The term "universal," derived from the Latin universalis (unum versus alia, one against many), signifies a unity with reference to some plurality. Unlike the singular, which cannot be communicated, the universal is by definition something that is communicated or communicable to many.
In the history of thought the term is used in three distinct senses. In the context of being (in essendo ), an essence is said to be universal when it is possessed or can be possessed by many individuals. In the context of causality (in causando ), a cause is said to be universal when it is capable of producing specifically different effects. In the context of thought (in significando ), a concept, idea, or term is said to be universal when it signifies a certain plurality. This plurality is signified in two ways: by representing many (in repraesentando ),e.g., many individual men are represented by a single term or concept; and by being predicable of many (in praedicando ), e.g., the specific term "man" can be said univocally of many individual men. (see categories ofbeing.)
Most properly, the universals are the five ways in which one term can be predicated univocally of another. These logical universals are second intentions that can be discussed as such, viz, genus, difference, species, property, and accident, or as applied to a particular nature known in first intentionality, e.g., man as species, animal as genus (see logic; intentionality).
More commonly, universals are taken to mean any intellectual concept obtained by abstraction. This use of the term in psychology presupposes the Aristotelian doctrine concerning abstraction, the agent intellect, and the immateriality of the intellect (see knowledge, process of). In this psychological use of the term, every concept is universal, deriving its universality from the immateriality of the intellect.
The controversy over universals was a metaphysical discussion concerning the objective, ontological status of essences that are perceived universally by the intellect and that are seen to exist in many individuals. For plato and the extreme realist tradition, universal essences have, as such, some kind of reality independent of the mind. For aristotle and the moderate realist tradition, essences exist as individuals in reality, but these individuals possess a real basis in reality for the intellectual perception of universality (see realism). For nominalism only words are universal, since one word can be applied to distinct individuals that appear to be similar, but have no ontological similarity in reality. For conceptualism, universal terms signify universal concepts that are mentally constructed and correspond to nothing in reality.
The remainder of this article discusses the problem of universals in the Middle Ages and in modern thought.
Universals in the Middle Ages
Pioneer historians of medieval philosophy, despite some exaggerations, have had the merit of seeing the importance of the medieval controversy over universals. The first form in which the problem of the one and the many arose in the 12th century was in the context of logic, prior to the rediscovery of Aristotle. In the opening decades of the 14th century, the problem assumed deeper metaphysical significance.
Porphyry and Boethius. In his introduction to Aristotle's Categories, porphyry had formulated a series of options on the ontological status of universals: "Do genera and species subsist or are they located in the naked understandings? If subsisting, are they corporeal or incorporeal? Are they separate from or located in sensibles?" [Isagoge, ed. A. Busse, Comment. in Arist. Graec. (Berlin 1887) 4.1:1.9–13]. Porphyry thought these questions beyond the capacity of his readers, but boethius, commenting on Porphyry's Isagoge, made a formal attempt to answer them. His solution, expounded out of deference to Aristotle, was that "universals subsist in sensibles, although they are understood apart from bodies" (In Isagogen Porph. ed. 2, 1.11; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 48.1:167). Yet the doctrine on universals contained in Boethius's personal works is not that of his commentaries on Porphyry and Aristotle. Boethius seems to have preferred the extreme realism of Plato and the Platonic tradition. godfrey of saint-victor derided Boethius for his apparent inability to reach a definitive solution to the problem of universals (Fons philosophiae 233–236). Nevertheless, it was Boethius, translator of Aristotle's logica vetus and preserver of two ancient positions, who provoked the 12th-century controversy over universals.
Twelfth-Century Controversy. If no science is safe without a secure universal, it is not surprising that the first scientific theologians defended the objective reality of universals. All Christian theologians admitted God's eternal knowledge of things. Aristotle was content with essences that are realized only in concrete singulars, for an Aristotelian god is a thought that thinks itself alone, unconcerned with this world of generation and corruption and unaware of its existence. For Christians, all things are known eternally to the divine Intellect, are created in time, and are subject to divine providence.
