Discussion 1 Week 1 Anatomy And Physiology 2 325 words minimum RESEARCH (labeled this section) -the explanation and background of the topic- almost like

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Quality, Thought and Consciousness

HOWARD ROBINSON

Abstract
My objective in this essay is to argue for two things. The first is that intellectual
mental states – thoughts – are not physicalistically reducible, just as qualia are not
reducible. The second is that thoughts and qualia are not as different as is sometimes
believed, but not because – as some empiricists thought – thoughts are qualia-like by
being mental images, but because qualia are universals and their apprehension is a
proto-intellectual act. I shall mainly be concerned with the first of these topics.

1. Introduction

My jumping-off point for discussing the irreducibility of thought is
Dennett’s remark that the brain is a syntactic and not a semantic
engine. Anything that is purely physical is a purely ‘syntactic
engine’, i.e. it does what it does solely in virtue of its physical prop-
erties, not in virtue of semantic properties or meanings.1 This is a
truism about anything physical. It gives rise to a question for the phy-
sicalist, namely how he should cope with the psychological realization
or reality of meaning and semantic properties.
There seem to be four possible responses. (1) One is Dennett’s

instrumentalism or interpretationalism. This is the idea that the
physical syntactic engine is rendered semantic by being interpreted
as an intentional system.2 One might make an analogy with the
inscriptions in a book, which are merely physical marks, but which
are endowed with meaning by the interpretation that we place on
them, or with the thermostat that we say turns the boiler off when
it believes the temperature has reached a certain point. (2) Another

1 As others have remarked, this is an eccentric use of ‘syntactic’, for
syntax is hardly more of a physical feature of sentences than is semantics.
The point of the metaphor (if that is what it is) is that a computing
machine works because shapes fit holes, not because meanings fit anything.

2 This idea is passim, at least in Dennett’s early work, such as
Brainstorms (Hassocks: Harvester, 1978) and The Intentional Stance
(Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1987). One might cite in particular
‘Three Kinds of Intentional Psychology’ in R. Healey (ed.), Reduction,
Time and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), re-
printed in The Intentional Stance.

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doi:10.1017/S1358246110000135 © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2010

Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 67 2010

response is a behaviourist or functionalist realism. In this case,
without essential reference to the role of an interpreter, the kinds of
behaviour that the syntactic engine produces constitute meanings.
One might say that, though the computer in the robot’s head is a syn-
tactic engine, the robot itself is a semantic machine, because its
behaviour is intrinsically meaningful. (3) A third response is elimina-
tivism: a denial that there are, in the end, any semantic or meaning
properties. (4) Finally, and not quite a form of physicalism, is
meaning-epiphenomenalism: embarrassedly accepting that meaning
content, like qualia, cannot be wished away, but arguing that it
carries no clout in the behaviour of people.
I shall not be considering (3) and (4), partly for reasons of space and

partly because I accept what is in fact the common intuitive objection
to both. When it comes to sensations, a sharp pain makes it clear both
that there is such a thing as a sensation, and that this plays a role in my
reaction. This seems to me to be even more obviously true for the
content of thoughts. When I listen to what someone says in a philo-
sophical argument, and make a reply, it seems very obvious that what
I take them to mean plays a major role in determining what I say. One
would need extraordinarily powerful reasons either to think that there
was nothing that they meant, or that it had no influence on what came
out of my mouth. I realize, of course, that much more could be said
on this, but that is not the path I shall be following here.
I shall begin by discussing the Dennettian approach and this will

naturally lead to discussion of the behaviourist/functionalist realist
alternative.

2. Dennett’s Instrumentalism

I shall give what I think to be the rationale for instrumentalism (or
interpretationalism) and then the reason for thinking it viciously
regressive.
Argument for Dennett’s position:

(1) All actual intentional systems are purely physical. (Ass. of
physicalism)

(2) Nothing physical is intrinsically intentional – there are no
physical semantic engines. (Ass.)

Therefore,

(3) No actual intentional system is intrinsically intentional. (1, 2,
HS)

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Howard Robinson

(4) Actual people (etc.) are intentional systems in some sense.
(Ass.)

