Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Problem of Universals: a Survey

Jason Paul Seaux
Dr. Jeffery Bell, Ph. D.
PHI 302 Medieval Philosophy
22 April 2008

The Problem of Universals: a Survey

Throughout the Medieval Period, the question of ‘universals’ was a problem for many philosophers, with most of them fitting into one of three camps of semi-opposing views, namely the realists, the conceptualists, and the nominalists. While the idea of ‘universals’ existed at least since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, most notably in Plato and in Aristotle, the problem seems to be introduced to the Medievals by Porphyry who lived at the cusp of the Medieval Period. In his introduction to Aristotle’s Categories entitled the Isagoge. Porphyry writes, “I shall not say anything about whether genera and species exist as substances, or are confined to mere conceptions; and if they are substances, whether they are material or immaterial; and whether they exist separately from sensible objects, or in them immanently (Porphyry, in Preface to Isagoge).

Though it seems at first to be a problem of epistemology, which it is in a way, Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra, in his article entitled What is the Problem of Universals?, claims that it is not, writing: “a natural understanding of the Problem of Universals is as the problem of the One over Many ”. Which if Rodriguez-Pereyra is correct, makes the Problem of Universals a problem of Metaphysics, namely a question of being. Rather than try to solve the Problem of Universals, here shall be put forth a survey of philosophical thought on the problem according to three major philosophers from the period in question. These will be delineated categorically into the three main schools of thought: the realists, the conceptualists and the nominalists, with a representative philosopher from each school.
Before beginning with the survey of the medieval philosophers it is necessary to put forth the defining characteristics of the three schools of thought. Realist philosophers hold “that universals are real and exist independently of anyone thinking of them” (“Realist.”). In dealing with the realists it is much simpler to adopt their terminology than to continue with the term ‘universal’. Beginning with Plato we see the term ‘form’ being applied to that which is universal. Among the realists this term has perdured until today, finding its way into modern Thomistic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain and W. Norris Clarke, S.J. Within this group of thinkers there are further subdivisions, generally those who hold that the ‘form’ is beyond the thing (Platonic realists) and those who hold that the ‘form’ is in the thing (Aristotelian realists). Conceptualists, on the other hand, hold that universals exist only in the mind and have no external or substantial reality (“Conceptualism”). The final school of thought — the nominalists hold that “various objects labeled by the same term have nothing in common but their name”, so that ‘universals’ have no independent existence, but exist only as names (“Nominalism”).

I. Realism
Early on in the Problem of Universals, there developed a rift within the realist camp, all the way back with Plato and Aristotle. And so it is fitting that the two sects of this school of thought are so named: Platonists and Aristotelians. However, since the quarrel at hand is not with the ancients but the medievals, those who adopt only parts of the platonic view are more properly called neoplatonists since they do not adhere to Plato’s teachings in its entirety, but make major adaptations to it, so as to render it compatible with their respective theologies (Gerson). But regardless of these adaptations, it is a distinctively platonic understanding of the ‘Problem of Universals’ which begins the whole issue, as mentioned in the introduction, namely that of Porphyry and his contemporary Plotinus.

Despite Porphyry’s failure to answer the question, Plotinus is definitive in his answer to the ‘Problem of Universals’ (Baird 29). Plotinus in his teaching held that true reality exists only beyond the physical world. This ‘true reality’ is infinite and indescribable by words since words are inherently finite. Adopting Plato’s words, he calls this ‘true reality’ the ‘Good’ or the ‘One’. He makes the case for ‘universals’ as remote, namely the ‘Good’ or the ‘One’, arguing from the transcendental of Beauty. First he posses the question, “Are they all made beautiful by one and the same beauty or is there one beautifulness in bodies and a different one in other things?” (Plotinus 31). He says, “Nearly everyone says..., being beautiful is being well-proportioned and measured”. If this is the case, he says that only “composite things” can be beautiful. Against this point he argues that beauty cannot be in things themselves, because “a beautiful whole can certainly not be composed of ugly parts: all the parts must have beauty”. “Surely we must say that being beautiful is something else over and above good proportion, and good proportion is beautiful because of something else?” So Plotinus ends by saying, rests upon the material thing when it has been brought into unity, and gives itself to parts and wholes alike. When it comes upon something that is one and composed of like parts it gives the same gift to the whole: as sometimes art gives beauty to a whole house with its parts, and sometimes nature gives beauty to a single stone. So then the beautiful body comes into being by sharing in a formative power which comes from the divine forms. (Plotinus 32)
Later on when writing of the beauty of the soul as the form of the body, he says, “for since it is a divine thing and a kind of part of beauty, it makes everything it grasps and masters beautiful” (35 emphasis added). While Plotinus does not go as far as Plato in insisting in a separate “world of Forms”, he clearly holds that the forms are transcendental and are beyond the physical realm. The Platonic realist holds then that ‘universals’ exist in reality, not in the thing itself, but in some transcendent reality.