Origins. St. augustine had shown (Divers. quaest. 46.2) that Plato's Ideas might be taken as a philosophical statement of the Christian conviction that God knows eternally all that can come to be. St. anselm of canterbury, as was his custom, went one step beyond St. Augustine to claim that things enjoy a mode of existence in divine knowledge superior to that in created matter (Monolog. 36). He called those who made universals mere words (voces ) "dialectically heretics" (De fide trin. ). The most eminent of these was roscelin of compiÈgne, who considered things so radically singular that he reduced the universal to "an emission of the voice" (flatus vocis ), to the sound that is made in pronouncing a universal term. john of salisbury reports that the theory of Roscelin did not survive its author (Metalog. 2.17); one reason for this was the formidable opposition of Abelard.
Abelard. A "peripatetic," thanks to his mastery of the "old logic," Peter abelard boasted that he had humiliated Roscelin, while still his pupil, by establishing that his teacher had missed the point on universals. What was at stake, Abelard saw, was not the physical reality of the universal term, but the explanation of how a plurality of individuals can be signified by a term that remains one in meaning. More than "an emission of the voice," a universal has meaning, and meaning is the crux of the problem. At the Cathedral School of Notre Dame in Paris, Abelard heard the celebrated william of champeaux describe the universal as "real" and "essentially common" to all the individuals of which it can be predicated. Only the "variety of accidents" differentiates individuals. Under pressure from his difficult pupil, William modified, or perhaps simply rephrased, the formulation of his view to the point of conceding that the real universal is but "indifferently common" to many individuals. This position seemed to Abelard only slightly better than the first.
All realist positions, Abelard thought, suffer from a fatal defect in that they attribute universality to things. Nor would it help to speak of a "collection" of things marked by substantial similitude. To be in agreement (convenire ) with others was also inadequate, for how could "individual," which Abelard considered a sixth predicable, be predicated of only one subject if universality means having something in common with many? Neither one thing nor a collection of things can ever be predicated of many subjects taken one by one; but such predication is the essence of universality. Words, not things, said Abelard, are predicates. Universals must be words, but not words taken in their crude materiality, like Roscelin's flatus vocis, for not every grammatically correct combination of words is a logically acceptable proposition. Not a subsistent "humanity," but the state (status ) of being, is the basis for predicating "man" of John and Peter.
Unacquainted with Aristotle's theory of abstraction, Abelard was forced to improvise a substitute. Using illustrations derived from man's memory of what he has seen, from his anticipation of what he has not yet seen, and from his dreams of what he shall never see, Abelard explained that exact and vivid representations apply to single individuals only, whereas weak and confused impressions of a whole class fit any and all members without restriction to any one of them. These conveniently vague conceptions, however, cannot be called "ideas." Individuals, anticipated but not experienced, and abstractions that lie beyond sensation, are the objects of "opinion" rather than intellection. In the last analysis, Abelard held that man has pragmatic knowledge of accidental artifacts and that God alone has universal concepts of the substantial natures that He alone creates. Pragmatic knowledge of individuals present to man is distinct from his confused grasp of the ultimate natures that only God truly knows.
Later Discussion. Going one step further, John of Salisbury dismissed universals as dreams (somnia ) and monstrosities (monstra ) and considered the problem of universals an obstacle to true learning (Metalog. 2.20). For him, what the theorizers had overlooked was that dialectic is a useful collaborator with every science; but, in his own pointed analogy, logic is philosophically barren unless impregnated by a source such as the real sciences (Metalog. 2.10).
avicenna provided the notion that the intellect adds determinations such as "universal," "accidental," "subject," or "predicate" to a metaphysically neutral common nature. Understood when a thing is understood, these "dispositions" have no reality apart from the understanding (Meta. 3.10). Before there can be either individual or universal, there must be a nature, of itself indifferent to both.
Thirteenth Century. For the masters of the 13th century, the truth about universals was a consequence of their metaphysical and psychological premises. Aristotelian premises made possible new explanations, rendering the controversy less conspicuous.
