Universal (metaphysics)

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]

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.

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 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.

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

  • Idealism or conceptualism: beauty is a property constructed in the mind, so it exists only in descriptions of things.
  • Platonic realism: beauty is a property that exists in an ideal form independently of any mind or thing.
  • Aristotelian realism: beauty is a property that only exists when beautiful things exist.

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.


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.


  • Feldman, Fred (2005). "The Open Question Argument: What It Isn't; and What It Is", Philosophical Issues 15, Normativity.
  • Loux, Michael J. (1998). Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, N.Y.: Routledge.
  • Loux, Michael J. (2001). "The Problem of Universals" in Metaphysics: Contemporary Readings, Michael J. Loux (ed.), N.Y.: Routledge, pp. 3–13.
  • MacLeod, M. & Rubenstein, E. (2006). "Universals", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, J. Fieser & B. Dowden (eds.). (link)
  • Moreland, J. P. (2001). Universals, McGill-Queen's University Press/Acumen.
  • Price, H. H. (1953). "Universals and Resemblance", Ch. 1 of Thinking and Experience, Hutchinson's University Library.
  • Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo (2008). "Nominalism in Metaphysics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)

Further reading

  • Aristotle, Categories (link)
  • Aristotle, Metaphysics (link)
  • Armstrong, D. M. (1989). Universals: An Opinionated Introduction, Westview Press. (link)
  • Plato, Phaedo (link)
  • Plato, Republic (esp. books V, VI, VII and X) (link)
  • Plato, Parmenides (link)
  • Plato, Sophist (link)
  • Quine, W. V. O. (1961). "On What There is," in From a Logical Point of View, 2nd/ed. N.Y: Harper and Row.
  • Russell, Bertrand (1912). "The World of Universals," in The Problems of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
  • Russell, Bertrand (1912b). "On the Relation of Universals and Particulars" (link)
  • Swoyer, Chris (2000). "Properties", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (link)
  • Williams, D. C. (1953). "On the Elements of Being", Review of Metaphysics, vol. 17. (link)

External links

Abstract and concrete

Abstract and concrete are classifications that denote whether the object that a term describes has physical referents. Abstract objects have no physical referents, whereas concrete objects do. They are most commonly used in philosophy and semantics. Abstract objects are sometimes called abstracta (sing. abstractum) and concrete objects are sometimes called concreta (sing. concretum). An abstract object is an object that does not exist at any particular time or place, but rather exists as a type of thing—i.e., an idea, or abstraction. The term abstract object is said to have been coined by Willard Van Orman Quine. The study of abstract objects is called abstract object theory.

Argument from beauty

The argument from beauty (also the aesthetic argument) is an argument for the existence of a realm of immaterial ideas or, most commonly, for the existence of God.

Plato argued there is a transcendent plane of abstract ideas, or universals, which are more perfect than real-world examples of those ideas. Later philosophers connected this plane to the idea of goodness, beauty, and then the Christian God.

Various observers have also argued that the experience of beauty is evidence of the existence of a universal God. Depending on the observer, this might include artificially beautiful things like music or art, natural beauty like landscapes or astronomical bodies, or the elegance of abstract ideas like the laws of mathematics or physics.

The best-known defender of the aesthetic argument is Richard Swinburne.

Index of metaphysics articles

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that investigates principles of reality transcending those of any particular science. Cosmology and ontology are traditional branches of metaphysics. It is concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world. Someone who studies metaphysics can be called either a "metaphysician" or a "metaphysicist".

Moderate realism

Moderate realism (also called immanent realism) is a position in the debate on the metaphysics of universals that holds that there is no realm in which universals exist (in opposition to Platonic realism who asserts the existence of abstract objects), nor do they really exist within particulars as universals, but rather universals really exist within particulars as particularised, and multiplied.


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 (e.g., strength, humanity). The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time.Most nominalists have held that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only post res, that is, subsequent to particular things. However, some versions of nominalism hold that some particulars are abstract entities (e.g., numbers), while others are concrete entities – entities that do exist in space and time (e.g., pillars, snakes, bananas).

Nominalism is primarily a position on the problem of universals, which dates back at least to Plato, and is opposed to realist philosophies, such as Platonic realism, which assert that universals do exist over and above particulars. However, the name "nominalism" emerged from debates in medieval philosophy with Roscellinus.

The term 'nominalism' stems from the Latin nomen, "name". For example, John Stuart Mill once wrote, that "there is nothing general except names".

In philosophy of law, nominalism finds its application in what is called constitutional nominalism.

Ouriel Zohar

Ouriel Zohar (born 1952), is an Israeli and French theater director, playwright, poet and translator from French to Hebrew. Professor at the department of Humanities & Arts at the Technion University, created the Technion theater in 1986. Has been Full Professor at the University of Paris VIII since 1997 and at HEC Paris since 1995.

Outline of metaphysics

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

Metaphysics – traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

What is ultimately there?

What is it like?

Platonic realism

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.

Plato expounded his own articulation of realism regarding the existence of universals in his dialogue The Republic and elsewhere, notably in the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, the Meno and the Parmenides.

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