Universal (metaphysics)

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In metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. In other words, universals are repeatable or recurrent entities that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. [1] For example, suppose there are two chairs in a room, each of which is green. These two chairs both share the quality of "chairness", as well as greenness or the quality of being green; in other words, they share a "universal". There are three major kinds of qualities or characteristics: types or kinds (e.g. mammal), properties (e.g. short, strong), and relations (e.g. father of, next to). These are all different types of universals. [2]

Metaphysics branch of philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between possibility and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among the [study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.


Paradigmatically, universals are abstract (e.g. humanity), whereas particulars are concrete (e.g. the personhood of Socrates). However, universals are not necessarily abstract and particulars are not necessarily concrete. [3] For example, one might hold that numbers are particular yet abstract objects. Likewise, some philosophers, such as D. M. Armstrong, consider universals to be concrete.

In metaphysics, particulars are defined as concrete, spatiotemporal entities as opposed to abstract entities, such as properties or numbers. There are, however, theories of abstract particulars or tropes. For example, Socrates is a particular. Redness, by contrast, is not a particular, because it is abstract and multiply instantiated.

David Malet Armstrong Australian philosopher

David Malet Armstrong, often D. M. Armstrong, was an Australian philosopher. He is well known for his work on metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, and for his defence of a factualist ontology, a functionalist theory of the mind, an externalist epistemology, and a necessitarian conception of the laws of nature. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008.

Most do not consider classes to be universals, although some prominent philosophers do, such as John Bigelow.

In at least one source, a class is a set in which an individual member can be recognized in one or both of two ways: a) it is included in an extensional definition of the whole set b) it matches an Intensional definition of one set member. By contrast, a "type" is an intensional definition; it is a description that is sufficiently generalized to fit every member of a set.

Problem of universals

The problem of universals is an ancient problem in metaphysics about whether universals exist. The problem arises from attempts to account for the phenomenon of similarity or attribute agreement among things. [4] For example, grass and Granny Smith apples are similar or agree in attribute, namely in having the attribute of greenness. The issue is how to account for this sort of agreement in attribute among things.

In metaphysics, the problem of universals refers to the question of whether properties exist, and if so, what they are. Properties are qualities or relations that two or more entities have in common. The various kinds of properties, such as qualities and relations, are referred to as universals. For instance, one can imagine three cup holders on a table that have in common the quality of being circular or exemplifying circularity, or two daughters that have in common being the female offsprings of Frank. There are many such properties, such as being human, red, male or female, liquid, big or small, taller than, father of, etc. While philosophers agree that human beings talk and think about properties, they disagree on whether these universals exist in reality or merely in thought and speech.

Granny Smith apple cultivar that produces cooking apples which are also sour eating apples

The Granny Smith is a tip-bearing apple cultivar, which originated in Australia in 1868. It is named after Maria Ann Smith, who propagated the cultivar from a chance seedling. The tree is thought to be a hybrid of Malus sylvestris, the European wild apple, with the North American apple Malus pumila as the polleniser.

There are many philosophical positions regarding universals. Taking "beauty" as an example, three positions are:

In philosophy, Idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies that assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, Idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to Materialism, Idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

In metaphysics, conceptualism is a theory that explains universality of particulars as conceptualized frameworks situated within the thinking mind. Intermediate between nominalism and realism, the conceptualist view approaches the metaphysical concept of universals from a perspective that denies their presence in particulars outside the mind's perception of them. Conceptualism is anti-realist about abstract objects, just like immanent realism is.

Taking a broader view, the main positions are generally considered classifiable as: realism, nominalism, and idealism (sometimes simply named "anti-realism" with regard to universals). [5] Realists posit the existence of independent, abstract universals to account for attribute agreement. Nominalists deny that universals exist, claiming that they are not necessary to explain attribute agreement. Conceptualists posit that universals exist only in the mind, or when conceptualized, denying the independent existence of universals. Complications which arise include the implications of language use and the complexity of relating language to ontology.

In metaphysics, realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone's conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc.

In metaphysics, nominalism is a philosophical view which denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, but affirms the existence of general or abstract terms and predicates. There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time.

Philosophy of mind branch of philosophy on the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology, nature, and relationship of the mind to the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigm issue in philosophy of mind, although other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness, and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.


A universal may have instances, known as its particulars. For example, the type dog (or doghood) is a universal, as are the property red (or redness) and the relation betweenness (or being between). Any particular dog, red thing, or object that is between other things is not a universal, however, but is an instance of a universal. That is, a universal type (doghood), property (redness), or relation (betweenness) inheres in a particular object (a specific dog, red thing, or object between other things).

Platonic realism

Platonic realism holds universals to be the referents of general terms, such as the abstract , nonphysical, non-mental entities to which words such as "sameness", "circularity", and "beauty" refer. Particulars are the referents of proper names, such as "Phaedo," or of definite descriptions that identify single objects, such as the phrase, "that bed over there". Other metaphysical theories may use the terminology of universals to describe physical entities.

Plato's examples of what we might today call universals included mathematical and geometrical ideas such as a circle and natural numbers as universals. Plato's views on universals did, however, vary across several different discussions. In some cases, Plato spoke as if the perfect circle functioned as the form or blueprint for all copies and for the word definition of circle. In other discussions, Plato describes particulars as "participating" in the associated universal.

