Universal (metaphysics)  

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"Herman of Tournai speaks derisively of Raimbert of Lille, who taught only about words, while Odo of Orléans, teaching at the school in Tournai, taught about things; Raimbert provided only windy chatter, Odo substance. A wise deaf-mute, being asked one day to judge between Raimbert's and Odo's teachings, gestured toward Odo and drew his finger across his palm, as if cleaving the earth with a plow, and indicating that his was the correct doctrine. Then, pointing toward Lille, from where Raimbert hailed, the deaf-mute blew [exsufflare] on his hand, implying a reduction of Raimbert's teaching to a fit of gas." --On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (2007) V. Allen, p.161

"Dom, head or hood, ship, ness, ity, tude, and th, how different soever in appearance, are, in signification, nearly the same; they are all used in forming what are called abstract nouns; they are generally added to adjectives, and express that kind of idea which the mind is capable of forming, of qualities in a separate, or, as it" --The English Master, William Banks, 1823

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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. For example, suppose there are two beds in a room, each of which is green. These two beds both share the quality of "bedness", 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.

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. 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. 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). 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. 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. 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

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