Therefore,

(5) There are actual intentional systems. (4, Inst.)
(6) Actual intentional systems are not intrinsically intentional. (3,

5, MP)
(7) The only options are intrinsic intentionality and intentionality

instrumentally, i.e. by interpretation. (Ass.)

Therefore,

(8) Actual intentional systems – people etc. – are intentional
instrumentally, i.e. by interpretation. (6, 7, DS)

Reductio of Dennett’s position:

(9) Something can interpret x as an intentional system only if that
something has the capacity to so interpret. (Ass.)

(10) Something cannot have the capacity so to interpret solely in
virtue of being itself interpreted by something else. (Ass.)

Therefore,

(11) Something cannot interpret x as an intentional system solely
in virtue of its being interpreted by something else. (9, 10,
HS)

Therefore,

(12) An interpreter must have the capacity to interpret intrinsi-
cally or in its own right. (7, 11, DS)

(13) Something having this capacity intrinsically is an intentional
system in its own right. (Def.)

Therefore,

(14) If there are any interpreters, there are intrinsic intentional
systems. (12, 13, HS)

(15) There are interpreters. (Ass.)

Therefore,

(16) There are intrinsic intentional systems. (14, 15, MP)
(17) 8 contradicts 16.

Therefore at least one of the assumptions must be false. Some are not
controversial. (9) is a platitude – one cannot do something (systema-
tically, at least, and we are considering a systematic ability) unless one

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Quality, Thought and Consciousness

has the appropriate capacity. (7) is justified if being imputed by
interpretation and having intrinsically are the exhaustive options,
which seems right. (13) seems to be a correct definition. The
serious options are, therefore: either to deny (1) and affirm that
some intentional systems are not physical; or deny (2) and say some
physical things are intrinsically intentional; or deny (10) and affirm
that the capacity to interpret can itself be endowed by interpretation.
(1) is controversial, because it is the assertion of physicalism, but is

the victim of the reductio only if (2) and (10) can be supported. As my
purpose is to refute the physicalist account of thought, I need to show
that (2) and (10) are true.
Denial of (10) is the assertion of Dennettian physicalism, although,

as we shall see later, it can be argued that all physicalists are com-
mitted to some version of interpretationalism. Denial of (2), on its
most natural interpretation, is the claim that reductive physicalism
saves the realism of the mental.

3. Discussion of (10)

(10) is the anti-Dennett crux. It seems intuitively obvious: simply
having a certain attitude to something cannot endow it with powers it
does not otherwise possess. If an object cannot think ‘in its own right’
then understanding it in a certain way will not give it this ability. This
intuition is, I think, sound, but diversionary tactics are possible.
It might be argued that the picture of individuals endowing others

with semantic capacities, like a particular person reading a text or
using a computer, is too individualistic. The interpretation is a
mutual and social operation. Many social properties, including ones
that endow people with powers and capacities, are endowed or
imputed by what one might broadly characterize as the attitudes of
others. This is the way one is endowed with legal powers. Even the
power of leadership, considered as relatively brute rather than
merely legal, comes from the response of others as well as from
natural capacity. In some way, if Dennett is right, we must be simi-
larly endowed with the capacity to be a semantic engine.
The natural response to this is to make a distinction between

natural powers and socially imputed powers, and to claim that the
power of thought belongs in the former category. This claim could
be buttressed by arguing that a general power of thought is presup-
posed by the socially imputed powers – it is because we are intentional
systems that we can construct legal systems, endow each other with
powers, rights, etc.

