Problem of universals

Boethius teaching his students

In metaphysics, the problem of universals refers to the question of whether properties exist, and if so, what they are.[1] Properties are qualities or relations that two or more entities have in common. The various kinds of properties, such as qualities and relations, are referred to as universals. For instance, one can imagine three cup holders on a table that have in common the quality of being circular or exemplifying circularity,[2] or two daughters that have in common being the female offsprings of Frank. There are many such properties, such as being human, red, male or female, liquid, big or small, taller than, father of, etc.[3] While philosophers agree that human beings talk and think about properties, they disagree on whether these universals exist in reality or merely in thought, speech and sight.

The problem of universals relates to a number of questions in close relation to not only metaphysics but, to logic and epistemology, all in efforts to understand how the thought of universals has a connection to those of singular properties.[4]

Ancient philosophy [ edit ]

Plato [ edit ]

Plato believed there to be a sharp distinction between the world of perceivable objects and the world of universals or forms: one can only have mere opinions about the former, but one can have knowledge about the latter. For Plato it was not possible to have knowledge of anything that could change or was particular, since knowledge had to be forever unfailing and general.[5] For that reason, the world of the forms is the real world, like sunlight, while the sensible world is only imperfectly or partially real, like shadows. This Platonic realism, however, in denying that the eternal Forms are mental artifacts, differs sharply with modern forms of idealism.

One of the first nominalist critiques of Plato's realism was that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said "I've seen Plato's cups and table, but not his cupness and tableness."[6]

Aristotle [ edit ]

Plato's student Aristotle disagreed with his tutor. Aristotle transformed Plato's forms into "formal causes", the blueprints or essences of individual things. Whereas Plato idealized geometry, Aristotle emphasized nature and related disciplines and therefore much of his thinking concerns living beings and their properties. The nature of universals in Aristotle's philosophy therefore hinges on his view of natural kinds.

Consider for example a particular oak tree. This is a member of a species and it has much in common with other oak trees, past, present and future. Its universal, its oakness, is a part of it. A biologist can study oak trees and learn about oakness and more generally the intelligible order within the sensible world. Accordingly, Aristotle was more confident than Plato about coming to know the sensible world; he was a prototypical empiricist and a founder of induction. Aristotle was a new, moderate sort of realist about universals.

Medieval philosophy [ edit ]

Boethius [ edit ]

The problem was introduced to the medieval world by Boethius, by his translation of Porphyry's Isagoge. It begins:

"I shall omit to speak about genera and species, as to whether they subsist (in the nature of things) or in mere conceptions only; whether also if subsistent, they are bodies or incorporeal, and whether they are separate from, or in, sensibles, and subsist about these, for such a treatise is most profound, and requires another more extensive investigation".[7]

Duns Scotus [ edit ]

Duns Scotus argued strongly against both nominalism and conceptualism, arguing instead for Scotist realism, a medieval response to the conceptualism of Abelard.

Ockham [ edit ]

William of Ockham argued strongly that universals are a product of abstract human thought. According to Ockham, universals are just words/names that only exist in the mind and have no real place in the external world.[8]

Medieval realism [ edit ]

Realism was argued for by both Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Aquinas argued that both the essence of a thing and its existence were clearly distinct;[9] in this regard he is close to the teaching of Aristotle. Scotist realism argues that in a thing there is no real distinction between the essence and the existence, instead there is only a Formal distinction.[10] Scotus believed that universals exist only inside the things that they exemplify, and that they "contract" with the haecceity of the thing to create the individual. Both of these opinions were denied by Scotus' pupil William of Ockham.

Medieval nominalism [ edit ]

In medieval philosophy, the French philosopher and theologian Roscellinus (c. 1050 – c. 1125) was an early, prominent proponent of nominalism.

Modern and contemporary philosophy [ edit ]

Mill [ edit ]

The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill discussed the problem of universals in the course of a book that eviscerated the philosophy of Sir William Hamilton. Mill wrote, "The formation of a concept does not consist in separating the attributes which are said to compose it from all other attributes of the same object and enabling us to conceive those attributes, disjoined from any others. We neither conceive them, nor think them, nor cognize them in any way, as a thing apart, but solely as forming, in combination with numerous other attributes, the idea of an individual object".

