A brief response to a critique of St. Thomas’s doctrine of universals- UPDATED II

The Maverick philosopher returns to a critique he has given before about the Thomistic theory of universals. He first cites a passage from John Peterson, who is defending St. Thomas’s doctrine (italics), then he critiques it:

In and of itself, therefore, humanity is neutral as between particularity and universality. And it is this same human essence taken as existentially neutral which, as the objective sense of ‘human’ in ‘Socrates is human,’ makes predication by species possible. (106)

The idea is that one and the same item — humanity in our example — can exist in two ways. It can exist in particular concrete things outside the mind, and it can exist in an abstract and universal form in minds. But in and of itself it is neutral as between these two modes of existence. Taken by itself, therefore, it does not exist, and is neither particular nor universal. In itself, it is neither many in the way human beings are many, nor is it one, in the way in which the universal humanity in the mind is one.

So this Thomist essence is an item that is some definite item, though in itself it does not exist, is neither one nor many, and is neither universal nor particular. I hope I will be forgiven for finding this unintelligible.

The words here are slippery, and there is no avoiding this. The very nature of “the known” (X) is a tricky one, since we can speak of it either as known (A) or as the thing which is known (B). But it seems like what Peterson is laying down, and what Bill is critiquing, is the Thomist account of the unity of the “thing known” (C). If X is diverse when we consider it either as A and B, what is it in itself? I take this to simply be the question “What is essence pure and simple, prescinding from the division of A and B?”  This takes us to, I think, C, which St. Thomas calls “the absolute consideration”. The absolute consideration is manifested in definition, so I will sometimes call it “the definition”. Bill and Peterson call it “the universal”, so I’ll call it that too, but there will only be one ratio throughout the rest of the post, called by three synonyms throughout: the absolute consideration, universal, definition. At the end of the post, I’ll hope to make it clear why using these three names is not convoluted, but made possible by the sort of question we are asking.

All right. So Bill is critiquing what St. Thomas calls the absolute consideration. This critique gains much of its force from Bill leaving off the observation that gives rise to it. It’s certainly true that if one simply looks at the description, it looks like a very bizarre thing, but the thing being described is pretty humdrum. St. Thomas notes that a definition of something, say “square” or “running”, does not include “one” or “many”. The definition of”sprinting”, which I suppose is something like “a short run at the runner’s maximum speed” does not specify whether there  is one instance of this activity, or many- or even if there are any at all. If every sprinter on earth became incapable of sprinting tomorrow, the definition of sprinting would still be a nice thing to have- we would need it to understand what in the world just happened to us. So what shall we say about this “defined entity”, which is given in the absolute consideration? There doesn’t seem to be anything odd about saying that it neither exists or does not exist (so far as the definition is true and useful in either case),  nor in saying that it

…is neither particular nor universal. In itself, it is neither many in the way human beings are many, nor is it one, in the way in which the universal humanity in the mind is one.

The reason for these oddities is not because it is some strange entity, but because the consideration prescinds from existence and number.

But  MP’s critique raises a deeper question about the difference between something known and a means by which something is known. For St. Thomas, predicable universals are a certain means of understanding. They are also sorts of things, but this is a secondary consideration. First of all, they are that by which human beings understand, as opposed to being that which human beings understand.   I include the term “human being” in the definition because, for St. Thomas, angels and God do not need predicable universals in order to understand intellectually. They have something like “the absolute consideration”, but it is not the same as the one we have been discussing here, since it does not give rise to a predicable universal, and so it cannot be called “a universal” as our absolute consideration can. I can’t develop this point now, but it is a crucial point in understanding St. Thomas’s account of universals. To say that there are universals “in the divine mind” (as John Peterson seems to argue) is, for him, a blasphemous (or at least incorrect) thing to say. The universal is a peculiar oddity that a spirit forms when it is fused together with a body, and is therefore forced to learn by abstraction from the things that the body suffers. Angels no more need universals to think than I need a blind man’s cane to maneuver around the room.