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Howard Robinson

The interpretationalist might try to deny that the distinction
between natural and social powers is a precise one – from a physicalist
perspective, after all, social powers must be natural powers, for there
is no other kind, so they must just be very complex and sophisticated
ones. This response is problematic for a Dennettian, however,
because it appears to be at the heart of this position that semantic
properties are imputed rather than real. Nevertheless, it might be
argued that, though semantic properties have no place in the ‘basic’
physicalist ontology, they can be thought of as emergent when phys-
ical behaviour develops ‘real patterns’ of the right kind.
The question is what one means by ‘emergent’ here. The issue is

how semantic facts are grounded in physical ones. Or perhaps it
would be more accurate to say that it is about how semantic concepts
get a grip on physical reality: are they an interpretation of that reality
made for certain purposes, or do those facts emerge at a certain level
of complexity, in a way analogous to that in which biological facts
might be thought to emerge?
It might seem that realistic emergence is inconsistent with the

interpretationalist approach, as I suggested above. But perhaps it is
not that simple. One might defend a collective realism, according to
which there is a society with a certain ‘form of life’ in which individ-
uals really exhibit intentional states, but only in virtue of the
responses that other individuals in the society have to them. The
web of mutual interpretation is a real, natural phenomenon, but it
is constructed by mutual interpretation; it does not emerge as a
power of people taken individually.
This approach seems to me to be mere ‘hand waving’. The problem

concerns how more and more sophisticated patterns of behaviour
come to constitute acts of interpretation. One needs to distinguish
between:

(a) The capacity to interpret others can only develop or be actua-
lized in the context of appropriate complex behaviours which
we dub ‘social practices’.

and

(b) The capacity to interpret others is a logical product of certain
behaviours, such that once the patterns of behaviour reach a
certain point they constitute mutual interpretation.

The former is not controversial but tells us nothing about the
analysis of semantic capacities, only about a causally necessary con-
dition for our acquiring them.

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Quality, Thought and Consciousness

The latter fails to explain how physical behaviours transmute
themselves into interpretative acts. Of course, once behaviour
reaches a certain complexity, it can be interpreted as semantic and
intentional, but this just takes us back to the start: what we want to
know is how certain physical movements can simply be what it is to
interpret.
When interpretationalism has reached this point, it is not clearly

different from realist reductionism, except that the reduction base
is social, rather than individual, behaviour. We will return to discuss-
ing this in section 5.

4. Realism and ‘Real Patterns’

Dennett came to dislike the label ‘instrumentalist’ and to declare that
he was a ‘moderate realist’. He expressed this by saying that the inten-
tional states and systems whose value he had originally described as
instrumental were, or were grounded on, real patterns in the physical
world. How is this position related to the realism to which I have
driven the interpretationalist in the previous section?
The current discussion concerns whether instrumentalism/inter-

pretationalism involves a vicious regress. The regress reputedly con-
sists in the fact that this theory presupposes an intrinsically
intentional system to carry out the interpreting required by both; it
cannot, therefore, constitute an explanation of what it is for some-
thing to be an intentional system or a semantic engine. Dennett’s
account of real patterns does not seem to me to touch this accusation.
In order to meet the challenge he would have to show that a pattern,
on its own and without the aid of some act of interpretation, consti-
tuted an intentional state. One can make a distinction between the
view that patterns are per se real and that they are grounded. On the
latter account, a pattern is a kind of Gestalt, because it is a matter of
a certain structure being seen as a whole in a certain way. The
figure created by a continuous line moving equidistant from a
central point just is a circle. A series of dots placed on the same
outline as the circle will also be seen as forming a circle, but they
are just dots in certain positions: they could be seen – if they were
seen as forming anything other than a collection of dots in certain
places – as forming a polygon. The pure circle is not a pattern, it is
a self-sufficient shape. The dots form a pattern which requires a
mind – an interpreter – to complete it, and it could be completed in
more than one way, though one particular way may be the easiest or
most natural. William Seager, in an illuminating discussion of

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Howard Robinson

Dennett on real patterns almost gets this right, but not quite and this
lets Dennett off the hook. Seager explains the status of patterns as
follows:

Inhabiting a curious zone midway between, as it were, objectivity
and subjectivity, patterns are there to be seen, but have no function
if they are not seen. By the former I mean that patterns are not
just in the eye of the beholder; they are really in the world and
provide us with an indispensable and powerful explanatory and
predictive grip on the world. By the latter I mean that the only
role they have in the world is to help organize the experience of
those conscious beings who invent them and then think in
terms of them.3

