Problem of universals

Problem of universals

The problem of universals is an ancient problem in metaphysics about whether universals exist. Universals are general or abstract qualities, characteristics, properties, kinds or relations, such as being male/female, solid/liquid/gas or a certain colour,[1] that can be predicated of individuals or particulars or that individuals or particulars can be regarded as sharing or participating in. For example, Scott, Pat, and Chris have in common the universal quality of being human or humanity. While many standard cases of universals are also typically regarded as abstract objects (such as humanity), abstract objects are not necessarily universals. For example, numbers can be held to be particular yet abstract objects.[2]

The problem of universals is about their status; as to whether universals exist independently of the individuals of whom they can be predicated or if they are merely convenient ways of talking about and finding similarity among particular things that are radically different. This has led philosophers to raise questions like, if they exist, do they exist in the individuals or only in people's minds or in some separate metaphysical domain? Questions like these arise from attempts to account for the phenomenon of similarity or attribute agreement among things.[3] For example, living grass and some apples are similar, namely in having the attribute of greenness. The issue, however, is how to account for this and related facts.



There are three main positions on the issue: realism, idealism and nominalism (sometimes simply called "anti-realism" with regard to universals).[4]


The realist school claims that universals are real — they exist and are distinct from the particulars that instantiate them. There are various forms of realism. Two major forms are Platonic realism (universalia ante res) and Aristotelian realism (universalia in rebus).[5] Platonic realism is the view that universals are real entities and they exist 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. For example, a common realist argument, arguably found in Plato, 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". 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. Thus it is assumed that the property is a universal which is distinct from the particular individual who has the property (MacLeod & Rubenstein, 2006, §1b).


Nominalists assert that only individuals or particulars exist and deny that universals are real (i.e. that they exist as entities or beings). The term "nominalism" comes from the Latin nomen ("name"). There are various forms of nominalism (which is sometimes also referred to as "terminism"), three major forms are resemblance nominalism, conceptualism and trope nominalism. Nominalism has been endorsed or defended by many, including William of Ockham, Peter Abelard, D. C. Williams (1953), David Lewis (1983) and arguably H. H. Price (1953) and W. V. O. Quine (1961).

Nominalists often argue for their view by claiming that nominalism can account for all the relevant phenomena, and therefore—by Ockham's razor or some sort of principle of simplicity—nominalism is preferable, since it posits fewer entities. Whether nominalism can truly "account" for all of the relevant phenomena, is of course, hotly debated.


Idealism is a broad category that includes several diverse themes, from Kant's radical doubt about what can truly be perceived externally to Hegel's Absolute Ideal at the verification of the sum of potential manifestations of matter and concepts. This position argues that the nature of reality is based only in our minds or ideas. The external world is inseparable from the mind, consciousness or perceptions. Universals are real and exist independently of that on which they might be predicated.

Ancient thought


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.[6] For that reason, the world of the forms is the real world, like sunlight, the sensible world is only imperfectly or partially real, like shadows. This Platonic realism, however, in denying full reality to the material world, differs sharply with modern forms of idealism, which generally assert the reality of the external, physical world and which in some versions deny the reality of ideals.[original research?]

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."[7]


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 thought


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

For the moment, I shall naturally decline to say, concerning genera and species, whether they subsist, whether they are bare, pure isolated conceptions, whether, if subsistent, they are corporeal or incorporeal, or whether they are separated from or in sensible objects and other related matters. This sort of problem is of the very deepest and requires more extensive investigation.[citation needed]


Peter Abelard was intrigued by the works of Boethius, and wrote an extensive commentary on the Isagoge.

Duns Scotus

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


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.

Medieval realism

Realism was argued for by both Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. Aquinas argued that both the essence of a thing and its existence were clearly distinct,[8] 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.[9] Both these opinions were denied by Scotus' pupil William of Ockham.