However, he then proceeds to state that Berkeley's position is factually wrong by stating the following:

But, though meaning them only as part of a larger agglomeration, we have the power of fixing our attention on them, to the neglect of the other attributes with which we think them combined. While the concentration of attention lasts, if it is sufficiently intense, we may be temporarily unconscious of any of the other attributes and may really, for a brief interval, have nothing present to our mind but the attributes constituent of the concept.

— as quoted in William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

In other words, we may be "temporarily unconscious" of whether an image is white, black or yellow and concentrate our attention on the fact that it is a man and on just those attributes necessary to identify it as a man (but not as any particular one). It may then have the significance of a universal of manhood.

Peirce [ edit ]

The 19th-century American logician Charles Sanders Peirce, known as the father of pragmatism, developed his own views on the problem of universals in the course of a review of an edition of the writings of George Berkeley. Peirce begins with the observation that "Berkeley's metaphysical theories have at first sight an air of paradox and levity very unbecoming to a bishop".[11] He includes among these paradoxical doctrines Berkeley's denial of "the possibility of forming the simplest general conception". He wrote that if there is some mental fact that works in practice the way that a universal would, that fact is a universal. "If I have learned a formula in gibberish which in any way jogs my memory so as to enable me in each single case to act as though I had a general idea, what possible utility is there in distinguishing between such a gibberish... and an idea?" Peirce also held as a matter of ontology that what he called "thirdness", the more general facts about the world, are extra-mental realities.

James [ edit ]

William James learned pragmatism, this way of understanding an idea by its practical effects, from his friend Peirce, but he gave it new significance – which was not to Peirce's taste: he came to complain that James had "kidnapped" the term and eventually to call himself a "pragmaticist" instead. Although James certainly agreed with Peirce and against Berkeley that general ideas exist as a psychological fact, he was a nominalist in his ontology:

From every point of view, the overwhelming and portentous character ascribed to universal conceptions is surprising. Why, from Plato and Aristotle, philosophers should have vied with each other in scorn of the knowledge of the particular and in adoration of that of the general, is hard to understand, seeing that the more adorable knowledge ought to be that of the more adorable things and that the things of worth are all concretes and singulars. The only value of universal characters is that they help us, by reasoning, to know new truths about individual things.

— William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

There are at least three ways in which a realist might try to answer James' challenge of explaining the reason why universal conceptions are more lofty than those of particulars: the moral–political answer, the mathematical–scientific answer, and the anti-paradoxical answer. Each has contemporary or near-contemporary advocates.

Weaver [ edit ]

The moral or political response is given by the conservative philosopher Richard M. Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), where he describes how the acceptance of "the fateful doctrine of nominalism" was "the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence".[12][13]

Cocchiarella [ edit ]

Nino Cocchiarella put forward the idea that realism is the best response to certain logical paradoxes to which nominalism leads ("Nominalism and Conceptualism as Predicative Second Order Theories of Predication", Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, vol. 21 (1980)). It is noted that in a sense Cocchiarella has adopted Platonism for anti-Platonic reasons. Plato, as seen in the dialogue Parmenides, was willing to accept a certain amount of paradox with his forms. Cocchiarella adopts the forms to avoid paradox.

Armstrong [ edit ]

The Australian philosopher David Malet Armstrong has been one of the leading realists in the twentieth century, and has used a concept of universals to build a naturalistic and scientifically realist ontology. In both Universals and Scientific Realism (1978) and Universals: An Opinionated Introduction (1989), Armstrong describes the relative merits of a number of nominalist theories which appeal either to "natural classes" (a view he ascribes to Anthony Quinton), concepts, resemblance relations or predicates, and also discusses non-realist "trope" accounts (which he describes in the Universals and Scientific Realism volumes as "particularism"). He gives a number of reasons to reject all of these, but also dismisses a number of realist accounts.

Penrose [ edit ]

Roger Penrose contends that the foundations of mathematics can't be understood absent the Platonic view that "mathematical truth is absolute, external and eternal, and not based on man-made criteria ... mathematical objects have a timeless existence of their own..."[14]

Positions [ edit ]

There are many philosophical positions regarding universals.

