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. Metaphysicians call this quality that they share a "universal", because it can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. 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 universal.[2]

The noun "universal" contrasts with "individual", while the adjective "universal" contrasts with "particular". Paradigmatically, universals are abstract (e.g. humanity), whereas particulars are concrete (e.g. the person 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. Most do not consider classes to be universals, although some prominent philosophers do, such as John Bigelow.


Problem of universals

The problem of universals is an ancient problem in metaphysics whether universals exist. The problem arises from attempts to account for the phenomenon of similarity or attribute agreement among things.[4] For example, live 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. There are two main positions on the issue: realism and nominalism (sometimes simply called "anti-realism" about universals[5]). Realists posit the existence of universals to account for attribute agreement. Nominalists deny that universals exist, claiming that they are not necessary to explain attribute agreement. Complications which arise include the implications of language use and the complexity of relating language to ontology.

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