DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N065-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 19, 2024, from

Article Summary

In metaphysics, the term ‘universals’ is applied to things of two sorts: properties (such as redness or roundness), and relations (such as kinship relations like sisterhood, or the causal relation, or spatial and temporal relations). Universals are to be understood by contrast with particulars. Few universals, if any, are truly ‘universal’ in the sense that they are shared by all individuals – a universal is characteristically the sort of thing which some individuals may have in common, and others may lack.

Universals have been conceived to be things which enable us intellectually to grasp a permanent, underlying order behind the changing flux of experience. Some of the gods of ancient mythologies correspond roughly to various important underlying universals – social relations for instance, as for example if Hera is said to be the goddess of Marriage and Ares (or Mars) is said to be the god of War. Many traditions, East and West, have dealt with the underlying problem which generates theories of universals; nevertheless the term ‘universals’ is closely tied to the Western tradition, and the agenda has been set largely by the work of Plato and Aristotle.

The term often used in connection with Plato is not ‘universals’ but ‘Forms’ (or ‘Ideas’, used in the sense of ideals rather than of thoughts), the term ‘universals’ echoing Aristotle more than Plato. Other terms cognate with universals include not only properties and relations, but also qualities, attributes, characteristics, essences and accidents (in the sense of qualities which a thing has not of necessity but only by accident), species and genus, and natural kinds.

Various arguments have been advanced to establish the existence of universals, the most memorable of which is the ‘one over many’ argument. There are also various arguments against the existence of universals. There are, for instance, various vicious regress arguments which derive from Aristotle’s so-called ‘third man argument’ against Plato. Another family of arguments trades on what is called Ockham’s razor: it is argued that we can say anything we need to say, and explain everything we need to explain, without appeal to universals; and if we can, and if we are rational, then we should. Those who believe in universals are called Realists, those who do not are called Nominalists.

    Citing this article:
    Bigelow, John C.. Universals, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N065-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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