DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 27, 2021, from

9. Particular and universal

There seems to be no room for universals in a Stoic world, where to exist is to be a body and hence, it seems, a particular. The highest ontological class recognized by Stoicism is that of ‘something’ (ti, plural tina), a class so broad as to include both bodies and incorporeals. Yet even this class excludes certain ‘not-somethings’ (outina), which Stoics identify with universals. That a universal is a ‘not-something’ they demonstrate by the following syllogism, diagnosed as being invalid precisely because in the minor premise it illegitimately substitutes a universal, ‘man’, for ‘someone’ (tis, the masculine form corresponding to the neuter ti) in the major premise: ‘If someone is in Athens, they are not in Megara; but man is in Athens; therefore man is not in Megara’. So universals are apparently metaphysical outlaws, intractable even to basic logical laws.

On the other hand, universals have a fundamental place in the job of the dialectician. In the tradition bequeathed by Plato, the Stoics regard the science of dialectic (see §10) as largely concerned with the activities of division and definition: dividing genera into species and defining individual terms. And the things divided and defined are, of course, universals – as Plato had already indicated by equating them with Forms.

Hence a dilemma: universals are essential to dialectic, and yet are logically incoherent items with no place in a Stoic ontology. Their resolution of the dilemma comes in two parts, one logical, the other epistemological. Logically, the dialectician’s use of universals is justified by a re-analysis. A dialectician’s definition, for example, ‘Man is a rational mortal animal’, actually means ‘If something (ti) is a man, it is a rational mortal animal’. A similar analysis was offered for statements of division. Thus dialectical pronouncements which appear to have universals as subjects are legitimate only because they are disguised conditional statements about particulars (‘somethings’). (A partial analogy can be found in modern attempts to re-analyse as logically coherent ‘The average man has 2.4 children’.)

The epistemological side of the resolution is required because Plato had maintained that universals are, as such, proper objects of thought. This time the conditional re-analysis offers little help in formulating a Stoic response. Rather, their reply is that universals are indeed objects of thought, or ‘concepts’ (ennoēmata), but that far from being objective parts of the world’s furniture they are nothing more than thought constructs. The thoughts themselves are real enough: being ‘conceptions’ (ennoiai), they are simply our mental pneuma in a certain condition, and hence bodies; but the ‘concepts’ which constitute the intentional objects of those conceptions are not themselves bodies, or indeed anything at all. This position makes it appropriate to call the Stoic doctrine of universals an early variety of ‘conceptualism’ (see Nominalism §1).

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Particular and universal. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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