  1. Platonic realism (also called "extreme realism"[15][16]) is the view that universals or forms in this sense, are the causal explanation behind the notion of what things exactly are; (the view that universals are real entities existing independent of particulars).
  2. Aristotelian realism (also called "strong realism"[15][16]) is the rejection of extreme realism. This position establishes the view of a universal as being that of the quality within a thing and every other thing individual to it; (the view that universals are real entities, but their existence is dependent on the particulars that exemplify them).
  3. Anti-realism is the objection to both positions. Anti-realism is divided into two subcategories; (1) Nominalism and (2) Conceptualism.

Taking "beauty" as example, each of these positions will state the following:

  • Beauty is a property that exists in an ideal form independently of any mind or description.
  • Beauty is a property that exists only when beautiful things exist.
  • Beauty is a property constructed in the mind, so exists only in descriptions of things.

Extreme realism and strong realism are also known as exaggerated realism and moderate realism respectively.[17]

Realism [ edit ]

The school of realism makes the claim that universals are real and that they exist distinctly from the particulars that instantiate them. Two major forms metaphysical realism are Platonic realism(universalia ante res), meaning "'universal before things'"[18] and Aristotelian realism(universalia in rebus), meaning "'universals in things'".[19] Platonic realism is the view that universals are real entities existing independent of particulars. Aristotelian realism, on the other hand, is the view that universals are real entities, but their existence is dependent on the particulars that exemplify them.

Realists tend to argue that universals must be posited as distinct entities in order to account for various phenomena. A common realist argument said to be found in Plato's writings, is that universals are required for certain general words to have meaning and for the sentences in which they occur to be true or false. Take the sentence "Djivan Gasparyan is a musician" for instance. The realist may claim that this sentence is only meaningful and expresses a truth because there is an individual, Djivan Gasparyan, who possesses a certain quality: musicianship. Therefore, it is assumed that the property is a universal which is distinct from the particular individual who has the property.[20]

Nominalism [ edit ]

Nominalists assert that only individuals or particulars exist and deny that universals are real (i.e. that they exist as entities or beings; universalia post res). The term "nominalism" comes from the Latin nomen ("name"). Four major forms of nominalism are predicate nominalism, resemblance nominalism, trope nominalism, and conceptualism.[21] One with a nominalist view claims that we predicate the same property of/to multiple entities, but argues that the entities only share a name and not have a real quality in common.

Nominalists often argue this view by claiming that nominalism can account for all the relevant phenomena, and therefore—by Occam's razor, and its principle of simplicity—nominalism is preferable, since it posits fewer entities. Nominalism has been endorsed or defended by many, including Chrysippus,[22][23] William of Ockham, Rudolf Carnap,[24] Nelson Goodman,[25] David Lewis,[24] H. H. Price,[24] and D. C. Williams.[26]

Conceptualism [ edit ]

Conceptualism is a position that is meshed between realism and nominalism. Conceptualists believe that universals can indeed be real, but only existing as concepts within the mind.[27] Conceptualists argue that the "concept" of universals are not mere "inventions but are reflections of similarities among particular things themselves."[28] For example, the concept of 'man' ultimately reflects a similarity amongst Socrates and Kant.

Transcendental idealism [ edit ]

Transcendental idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant posited that universals are not real, but are ideas in the mind of rational beings. Transcendental idealists do not reject universals as arbitrary names; rather, they treat universals as fundamental categories of pure reason (or as secondary concepts derived from those fundamental categories). Universals, in transcendental idealism, are intrinsically tied to the rationality of the subject making the judgment.

Thus, for transcendental idealists, the problem of universals is only tangentially a metaphysical problem; it is more of a problem of psychology and epistemology. Kant's position has been interpreted as a conceptualist one.[29]

See also [ edit ]

Notes [ edit ]

