The Problem of Universals

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The Problem Of Universals

Concerning Genus and Species.

The question on which Peter Abelard (c. 1079–1142) originally made his name and indeed the question that engaged philosophers at the fledgling school at Paris was the so-called problem of universals (common terms like "animal" or "man"). Sparked by a casual remark by Boethius in one of his commentaries on Aristotle's logic ("concerning genus and species, whether they have real existence or are merely and solely creations of the mind … on all this I make no pronouncement"), the debate raged for nearly half a century. John of Salisbury (c. 1120–1180), a Paris graduate, visited his alma mater twenty years after he had left for England and remarked that the Paris masters in the intervening years had made no progress in resolving the conundrum concerning universals.

Realism and Nominalism.

The debate surrounding universals focused on the problem of whether universals, essential to speech and communication, had any status outside of the mind. For instance, does "dogness" or "horseness" have any reality apart from one's thinking? The question generated two extreme positions: realism—that the universal exists as such outside the mind, like the Forms of Plato—and nominalism—that the universal is only a word, from the Latin nomen, meaning "name." According to Roscelin, a member of the latter school, the only reality possessed by the universal was the flatus vocis—"the breath made by the voice as it pronounced the word." William of Champeaux (c. 1070–1121), a champion of the former view, believed that there was something that Socrates and Plato, for example, had in common, something by virtue of which each could be called human. When his student Abelard attacked his position, William retreated to a new position: namely, that although Socrates and Plato had nothing in common, each had an element that can be called "indifferently" the same. Abelard again demolished this position as well, and William, thoroughly humiliated, was driven into retirement. Notwithstanding his failure in the battles of academe, William was subsequently consecrated bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne.

Abelard's "Conceptualism."

Originally a student of Roscelin's, Abelard himself moved away from his master's position and, partly as a result of his debates with William, adopted a view known as conceptualism, which was close to what Aristotle's would have been had he isolated the problem: that is, that the universal is present within the particular thing, but not as such; it needs to be abstracted by the mind and therefore stands as a mental representation of the nature of the thing, while remaining other than the particular thing itself.

Tragic Story of Abelard and Heloise

In the century that saw the introduction of the concept of courtly love into Europe, Abelard was the knight errant of dialectics, vanquishing all in his path. Oral arguments, "disputations" they were called, were more a part of the educational scene in the High Middle Ages than they are today. But students then, as today, love a good show, and Abelard obliged, his skills in logical debate destroying reputations and, in one case, driving his vanquished opponent into the seclusion of a monastery for the rest of his life. That is until he met Heloise. Hired to tutor the precocious teenager by her uncle, a canon of the cathedral, the forty-year-old Abelard was soon smitten, and the ensuing affair produced a son, who was given the name Astrolabe, meaning "fallen from the stars." Though Abelard was canonically free to marry, since he was not at this time a priest, the tradition from Socrates onward was that the philosopher should be celibate, in order to devote himself more completely to his vocation. The ensuing attempt to cover up the disgrace enraged the uncle, who arranged for Abelard's castration. Though today they are buried in the same grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, Abelard and Heloise were separated for the rest of their days, each attached to a monastic center.

In the midst of Abelard's misfortunes, recounted in a series of letters between the lovers, a member of a new and strict religious order, the Cistercians, and preacher of Crusades, Bernard of Clairvaux, launched an attack on Abelard's orthodoxy and succeeded at the Council of Sens in having his works condemned. Among other charges, Bernard argued that Abelard was a rationalist, which meant setting the human reason above faith. In a work called Sic et Non (Yes and No) Abelard had pointed up the number of teachings on which the Fathers of the Church seemed to contradict themselves, but then with an appropriate distinction or bit of linguistic analysis the "contradiction" dissolved. Perhaps Abelard's most important contribution to moral philosophy was his notion that the internal act called consent was what determined an act as good or evil, not the doing or not doing of the deed. For the rest, as with the fate of many a critical thinker before and since, his direct influence on subsequent thinkers was slight.

The Triumph of Nominalism.

The harsh reality of a nominalist view is that if universals were only words, then no nature would have any reality. In other words, there would be no such thing as human nature or angelic nature or even divine nature; natural law would be left without a foundation. Only individuals exist; universals are simply a convenience of the human mind. While philosophical interest moved away from the problem by the end of the twelfth century, the nominalists reasserted themselves in the fourteenth century, at which point they triumphed over all other positions, and their victory spelled the effective end of the medieval synthesis. Foremost among the champions of this re-emergent nominalism was the Franciscan William of Ockham (c. 1290–1349), the central theme of whose philosophy was the individual thing. Each individual reality was so self-contained that it shared nothing with anything else. It was a philosophy, in other words, of the singular. For the sake of communication and indeed convenience, words need to be used to represent these singular things, but these are no more than fictions (ficta), not reducible to the notion of a thing in the world. The word "man" does not adequately represent Socrates or any part of Socrates, but functions like a mental model. Ultimately, however, this fiction theory fell afoul of his "razor"—the principle of philosophical economy—and Ockham abandoned it in favor of a view that can be more adequately termed "conceptualism": that is, a universal is simply an act of understanding whereby people are aware of things in terms of their more or less generalizable features.


Peter King, "Abelard," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 115: Medieval Philosophers. Ed. Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, Inc., 1992): 3–14.

David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (London: Longmans, 1962): 107–115.

John Marenbon, "Peter Abelard," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 485–493.

——, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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The Problem of Universals

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