St. albert the great taught that the universal is verified in three modes. Prior to the individual (ante rem ), universals are forms that are the principles of things. In the individual (in re ), universals are forms that exist in things, sources of their names and natures. Subsequent to the individual (post rem ), they are forms that are separated through abstraction. Admitting the reality of universal Ideas in the Creator and a foundation in things for the universal that is abstracted from individuals, Albert held that "the intellect contrives universality." For Albert, as for Aristotle, the universality of human ideas comes by way of abstraction from matter (De praedicab. 2.3).
St. thomas aquinas was no less explicit in holding that "universals are not subsisting things, but have existence only in singulars" (C. gent. 1.65). Every existent is inevitably a singular: "What is common to many is not anything alongside the many, except by reason alone" (ibid. 1.26). Although Plato was wrong in positing subsisting, separate forms as immediate causes of forms in matter, he was right in saying that forms separated from matter are the model of those forms that actuate matter. They exist in God's intellect and cause inferior forms through the mediation of natural agencies (ibid. 3.24). Nevertheless, it is not in universals that God knows His creatures, but in individuals themselves. In human intellects alone, universal concepts are engendered through sense experience of many singulars, in which the intellect discerns similarity (In 1 anal. post. 42.7).
Fourteenth-Century Debate. Duns Scotus had no hesitation in granting reality and unity to absolute quiddities. This was far from committing the Subtle Doctor to a gross realism of actually existing separate forms. "The universal is intelligible of itself. The prime object of intellect, namely, essence (quod quid est ), is understood under the formality (sub ratione ) of universality. But that formality is not essentially identical with essence—rather it is an accidental mode. Therefore, the intellect can know the difference between its prime object and that mode" (Sup. univ. Porphy. 5). As "realist" as William of Champeaux but immeasurably more sophisticated, Scotus saw, with Avicenna, that of itself the absolute quiddity is neither individual, as verified in the physical order, nor universal, as functioning in the logical order. The intellect is responsible for universality by its recognition that a common nature can be predicated of many. While the modality of universality is formally distinct from a common nature, the universal term signifies this nature determined by universality. Scotus knew that the term "universal" is sometimes used with less precision: "At times, however, 'universal' is taken for the reality (pro re ) that underlies a second intention, that is, for the absolute quiddity of a thing, which is, of itself, neither universal nor singular, but of itself indifferent" (De anim. 17.14). The universal is "in the intellect as in its efficient cause and in the knower as known" (Sup. univ. Porphy. 9). The sensible encounter with singulars is a necessary condition of knowledge, since knowledge of singulars is a kind of "matter" from which the agent intellect forms universals. The unity of the real individual is not destroyed by its inner plurality because the graded forms— generic, specific, and accidental—are not "really," but only "formally," distinct. An individual is a galaxy of ever more determined forms, closed by an ultimate actuality, "thisness" (haecceitas ), which, precisely because it is not a form, cannot be a universal.
william of ockham was distressed to find that not only Scotus, but every writer he read on the problem, gave to universals some degree of reality in the extramental world (In 1 sent. 2.7). Since, for Ockham, the universal is strictly nothing, no degree of reality can be so slight as not to be too much. That creatures resemble each other was to him no evidence that universal natures are real. Things are similar to each other only because the omnipotent Creator has freely willed them to be so. Notwithstanding the rigor with which Ockham reduced the cosmos to a system of totally heterogeneous individuals (In 1 sent. 2.9), he held that science is "of universals" (Expos. sup. physic, prol.). Even when Ockham was willing to explain universals as figments (ficta ), he held that they are not arbitrary, but natural signs of the individuals they represent in mental discourse (In 1 sent. 2.8). In this sense, science is reductively a knowledge of individual things; his theory of supposition shows how this is possible (Summa tot. log. 1.62–68). "Abstraction" is Ockham's term for the process by which a multiple experience of singulars results in universals and in second intentions generally, but it is not the abstraction of Aquinas and Albert, nor that of Aristotle himself (Ordinatio, prol. 1). The universal is as natural a consequence of man's exposure to sensibles as a groan is a natural result of pain (Summa tot. log. 1.14). For Ockham, the intellect conceives the universal by a natural spontaneity, and therefore the universal is nothing but the act of thus understanding the singular (ibid. 1.15). The universal is no more than an "intention of the soul, of such a nature as to be predicable of many" (ibid. 1.15).
