The Problem of Universals

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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. 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...
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