Medieval nominalism

Nominalism was first formulated as a philosophical theory in the Middle Ages. The French philosopher and theologian Roscellinus (c. 1050-c. 1125) was an early, prominent proponent of this view. It can be found in the work of Peter Abelard and reached its flowering in William of Ockham, who was the most influential and thorough nominalist. Abelard's and Ockham's version of nominalism is sometimes called conceptualism, which presents itself as a middle way between nominalism and realism, asserting that there is something in common among like individuals, but that it is a concept in the mind, rather than a real entity existing independently of the mind. Ockham argued that only individuals existed and that universals were only mental ways of referring to sets of individuals. "I maintain", he wrote, "that a universal is not something real that exists in a subject... but that it has a being only as a thought-object in the mind [objectivum in anima]". As a general rule, Ockham argued against assuming any entities that were not necessary for explanations. Accordingly, he wrote, there is no reason to believe that there is an entity called "humanity" that resides inside, say, Socrates, and nothing further is explained by making this claim. This is in accord with the analytical method which has since come to be called Ockham's razor, the principle that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible.

Critics argue that conceptualist approaches only answer the psychological question of universals. If the same concept is correctly and non-arbitrarily applied to two individuals, there must be some resemblance or shared property between the two individuals that justifies their falling under the same concept and that is just the metaphysical problem that universals were brought in to address, the starting-point of the whole problem (MacLeod & Rubenstein, 2006, §3d). If resemblances between individuals are asserted, conceptualism becomes moderate realism; if they are denied, it collapses into nominalism.[10]

Modern and contemporary views


George Berkeley, best known for his empiricism, was also an advocate of an extreme nominalism. Indeed, he disbelieved even in the possibility of a general thought as a psychological fact. It is impossible to imagine a man, the argument goes, unless one has in mind a very specific picture of one who is either tall or short, European or Asian, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, et cetera. When one thinks of a triangle, likewise, it is always obtuse, right-angled or acute. There is no mental image of a triangle in general. Not only then do general terms fail to correspond to extra-mental realities, they don't correspond to thoughts either.

Berkeleyan nominalism contributed to the same thinker's critique of the possibility of matter. In the climate of English thought in the period following Isaac Newton's major contributions to physics, there was much discussion of a distinction between primary qualities and secondary qualities. The primary qualities were supposed to be true of material objects in themselves (size, position, momentum) whereas the secondary qualities were supposed to be more subjective (color and sound). But on Berkeley's view, just as it is meaningless to speak of triangularity in general aside from specific figures, so it is meaningless to speak of mass in motion without knowing the colour. If the colour is in the eye of the beholder, so is the mass.


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".

At this point in his discussion he seems to be siding with Berkeley. But he proceeds to concede, under some verbal camouflage, that Berkeley's position is factually wrong and that every human mind performs the trick Berkeley thought impossible:

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.[citation needed]

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.


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.


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

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 - there is the moral/political answer, the mathematical/scientific answer and the anti-paradoxical answer. Each has contemporary or near contemporary advocates.

The moral or political response is given by the conservative philosopher Richard M. Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences, 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]

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..."

Nino Cocchiarella (1975), professor emeritus of philosophy at Indiana University, has maintained that conceptual realism is the best response to certain logical paradoxes to which nominalism leads. 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.


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 upon. In both Universals and Scientific Realism and Universals: An Opinionated Introduction, 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.

See also


  1. ^ Loux (2001), p.4
  2. ^ Rodriguez-Pereyra (2008), §1.
  3. ^ Loux (1998), p.20; (2001), p.3
  4. ^ MacLeod & Rubenstein (2006), §3.
  5. ^ Price (1953), among others, sometimes uses such Latin terms
  6. ^ MacLeod & Rubenstein (2006), §1b.
  7. ^ Davenport, Guy (1979). Herakleitos and Diogenes. Translated by Guy Davenport. Bolinas: Grey Fox Press. pp. 57. ISBN 0-912516-35-6. 
  8. ^ On Being and Essence, Ch I.
  9. ^ Opus Oxoniense I iii 1-2
  10. ^ The Friesian School
  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. pp. 16. ISBN 9780299128104. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  13. ^ Joseph Scotchie (1 January 1995). The vision of Richard Weaver. Transaction Publishers. pp. 112. ISBN 9781560002123. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 

References and further reading

  • 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]
  • Klima, Gyula (2008). "The Medieval Problem of Universals", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  • 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.

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