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  The idea that certain characteristics of phenomena or certain moral, aesthetic or epistemological truths hold for all times and places. Such supposed universal characteristics and truths are then frequently made the basis of wider practices and conceptual schemes, the justification for which is given by their universal starting point. For example, the truths of mathematics are universal in that 2 + 2 = 4 irrespective of when and where the calculation is made. Mathematical truths are as good in ancient Egypt for carrying out pyramid building as they are in mid-twentieth-century America for undertaking spatial science. A feature of universalism, then, is that one cannot imagine the situation as otherwise: there are no alternative worlds where 2 + 2 ≠ 4.

A distinction made in philosophy since Plato is between universals and particulars. Universals are characteristics such as the colour \'red\' that potentially an infinite number of different objects can take. Any red object is an \'instant\' of the universal \'redness\'. In contrast, particulars cannot be instantiated; they are one of kind. What, though, is the status of universals? Plato thought they have an independent existence: somewhere there exists fundamental \'redness\' of which British pillar boxes and tunics of Canadian Mounties are pale copies. empiricists, in contrast, argue that universals do not exist in themselves but are lodged in the mind of the perceiver. Finally, nominalists contend that there are no universals such as redness, only general words like red that are applied to a number of objects such as pillar boxes and Mountie tunics. The nominalist approach, especially when reinforced by Wittgenstein\'s idea of \'family resemblances\', attracts the greatest support among contemporary philosophers. It suggests that we as humans, in the language we use and its associated practices, determine what counts as universal.

In the recent history of human geography (and associated with Enlightenment thinking), Platonic universals have dominated. They are present in discussions over regional geography, rational choice, quantitative methods, and the nature of humanness in humanistic geography. In each case, the issue is the exact form that the universal takes. For example, what is the universal form of the region of which any specific region is an example? The fact that, in this case, there has never been agreement about the nature of a universal region points to a pervasive problem, the semantic difficulty in defining universals. Furthermore, argue critics, when there is seeming agreement about universals it is the power and social status of the definer that makes them stick, not their inherent universality. Just as history is written by victors, so definitions of the universal are written by the powerful in their own interests. For example, the ostensibly universal characteristics defining man and woman and set by men has led to systematic patriarchy; and the apparently universal characteristics defining race and established in the West has led to systematic racism. Here a nominalist approach to universals, when combined with a post-structural sensibility toward power and language, is an important critical foil. In geography that combination has been mobilized around feminist writings about gender, around studies of sexuality, around race and post-colonialism, and around the \'economic\' part of economic geography. (TJB)

Suggested Reading Barnes, T.J. 1996: Logics of dislocation: models, metaphors and meanings of economic space, ch. 1. New York: Guilford.



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