DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2021, from

1. What is at stake

In some of his dialogues, Plato seems to assume that nothing is real, knowable or of value unless it is permanent (see Plato §15). The particular things we experience through the senses are all impermanent; so Plato infers that these particulars are unreal, unknowable and of no value. The things which are real, knowable and of value are the moral, political, aesthetic and mathematical ideals which individual people, social groups and works of art may aspire towards but never really embody perfectly – the Forms.

In an ancient Buddhist text, the existence of common-sense particulars is called into question (Horner 1963: 34–8; Eliot 1910: 668–72). Suppose, for example, that you reach out and touch something, saying ‘This is a chariot’. The ancient sage calls attention to the fact that what you are touching is, more strictly, a wheel, and more strictly still, a hub, spoke or rim, and of course only the surface of that. So there is really no such thing as a chariot; and the same goes for other particulars, including persons. A person is like a flame, or an eddy in a river – there is nothing which persists through the passage of time. Particulars are only shadows cast by quirks of Indo-European syntax, with no more substantiality than the ‘It’ in ‘It is raining’.

In contrast, for Descartes there is nothing more certain than the existence of the self: his philosophy rests on the famous inference ‘I think, therefore I am’. Western liberal democracies place great store, at least in theory, on the importance of the individual. In the arts, a conception of individual artistic genius has held us in a tight grip. And modern mathematical logic rests heavily on names and variables which are interpreted as picking out individuals from a domain of discourse. In a great many ways, individuals, or particulars, are central to our thinking, not only about this world of impermanence but also about the timeless truths of mathematics. Many philosophers are therefore diametrically opposed to the Platonic or Buddhist deflation of particulars.

Citing this article:
Bigelow, John C.. What is at stake. Particulars, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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