But back to universals as a “by which”. Universals are properly a means of knowing, and they need to have certain properties to do this. Knowledge involves, minimally, the presence of an object in a knower, and so the object will have certain features that are related to the knower, and others that are related to the object. That by which this happens, therefore, has to facilitate this kind of existence; and it does so by in itself being indifferent to what is peculiar either to cognitive or real existence. What Bill calls incoherent I would urge is exactly what is necessary for a being to know; and moreover that this putatively incoherent mode of existence is given in very common experience.

Because this absolute consideration, which is neither existent or not, singular or universal, etc. gives rise to a predicable universal in us, we tend to call it, by extension, “a universal”. Furthermore, since the most perfect development of this universal in us is a definition, it also makes sense to call it a definition.

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  1. Ray Stamper said,

    March 31, 2010 at 11:48 am


    Maveric says:
    “Taken by itself, therefore, it does not exist”

    You say:
    “They are also sorts of things, but this is a secondary consideration”

    I thank you for this short piece about universals. It helps to understand them as “that by which” – i.e. “that by which” knowing is possible, or perhaps “that by which” the mind is able to apprehend reality outside the mind.
    Still, one of the most vexing problems for me as I explore Thomism involves my obsession with understanding EXACTLY WHAT TYPE/MODE OF EXISTENCE A UNIVERSAL HAS. Maybe it is this very question which is bothering Maverick. I also wonder if it is was’nt this sort of concern which led Ockham and early modern philosophers to reject univerals – because they “seem” on a certain level – “not to exist”.
    In contrast to Maverick, you say they “are also sorts of things” – but what “sort” of “thing” are they? I suppose I am confused about the meaning or modalities of “being”. A rock outside the mind is a “thing” – and so is said to have “being”. But thoughts or cognitions also “exist” on some level – I mean they are not “nothing” since I am aware that I was thinking some particular thought, say 2 seconds ago. Does a Thomist ascribe the term “being” to thoughts – i.e. do thoughts “exist” on some level? If thoughs have a peculiar mode of existence somehow distinct from external objects (like rocks), then is a universal yet another peculiar “existence” IN AND OF ITSELF distinct “in some way” from both external objects and thoughts?

    You said: :
    “and so the object will have certain features that are related to the knower, and others that are related to the object”

    If I understand this sentence, then I take it that the “features” of the object which are related to the object AND to the knower constitute WHAT universals are – i.e. those “shared” features make up whatever the universal “is”. So does a universal “exist”, as it were, half-way between the external and mental world – but truly “exist” nonetheless?
    Further, a distinctive of Aristotelian-Thomism (at least I think it is disctintive given my limited grasp) over against Platonism is the notion that universals ONLY exist in actual/external things rather than there being an independent world of “universals” – as Plato seems to have envisioned. If this is correct then do universals go rapidly in and out of “existence” as “prime matter” aquires one “universal” in place of another (like when a rubber ball melts in a fire and loses the essence/unviversal called “ball” and becomes a glob of goo)?
    Also, I understand from your post that universals are the “sort of thing” about which we can make no “quantitative” statements, but I must admit that this is hard for me to comrehend, since when we talk about univerals we often use the word “it” to refer to a universal – and “it” naturally brings to mind singularity – at least for me.
    I am probably asking these questions in a confused way; but I was weaned on Descarte, Kant, Hume, etc., and my skeptical habit of mind is slow in dying – so my penchant for understanding WHAT a universal IS just keeps nagging me. Thanks in adavance for any thoughts or directed reading you might offer.

    Pax et Bonum,


  2. March 31, 2010 at 12:53 pm


    I spent the few hours after I wrote this thinking “is the absolute consideration a universal, or more the principle of the universal” I thought it was more the latter. What MP is talking about, however, seems more like the absolute consideration, and there is indeed some sense in which this can be called “the universal”. I think this sense is best seen if we just set a definition in front of us, like the definition of “sprinting” given above.

