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  • On the Genealogy of Universals: The Metaphysical Origins of Analytic Philosophy by Fraser MacBride
  • Cheryl Misak
Fraser MacBride. On the Genealogy of Universals: The Metaphysical Origins of Analytic Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. viii + 263. Cloth, $65.00.

In the preface to this excellent book, Fraser MacBride says he decided to write it because he had "become convinced that there is far more to find out and far more to learn from the history of early analytic philosophy" (vii). He is right; the history of early analytic philosophy holds insights for us today, and most of them lie outside of what MacBride calls our "cartoon histories." In punchy prose, he mines gems from what one of his heroes, Frank Ramsey, called "that great muddle the theory of universals."

The subtitle of the book carries considerable weight. This is not just a much-needed genealogy of the theory of universals and particulars. It is a re-think of the beginnings of analytic philosophy. The standard story has it that the Cambridge philosophers (Moore, Russell, and Wittgenstein, taking off from Frege) are the founders of analytic philosophy. MacBride complicates that story. One nice argument pulls against the standard view that Russell's multiple relation theory of judgment was overcome by Wittgenstein's criticism of it. Russell himself asserted this in a letter to his then-lover, Ottoline Morrell. MacBride counsels us to read that letter in its very particular context, and convincingly argues that, in fact, the picture theory of Wittgenstein's Tractatus was a refinement and deepening of Russell's proto-picture theory. He also enriches the standard story by bringing Kant, Whitehead, and Stout to the forefront of analytic philosophy, at some expense to Frege.

With respect to the main event—the theory of universals—the endpoint of MacBride's story is Ramsey's "Universals." Ramsey read it to the Moral Sciences Club in 1925. Moore was in the chair, and as editor of Mind, he snapped up the paper on the spot. It did not bother him that Ramsey had demolished his, and Russell's, theory of universals.

Ramsey's argument was that "the whole theory of particulars and universals is due to mistaking for a fundamental characteristic of reality what is merely a characteristic of language" (F. P. Ramsey. "Universals," reprinted in Philosophical Papers, 13. Ed. D. H. Mellor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). We must not be misled by the fact that our language uses subject-predicate constructions into thinking that the entities in the world must be of two distinct types, particulars and universals. We cannot read ontology off of language, for the latter is driven by our interests. A proposition can be broken down in different ways, each preserving meaning, and Ramsey notes that if we did it three ways, we would get, on the muddled view, "an incomprehensible trinity, as senseless as that of theology" ("Universals," 14). [End Page 356]

As MacBride nicely brings out, Ramsey argued that we cannot do a priori metaphysics. His was the naturalist position that we discover what categories exist when we discover what kinds of things exist. MacBride sees this naturalist position in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and he sees Ramsey as filling out Wittgenstein's views on ontology. Part of his argument is that Wittgenstein's picture theory and associated conception of logic led him to a position of "studied indifference" to the number of a priori categories, and part of it lies in things Wittgenstein said after 1929. MacBride might well be right, a crucial piece of evidence being that Ramsey, in "Universals," asserts that Wittgenstein was the only philosopher to have seen through the muddle, declaring that we can know nothing about the nature of logical forms.

Perhaps the influence went in the other direction as well—from Ramsey to Wittgenstein. One natural reading of the Tractatus is that language bottoms out in particulars or actually existing things. After all, Wittgenstein declared those propositions that go beyond particulars (philosophy, ethics, mathematics, and logic) to be senseless (in different ways), and he held that universal generalizations were conjunctions of atomic propositions—that is, there is nothing general that goes beyond the particular...


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pp. 356-357
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