  1. ^ Moreland, J.P. (2001). Universals. McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 184. ISBN 0773522697.
  2. ^ Loux (1998), p. 20; (2001), p. 3
  3. ^ Loux (2001), p. 4
  4. ^ "The Medieval Problem of Universals". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. ^ MacLeod & Rubenstein (2006), §1b.
  6. ^ Davenport, Guy (1979). Herakleitos and Diogenes. Translated by Guy Davenport. Bolinas: Grey Fox Press. pp. 57. ISBN 0-912516-35-6.
  7. ^ Porphyry. "Porphyry, Introduction (or Isagoge) to the logical Categories of Aristotle (1853) vol. 2. pp.609-633".
  8. ^ Spade, Paul Vincent; Panaccio, Claude (2016-01-01). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  9. ^ On Being and Essence, Ch I.
  10. ^ Opus Oxoniense I iii 1-2
  11. ^ Peirce, C.S. (1871), Review: Fraser's Edition of the Works of George Berkeley in North American Review 113(October):449-72, reprinted in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce v. 8, paragraphs 7-38 and in Writings of Charles S. Peirce v. 2, pp. 462-486. Peirce Edition Project Eprint.
  12. ^ J. David Hoeveler (15 February 1991). Watch on the right: conservative intellectuals in the Reagan era. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-299-12810-4. Retrieved 3 January 2011.
  13. ^ Joseph Scotchie (1 January 1995). The vision of Richard Weaver. Transaction Publishers. p. 112. ISBN 978-1-56000-212-3. Retrieved 3 January 2011.
  14. ^ Penrose, Roger (1989). The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 151. ISBN 9780198519737.
  15. ^ a b MacLeod & Rubenstein (2006), §3.
  16. ^ a b Herbert Hochberg, "Nominalism and Idealism," Axiomathes, June 2013, 23(2), pp. 213–234.
  17. ^ Nominalism, Realism, Conceptualism – Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)
  18. ^ Klima, Gyula (2017), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "The Medieval Problem of Universals", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2019-02-26
  19. ^ Orilia, Francesco; Swoyer, Chris (2017), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "Properties", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2019-02-26
  20. ^ (MacLeod & Rubenstein, 2006, §1b)
  21. ^ MacLeod & Rubenstein (2006), §3.
  22. ^ John Sellars, Stoicism, Routledge, 2014, pp. 84–85: "[Stoics] have often been presented as the first nominalists, rejecting the existence of universal concepts altogether. ... For Chrysippus there are no universal entities, whether they be conceived as substantial Platonic Forms or in some other manner.".
  23. ^ Chrysippus (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  24. ^ a b c "Review of Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra, Resemblance Nominalism: A Solution to the Problem of Universals" –
  25. ^ "Nelson Goodman: The Calculus of Individuals in its different versions", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  26. ^ Donald Cary Williams, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  27. ^ "Conceptualism." The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. 8 April 2008.
  28. ^ "conceptualism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 12 Mar. 2019 <>.
  29. ^ Oberst, Michael. 2015. "Kant on Universals." History of Philosophy Quarterly 32(4):335–352.

References and further reading [ edit ]

Historical studies
  • Klima, Gyula (2008). "The Medieval Problem of Universals", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  • Pinzani, Roberto (2018). The Problem of Universals from Boethius to John of Salisbury, Leiden: Brill.
  • Spade, Paul Vincent. (1994, ed., transl.), "Five Texts on the Mediaeval Problem of Universals: Porphyry, Boethius, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham", Hackett Pub Co Inc.
Contemporary studies
  • Armstrong, David (1989). Universals, Westview Press.
  • Bacon, John (2008). "Tropes", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  • Cocchiarella, Nino (1975). "Logical Atomism, Nominalism, and Modal Logic", Synthese.
  • Feldman, Fred (2005). "The Open Question Argument: What It Isn't; and What It Is", Philosophical Issues vol. 15. [1]
  • Lewis, David (1983). "New Work for a Theory of Universals", Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
  • Loux, Michael J. (1998). Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, N.Y.: Routledge.
  • Loux, Michael J. (2001). "The Problem of Universals" in Metaphysics: Contemporary Readings, Michael J. Loux (ed.), N.Y.: Routledge, pp. 3–13.
  • MacLeod, M. & Rubenstein, E. (2006). "Universals", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, J. Fieser & B. Dowden (eds.). (link)
  • Moreland, JP. (2001). "Universals." Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
  • Price, H. H. (1953). "Universals and Resemblance", Ch. 1 of Thinking and Experience, Hutchinson's University Library.
  • Quine, W. V. O. (1961). "On What There is," in From a Logical Point of View, 2nd/ed. N.Y: Harper and Row.
  • Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo (2008). "Nominalism in Metaphysics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  • Russell, Bertrand (1912). "The World of Universals," in The Problems of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
  • Swoyer, Chris (2000). "Properties", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  • Williams, D. C. (1953). "On the Elements of Being", Review of Metaphysics, vol. 17.

External links [ edit ]

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