Some authors designate Ockham's position as "conceptualist" or "conceptist" or "terminist." Still others, certain of his disciples among them, make him the founder of the "nominalist sect." One of his contemporaries declared that Ockham and his party "wish to save everything with concepts." But nothing was saved, and it would be difficult not to conclude that Ockham's attack on universals had a role in undermining philosophical certitude and so opened a path to a skepticism the Venerable Inceptor did not himself profess.
e. a. synan
Position of Modern Thinkers
In modern thought, problems regarding universals continued to receive either a nominalist, conceptualist, realist, or moderate realist solution. From the 17th to the 20th centuries, all the classical positions have found ardent defenders. They have analyzed the problem of knowledge, the structure of meaning, and the relative merits of realism and idealism in ways unknown to medieval thinkers or, at least, not employed by them. Nevertheless, a philosopher's commitment to a particular solution of the problem of universals determines his entire philosophical system.
Seventeenth Century. Thomas hobbes briskly stated his case for nominalism: "This word universal is never the name of anything existent in nature, nor of any idea or phantasm formed in the mind, but always the name of some word or name" (De corpore, 2.9). For Hobbes, names are universal because they stand for a multiplicity of individual images. Similarities between those images justifies limiting certain names solely to certain images.
René descartes's analysis of the problem of universals is related to his efforts to destroy the scholastic philosophy of matter and form. The ideas of the real nature of "God, Mind, Body, Triangle and all true essences" come in no way through the senses but are dependent on God for their existence as objects in the mind (Reply to Obj. 5, Meditations 5). Each idea is known innately; each is the idea of a particular, immutable, external essence.
As J. Maritain aptly points out, each Cartesian innate idea is universal—not as a universal object of thought, nor as an abstract essence that has to be reflexively returned to the phantasm to know the singular—but as a means or instrument of grasping, from the same aspect, a number of individuals [Three Reformers (London 1928) 67]. In Descartes's words, "We form a certain idea which we call the idea of a triangle; and afterwards make use of it as a universal representing to ourselves all the figures having three sides" (Principles of Philosophy, 59).
Descartes has often been termed a conceptualist because he fashioned a functionally universal idea from what is the proper and immediate object of his knowledge—a singular innate idea. A more explicit conceptualism is found in John locke, opponent of Hobbes's nominalism, Cartesian innatism, and the realism of the cambridge platonists. For Locke, the internal constitution and real essences of things are unknown to man; yet he does fashion general, universal ideas. He does so by taking a particular idea, abstracting from its circumstances of time and place, and then considering it as a fixed meaning. Such an idea represents the plurality of individuals conforming to the abstracted idea. Its character of universality is a relation of representation "that by the mind of man is added to them"; it is an invention and creation of the understanding (Essay Concerning Human Understanding 3.3.11). Locke calls this mental construct a "nominal essence." Since the universal nominal essence is neither a word nor a name but a concept, Locke was neither a nominalist nor a realist but a conceptualist; for him, the universal, general idea corresponds to nothing in reality but is still the object of intuitive, general, and certain knowledge (Essay 4.3.31).
B. spinoza proposed three levels of knowing, each of which has a kind of universal proper to it: (1) Body sensations that are similar to each other correspond to vague, general, universal images in the mind, to which general names are given. (2) At the level of scientific reason one has adequate ideas of the universal properties of things as necessary characteristics of natures. (3) At the level of intuitive knowledge one fully knows finite, individual essences in the attributes of God (Ethics 2.40.2). Here the idea is universal in the sense that individuals are seen as modes within the infinite universal totality that is God. Spinoza presaged the concrete universal of Hegel, and, in a special sense, he was a realist, although in his pantheistic monism there is nothing real except God.
Eighteenth Century. Bishop George Berkeley's battle against materialism and skepticism centered upon the impossibility of separating the physical existence of an object from its existence in perception. berkeley rejected abstraction and Locke's abstract, general ideas without rejecting general ideas (Principles of Human Knowledge, Introd. 15). For him, a general non-abstract idea (image) is a particular idea possessing universality because it is used to signify other particulars of the same sort indifferently. Berkeley proposed resemblance as a justification for admitting a plurality of particulars. His was a conceptualist position wherein species are general ideas constructed by men's minds and words are universal designators of ideas.
