The Problem of Universals Essay

Metaphysics The Problem of Universals The Ontological problem has occupied many philosophers and intellectuals since the very beginning of human thought. What seems to be a simple and rather ridiculous question to the average person, ‘what exists? ’ or ‘what is there? ’ serves as the general question for the ontological problem. Almost everyone accepts the existence of physical objects, to which I will now refer as ‘particulars’. Actual pencils, buildings, cats, humans and planets are all examples of particulars.

In fact, any physical object that is perceivable by sense perception qualifies as a particular. A particular exists at one place at a given moment in time. For example, an individual such as President George W. Bush cannot be at two places (or more) at the same time. The problem starts when talking about abstract entities: they are non-physical objects that seem to exist not in space and time, but rather in a whole different realm. They are unperceivable by sense perception. Among them are: numbers, classes and universals.

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Numbers and classes are easy to understand, and acceptable by all. Universals, which are the subject of my paper, are: properties, or qualities of particulars, kinds or sorts of particulars, and relations between two or more particulars. For example: the ‘redness’ of an apple (property of an apple), and the relation between two apples, one bigger than the other, are both universals. The major debate arises when discussing about the nature of the existence of those universals. It is known as the problem of universals.

While Realists claim that universals are actual entities that exist in space and time (although they can exist in more than one place at a given moment), nominalists deny this kind of existence, and argue that universals are mere names for descriptions attributed to particulars. Let’s examine universals as properties of particulars. By properties, I mean: colors, shapes, odors, human character traits, etc. for example, in the sentence – ‘this tiger is white’, it is obvious that while ‘this tiger’ refers to a particular, ‘white’ names one of his properties.

When taking another example – ‘the house walls are white’, we say the same thing about the house walls as we said about the tiger – that they are white. The question is: what does ‘white’ refer to? Obviously it refers to the tiger and to the walls, but is that all it does? Does it refer to anything beyond the subject of the sentence? What exactly is that ‘whiteness’? Is it the same ‘whiteness’ in the two examples? If it is the same whiteness in the two examples, and the same whiteness for any particular that is described as ‘white’, then is there one object that is itself that whiteness?

Is it something that exists independently of the particulars it describes in those examples? If so, where does it exist, and in what way? In order to find out, we will have to examine more closely the words that comprise these sentences. We will have to understand not only their grammatical function, but also their non-linguistic representations. Let’s take again the sentence – ‘this tiger is white’. In order for it to be true, its words must refer to things that exist in reality, independently of the sentence.

There must be an exact correlation between the meaning of the sentence and the case in reality. While everybody agrees that ‘this tiger’ must refer to an actual existing tiger, the debate starts when considering the nature of the predicate ‘white’. While nominalists argue that ‘white’ refers to ‘this tiger’, and that it is merely one of its properties, realists argue that the predicate -‘white’, refers to an existing non-linguistic entity, a ‘universal’, in the same way that ‘this tiger’ refers to a real tiger.

The main difference between realists and nominalists is that realists believe that ‘whiteness’ is an actual object that exists in the tiger (exemplified by it), while nominalists argue that such as account creates too many problems, so it must be false. One of the questions the nominalists ask is: where exactly is the universal? How can we see it? Well, the realists answer: The fact that we think that we do not notice it, or do not perceive it (the universal) does not prove that it does not exist.

It is enough for us to see that the tiger exemplifies the universal, in order to know that it exists. Moreover, realists argue that the same universal, that of ‘whiteness’, is the same one being referred to by all predicates in sentences such as: ‘this tiger is white’, or the ‘house walls are white’ or ‘white is a color’. It is the same exact object, same universal, that is being exemplified by all those particulars. If this is not the case, then we would have a big problem when accounting for similarities between particulars, for example: two red spots, which are indistinguishable (to s). The Realists claim that we do actually see universals. We see them when we look at a red spot for example. That is, we see the universal of ‘red’ or ‘redness’, but we do not know that we see it. In fact, whenever we look at a red object (assuming we look at red objects with the exact same shade), we see the same universal. This strikes us as counter-intuitive. How can anything exist in multiple locations at the same time? How can we know that there is a universal there while we can’t see it? It seems like the realist has many difficult questions to answer.

The realists who argue for the existence of universals, say that in those sentences whose predicates qualify as universals (the realists must explain how they know which predicates qualify as universals and which don’t), there is a special relation between the subject and predicate of the sentence. When being asked: What does it mean to say that ‘this tiger is white’? What is the relationship between the subject and predicate of this sentence? The realists answer: In the philosophical jargon, we can say that the tiger exemplifies ‘whiteness’. What exactly does ‘exemplify’ mean?

As I will show you, there is a major problem when dealing with the relation of exemplification. First, we must understand how the realists ever came up with the notion of ‘universals’. Well, the problem originated with the phenomenon of attribute agreement: different particulars share attributes, or agree in attribute. For example: all square objects in the world, agree in the attribute of being square. All people in the world agree in the fact of being ‘the son of’, etc. The realists argue that the ontological nature of that phenomenon must account for the existence of universals.

