Every philosophical school should have a theory about the relationship between the general and the particular, and use this theory as a tool to clarify the structures that define reality. The scientific disciplines that come closest to giving this theory actual and practical shape are what we call taxonomies. Thus there is biological taxonomy, namespaces, knowledge organization systems and ontologies, among many others.
There are some important points to consider in elaborating a general theory about the relationship between the general and the particular (which can be shortened to the acronym RGP):
1. Each generalized entity can be broken down into its particular components. The "breaking down" could be done in various ways.
- One way would be to break up the generalized entity in a physically analytical way. Thus, if the general entity is a residential house, then it could be broken up into its particular components like kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, patio, garage, attic, roof, basement, and so on and so forth. In turn, the kitchen, for example, could be broken up again into its particular physical components like cooking area (e.g. stove, hearth), washing area (e.g. sink), food storage area (e.g. refrigerator, cabinets), and in some cultures the dining area.
(Take note, though, that while a particular component might physically belong to a generalized entity in many instances, it could also stand alone conceptually, and also physically in other instances. A cooking area, for example, can easily be conceived as not a part of a residential house but as the core of a temporary camp on the trail, or of a restaurant, and so on.)
- Another way would be to break up the generalized entity in an abstractly analytical way. Thus, if the general entity is a house, then it could broken up into the various types of houses according to basic mode of occupation, perhaps listing such basic types as detached single-unit, semi-detached, attached multi-unit, and movable dwellings. Then each basic type could again be broken up into more specific styles, which are shaped by period, geographic location, culture, local terrain, construction materials, etc.
2. As is obvious from the details of Point 1, breaking up a general entity into its particular components can be a layered or nested process. This is most clearly exhibited in biological taxonomies. Hierarchical taxonomies are built up using genus-differentia criteria. (For a detailed discussion of the genus-differentia method, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genus%E2%80%93differentia_definition
3. As is also obvious from the details of Point 1, breaking up a general entity into its particular components can be multi-dimensional, with each dimension based on an attribute that is deemed important in defining the general entity, instead of just being more easily measurable (although easy measurement could serve as a first approximation of what could later turn up to be an aspect of an important but not readily measurable attribute).
- Case in point: How do we build a taxonomy of color? A native or folk taxonomy could be composed of words that fall on the VIBGYOR spectrum. It turns out that more scientific color analysis reveals attributes such as hue, saturation and value or luminance (HSV or HSL). Thus, we can create a color space using a range of values for hue, saturation and luminance, and then map each significant spot on the color space into a unique name on an equivalent name space. In simplified form, this leads to color tables such as the HTML color table.
4. One interesting nexus between the general and the particular is the "microcosm concept", in which the general is found in the particular, i.e., in each element of the macrocosm can be found its attributes, but in microcosmic or kernel form.
- For example, in each vertebrae species, diverse they may be in adult form, can be found the generalized vertebra design, but in microcosm. This generalized design is most obvious in early embryo stages.
- The literary device of writing about village life as an allegory for describing the entire nation (when there are disadvantages of doing so) is well-known.
- So does the statistical device called sampling, used to derive attributes that are presumed applicable to the entire population.
- It has been said that fractal structures are an example of the microcosm of the general tree design lurking in the particular branch or leaf. But I don't know enough of fractals to be confident of the relevance of this observation.
5. One other intriguing aspect of the RGP concept is that of structure and scale. The general, seen at progressively close-up views, gradually resolves to its particular elements.
- But these elements are not merely fuzzy collections of ultimate units that comprise the whole; rather, they are organized into structures that give the general entity its peculiar substance and form. A good analogy would be an animal that dies and undergoes a process of full chemical breakdown into its most basic component compounds, perhaps turning into a yucky mix of gases, sols and gels, and solids. Both the living animal and the eventual yucky mix it turns into after it dies are composed of the same chemical mixture. But one has a well-defined, dynamic, self-transforming patterns of coarse-grained structure; the other is a plain mixture, with patterns of structure found only at fine (molecular-level) grains.
- Related to structure is the concept of scale. The level of perception and understanding (or the transition) from the general to the most particular entail awareness and consideration of scale. Again looking at a living animal as an analogy: The animal's coarsest-grain structure is first perceived at the level of macro-anatomy (head, neck, torso, limbs, etc). Moving down to smaller scales, the structure resolves into particular tissue types (skin, bone, muscle, cartilage, blood, and so many others). Still at smaller scales, a tissue resolves into layers of differentiated cells. Each cell of course has its own basic structure that resolves into still smaller structures.
- The importance of scale is further explored in the so-called CoastlineParadox.