Species and Generality

Of central importance for what follows will be the theory of dependence-relations set forth, in germ, in Husserl’s 3rd Logical Investigation and anticipated by Franz Brentano (1838-1917) in his lectures of 1887-1891 on descriptive psychology. (See especially pp. 20-27 and 88-103 of Brentano 1982 and also Mulligan and Smith 1985 for a discussion in English.) Each of the various different relations mentioned above can be understood in the terms of this ontology, in a way that it at once elegant and economical. Before presenting Husserl’s views on dependence, however, it will be useful to make some more general remarks on the subject of generality, for the opposition between species and instance, between what is general and what is particular, will turn out to be fundamental to the entire project of a theory of language in the Husserlian sense.

Imagine that we are called upon to look at the world as a zoologist, or a phonologist, or a warehouse manager, or a fingerprint expert might. We notice very soon that some features of the world are constant, while others vary. It is important not to import philosophical simplifications – of either what one might call the Platonistic or the nominalist sort – into the description of this fact. Constancy occurs not because there are, in addition to individual realia, abstract essences which somehow reappear, identically, in different objects. And nor does it occur because of some not further explicable propensity of subjects to use general terms in certain ways. Constancy occurs, rather – or at least this is the core of the Brentano-Husserl view – because objects have real parts or moments (‘respects’) which stand to each other in relations of perfect similarity.3 These may be moments of the most simple sort, for example moments of colour or taste. (The sentence “Hans’s arm is the same colour as Bruno’s leg” is made true by the perfect similarity between the individual colour-moments inhering in their respective limbs.) Or they may be more complex, higher-order structures founded upon these. (The sentence ‘these two sequences of whistles are performances/instances of the same melody’ is made true by a relation of perfect similarity between certain Gestalt- qualities inhering in the respective quantities of sound- material.)

In virtue of such relations of perfect similarity, which may obtain on different levels, objects are gathered into classes of actual and possible similars called by Husserl ‘species’. Such species are not additional abstract entities. Rather, talk of species is to be cashed out in terms of relations of similarity between certain real parts and moments of entities on the level of what is concrete and contingent.

This deflationary interpretation of Husserl’s thinking on species and generality is controversial. The issue is confused by the fact that one important aim of the Logical Investigations was to attack psychologism in logic, and particularly in volume I of the work – the “Prolegomena to Pure Logic” – where Husserl is concerned to dramatise the inadequacies of psychologism, he seems to put forward a Platonistic view of the nature of specie as ‘ideal singulars’, a view which contrasts, to the same extent, with the similarity view sketched above. When we look more carefully at Husserl’s use of the species concept in the body of the work, however, then it becomes clear that his motives for introducing talk of species are not those of the Platonist. Indeed he pours scorn on Platonism in the traditional sense – on the view that species are real entities (LU II § 7) – and he spends little time reflecting on species themselves or on their ontological properties. He is much rather concerned with the instances of species and with the problem of finding a means of doing justice to the manifold sorts of constancy or regularity and in the manifold sorts of law-governed connection that we encounter among such instances, both in the world and in our mental acts.

Why, then, did Husserl utilise this terminology of species at all? This was, I think, for two reasons. First, it is the basis of Husserl’s theory of logic (a) that logic is a science having its own specific subject-matter, and (b) that this subject-matter should not be a matter of empirically occurring instances but of entities somehow outside the world of what happens and is the case. Logic is a science of thinkings, inferrings, reasonings in specie: it is a science of the relations between species of these given sorts (see e.g. LU II § 2). Second, it was important to Husserl’s theory that the real relations of similarity do not occur as it were at random, but that they themselves exhibit a certain order. In particular, they manifest a hierarchical structure, so that species are included in other species at higher levels of generality, the corresponding predicates being organised into trees of determinables and determinates. This is a property of universals that was taken for granted by logicians of a more traditional bent from Aristotle and Porphyry to W. E. Johnson.4

Barry Smith, Husserl, Language, and the Ontology of the Act


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