When multiple objects agree in attribute, they stand in the same relation to one universal, the universal of that attribute. Realists argue that in order to accept the possibility of the phenomenon of attribute agreement, one must accept the existence of universals. The realist can say: If we want to say the same thing about different people, that they are all ‘wise’ for example, doesn’t that mean that there is one thing, one object that carries a relation to all those particulars that are being talked about? Nominalists object to the realists’ metaphysical account.

One of their main arguments is that the realists can never fully complete their explanation of attribute agreement, since in trying to explain it, they enter into a vicious infinite regress. F. H Bradley uses this objection in an argument against relations. This is one way he summarizes what a vicious infinite regress is: “what is a vicious regress? Or, better, what does it mean to be confronted by such a regress? One is confronted with a vicious infinite regress when one attempts a task of the following sort: every step needed to begin the task requires a preliminary step. [i] In our case of universals, we can see how the infinite regress goes in the following way: when we say that some particulars agree in being F (F being a property, or a relation), we say that each one of them exemplifies F-ness. Now, if they all agree in exemplifying F-ness, then each one of them exemplifies exemplifying F-ness. If the all agree in exemplifying exemplifying F-ness, then each one of them exemplifies exemplifying exemplifying F-ness… this creates a vicious infinite regress. Part of the problem is with the relation ‘exemplification’.

The mechanism of this relation is not easy to grasp. If different particulars are apart in space and time, how can they share or exemplify the same universal? It seems as if the use of the relation of exemplification does not help the realist. It is not a relation that is intuitively understood. In another argument against the realists, the nominalists argue that there is no need for the realists’ account for universals, since a much more simple account is satisfactory. As Michael J. Loux explains: “(the nominalists’) central criticism against the realists is not technical.

It is rather the claim that realism violates a central tenet of theory building – the principle of simplicity. That principle tells us that, given a pair of theories alike in all other respects, we ought to choose the theory that postulates fewer distinct kinds or types of entities. Now, nominalists want to claim that a nominalist theory – one positing only particulars – has the same explanatory power as realism; and they conclude that since the former posits just one category of objects where the latter posits two distinct categories, the former is preferable to the latter. [ii] In other words, the nominalists say is that their theory is shorter, simpler, does not lead to too many complicated problems, and provides a satisfactory explanation to the issue of properties and relations. For example, when talking about courageous people, there is no need for a universal of ‘courage’. Courage is simply a general claim about those particulars who posses this characteristic. There is no need for arguing that en entity such as ‘courage’ exists. H. H. Price is another philosopher who doesn’t believe in universals.

In this article universals and resemblances, he says: “it could, however, be argued that the terminology of ‘characteristics’, which was current in the last philosophical epoch, some twenty years ago, is better than the more ancient terminology of ‘universals’. A characteristic is pretty obviously a characteristic of something or other, and cannot easily be supposed to be an independent entity, like the weevil. ”[iii] I could not agree more with Price. I too believe that a simpler account is possible, and better.

Yes, there is a resemblance between courageous people, but not complete similarity. Courage consists of different things in different cultures and circumstances. There could be no one complete definition that will successfully describe each courageous man. As for other qualities, or relations, I think that considering them as characteristics of distinct particulars is a better and easier way to explain abstract terms. I believe that ‘what you see is what you get’, and that there is no need for abstract entities such as universals, since they carry too many difficulties to deal with!

If we treat every claim about a characteristic, or what it takes in general for an individual to be considered as carrying that characteristic, there is no need for explaining the existence of abstract entities such as universals. Another problem the Philosophy of Universals is faced with is choosing which predicates are universals, and which are not. In his article, David Armstrong talks about this problem, and cites a great passage by Wittgenstein, who says: “consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic-games, and so on. What is common to them-all? Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that…In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared! …And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. [iv] We can clearly see that a universal of ‘game-hood’ does not exist. There is not even one overall property that is common to all games. However, there may be other universals. But how would we know how to recognize them? This still remains a major problem to the realist. A different theory to the issue that can be considered is ‘the Philosophy of Resemblance’. According to the Philosophy of Universals, when saying that two objects exemplify the same universal, it is a consequence of their belonging to the same universal that they resemble each other.

For example: when saying that water is a liquid, and beer is a liquid, and both share the universal of ‘being liquid’ or ‘being fluid’, it is only a consequence of their belonging to the same universal that they resemble each other. According to the Philosophy of Resemblance however, the process should be reversed, and instead of saying that because both substances share the same characteristics they resemble each other, we should say that first they resemble each other, and only then that they share the same universal.

