DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N065-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

3. Arguments for and against

Various arguments have been advanced to establish the existence of universals, the most memorable of which is the ‘one over many’ argument. Although it is memorable, there is little consensus on just how this argument works. Very roughly, it begins with an appeal to the manifest fact of recurrence, the fact that, as it says in the biblical text of Ecclesiastes (1: 9), ‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun’. There are many things, and yet they are all in some sense just the very same things over and over again. From this manifest fact of recurrence, the argument purports to derive the conclusion that there are universals as well as particulars.

There are also various arguments against the existence of universals. One family of such arguments derives from Aristotle’s so-called ‘third man argument’ and is designed to demonstrate that Plato’s Theory of Forms entails an unacceptable infinite regress. Roughly, Plato’s problem is that he needs some relation to hold between the Form of Man and individual men before this Form can help to explain what it is that individual men have in common. So the theory would seem to call into being another Form, a third man, which is what the Form of Man has in common with individual men. This leads to an infinite regress, hence Plato’s Theory of Forms is unacceptable. Of course, Aristotle had only intended to demonstrate the nonexistence of Plato’s Forms, not of universals in general; but enemies of universals frequently advance related infinite-regress arguments against the existence of universals of any kind. Whatever you call the instantiation relation between particulars and universals, if you think of it as another universal then you are off on a regress, and this seems to count against any theory of universals.

Another argument against the existence of universals trades on what is called ‘Ockham’s razor’ – the principle that you should not postulate more entities when everything you want to explain can be explained with fewer (see William of Ockham §2). It is sometimes argued that everything you can explain with universals can be explained just as well without them. Things which superficially seem to refer to universals can, it is maintained, generally be rephrased in ways which make no apparent reference to universals – reference to universals can be paraphrased away. If we can do without universals, then obviously we should; when you supplement this Ockhamist argument with allusions to the interminable and unresolvable internecine conflicts among Realists over numerous details, you have an even stronger case against the existence of universals.

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

Related Articles