On the other side of this school of thought regarding ‘universals’ are the Aristotelian realists, who in the Medieval Period are exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas lived during what could be said to be the transitional period leading up to the Renaissance. During this time the ancient Greek writers were being rediscovered, with Latin translations of the Greek and Arabic text of Averro√ęs and Avicenna making their way through Europe. Aquinas eventually ended up in Paris, where he studied under Albertus Magnus who was one of the foremost proponents of the rediscovered Aristotelian writings. It was under the tutelage of Albert that St. Thomas Aquinas was first introduced to the writings of Aristotle. They were a perfect match. Aquinas’s methodical stolidity came together in an almost perfect harmony with the deliberateness of Aristotle’s writings to form one of the greatest minds of the Late Middle Ages. It is not sufficient to say that Aquinas was influenced by the writings of Aristotle, but in large part he seemingly adopted them as his own (Baird 307). This is most clearly seen in the Metaphysics of Aquinas, which is a Christian adaptation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

For Aquinas, to talk of ‘universals’ is to talk of ‘essences’. For Aquinas the problem of universals is one of the relationship of genera to species. In his treatise on being and essence entitled De Ente et Essentia, Aquinas formulaicly deals with this problem. As in most of his writings, Aquinas begins by giving the positions of others and systematically integrating them or discrediting them. He intimates that according to the Avicennaian interpretation of Aristotle ‘form’ and ‘essence’ are the same. Aquinas although he was heavily influenced in his philosophical formation by his reading of Avicenna’s commentary on Aristotle, makes a departure from the Avicennaian tradition when he writes regarding matter and form:We cannot say, however, that either of these is the essence of the thing. That matter alone is not the essence of the thing is clear, for it is through its essence that a thing is knowable and is placed in a species or genus. But matter is not a principle of cognition; nor is anything determined to a genus or species according to its matter but rather according to what something is in act. Nor is form alone the essence of a composite thing,... (Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Ch. 2)

Aquinas then moves to argue that ‘essence’ cannot simply be something “super-added” to the hylomorphic union, because it would therefore be an accident and something extraneous. He says therefore “that the term essence, used with respect to composite substances, signifies that which is composed of matter and form.” “This is the quiddity of a thing.” Here Aquinas introduces what seems to be a weak point in his argument; he even points it out himself, writing, “But because matter is the principle of individuation, it would perhaps seem to follow that essence, which embraces in itself simultaneously both form and matter, is merely particular and not universal” (Aquinas). This entails that ‘universals’ have no definitions. However, as is so common to his style, Aquinas introduces this difficulty only to bring about a greater distinction. He clarifies saying that ‘mater’ as it has been considered up to this point “is not the principle of individuation”. Only what he calls ‘signate matter’ is the principle of individuation. He says, “Signate matter is not included in the definition of man as man,...” but only in the definition of particular things, calling “signate matter[,] matter considered under determinate dimensions”. “Hence, the essence of man and the essence of Socrates do not differ except as the signate differs from the non-signate.” From this point Aquinas goes on to delineate the difference of ‘essence’ in terms of ‘genus’ and ‘species’, writing, “the essence of a genus and the essence of a species differ as signate from non-signate”. “Therefore,” he writes, “genus signifies indeterminately the whole that is in the species and does not signify matter alone”. Genus is derived from matter, but it is not the matter and includes all that is similar from particular to particular. He finally ends by writing, “essence is found in substances and in accidents” and by ‘essence’ he means ‘universals’ (Aquinas). Therefore it is understood that for the Aristotelian realist universals are in the things which they signify.