Berkeley's stand on general ideas was considered by David hume to be a most valuable discovery (Treatise of Human Nature 1.1.7). For Hume the idea in the mind designates a particular object used in reasoning as though it were universal. Hume adds to Berkeley's position what is called "the disposition theory": a word becomes universal or general when the particular idea basically associated with it is recalled and the imagination is disposed or alert to recall associated ideas. Given Hume's empiricist assumption that ideas that copy singular impressions of sensation or of reflection alone can exist, thinking deals with image-symbols. Insofar as the universal term has no real mental or nonmental referent, Hume can be termed a nominalist.
Immanuel kant, an opponent of Hume's skepticism, nevertheless accepted Hume's basic empiricism and constructed an influential position on universals in the conceptualist tradition. Since, for Kant, mathematics and physics are composed of necessary and universal propositions while sensible experience lacks universality and necessity, the conditions of universality and necessity must, he believed, be imposed by the mind. "Understanding does not obtain its a priori laws from nature, it prescribes them to it" (Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, 2.36, 18–20). The universality and necessity of the object of scientific knowledge are thus fashioned by the understanding, not by the nature of what is given in sense experience (see Critique of Pure Reason, pref. to 2d ed.).
Nineteenth Century. The concrete universal of G.W. F. hegel testifies to Hegel's realism; for since the ideal is the real and the real the ideal, and since concepts are the way to reach absolute reality, concrete universal concepts do this best by including both the differences and the common aspects of things, their complete multiple relationships. For Hegel the concrete content of the concept possesses universal significance. All concrete concepts except one involve some abstractness; that one completely concrete universal is the Absolute Idea, Absolute Spirit in achieved self-possession (Science of Logic, 80).
The impact of Hume's nominalism was intensified by John Stuart mill, for whom a universal term signified a totality of particular attributes or individuals. What some suppose to be essences, Mill claimed, are simply names conventionally applied to certain attributes (A System of Logic 1.5).
Twentieth Century. Henri bergson, a conceptualist, saw reality as constantly evolving duration. Universal concepts, therefore, are incapable of describing the real; nevertheless they are useful to indicate the practical attitude taken by a knower toward objects—an index of action rather than a means of knowing, for there can be no identical situations except in a conceptualized universe (Évolution créatrice, Paris 1907).
Realism. The early realism of Bertrand russell was tempered but not eliminated in his later life. For Russell, "a universal will be anything which may be shared by many particulars" [Problems of Philosophy (New York 1912) 93]. Russell was convinced that if the basic, non-formal elements of true propositions refer to nothing in the universe, then it is meaningless to speak of the truth of such propositions. But there are true propositions (e.g., "I [Russell] am in my room"), and a necessary condition for the existence of true propositions is that the irreducible, nonredundant factors of true propositions denote real universals that in some unexplained sense have being and are real (ibid. 90). Russell rejected the attempt of some nominalists to describe the world without the word "similar" or its equivalent; that is, for him, not every predicative expression can be successfully analyzed into nonpredicative expressions. Since nominalists cannot expunge the predicate of relation "is similar to," Russell saw no objection to keeping other universals as well ["Reply to Criticisms," The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, ed. P. A. Schilpp (Evanston 1946) 688]. Vast metaphysical problems of participation were dismissed in Russell's gratuitous presupposition that every real universal may be exemplified by multitudes of particulars without losing its unity.
Also in the realist tradition is Alonzo Church, for whom a distinction must be made between (1) the proposition in the traditional sense, that is, a declarative sentence, judgment, or thought, together with its meaning, and (2) the proposition in the abstract sense, i.e., the objective content or meaning taken apart from the sentence as a purely syntactical entity. This meaning, common to the sentence and its translations into other languages, is thus common to many. In sense (2), propositions are universals. Without such postulated entities, the Church thinks that logical theory"would be intolerably complex if not impossible" (Problem of Universals, 9).