It generally looks as if Seager is saying that patterns are really there,
but are physically epiphenomenal, because all the causal clout comes
from

…the fundamental features of the world [that is, its most ‘minute
parts’] that organize the world into all the patterns it exemplifies,
and they do all this by themselves, with no help from ‘top-down’
causation.4

Seager seems to think that patterns are not wholly epiphenomenal
because they are picked out by and hence influence minds, and
that, for this reason, ‘Mind cannot be “just another” pattern’.5
Dennett has a twofold reply. First, he rejects the view that patterns

are physically idle: (‘All those simpler, thermostat-like minds are
responsive to patterns…’6). This, in a sense, is a verbal dispute, for
Dennett is not denying that the world is ‘closed under physics’ and
that, therefore, higher order entities add nothing to the causal clout
of the minute parts. Nevertheless, Dennett is right that this latter
fact does not seem to make it wrong to attribute causal force to
non-fundamental entities: it is still the stone that broke the
window, even if this supervenes on the action of the atoms. Second,
and more crucial, he rejects Seager’s main conclusion:

3 W. Seager, ‘Real Patterns and Surface Metaphysics’ in D. Ross, A.
Brook and D. Thompson, Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive
Assessment (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 95–129: 117.

4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 121.
6 D. Dennett, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ in D. Ross,

A. Brook and D. Thompson (eds), Dennett’s Philosophy: A Comprehensive
Assessment, op. cit., 327–88: 355.

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Quality, Thought and Consciousness

In Seager’s opinion, ‘Mind cannot be “just another” pattern’
Why not? Perhaps I have missed his point.7

Dennett has missed the point but only because Seager has not
stated it quite correctly, or not clearly so. If patterns are real and
are of the same ontological status as higher order, non-fundamental
objects in general, and if it is appropriate to ascribe causal roles to
such non-fundamental things, even though these supervene on the
atomic, then why should not the mind be efficacious, as the stone
is, and just a pattern? Seager’s mistake is to characterize patterns as
real but inefficacious, except upon the mind.
In fact he is ambiguous about the reality of patterns. In one of the

passages quoted above he talks of patterns as invented by conscious
beings. Seager needs to make explicit what he perhaps intends,
namely a distinction like that I make above between the groundedness
of patterns in reality, together with the need for mental activity to
reify them on the basis of those grounds. This explains why the
mind cannot be just a pattern: it is presupposed by patterns as their
co-inventor, together with the grounding. If the mind itself were
just a pattern, then there would be the kind of regress with which
we started our discussion, for it would not be reified unless it were
seen as a pattern, and so on.

5. Social Realism

So Dennett’s doctrine of real patterns does not enable him to escape
from the regress. But we ended section 3 with a form of social realism-
cum-interpretationalism still in play, and must return to the discus-
sion of that theory. In fact, the problems that we found for the real
patterns theory also apply here. We saw that Seager, in his rejection
of ‘top-down’ causation was implicitly classifying all non-foun-
dational entities as similar to patterns: that is, he did not demote pat-
terns because they were patterns per se, but because they were higher
order entities and higher order entities had no independent causal
clout, because all such clout is ‘bottom up’, not ‘top down’. This
assimilation of all non-fundamental entities to patterns is, I believe,
essentially correct. I have elsewhere presented an account which
can briefly be summarized as follows.8

7 Ibid.
8 H. Robinson, ‘Dualism’ in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of

Mind, edited by S. Stitch and T. A. Warfield (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009),
85–101; H. Robinson, ‘Reductionism, Supervenience and Emergence’ in