II. Conceptualism

Marking the middle point between realism and Nominalism is the school of thought called Conceptualism. As such, one would tend to guess that Conceptualism does not make ‘universals’ into real entities existing either in another realm or in real things; nor does it make ‘universals’ out to be merely the names by which things are called. Conceptualism indeed makes ‘universals’ to be mere concepts in the mind, by which particular things are recognized as part of a kind. These concepts are more than the mere words or names by which things of a kind are called, but are the whole mental collection of similarities and dissimilarities derived from our sense perceptions of particular things (Baird 154-155). It is important to avoid crossing over into a Kantian Conceptualism, in which concepts are not based in reality.

Despite having a teacher who held that ‘universals’ were nothing but “vocal wind”, Peter Abelard, took the middle ground in the ‘Problem of Universals’, a position which today is called ‘Conceptualism’ or ‘Moderate Realism’ (Baird 154-155). In his work entitled Logica “Ingredientibus”, Abelard, as a result of his reading Boethius and Aristotle, begins by posing three questions. His first question is: “Do genera and species really exist or are they simply something in the mind?” The second is: “Granting they do exist, are they corporeal or incorporeal?” The final question is: “Do they exist apart from sensible things or only in them?” (Abelard 156). In his solution to the ‘Problem of Universals’ Abelard modifies the meaning of ‘universal’ adding a semantic aspect to its being primarily ontological, epistemological, or theological (Klima). In answer to the first question, Abelard answers, a matter of fact they do serve to name things that actually exist and therefore are not the subjects of purely empty thoughts. But what they name are the selfsame things named by singular names. And still, there is a sense in which they exist as isolated, bare, and pure only in the mind... (Abelard 163).

Answering his second question he says that ‘universals’ are both corporeal and incorporeal (163). They are corporeal by the nature of the things to which they point, and incorporeal because of the manner in which they signify things discretely as non-individuated. To his third question he answers that some exist in sensible objects, while other do not. But in answering this question another is raised, namely, “Do universals designate only sensible things, or is their something else they signify?” (164). To answer this question Abelard proposes the situation of a thing which has passed from being into non-being. Here the rose while it existed had predicated of it the universal ‘rose’, however, once the rose ceases to be, ‘rose’ as a concept continues to have meaning for and in the mind “even though it names nothing” (164). Therefore, for Conceptualism, ‘universals’ are concepts which exist in the mind, but are grounded in and derived from a sensible reality, perduring in the mind after the particular which it signifies has passed out of existence.

III. Conceptualism

The nominalists, unlike the two preceding schools of thought, hold that ‘universals’ have no basis in reality, so that the “various objects labeled by the same term have nothing in common but their name” (“Nominalism”). Exemplar of this school of thought during the Medieval Period is the English philosopher William of Ockham, who writes in the first part of his Summa Logicae, “the common term ‘universal’... is predicated of every universal and is opposed to the notion of a particular” (443). Ockham goes on to write, that the word “particular”, which signifies the ‘one’ cannot also serve to signify the ‘many’. From this he posits that “every universal is one particular thing and that it is not a universal except in its signification, in its signifying many things”. He argues therefore that there are two kinds of universals, universals by nature and universals by convention. It is universals of the second kind which Ockham posits exist only in the mind, saying that “a spoken word, which is numerically one quality, is a universal; it is a sign conventionally appointed for the signification of many things” (444). He goes on to say that no universal is a substance, but merely an intention of the mind, “which is identical with the act of understanding” (445). Which leads him to write, “For every one agrees that a universal is something predicable of many, but only one intention of the soul or a conventional sign is predicated” (446). He ends his argument by writing, “...propositions occur only in the mind, in speech, or in writing; therefore, their parts can exist only in the mind, in speech, and in writing” “Therefore,” he writes, “universals cannot conceivably be substances.”

IV. Conclusion

In summation, these three schools of thought concerning the ‘Problem of Universals’ served to spark much debate and was the cause of much contention among the Medieval philosophers. This diversity of positions has lead to a more holistic view of ‘universals’ by modern Aristotelians and Thomists. Each school of thought has its good points and bad points. Realism emphasizes that the root of our understanding of the world is grounded in the things experienced themselves, whereas Conceptualism shows the importance our capacity for abstraction plays in the process of cognition of real things. Nominalism has helped us to develop a semantic that is rooted in reality, through which we have been able to develop a comparative study of linguistics. No one of these systems is perfect, but studied together we are better able to understand the process by which we are able to know the world around us, and by which we are able to communicate what we experience to others.

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