An Introduction to Universals

Recall the Principle of Identity, which runs: "Each being is what it is". As was said earlier, it is a first self-evident principle that is presupposed whenever anyone knows anything at all. Moreover, one cannot deny it without using it. In fact, without it, one cannot argue anything at all; for in order to draw a conclusion, one must start with premises, such as "All men desire to know" or "Truth is something worth pursuing". But at the very root of these premises is the principle that each being is what it is, for example, a man is not just anything at all, but a man, a knower, etc, or that truth is not just anything at all, but something determinate, something desirable.

Now consider the "what" in the Principle of Identity. The first thing the intellect tends to whenever it is confronted with an object of knowledge is the "what" of the thing. The first question a person asks is: "What is it?" Some may say it is a bird, others may say it is a plane, but after a time one might even suggest it is Superman. Whatever the answers, they bear upon the "what" of the thing.

Now when a person asks what a thing is, he is not asking about its quantity. For example, if one were to ask: "What is that over there?" and someone were to say "it is 50 pounds, very tall, 2 feet wide, etc", the intellect would remain unsatisfied, because the answer bears upon quantity. But quantity does not tell us "what" a thing is. A human being, a dog, and a small bear might all weigh pretty much the same, but weight tells us nothing about "what" they are specifically.

Quantity bears upon "how much a thing is", not "what a thing is". "What" is a matter of quality, not quantity. When you ask about "what" a thing is, you are asking about its kind, its type, its nature.

Plato of Athens (427-347 BC), who is one of the greatest thinkers in intellectual history, was, thanks to Socrates, very preoccupied with the "what" of things and their relationship to particular things themselves. Socrates, his greatest inspiration, would inquire of the essential form of a particular virtue, such as piety, or courage, etc., and he implied that when we come to know the essence of courage, or piety, etc., then we will be in a position to consider any particular action and determine whether or not it is truly courageous, or pious, etc.

Plato took this insight outside the limits of ethics and saw that everything that is intelligible has an "essential form". And so Plato employed the word eidos, from which is derived the word 'idea'. Things, such as a group of rectangles, have a common idea or form. The Greek word physis, from which is derived the word 'physics', means nature, as in "the nature of things". When we ask "what" a thing is, we are inquiring of its nature. We speak of a man as someone who has a human nature. Plato also employed the Greek word genos, from which is derived the word 'genus', which means 'kind' or 'type'. When we ask 'what' a thing is, we are asking: "What kind of thing is it?" In our case, we are a human kind of thing. Finally, Plato speaks of ousia, which means 'essence' or 'being'. When we ask "what" a thing is, we are asking about its essence, that is, what it is essentially.

All these words basically mean the same thing. They all refer to that essential quality that renders things intelligible. To say "each being is what it is" is to say that each being is its nature. You are human, your cat is feline, your dog is canine, and the cow down the street is bovine.

Note too some of the characteristics of the "what" of things. Consider a triangle:

We can discern that all these figures have something in common; they are all triangles. They have the same basic eidos, for they are the same essentially. Each of these figures participates in the form "triangularity". One is equilateral, one is isosceles, another is an obtuse triangle, but they have that fundamental form designated by the word 'triangularity'.

Let us say that the equilateral triangle above measures 5 cm. This would mean that a 5-centimeter side belongs to that particular triangle, but not to the very essence of triangle, otherwise all triangles would have to have 5-centimeter sides, and any triangle that does not, is not a triangle essentially.

Nor does a triangle have to be drawn in pencil, or chalk, nor does it have to have a particular color. The idea of a triangle contains no color, no lead, no metal, has no particular place and no particular size. And if we were to erase one of those triangles above, we'd have one less triangle in the world, but "triangularity" would remain entirely unchanged. Moreover, there are not two "triangularities", only one. But there are many triangles.

Thus, it is impossible to draw an image of "triangularity", thus it is impossible to imagine triangularity. All one can do is imagine a particular triangle. Thus, all we can hope to draw is a particular triangle. But the essence of triangle, its basic eidos, is not something that one can illustrate or imagine. It has no size, no particular shape, no color, no matter, no visibility, etc.

So what is this mysterious eidos? Everything we just said about triangularity applies also to humanity, circularity, equality, animality, particularity, quantity, goodness, otherness, canine, bovine, feline, etc. Essences are not particular, they are universal, they are not plural, they are one; they are not subject to change, they are unchanging; they are not subject to quantity, they have no quantity; they are not subject to place, so they are nowhere.