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Howard Robinson

There are two forms of strictly ‘bottom up’ reductionism. One is
the ‘translation’ reductionism of Carnap9 and other logical positi-
vists, according to which all true statements in the special sciences
and commonsense ontology can be translated into statements about
fundamental physics. The other is the ‘nomological reductionism’
associated with Nagel’s classical account, according to which higher
order properties and laws are type identical with something in
physics.10 In both these cases the conceptual or explanatory content
of higher order descriptions adds nothing to what can, in principle,
be acquired from a proper account in terms of physics.
Unfortunately, neither of these forms of reduction actually applies
to the relationship between physics and most, if not all, higher
order descriptions. Even if and where the world is ‘closed under
physics’, the relation between that fundamental physical base and
the rest is only a form of a priori sufficiency of the base; there is not
also the necessity of the base that either translation or nomic
reduction requires. By ‘a priori sufficiency of the base’ I mean the fol-
lowing. Given what is happening at the fundamental level, then what
is happening at the higher order levels follows necessarily. For
example, though there is no nomological reductive account of ‘hurri-
cane’, given that the atoms are behaving in a certain way, then necess-
arily there is a hurricane: there is no possible world atomically just
like ours at the time of Katrina in which there was not a hurricane.
This is so even though the conceptual frameworks of the higher
explanations, such as meteorology, cytology, etc. ‘float free’ of the
conceptual framework of physics. I argued that this shows that the
special sciences are best understood as different perspectives on
the physical base, usually with certain interests in mind. They are
essentially in the same category as patterns, because, though the con-
cepts they involve are well grounded by the basic physical reality, they
do not reflect any reality additional to the fundamental physical base,
except the interests and other perspectives of the humans who employ
them. These perspectives do not differ significantly from modes of
interpretation of the patterns available at the lower level. In other
words, given the failure of tough minded forms of reductionism,
the relation between the base and other levels of explanation is ‘top

The Routledge Companion to Metaphysics, edited by P. Simons and R. Le
Poidevin (London: Routledge, 2009), 527–36.

9 R. Carnap, The Unity of Science (London: Kegan Paul, 1934).
10 E. Nagel, The Structure of Science (London: Routledge and Kegan

Paul, 1961).

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Quality, Thought and Consciousness

down’, and this is a form of interpretationalism, which presupposes a
mind picking out the fundamenta that make the higher order expla-
nations possible.
If the above argument is correct, all physicalists are interpretation-

alists, not just about mental states, but about all, or, at least, most of
the special sciences (that is, those not reducible in one of the strong
senses). Premise (2) of the original argument – the denial of straight
realism about the mental, from a physicalist perspective – is correct.
But I have already shown, in my defence of (10), that interpretation-
alism leads to a vicious regress. Neither physicalist realism nor inter-
pretationalism is able to accommodate thought. The other options
open to a naturalist that I mentioned at the outset were eliminativism
and meaning epiphenomenalism. Given that neither of these is accep-
table, one is forced to a realist, interactionist, and dualist theory of
thought.

6. Why It Is impossible to Combine a Non-reductive Account
of Qualia with a Reductive Account of Conceptual Activity

There is another strategy for showing the irreducibility of intellect,
namely to show that it follows from the irreducibility of phenomenal
content. By contrast, it is not unusual for philosophers to combine a
non-reductionist acceptance of qualia with a functionalist or beha-
viourist account of thought. The general view of those who do this
is that the reductive approach works for everything except ‘raw
feels’. Examples of versions of this approach are Ayer, Jackson,
Chalmers and, I think, Russell.11 It seems to me that this combi-
nation is impossible; if you accept the irreducibility of phenomenal
content, you must accept the irreducibility of at least certain basic
intellectual acts, namely those involved in recognition. My argument
for this is, in outline, as follows:

(1) The view I am attacking combines (a) the irreducibility of
qualia, with (b) a behavioural/functional account of concep-
tual activity, and, hence, of recognition.

11 A. J. Ayer, The Origins of Pragmatism (London: Macmillan, 1968); F.
Jackson, ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982),
127–36; D. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1996); B. Russell, The Analysis of Matter (London: Allen and
Unwin, 1927).

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Howard Robinson

(2) This requires that the having of the qualia and the act of recog-
nizing them be separate acts or events, and, consequently, they
are only causally and contingently connected.

(3) If (2) is true, then the nature of the qualia could vary without
the content of the act of recognition varying, because they are
only contingently connected.