Nominalism. One of America's leading analytical philosophers, W. V. O. Quine (1908–) developed a nominalistic logical paraphernalia following on his position that the types of beings that are pragmatically justified are ordinary physical objects, "postulated entities which round out and simplify our account of the flux of experience …" (18). Just as physical objects are cultural posits or manners of speaking, so, for Quine, it may be useful to speak of universals as classes or attributes of physical objects, such as the class of red things: "the scattered total thing whose parts are all the red things" (72). Thus universals are culturally posited manners of speaking; classes or attributes of physical objects are as much myths as is the physicalistic conceptual scheme itself, when viewed from within the phenomenalistic conceptual scheme (17–19).
A personal intuition that paradoxes arise from the admission of any entitative reality for classes, attributes, meanings, modalities, etc., led Nelson Goodman (1906–) to reject those he considers Platonists (Fact, Fiction and Forecast, 37). Goodman's nominalism "consists specifically in the refusal to recognize classes" (Problem of Universals, 16). It is a description of the world as composed of individuals—a world made up of entities, no two of which break down into exactly the same entities. Where the Platonist admits classes of the minimal atomic elements, classes of classes, and so on, Goodman holds there can be no distinction of entities without a distinction of content, that is, that there cannot be different classes made up of the same entities. Where the Platonist admits the Class K, made of classes a and b and of classes c and d, and Class L, made of classes a and c and classes b and d, Goodman sees K and L as one individual, as a sum individual. In his view, different classes cannot be made up of the same entities, and clearly K and L break down into the same entities, not into different entities.
Linguistic Analysis. Some contemporary philosophers see universals as a problem not to be solved but to be dissolved. Many of these are linguistic analysts who infer, from the fact that one applies the same general, universal terms to different things, their basic presupposition, viz, that the recognition of natural classes is a fact to be noted, not explained. Since linguistic usage presupposes classes, this commitment to classes is not an explanation of general, universal terms, but merely a weakly elucidative and repetitious way of saying that there are meaningful classificatory terms (A. Quinton, 40–42). On the presupposition that they can never get outside language to discover what reality is independently of what ordinary linguistic usage says it is, some analysts hold that both realism and nominalism are circular explanations of universals—realism, because proposing that things are so named since they instantiate a certain universal; nominalism, because proposing that things are so named because they are similar, while the kind of similarity can be specified only by reference to the name imposed because of the similarity (D. F. Pears, 53–57). Naming is held by analysts to be ultimate, because, for them, no explanation of naming is noncircular.
Moderate Realism. In contemporary philosophy, moderate realism is defended principally by Thomists, other scholastics, and dialectical materialists. Thomists, particularly after the middle of the 19th century, saw in moderate realism the basic commitment necessary for a sound philosophy of knowledge. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, they attribute true universality to intellectual knowledge alone and recognize in individuals a variable, proportional, and analogical foundation for the universal concept of species. Eclectic scholastics, influenced largely by St. Augustine, Avicenna, and Duns Scotus, defend a stronger realism that sees stable, specific common natures totally and absolutely present in each individual. While not all such scholastics defend the plurality of forms in an individual substance, all do concede a foundation for such a plurality.
Dialectical materialists, for vastly different reasons, also defend the universality of ideas in human consciousness and the individuality of events in nature. Ideas, being qualitatively different from animal images, are derived from singular events; they need to be verified and perfected in the dialectic of practical experience; and they reach an ultimate conformity with physical reality. Material individuals, on the other hand, manifest real qualitative differences in the dialectics of nature sufficient to provide a basis for universality of species both in nature and in consciousness.
Existentialism. existentialism, insisting on the absolute uniqueness of every event, considers universal concepts to be unrelated to life, even if such concepts can be granted. The universal, for existentialists, can be no more than an abstract category created by the mind without relevance to existential reality. Existentialism, therefore, is a realism of individual, personal experiences wherein the problem of universals is dismissed as irrelevant.
See Also: scholasticism; philosophy, history of, 3; thomism; epistemology; knowledge; idealism; materialism, dialectical and historical.
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[r. g. miller]