But according to Plato, the essence or ousia of a thing is its very being. What makes a desk to be a desk? Is it the wood? According to Plato, the answer is no, for a desk could be made out of steel or plastic, or any other matter, and it would still be a desk. It is the form that makes a desk to be a desk. It is the form that makes a chair to be a chair, not its matter, or its location, or its color, etc.

Things to Wonder About

We are certainly a long way from solving the problem of universals, that is, coming to understand their existential status or what they really are in themselves. Nevertheless, the more one thinks about them, the more one realizes how fascinating and mysterious reality is.

For example, most of us think that if something is real, it means you can see it and touch it. But Plato's insights would seem to challenge this. What makes the chair real, that is, what makes it to really be a chair, is something that cannot be seen, touched, felt, picked up, handled, thrown, etc. It isn't the wood or the steel that makes it to be a chair, but its form.

Moreover, it isn't your black hair, dark skin, long legs, strong arms, etc., that makes you to be a human. You can lose your hair, your legs, your arms, and you'd still be "what" you are, namely human. But without "humanness" or "humanity", you wouldn't be human at all. And yet you cannot see and touch humanity, nor can you imagine humanity. What you have in your imagination is a particular human, but not the universal form or essence of humanness/humanity. What is this essential quality without which you would not be what you are?

Also, we should be able to see that there is a real difference between intelligence and sensation. The intellect desires to know "what" a thing is, first and foremost. But the "what" of things, their nature, is not something that the senses (even the internal sense of imagination) can apprehend. The senses, as well as imagination, bears upon particulars only, for example, particular humans, particular triangles, particular rabbits, etc. But the intellect apprehends what it means to be a human, a triangle, a rabbit, etc. The intellect apprehends essences (which are universal), while the imagination internally perceives particulars.

Consider too that there is no science of particulars. The word "science" comes from the Latin scire, which means 'to know'. Since the object of knowledge is the physis, science is about coming to know the natures (physis) of things. In other words, science is about universals, not particulars. Are there any animal scientists in the world? Are there any veterinarians who are animals? After all, who better to understand horses and their needs than another horse? Are we discriminating against horses by keeping them out of medical veterinary college? No. There are no animal scientists or veterinarians because animals cannot grasp the natures of things. An animal is a sentient creature, and sensation bears upon particulars, but intelligence is the ability to apprehend essences.

Consider how racism has some relationship to the problem of universals. In philosophical terms, racism is the confusion of what belongs to the essence of a thing and what is outside the essence. Does 'white' belong to the essence of "human"? No more than 'white' belongs to the essence of a triangle, or a square. Universal forms, essences, etc., have no color. But the racist mistakenly thinks that a particular color belongs to the essence of man, such that anyone not of that color is not a man, but something essentially different.

Note too how it is self-refuting to deny that intelligence is the ability to apprehend the essences of things (universals) by reducing universals, for instance, to linguistic constructs. A person who argues against what has been said up to this point insists that what we assert lacks the force of necessity and that our grasp of what intelligence is, is inaccurate. In other words, our conclusion regarding intelligence is not warranted by the given premises. But this only shows that he regards intelligence in the same way we do, namely, as the ability to understand the natures of things. For he demands that our conclusion have the force of necessity; for he understands that science bears upon universals, for he demands that what we assert about intelligence be universal, and not just true in particular cases. But whatever he asserts about intelligence against our view will inevitably have a universal character.

For example, imagine someone asserting the following: Intelligence is not about apprehending the natures of things. Rather, intelligence is effectively perceiving, interpreting and responding to the environment. It is the ability to survive and meet desired goals and objectives.

Now we would argue that this is incorrect; for even brute animals have the ability to survive, but we would not say that they are intelligent. Nevertheless, that is irrelevant. What is relevant is what was asserted about intelligence in general. Notice that there are a number of universal concepts in the assertion, namely, perception, interpretation, response, environment, ability, survival, desire, goal, and the concept of an objective. Clearly, our opponent apprehends universal concepts and has strung them together in order to express what intelligence is essentially, that is, universally. He is only able to do this because he is intelligent and can grasp the natures of things, including the nature of certain behaviours and activities.

Next Page: Chapter 09: Definitions
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