Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Problem of Universals


Abraham Janssens - Heraclitus
Our consideration thus far of the philosophical conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness have taken us from Ancient and Classical Greece, through the period of the Roman Empire, culminating in the triumph of Christianity in the Middle Ages with significant intellectual contributions along the way from Judaic and Islamic thought. Among the many approaches to philosophy there existed a widespread commitment to the idea that in spite of an apparent world of constant change, a closer examination reveals that the universe reflected order and purpose which might even be accessible to human reason. The search for an underlying unity and permanence came to dominate the aims of Western philosophy. This essay serves as a of summation of what we have heretofore discussed by considering a philosophical difficulty that became insurmountable towards the close of the Medieval period: the Problem of Universals. The attempted reconciliation by the Greeks of order and chaos, form and matter, the one and the many was fraught with challenges from the very beginning. The incorporation of Greek philosophy into Christianity offered solutions to some problems yet raised further difficulties. Ultimately, the uneasy synthesis tightly woven over the course of two millennia began to loosen and unravel in the 14th century, making way for a very different, scientific world view to supplant the vision of a purposeful universe.

Forms and Universals

Leonidas Drosis - Plato
The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that though the material world was in an apparent state of constant strife, closer examination revealed that this was subsumed under a greater uniting intelligence he called the Logos. Alternatively, his near contemporary Parmenides held real being as a static and unchanging One while describing the world of sense as mere illusion. In response, Plato's great intellectual synthesis of earlier Greek philosophy resulted in his theory of the Forms: eternal, stable objects of the intuitive intelligence, the ideal as real being. Plato offered a hypothesis that man is animated by a rational soul that enjoyed a prior existence in the realm of the Forms and that his intellect properly directed empowers him to recognise the Forms in which sensible material things participate such as absolute truth, beauty, goodness, and other moral and aesthetic "transcendentals". Plato later extended his Forms to sensible qualities and particular objects so that the red of a rose might be said to imitate the Form of "redness" or dear old Socrates might participate in the Form of "man". What distinguished Plato's Forms from their temporal manifestations in sensible things was their incorporeal, eternal, completely independent reality that was fixed as perfect exemplars, never to change or perish.

Nevertheless, how does our material world result from a realm of transcendent, unchanging Forms? It's one thing to furnish an explanation for the patterns that we seem to recognise in nature but the Forms as described don't actually do anything. Plato's theory lacked an efficient cause of how material things came to resemble them. For this he resorted to a creation story of how a god-like being he called the Demiurge applied the order inherent in the Forms to pre-exisitng matter, at least to the extent that matter would imperfectly receive them. Yet such a myth is obviously a stand in for an unsolved difficulty in Plato's theory. Keenly aware of the problem, Plato's long time student Aristotle strove to reformulate his master's theory. 

Aristotle placed more emphasis than Plato on what Aristotle called the Physics: the study of our material world of sensible particulars subject to movement and change. However, he likewise profoundly addressed and critiqued Plato's theory of Forms in his pursuit of the Metaphysics: the study of unchanging substances that are insensible and eternal. Unlike Plato, Aristotle contended that we have no innate knowledge of transcendental Forms from a previous existence. Neither would Aristotle hold that things of this world imitate or participate in Forms located in some incorporeal realm; rather, they're right here with us, tied up in all of matter. In what he defined as a species, what we recognise is similarity across many individuals. This likeness is explained as due to our apprehension that there is a form that organises each species into what he calls the substantial form. Whereas the substantial form is essential to the species (that which enables us to define it), Aristotle accounts for subtle differences among the individuals of a species by non-essential, accidental forms such as size (quantity) and color (quality). 

Aristotle had an empirical leaning; he held that our entryway to knowledge of the world necessarily must begin in sense experience. Nevertheless, Aristotle contended that sense could never on its own lead to apprehension of the forms in things. Rather, it is our faculty of intellect that can reflect on the similarities we see across many particular things and abstract out of them an unchanging, organising principle. This intellectual abstraction of the form takes place only in the mind whereas the form itself remains "immanent", that is to say it never exists apart from the substance it informs. The abstracted form recoginised by the intellect Aristotle calls a Universal. Although we're obligated to abstract Universals from particular things, it is really the Universals, the formal aspect of existence that informs all of matter, generating the world of sense. However, are all of these Universals really there, tied up with the matter of particular substances? How can we be sure they're just not concepts we've made up in our head? And what of truth, beauty, goodness, and other of Plato's transcendental Forms which seem by Aristotle to be more descriptive of rational relations rather than pertaining to sensible substances?

The Neoplatonic and Christian Syntheses

To synthesise means quite literally to "place together" which is precisely what began to occur over time with Plato's theory of Forms and Aristotle's theory of Universals. One such notable philosophical synthesiser was Plotinus who presented a concept of God as a complete Unity, the One, and Source that transcends all contingent being of which we have experience. As such he claimed that there is no basis for abstraction from experience in which to form a concept of God. What appear at first as positive descriptions are nothing more than negations: God is invisible (not visible), infinite (not finite), immobile (not moving), incomprehensible (not understandable). Sure, we can say that God is The Good; however, not as a quality like things of our experience might possess, rather a necessary aspect of His essence. Yet again, that transcends our experience so to say that God is The Good is to say that we don't fully understand what He is and must resort to analogies.