Contemporary realists agree with the thesis that universals are multiply-exemplifiable entities. Examples include by D. M. Armstrong, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reinhardt Grossmann, Michael Loux.


Nominalists hold that universals are not real mind-independent entities but either merely concepts (sometimes called "conceptualism") or merely names. Nominalists typically argue that properties are abstract particulars (like tropes) rather than universals. JP Moreland distinguishes between "extreme" and "moderate" nominalism. [6] Examples of nominalists include the medieval philosophers Roscelin of Compiègne and William of Ockham and contemporary philosophers W. V. O. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, D. C. Williams, and Keith Campbell.

Ness-ity-hood principle

The ness-ity-hood principle is used mainly by English-speaking philosophers to generate convenient, concise names for universals or properties. [7] According to the Ness-Ity-Hood Principle, a name for any universal may be formed that is distinctive, "of left-handers" may be formed by taking the predicate "left-handed" and adding "ness", which yields the name "left-handedness". The principle is most helpful in cases where there is not an established or standard name of the universal in ordinary English usage: What is the name of the universal distinctive of chairs? "Chair" in English is used not only as a subject (as in "The chair is broken"), but also as a predicate (as in "That is a chair"). So to generate a name for the universal distinctive of chairs, take the predicate "chair" and add "ness", which yields "chairness".

See also


  1. Price (1953); Loux (1998), p 20.
  2. Loux (2001), p. 4.
  3. Rodriguez-Pereyra (2008), §1.
  4. Loux (1998), p. 20; (2001), p. 3.
  5. MacLeod & Rubenstein (2006), §3.
  6. Moreland (2001).
  7. Feldman (2005), p. 25.

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In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.

Existence objective persistence independent of ones presence; state of being, existing, or occurring; beinghood

Existence is the ontological property of being, with reference to the ability of an entity to, directly or indirectly, interact with the physical or, especially in idealistic worldviews, mental reality.

Ontology study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Platonic idealism usually refers to Plato's theory of forms or doctrine of ideas.

Platonic realism is a philosophical term usually used to refer to the idea of realism regarding the existence of universals or abstract objects after the Greek philosopher Plato. As universals were considered by Plato to be ideal forms, this stance is ambiguously also called Platonic idealism. This should not be confused with idealism as presented by philosophers such as George Berkeley: as Platonic abstractions are not spatial, temporal, or mental, they are not compatible with the later idealism's emphasis on mental existence. Plato's Forms include numbers and geometrical figures, making them a theory of mathematical realism; they also include the Form of the Good, making them in addition a theory of ethical realism.

Substance theory, or substance–attribute theory, is an ontological theory about objecthood positing that a substance is distinct from its properties. A thing-in-itself is a property-bearer that must be distinguished from the properties it bears.

Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of the universe, known and unknown. Philosophical questions about the nature of reality or existence or being are considered under the rubric of ontology, which is a major branch of metaphysics in the Western philosophical tradition. Ontological questions also feature in diverse branches of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophical logic. These include questions about whether only physical objects are real, whether reality is fundamentally immaterial, whether hypothetical unobservable entities posited by scientific theories exist, whether God exists, whether numbers and other abstract objects exist, and whether possible worlds exist.

In philosophy, essence is the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the entity or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originates rigorously with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti for the same idea. This phrase presented such difficulties for its Latin translators that they coined the word essentia to represent the whole expression. For Aristotle and his scholastic followers, the notion of essence is closely linked to that of definition.

In mathematics, logic, and philosophy, a property is a characteristic of an object; a red object is said to have the property of redness. The property may be considered a form of object in its own right, able to possess other properties. A property, however, differs from individual objects in that it may be instantiated, and often in more than one thing. It differs from the logical/mathematical concept of class by not having any concept of extensionality, and from the philosophical concept of class in that a property is considered to be distinct from the objects which possess it. Understanding how different individual entities can in some sense have some of the same properties is the basis of the problem of universals. The terms attribute and quality have similar meanings.

In philosophy, universality is the idea that universal facts exist and can be progressively discovered, as opposed to relativism. In certain theologies, universalism is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe, whose being is independent of and unconstrained by the events and conditions that compose the universe, such as entropy and physical locality.

The term "trope" is both a term which denotes figurative and metaphorical language and one which has been used in various technical senses. The term trope derives from the Greek τρόπος (tropos), "a turn, a change", related to the root of the verb τρέπειν (trepein), "to turn, to direct, to alter, to change"; this means that the term is used metaphorically to denote, among other things, metaphorical language. Perhaps the term can be explained as meaning the same thing as a turn of phrase in its original sense.

Moderate realism is a position in the debate on the metaphysics of universals that holds that there is no realm in which universals exist, nor do they really exist within particulars as universals, but rather universals really exist within particulars as particularised, and multiplied.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to metaphysics:

Abstract particulars are metaphysical entities which are both abstract objects and particulars.

The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas is a philosophical theory, concept, or world-view, attributed to Plato, that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas. According to this theory, ideas in this sense, often capitalized and translated as "Ideas" or "Forms", are the non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world are merely imitations. Plato speaks of these entities only through the characters of his dialogues who sometimes suggest that these Forms are the only objects of study that can provide knowledge. The theory itself is contested from within Plato's dialogues, and it is a general point of controversy in philosophy. Whether the theory represents Plato's own views is held in doubt by modern scholarship. However, the theory is considered a classical solution to the problem of universals.


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