in a manner completely different from what we are used to. Thus, speaking more simply we could build a world where there would be no such objects as 'horse,' 'leaf,' 'star,' and others allegedly devised by nature. Instead, there might be, for example, such objects as 'half a horse and a piece of river,' 'my ear and the moon,' and other similar products of a surrealist imagination.'

This is from his essay, 'Karl Marx and the Classical Definition of Truth', in the collection of articles, 'Toward a Marxist Humanism'. I was so impressed by this quote that I dedicated a page to it:

You can guess the context. It is Praxis which in the first place defines the universals and particulars that constitute our conceptual scheme, not disinterested speculation or abstract theorizing. But Praxis is itself something which changes over time, with the dialectical progress of history. In other words, for 'our cognitive purpose' the Marxist might substitute, 'the requirements of history'.

I'm jesting somewhat -- in 2011, these ideas one can view with a certain amount of cynicism. The substantial point is that the idea that we have a 'cognitive purpose' is itself undetermined, so long as it remains unclear *what our purpose is*. And here, of course, I can guess your answer (survival of the species).

Even so (getting back to the point) I am tempted to say that Davidsonian events, dependent as they are on what we choose to identify as causes and effects, have a somewhat looser connection to reality than fundamental things like spatio-temporal particulars. Logically, I can put 'my ear' and 'the moon' together, but the two particulars just won't stick. On the other hand, my scratching my ear at the very moment that Neil Armstrong spoke his famous words, is memorable for me as an event because the absurdity of the moment sparked a complete change in the direction of the course of my life. I gave up astrophysics and applied to do a philosophy course.

In other words, we throw the cloth of event identification rather loosely on the more rugged landscape of bits of the world which we knock into and stumble over, the things which we had better 'draw a boundary around' if we want to live and reproduce. This does not contradict your conceptualist stance, but it does allow recognition of degrees of fundamentality in a conceptual scheme: not everything is up for grabs at the same time, or to the same degree.

All the best,