After all, there is a difference between complete resemblance and partial resemblance. For example: water and beer resemble each other in the fact that both are liquids, but they do not resemble each other in color. This leads to Leibniz’s Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles: two or more objects can never be completely identical to each other. In other words, if two objects were to resemble each other in all aspects, including occupying the same space at the same time, wouldn’t they have to be the same object?

In his essay, Price talks about this issue as well. He says: “It is sufficient to point out that if there were two objects which resembled each other completely, in date and place as well as in all other ways, and this complete resemblance continued throughout the whole of the histories of both, there could not possibly be any evidence for believing there were two of them. ”[v] Price believes that exact resemblance is impossible. However, he does believe that it is possible that two objects or more could be similar in some aspects.

As he says: “what does concern us is intensity of resemblance. The maximum intensity of it is what I called ‘exact resemblance in this or that respect’. Now some people appear to think that even this is an ideal limit. They seem to think that no two objects are ever exactly alike even in one way (e. g. colour, or shape) though, of course, many objects are closely alike in one way or in several. I do not see what evidence we could have for believing such a sweeping negative generalization.

It is true that sometimes, when thought at first that there was an exact likeness in one or more respects between two objects, we may find on more careful examination that there was not… But still, there are many cases where there is no discoverable inexactness in a resemblance. We often find that two pennies are indistinguishable in shape, or two postage stamps indistinguishable in color…”[vi] Price also claims that there is uniformity in a single object, such as the color of blue sky.

The problem now, is that according to the Philosophy of Universals, when two objects resemble each other as a consequence of them participating in the same universal, their resemblance is exact. There is no room for degrees of resemblances. And as we know nature, most of the time things do not share the exact same color, or shape. The Philosophy of Resemblances offers a solution to this problem: considering first the resemblance of objects, and only later their participation in the same universal. Price tells us about another (classical) objection to the Philosophy of Resemblance.

This objection attacks the very nature of the theory, the use of the relation ‘resemblance’. The objectors argue that when pairs or even larger groups of particulars resemble each other, they all share the same relation, namely the relation of resemblance. According to the Philosophy of Universals, such a shared similar relation is a universal. Thus, the Philosophy of Resemblance fails its attempt to get rid of universals, since the very essence of the theory, ‘resemblance’, is itself is a universal. Is that really the case?

Are the objectors really saying something meaningful? Well, the proponents for the Philosophy of Resemblance claim that the objection begs the question, or assumes what it tries to prove. That is, the objection assumes that relations such as the relation of resemblance are universals, and then it uses this assumption as its main argument. The Philosophy of Universals argues that since we use the word ‘resemble’ to describe the relation between two or more particulars, then that relation counts as a universe.

The Philosophy or Resemblance argues that even though we use a general word such as ‘resemble’ to describe the relation, it does not mean that there is a general object, a universe, in reality. The Philosophy of Resemblance then goes on and talks about different orders of resemblances. I would like to focus on the debate of whether ‘resemblance’ is a universal, or not. I tend to agree with whoever objects to the Philosophy of Universals. I have yet to be convinced that there are such things as universals, in the nature of actual entities.

I just don’t think that any two things in nature can have any property with exact similarity between them. We know that there are no two people that are exactly similar to each other. Do we want to say that some physical objects share some properties between them merely because of the fact that we cannot distinguish between them? How can we know that there are two similar objects in nature? And how can anything exist in multiple locations at the same time, as universals are supposed to exist? The Philosophy of Universals has yet to convince me the universals actually exist.

That being the case, I prefer not to believe in their existence. The debate between realists and nominalists, and between those who hold different accounts for explaining abstract ideas, doesn’t seem to have one ‘right’ answer. It doesn’t seem to me that it will ever have one. To me, it all seems like a game of language, a game of different perspectives on the same reality we live in. The world is the nature around us – universals are merely our ways of describing the world – they are in no way entities that exist ‘out there’ or in particulars, which we cannot notice.

Even if universals exist, why should I care about their existence if I cannot notice or perceive them? I prefer to focus on what I can perceive, on what is clearly out there, instead of trying to find things that are beyond my perception. I admit that it is interesting to discuss the possibility of such abstract entities as universals, and it does make me curious to try and understand things that may lay beyond me perception, but I do not think that it is a practical point of view, and I do not feel like any of the realist has succeeded in proving the existence of universals.

The simpler, shorter, and more practical account is the favorable account, to me. WORK CITED ———————– [i] Moreland, J. P. universals. McGill-Queen’s Press. 2001. 24 [ii] Loux, Michael, J. metaphysics, contemporary readings. Routledge, 2001. 8. [iii] Loux, Michael, J. metaphysics, contemporary readings. Routledge, 2001. 24 [iv] Loux, Michael, J. metaphysics, contemporary readings. Routledge, 2001. 72. [v] Loux, Michael, J. metaphysics, contemporary readings. Routledge, 2001. 26. [vi] Loux, Michael, J. metaphysics, contemporary readings. Routledge, 2001. 27.


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