    I want to approach the topic in an empirical way: what kind of existence does this definition in front of us have, if we decide that we can say “it exists” (which in some sense we can)? All we can do is look at the definition in much the same way that we would examine anything else in the lab. The difference is that the examination of a universal will go best if we start of by using negation, as opposed to trying to assert positively what it is. It’s a trick borrowed from theologians, and given the sort of existence the thing we are looking at has, it is a useful trick. So what is NOT present in this thing in front of us? One and many does not enter into it, neither do existence or non-existence. For that matter, singular and universal do not enter into it.

    I’m not sure I get exactly what a universal is, and even if I said a few true things about what it is, I doubt they would have much content until I had purged my mind through a consideration of what it is not. I think everyone who is not the slave of some pet theory can agree that the universe shows us nothing like the knowledge by which we know it, and since we are more familiar with things in the universe, we have to approach the question of what our knowledge is by a consideration of what it is not.

  3. Brandon said,

    March 31, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I was hoping you would address this; thanks.

  4. Ray Stamper said,

    March 31, 2010 at 3:41 pm


    I had a similar thought along those lines as well. I am reminded of the “apophatic” approach in the Eastern theological tradition (think Cappadocian Fathers) where all talk about God is couched in negations – not because God is shrouded in darkness such that we have to grope to find Him – but rather becuase God in His ineffable essence is so present and real that our intellect is blinded as by an intense light. I wonder if the issue of univerals is not like that in some ways. Universals are so fundamental to knowledge that the moment we set our mind upon “defining” what a universal is, is slips past our intellectual perceptions – sort of like trying to remember the moment when one falls asleep, or trying to shave a door so thin that it only has one side. One thing is becoming clear to me; whatever a universal is, without them, there is no possibility of knowledge. Thus, I actually think I might ultimately be able to content myself with the notion that universals, taken in themselves, are at the same time undeniable, yet mysterious. A philosopher can complain that the way in which a Thomist explains the existence of universals is vauge or unsatisfactory, but can he really function as philosopher without at least implicitly affirming their existence? But our minds only go so far – that is repugnant to many a philosopher, but I suppose it ought not to be so for a Christian. Anyhow, thanks for bringing up this topic – I need to think about it a lot more.


  5. Ed L said,

    April 8, 2010 at 9:14 am

    There is a place in Plutarch’s life of Pericles which shows how material explanations and supernatural ones are not mutually exclusive:

    “There is a story, that once Pericles had brought to him from a country farm of his a ram’s head with one horn, and that Lampon, the diviner, upon seeing the horn grow strong and solid out of the midst of the forehead, gave it as his judgment, that, there being at that time two potent factions, parties, or interests in the city, the one of Thucydides and the other of Pericles, the government would come about to that one of them in whose ground or estate this token or indication of fate had shown itself. But that Anaxagoras, cleaving the skull in sunder, showed to the bystanders that the brain had not filled up its natural place, but being oblong, like an egg, had collected from all parts of the vessel which contained it in a point to that place from whence the root of the horn took its rise. And that, for that time, Anaxagoras was much admired for his explanation by those that were present; and Lampon no less a little while after, when Thucydides was overpowered, and the whole affairs of the state and government came into the hands of Pericles.

    And yet, in my opinion, it is no absurdity to say that they were both in the right, both natural philosopher and diviner, one justly detecting the cause of this event, by which it was produced, the other the end for which it was designed. For it was the business of the one to find out and give an account of what it was made, and in what manner and by what means it grew as it did; and of the other to foretell to what end and purpose it was so made, and what it might mean or portend. Those who say that to find out the cause of a prodigy is in effect to destroy its supposed signification as such, do not take notice, that, at the same time, together with divine prodigies, they also do away with signs and signals of human art and concert, as, for instance, the clashings of quoits, fire-beacons, and the shadows of sun-dials, every one of which has its cause, and by that cause and contrivance is a sign of something else. But these are subjects, perhaps, that would better befit another place.”

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