For a long time I’ve thrown the term “universe of reference” about without clarifying just what I have in mind. I first came across this concept in Guattari’s Chaosmosis, though I have no idea whether I’m using the term correctly as Guattari’s language is very dense and he seldom takes the time to slow down and develop his concepts thoroughly. According to Husserl’s phenomenological method, the transcendental epoche consists in carrying out a reduction where one suspends all questions of whether or not the datums given to consciousness actually exist or what they are as they exist independently of consciousness (in themselves), and instead resolves to describe what is given simply in terms of how it appears or gives itself.
In certain respects, the concept of a universe of reference is a correlary of such a phenomenological reduction, but for a community of subjects. That is, a universe of reference is composed of the entities and relations posited by a certain community of persons, without raising questions as to whether this universe is an accurate representation of reality or not. Thus, for instance, one universe of reference might include God, demons, ghosts, signs from God, Satan, and so on; whereas another universe of reference includes none of these things. In one universe of reference there might be a category known as “terrorists”, such as in the film V for Vendetta where the government classifies any enemy of the State as a terrorist, where one and the same person classified as “terrorist” by the State might be classified by another group of people as a revolutionary or an activist. In the universe of reference inhabited by the neuropsychologist, repetitive handwashing is a sign of some neurological disorder and presents itself to the eyes of the observing clinician in these terms. Here a causal claim is made that implies a particular mode of treatment– Medication. In the case of a psychoanalyst, repetitive hand washing is a symptom of a betrayed desire, implying the concepts of the unconscious, desire, intersubjectivity, objet a, and so on. Jacques-Alain Miller has a very nice article on just how symptoms differ from signs. The point here, of course, is that although at the level of sense-experience the neurologist and the psychoanalyst are viewing one and the same phenomenon, they are nonetheless talking of ontologically distinct entities. For the neurologist (barring the neuropsychoanalyst) there is no category of the symptom as the psychoanalyst understands it, while the psychoanalyst can have both a category of the neurological (indeed, Freud’s original Project essay was articulated in neurological terms) and a category of the symptom.
The concept of a “universe of reference” is thus an ontologico-sociological category designed to capture the “folk ontologies” shared by different groups of people and that diverge from one another. The aim here, of course, is not to promote some sort of facile relativism. There might be one true and genuine ontology such that these folk ontologies are just various illusions or falsehoods. However, in developing rhetorical and discursive strategies with regard to various groups it is necessary to be familiar with the universe of reference they inhabit so as to formulate those speech acts capable of making a difference with regard to them. A speech act formulated on the horizon of post-Newtonian physics isn’t very effective when speaking to a community that inhabits an Aristotlean universe.