Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Universals

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 12, 1998

Posted to DEOS-L 13 Jan 1998

William Powers wrote: The point of my original post was to point to an epistemological problem confronting our modern world. Knowledge, even communication, is not possible without universals.

This is by no means established. The question of whether universals are required for knowledge has been with us since the days of Plato. At the very least, if required for communication, universals may be postulated as useful fictions. My own feeling is that the use of universals where there are none leads to dangerous misinformation.

Having acknowledged this, we can simply by convention agree upon a definition of certain universal classes. Such a process has social value and will make language possible, but it will not solve the problem of knowledge. For, if all knowledge consists of is the dissemination of convention, learner centered education would appear to be a serious mistake. In some measure, all knowledge consists in part of convention (cf. Kuhn). However, none of us would probably remain long in our respective fields if we didn't believe that universals 'really' exist. And this is the problem to which I point. For the most part, modern epistemology lacks an ontological foundation for the existence of universals. As the work of Roy Clouser points out, all theories of reality rely upon the existence of self-existent entities, upon which all else depends (e.g., Reason, mathematics, or God). It is from these entities that universals derive their support.

This isn't the place for a treatise on universals, however, some comments are in order to clear up some misconceptions.

First of all, universals are relative. Let me give some examples:

(1) "All dogs bark."

- This sentence is a universal, however, it does not refer to all *things*, only to all dogs

(2) "All dogs are on earth"

- This sentence is a universal, and true, however, it refers only to present dogs, not past and future dogs. Universals are often temporally sensitive.

(3) "All good men will come to the aid of their country."

- this universal is temporally sensitive, moreover, it refers to (a distinctly vague) subclass of men.

The point I am establishing with these examples is that universals are always expressed within a domain, where the domain restricts the class of entities to which the the universal refers. More often than not, this domain is left unspecified or implicit. Thus left, identification of a domain of discourse is often determined by contextual factors. Consider again:

(4) "All dogs are on earth"

The meaning of this sentence shifts depending on the context in which it is uttered. If it is uttered by an average American today, it means present dogs. However, were it uttered by, say, an alien in a science fiction movie, it may well refer to future dogs as well.

Why am I raising this point? Because the tendency of people to leave the domain implicit leads people to think of universals as absolutes, that is, as statements referring in some way to all things. Certainly, the standard form in which universals are characterized in logic texts would lead to that conclusion. A sentence like:

(5) All things which are dogs are things which are mammals.

appears to be referring to everything which has ever existed. But even here, there is a domain of discourse: things.

The way a universal properly works is as follows: 1. It establishes a domain 2. Within that domain, it identifies a subcategory of items, identifiable by some property or feature 3. It ascribes some additional property to that subcategory

For example, consider:

(6) All men are mortal

The domain (left implicit) is things. The subcategory is "men" (identifed implicitly). The property ascribed is mortality (the definition of which is again left implicit).

Looked at in this way, it then appears to be absurd when one speaks of the existence of universals. For what is there to exist? As sketched above, at best, universals constitute a linguistic convention, one which, when closely examined, isn't a true universal in any case.

People who speak of the existence of universals make the mistake of assigning a separate existence to a category of entities over and above the existence of each individual member of that category.

For example, consider cows. Each cow has its own independent existence. For a universal to exist, say, "All cows", we would have to say that there exists something over and above the existence of each cow. An archetypical cow.

When considered this way, the existence of universals becomes problematic at a variety of levels. They cannot be identified through empirical evidence. They must be postulated. However, since universals (unlike cows) have no properties, they cannot be defined, except via the properties of their constituent parts. Postulation of universals hence becomes a work of fiction, and the validity of a particular ascription of universals depends on our faith in the person making that ascription. For universalization is, in the end, categorization, and there is no limit to the number of ways objects may be categorized.

Example: the ancient Greeks categorized humans as follows: Greeks and Barbarians. Is this a valid classification? Why not?

An additional danger of working with universals is that it leads to the tendency to treat objects as being unidimensional, as being characterized only by those traits which place them into the category in question. Although this shows up across the disciplines, it has its most visible consequences in discussions about humans. For example:

One way of categorization of humans is to categorize them by nationality (as determined by place of birth). Hence, we get sentences like "All Scots are thrifty" or "All irish are tempremental". However, such statements ignore the fact that humans, since they have many other properties, may be classed in many other ways. If we ignore this, we obtain false statements (eg., all Scots are thrifty - which is, on the face of it, false). If we accept this, we get contradictory pairs of statements (eg. 'All Scots are thrifty' and 'Some thrifty people are not Scots').

Categroization of entities, including humans, is often useful. Using categorizations in order to draw universal truths is difficult and in many ways dangerous, especially when dealing with humans.

Far better to express such statements in the language of empirical generalizations, which is indeed what they are. Instead of "All Scots are thrifty" we should say "Based on x,y and z surveys, people who are Scots tend to be thrifty".

Educational theory requires the existence of a universal learner (or a small set of them). The apparent immediate support for that universal is biology and a commonality of ancestor, an Aristotelian conception of the relationship between universal and particular. Biology does not provide the ultimate source of the universal. To seek that source would take us into the realm of physics and its epistemological conundrum, a journey set aside for the moment. Given a universal learner, what and how does he learn? Content not being irrelevant to pedagogy, the relationship between universal and knower is pertinent. Whether one prefers an idealist or realist perspective, it seems to me, for education to remain, that some relationship between universals and reality be maintained. The specifics of that relationship affects our pedagogy.

This paragraph illustrates the difficulties one faces when attempting to draw universals out of what should be empirical generalizations.

Just what is the "universal learner"? The domain of discourse is implicitly human (we doubt the author was thinking of dogs). What is the identifiable criterion? A person becomes a learner if, one supposes, he or she learns. But what, in this discussion, is the universal learner?

It is not an entity which possesses all properties of all learners, since different people have different, and contradictory, properties. The universal learner in question would have to be at the same time male and female, advanced and challenged, etc.

It is an entity which has *none* of those properties. Indeed, the only properties which may be ascribed to a universal learner are properties which are shared by *all* and *only* learners. Thus we arrive at the "essence" of a universal learner.

But what could count as such a property? I can only think of one: that they learn. All other aspects of learning seem to be variable in different subjects, to more or less a degree. Is it true that all learners need a teacher? No. Is it true that all learners remember what they've learned? No. Is it true that no learner learns which no internention whatsoever? No.

But now our practise of defining a universal learner has left us with only a single, empty sentence:

(7) All learners learn.

And a sentence like:

(8) "The relation between the universal and the knower is perinent"

is meaningless. It says *nothing*!

Guy apparently finds this epistemological doubt exhilarating. I wonder that this confusion might not be only a prelude to madness. I have not seen anywhere, but in a religious context, an examination of education from this fundamental perspective, and I fear that without it we are but clanging cymbals, signifying nothing.

Without universals, what's left?

At the base of it, the study of education is the study of people. It is an examination of how a certain trait - knowledge and beliefs - is acquired by people in general, and an examination of what means may best facilitate this (whatever 'best' happens to mean, in a given context).

This makes it an empirical study. Our best - and only - insight into how people learn is obtained by studying humans. We observe their behaviours (including their attitudes and beliefs, as expressed by the students), and we measure for educational attainment. We attempt to identify correlations between behaviours (including attitudes and beliefs) and (measured) learning.

As an empirical study, our work yields no universal statements. We obtain statements of tendencies, which allow us to make projections, which in turn are fallible.

Educational theories which identify one or another trait, methodology, or other aspect of learning as the *key* to successful pedagogy are without fail victims of the tendency to universalize when universalization is inappropriate.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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