10 August, 2009

The "Problem" of Universals Applied to Standards

The “problem of universals” has presented itself to philosophers as one of the most basic metaphysical puzzles since the time of the ancient Greeks,so it's no surprise I'm taking an interest in it after a few semesters at UD. A universal is fundamentally distinguished from the individual, or “particular,” objects that we encounter in day-to-day living in the sense that it refers to the core similarity between diverse objects. For instance, in the sentence “This round-ish, red-colored fruit is an apple,” “this round-ish red-colored fruit” signifies a particular because it refers to an individual being, whereas “apple” is a universal because it refers to some category of appleness of which all individual apples are part. The “problem” with universals is the question of whether they exist at all, of whether they are real or merely constructs of the human mind. The nature of our answer to such a query is of vital importance: it does not simply determine our view on universals themselves, but has a much broader significance for our understanding of how we should approach the world. One substantial ramification of our answer is the effect it will have on our understanding of whether or not we can apply standards to the beings in our experience.

Among the reasons we may wish to preserve a coherent system of standards in our world-view is that in so doing we retain the necessary rational tool for making judgments about the beings and situations that we encounter over the course of our lives. When capable of applying standards to the objects of our experience we are empowered to make rational decisions about those objects depending on what our standards are and how those objects live up to them. For instance, if we have a standard that sets out certain criteria for what makes a thing an apple, we can use this standard in evaluating specific objects to determine which one is the apple and will therefore be tasty to eat. Without such criteria, there is no way of determining what a thing is, at least not in terms of what practical repercussions its essence can have on you. A natural corollary to this ability to define something is, from an Aristotelian viewpoint, the ability to determine whether it is good as what it is. Thus is you know what an apple is, and you know that a specific object is an apple, you also know that if that particular apple happens to be rotten, it is not good; it is not fulfilling its being as an apple to the fullest potential.

From the preceding discussion it is clear that if we want to preserve the reality of standards, it is necessary to reject the view that universals are non-existent. By the extreme nominalist (universal-rejecting) position, only words can be general. There is, however, no underlying reality that these words are signifying. That is, we may call a variety of objects “apples”, but in doing so we are not expressing any fundamental unity of essence but only denoting certain accidental similarities between everything that we categorize under that term. Such a position necessarily excludes the notion of real, objective criteria against which a particular being can be weighed. We can, true enough, apply general terms to specific objects by the nominalist theory, but such application does not constitute a real judgment of those objects if it is not in reference to something real. Perhaps phrased as the nominalists have it, exclusion of the universal from the ontological chart may seem harmless enough when it comes to our standing example of the apple. If we can at least recognize that all things we call apples will share the attributes of tastiness and not be poisonous, we will feel safe enough eating one whether its “appleness” is real or merely a verbal construct. However, when we turn our consideration towards less concrete matters it becomes apparent that there are many universals—truth, goodness, and beauty in particular—which seem crucial to a complete understanding of the world in which we live. Yet these have no specific concrete expression such that considering them solely as accidental properties will serve our apparently innate desire to take them as standards to guide our approach to being. In this vein we should also consider that though we can accept the apple as edible from a nominalist point of view, there is no logical way for us to evaluate its goodness. It shares the accidents of all other particulars to which we apply the general term, but it cannot be judged a good apple unless there is a standard of appleness by which we can analyze it.

Thus it is clear that if we find the ability to judge objects of our encounter both valuable and necessary based on the nature of our experience of the world, we must think of universals as realities. There is a myriad of ways in which to formulate our conception of universals, but I will focus only on Aristotle’s, which is notably opposed to the platonic idea that universals have some separate, vague existence as un-instantiated forms. Drawing apprehension from his foundation, we receive a picture of universals as “ways of being”: realities which exist but not independently of and separate from particular beings. That is, they are real only insofar as they are instantiated in individual, actual beings. Individual apples, then, are united by virtue of an appleness that exists in and through them.

This way of understanding universals has a compelling consequence when considered in light of the determination to preserve the rational concept of standards. If it is a valid move to consider universals as containing criteria by which we can assess an individual being, there must be some perfection of that being which the universal implies and comprehends. And if the universal exists only insofar as it does in actual beings, there must be some being in which each one exists—either substantially or in the soul through knowledge, as Aquinas, building on Aristotle, puts it—perfectly. Though this idea deserves to be more fully developed than I have space to do in this essay, it suggests another compelling reason for belief in God. According to Christian thought, God Himself is that Being in which all created things have their being. Thus, the apple would exist in God perfectly in his comprehension of it, whereas the pervasive characteristics of being—truth, beauty, and goodness—exist as modalities of Himself as He interacts with our world.

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