The Great Conversation:
Universal & Particular
By Gabriel Blanchard
Here we have, arguably, the single oldest discussion in philosophy.
Philosophy as we know it was born in Ionia (a region in what is now western Turkey, then inhabited largely by Greek colonists) in the seventh century BC. Some of these pre-Socratic philosophers were interested primarily in what we today would call natural science, or in mathematics or geometry, divisions of learning which had not yet become fully distinct from one another. At some point, they had an idea that to us is now so commonplace we hardly notice its strangeness: to lump together everything they knew of or believed in, from gods to grains of sand, and refer to the lump as “the All” or “Nature,” as though it were a single object that behaved in specific ways. What its supposed unity consisted in varied: to Pythagoras, all was number—whatever that means; to Heraclitus, all was flux—whatever that means. In any case, this mysterious notion of unity-in-diversity may have been what prompted Plato to alight on the problem of universals.
Take an apple. We know, more or less, what is meant by the word, and probably have a simple imaginative picture of it in our heads, even though we know not all apples are equally round or the same color, etc. But then, what do we mean when we say “all apples”? Is the term apple merely a convenience for objects that are largely similar, but nothing more? Alternatively, is there a quality of apple-ness that animates or controls individual apples, causing them to be apples rather than something else? If you destroyed all the apples in the world, would apple-ness still exist? If yes, where, or how?
Apple-ness is an example of a universal, whereas any individual apple is an example of a particular. Plato’s explanation of how we can say that multiple objects are in some sense “the same thing,” while obviously being at the same time different things (this apple versus that), is that particular apples reflect or “participate in” the form of Apple, as an object’s shadow participates in the form of the object. The job of philosophy is to take us from shadows to the Forms themselves, to contemplate them in their own realm as the true foundation of reality.
His great pupil, Aristotle, found the doctrine of the Forms excessive and moderated it. There is a form of Apple, he granted—but it is not off in its own higher world: it is here, in apples. If there were no particular apples, there would be no apple-ness. Where Plato’s philosophy was (and is) called “strong realism,” Aristotle became the father of “moderate realism”; both acknowledged that universal names are not merely arbitrary, but “located” the primary reality in differing places.
Under the influence of Neoplatonism, which drew from both Platonic and Aristotelian sources, the early Medieval Catholic tradition was firmly realist. However, beginning in the eleventh century, a new solution to the problem of universals began to be advanced. This was called “nominalism,” in contrast to both forms of realism, and its adherents held that universal names were nothing more than names; only particulars really existed, and universals were a convenient fiction. (If you will, they did not so much solve as decline the problem of universals, like Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot.) The implications of nominalism for the doctrine of the Trinity caused an immense uproar, and the controversy between the nominalists and the realists lasted for centuries. Possibly the most famous nominalist in history is the Franciscan friar William of Ockham (for whom Ockham’s razor is named), whose philosophic insistence on the primary reality of particulars over universals has been argued as an influence on the gradual development of Medieval science away from a priori assumptions about nature and in favor of experimental testing, laying the groundwork for the modern scientific method.
The current status of the problem of universals among philosophers is a little ambiguous. Most if not all reject a thorough, radical nominalism, since it would effectively make communication itself impossible—if words and ideas themselves cannot be shared, there is not much point in finishing this sentence. A moderate position between nominalism and realism, called “conceptualism” (universals do exists as ideas, but only in the mind, not independently, whether in a higher realm or in particulars themselves) has been set forth; but conceptualism itself has been taken in some interesting directions. Strangest of all, perhaps, was the philosophy of the eighteenth-century priest George Berkeley, who conceded that no idea could exist apart from a mind—but then turned the whole thing on its head by suggesting that we ourselves and all creation are, at bottom, nothing other than ideas in the mind of God.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other essays on the Great Conversation, on subjects from animals to emotion to time. You might also like our seminar series, Journey Through the Author Bank.
Page image of a stained glass window in a church in Surrey, England, depicting William of Ockham (source).