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This article is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Universals and Particulars Robert Griffiths
The world is made up of particulars. So, if one were trying to represent that world in writing one might hope to capture something of that particularity. One might do this by referring to an immediate sensory experience: ‘I heard a cough / as if a thief were there…’ (Alice Oswald, Fox), or to a specific object, in a specific context:
It was the first gift he ever gave her,
buying it for five francs in the Galeries
in pre-war Paris...
(Eavan Boland, The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me)
In this way, particularity seems important, perhaps even crucial to certain kinds of poems.

Plato, the first ever literary critic, nevertheless decided that it was a profound weakness in poetry that it was too preoccupied with particulars, and not enough with the universal. He thought of a poet as representing, for example, only a particular love, and not the universal, LOVE. The latter, apparently more important thing, he saw as the concern of the philosopher.

In a very obvious way, though, Plato could not have been more mistaken about the character of poetry. For poets are users of words, and words, as was noted by a much later philosopher, do not refer to particulars. They refer only to universals. John Locke, the eighteenth-century philosopher who wrote the first sustained treatise on the nature of language, was puzzled by this oddity – that while the world consisted of particulars, the vast majority of words signified universals: ‘All things, that exist, being particulars, it may perhaps be thought reasonable that words, which ought to ...


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