The logic of the Problem of Universals

1.) Some things we know are abstract

2.) We know things as they are in reality.

3.) No thing in reality is abstract.

If any two are true, the other is false.

I.) Platonism takes 1 and 2 as true and denies 3. Not only is 3 false, it is contrary to the truth: all reality is abstract. Things are particular only as doxa, or in a way we now call “subjective”. We say that something is particular by the same sort of predication as we say that the dental drill is painful. Particularity is as much a feature of how we are relating to an object as pain is a feature of the drill.

It’s not at all clear what “an existent self” would mean on this opinion.

II.) Aristotle takes 1 and 3 as true, but 2 as false. We don’t know things as they are in the same way that we know them as abstract. The way of knowing does not have to be the same as the way it exists, e.g. we know Bemiji on the map as a small dot, but it is not a dot in reality,  The letters C, A and T are not a small furry mammal with a tail on one end and a meow on the other.

This is a decent and moderate opinion until one asks how one is supposed to abstract this universal from the particulars without already having it as a criterion for their likeness.

III.) Nominalism takes 2 and 3 as true and 1 as false. This is clear in Berkeley, and Hume both takes his arguments and adds to them. We have no abstract ideas and we can’t imagine what it would be to have one.

When one pushes at this opinion it turns into an appeal for agnosticism: we simply form universals from some power we are completely incapable of describing.

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5 Comments

  1. Loreen Lee. said,

    January 11, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    Is it true then that post-moderns are taking an extreme position on the third possibility – even to the extent of denying logos and universals? Completely? We do not in fact – form, or have a conception of universals? Like in a psychosis, we are deluded that we do????? And the problem of language – generally – as per Derrida. Can you please give a Thomistic answer to these ‘deconstructionists’?????

  2. Zippy said,

    January 11, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    If 3 is false how does it always and necessarily follow that all of reality is abstract? It seems like this would follow only under some theories of the relation between (some kinds of) abstract forms and particulars, not under all possible theories or even no theory at all.

    • January 12, 2016 at 9:58 am

      That’s right. It was a quirk in Plato to see that the “things in themselves” are all abstractions.

      • Will Farris, PhD cand. Phil of Religion said,

        January 15, 2016 at 11:03 am

        Are you saying that Plato’s Forms are pari passu with Kant’s “ding an sich.”? Or that the noumenal world is merely abstract? Kant’s thing in itself refers to any given particular, that we cannot know it past our phenomenal perceptions. Repondez s’il vous plait…

      • January 15, 2016 at 11:53 am

        No. By “Things in themselves” I was not thinking of Kant’s ding an sich but of Plato’s auto e.g. the good in itself or the couch in itself.


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