Back to contents
Number 10: Spring 2015

On the Relation Between the Universal and the Singular in the Theory and Practice of Psychoanalysis.

Barry Watt

Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves (F.S. Fitzgerald, ‘The Rich Boy’). 

In his celebrated painting La trahison des images, René Magritte confronts the viewer with a paradox, a fissure between image and text: a realist rendition of a tobacco pipe above the inscription, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. The standard reading of this work usually appeals to the ostensibility of the paradox; for, it is pointed out, the viewer is not presented with a pipe at all but, rather, the image or re-presentation of a pipe. The received reading consequently makes of Magritte’s work an intervention in the philosophy of art; as a meta-pictorial commentary on the nature of depiction, La trahison is taken to highlight the distinction between the conceptual and the actual, the abstract and the concrete, the universal and the singular. After all, Magritte’s pipe is not really a pipe—as Magritte himself quipped—you cannot smoke from it. The ‘treachery of images’ would appear to consist, then, in the fact that although images frequently purport to capture objects at the level of their individuality (the lines on this face; the rain over that landscape; the yellow of these sunflowers) this claim is a deception; images, no matter how particularly or realistically rendered, only ever offer objects as substitutes and abstractions.

Such a reading is reassuring in its naiveté: it confirms one of our most cherished commonsense presuppositions. Namely, that the universal and singular are quite distinct and separate, universals lacking the same ontological status as the singularities from which they are said to be abstracted post res; whereas singular objects have an actual ‘material’ existence, universal concepts have but an ‘immaterial’, referential existence. It is well known that with his so-called ‘theory of forms’, Plato disputed commonsense by proposing that ideas assume priority over objects and not the other way around. According to Plato, we recognise any particular pipe as a pipe by virtue of the extent it corresponds to – or as Plato prefers to put it, ‘participates in’ – the pure universal notion of ‘pipeness’; we do not form the concept ‘pipe’ by grouping together pipe-like entities and then subtracting from that group the idiosyncrasies of its individual members to arrive at the general concept. So, it might be observed, the commonsense understanding of La trahison conforms to a ‘materialism’ (ideal universals are derived from concrete singulars) whereas the Platonic challenge, on the other hand, comprises an ‘idealism’ (concrete singulars aspire toward ideal universals).