The Universal and the Particular

A distinction between the universal and the particular will further clarify the nature of philosophical questions. In philosophy, we distinguish between the particular and the universal. One of the simpler ways of distinguishing one from the other is by saying that the particular refers to a part of the whole, while the universal pertains to the whole. This is crucial in the field of logic which is concerned with valid arguments and propositions. However, in dealing with questions of the kind cited earlier, the universal and the particular is dealt with in a different way. We can say that the question “Why am I here?” seems to be a particular question because it is simply one among others that may be asked. It is a specific question and so, particular. But when you start thinking about the question, you realize that it is neither confined to just one person nor to a specific situation. Rather, it is a question that involves many other questions, Philosophical questions cannot be taken up in isolation, that is, separate from the very experiences from which they arise.

Although part of the reason why we ask “Why am I here?” is due to some challenges or struggles we encounter daily, it will be impossible to proceed to answering it while avoiding other aspects of human experience that are relevant to the question. If interpreted as a question of purpose for existing, we see how the totality of existence is actually involved. Purpose is like a thread that is woven through everything that happens. Inevitably, we will have to include the aspect who determines our purpose aside from what is our purpose. Thus, to philosophize is to look at life from a holistic perspective. Such is precisely what makes philosophy different from science according to a German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Martin Heidegger

Born in the town of Messkirch in Germany, Heidegger initially published articles in Catholic journals as a result of his education in the seminary.

His writings in philosophy were influenced by his readings of G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Scheler, to name a few.

His most influential book is “Being and Time” which was published in 1927. He is responsible for the term “hermeneutics of facticity” which simply means that people interpret things as they encounter them in different ways.

For Heidegger, a scientific question is always confined to the particular, whereas a philosophical question “leads into the totality of beings” and “inquires into the ‘whole” (Heidegger 2002, The Essence of Human Freedom, 9). Beginning with a particular question that unavoidably goes to the roots, a philosophical question eventually becomes a revelation about the whole of reality. Heidegger’s discussion on the essence of human freedom illustrates this. He says: “Since ‘independence from..: is a relationship to which there belongs as such a relatedness to world and God, precisely, for this reason, must this ‘from what’ of independence be brought into consideration, i.e., included in the theme (ibid.)

When we ask about the essence of human freedom, the problem is not limited to man and freedom. Instead, we find that we cannot avoid asking about the essence of man, the essence of the world, and the essence of God. It is not simply a question of what man is free to do or to become but also requires that we address the question of what he is free from. When we ask philosophically about freedom, we venture into an inquiry about the whole. It is no longer a particular problem but a universal problem. Limits are removed and the inquiry is broadened. When we approach the problem by thinking about freedom as an “independence from,” we find ourselves in an inquiry that is vast. This is precisely how properly conceived particular problems in philosophy reveal the whole. 

After a philosophical question is raised, how does one proceed to finding an answer? Well, philosophy has its own methods and criteria of proceeding with its inquiries. Such procedures make up the various traditions and movements in the history of philosophy as you will see in the next lessons. For now, you have to understand that every person engaged in a philosophical reflection must recognize that possible answers to philosophical questions require adequate justification or rational basis. Answers that sound right or seem right will simply not do. Philosophers have taught us that we can be misled if we are not careful. There are numerous sources we go to for answers such as books, teachers, parents, Internet, television, and others, but philosophical questions as earlier said do not have ready or definite answers. Plato has warned as early as 360 B.C.E. that there are things that deceive, confuse, or mislead in this world. To know what is real requires much intellectual effort and rational ability. Moreover, a person is responsible for the answers he/she holds on to. This means we are to blame in case we are fooled into believing a falsehood. 


One of the most famous philosophers who ever lived, the Greek Athenian philosopher was a student of Socrates and teacher to Aristotle. He founded a school in Athens known as the Academy which served as the model of universities. He wrote numerous dialogues in which Socrates is the main character. His most famous works are the “Apology” (where he gives an account of Socrates’ trial) and the “Republic” (where he presents his famous Theory of Forms).

So how do we guard against deceptions? God did not give us a life manual but He gifted us with intellect or mind (faculty of reason) to figure things out on our own. In doing so, we are given dignity and autonomy. This faculty of reason or rational capacity allows us to pursue our questions so we can come nearer to the truth. It is the best tool w we have that enables us to deal with problems Our mind goes beyond our instincts and pays attention to our emotions so we can effectively pursue meaning and truth.