(4) This would lead to ‘beetle in the box’ redundancy. That is, if
what it seemed to the subject he was recognizing could float
free of the nature of the qualia, then the qualia would be
redundant.

Therefore,

(5) Qualia and the associated act of recognition are not contin-
gently and causally connected.

Therefore,

(6) Qualia must be ostensively internal to recognitional judge-
ments. That is, as Russell maintained, in a recognitional jud-
gement such as ‘that is red’ the quale being demonstrated is
part of the content of the judgement.

The transition from (1) to (2) can be illustrated as follows. Suppose
the subject to be veridically perceiving a red object. Using an arrow
to represent causal connection, the process would be as follows:

Red object → red quale → red-appropriate functional/behav-
ioural response.

Suppose instead the following occurred:

Red object → green quale → red-appropriate functional/behav-
ioural response.

What are we to suppose it would be like for the subject in this latter
case? Ex hypothesi, noticing that the quale is green would involve rec-
ognition, but all the recognitional and conceptual responses are of the
red-appropriate kind, so the subject cannot notice the nature of the
quale: it is not to him as if it were green. Suppose the following
occurred:

Red object → no quale → red-appropriate response.

For the same reason, the subject cannot notice that there is no content
to the experience. So the causal, naturalistic account of recognition
leaves the hypothesization of qualia redundant. In other words, a
property dualist account of experience or phenomenal content must

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Quality, Thought and Consciousness

incorporate some basic form of recognitional apprehension of that
content, otherwise its whole purpose, which is to be the essence of
‘what-it-is-like’ for the subject, will be evacuated. To use
Wittgenstein’s famous image, it would not matter whether or not
there was a beetle in the box.

7. Understanding Meaning: Proliferation and ‘Magic’?

If we are going to accept that conceptual activity is irreducible, just as
is phenomenal consciousness, then are we not allowing a proliferation
of distinct irreducible entities, and/or capacities? The thought
behind this worry is that phenomenal consciousness, or ‘raw
feeling’, is something entirely different from thought: thought essen-
tially involves concepts which are, in some sense, universals, but
phenomenal consciousness concerns only a strange, private kind of
particular.
Whilst I do not want to deny the importance of the difference

between thought and sensory experience, I think that the respect in
which there is continuity between them can be missed. The classical
empiricists tended to assimilate them by having an imagistic theory of
thought, thus moving in the direction of reducing thought to sen-
sation. My suggestion indicates the opposite direction. It is important
that phenomenal contents are qualitative in nature; that is, they are
universals, though not abstract objects. I have argued above that, in
the case of human experience, at least, it is not possible to fix a
clear divide between having the experience and the minimally con-
ceptual act of recognition. This might seem to imply that in experi-
ence we apply concepts to our raw feels, and it is this process of
forming concepts that seems problematic and wholly different from
simply having the experience. But once one recognizes that phenom-
enal contents are qualitative and, hence, essentially universal
in nature, one can see that merely apprehending them is a proto-
intellectual act.
I think that the divide between sensory and intellectual acts can be

drawn in either of two ways, one of which I shall dub ‘nominalist’ and
the other ‘Aristotelian realist’. According to the nominalist, any form
of conceptualization has to be constructed, because there is nothing
universal in nature, and, somehow, the mind has to construct general-
ity for its own purposes. In my opinion, there is no way in which this
could be done, but the idea that this must be how conceptualization
works forces a division between the absolute particularity of experi-
ence and the more or less linguistic sophistication of anything

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Howard Robinson

conceptual. For the realist, on the other hand, all properties and qual-
ities are at least immanently universal: a mind does not so much need
to construct a universal to fit a quality it senses, as to apprehend a uni-
versal that is already present. All discernment of similarity and dis-
similarity between phenomenal contents – without which there
seems hardly to be experience at all – is, if the realist is right,
already a grasping of universals. On this theory, the great divide
comes, not between phenomenal contents as pure particulars and
concepts as constructed universals, but between the ability to appre-
hend universals …

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