As an explanation of how such a transcendent God can effect change without Himself changing, Plotinus offered the theory of emanation. He utilised the analogies of the sun giving light and heat whilst it remains unchanged or alternatively how a mirror may provide a reflected image without the source undergoing change to illustrate how the divine intelligence is like a shining forth or a reflection, the first direct emanation of God. Plotinus called this divine intelligence Nous and says that within it are contained all of the Forms as previously described by Plato. In the next stage of emanation, from Nous comes forth the World-Soul. In its higher aspect the World-Soul accepts the Forms from Nous whilst in its lower aspect it uses the Forms to animate pre-existent matter thus producing the cosmos. This Neoplatonist model preserves the Forms of Plato that exist apart in a transcendental realm, although it moves them from an independent existence into Ideas of the divine intelligence, Nous. Nevertheless, his description of the Forms is quite reminiscent of Aristotle's Universals since in our world of experience the Forms are always immanent, tied up in matter. Furthermore, in Plotinus' emanation model, matter has a more active role; the privation of Form accounts at least in part for the individual differences across an informed species.

Saint Augustine was well acquainted with the teachings of Plotinus and extended the synthesis by incorporating Neoplatonist concepts into Christian theology. Augustine eliminated the intermediary being of Nous and posited the eternal Forms as Ideas directly in the mind of God. He pointed out obstacles to the unaided human intellect's ability to abstract eternal Forms from nature as both the human mind and the world of experience were in constant states of flux. Augustine uses the metaphor of divine illumination to explain how God enlightens the human intellect so that it can exercise its capacity to see the Forms or Ideas reflected in contingent creation and more importantly to assent to eternal truths including the necessary existence of God.

The greatest synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (both with each other and additionally with Christian theology) must be credited to Saint Thomas Aquinas. In accord with the Platonic and Augustinian tradition, Aquinas affirms that the eternal Forms exist as exemplary Ideas in the mind of God, hence humans can come to know of the Ideas by divine illumination. However, he also asserts that the human intellect, while it does not have innate ideas from a former existence, is nevertheless made in the image of God and thus has an inherent capacity, a disposition towards rationality that can reveal at least some archetypal Ideas.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas proposed that corporeal things are a proper object of the human intellect. Such corporeal things are composed of substantial form and sensible matter. The form in things have their origin in the Ideas of God as does matter itself, form and matter coming into existence together as substance in an act of creation. The form is the Universal element, what constitutes the species, apprehended by the intellect whereas matter is apprehended by the senses, including the "common" sense that presents a unified perception to the intellect. For Aquinas, Universals certainly exist as concepts in the divine intellect, likewise being accessible by abstraction to the human mind. Nevertheless, whereas the substantial form retains this universal character in being shared across a given species, the matter component by contrast becomes designated by God, serving as the principle of individuation. As for unity, goodness, and truth, Aquinas maintained these as transcendental properties of being itself, manifest across all species and genera. Beauty, often referred to as a lost transcendental, although highly regarded by Aquinas didn't seem explicitly to make the transcendental cut.

The Medieval Breakdown

Perhaps due to Aristotle's original framing utlising species and genera, the clear outline of the problem of Universals may seem obscure. Fundamentally the question boils down to this: Is there anything in extra-mental reality that corresponds to our concepts? I think we'd like to believe that there is some basis for the commonalities that we encounter in experience beyond our minds inventing connections that are not really there. For example, when physicists and chemists explore the "genera" of atoms or choose to focus on the "species" of carbon or hydrogen, they of course don't examine each and every atom individually. They analyse a representative sample, abstracting properties from which they assume a common behaviour. Without at least a provisional acceptance of a common nature, that is to say a distributed necessity or physical determinism, empirical science would be impossible.

Nevertheless, certain problems with the conception of Universals as described by Aristotle were already recognised by the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry: "I shall omit to speak about genera and species, as to whether they subsist (in the nature of things) or in mere conceptions only; whether also if subsistent, they are bodies or incorporeal, and whether they are separate from, or in, sensibles, and subsist about these". The above might be restated as follows:

Are Universals merely concepts of the human mind or are they also subsistent entities, are they "real"?

Assuming they are real:

Are Universals corporeal or incorporeal?

Are Universals immanent in sensible things or are they transcendent?

Although Porphyry does a good job of outlining the problem of Universals he begs off addressing it. That task would be taken up a couple of centuries later by Boethius, an early Medieval Christian philosopher who was writing commentaries on both Aristotle and Porphyry. Boethius laid out an argument supporting that Universals were clearly concepts of the human mind yet at the same time maintain a reference to something extra-mentally. By his account, the mind can decompose or abstract form from matter conceptually although they are always found together "substantially" among individuals in nature. This would accord with Aristotle's view that Universals such as species and genera are immanent in sensible things. Moreover, the way in which Universals are conceived by the intellect are without bodies, incorporeally.

In the centuries following Boethius, the problem of Universals as presented by Porphyry was not seriously addressed. The general current of philosophical thought held to a Platonic-inspired Augustinian "exaggerated" realism of Forms, that they were at once perfect Ideas in the mind of God, reflected in the creation. For centuries Christian theologians expanded upon this model, maintaining that members of a species and genera were essentially the same, creative expressions of the divine Ideas only differing by privation of form, materially, or by some accidental qualities. However, in the High Medieval period there is a renewed distribution and interest in the philosophy of Aristotle and correspondingly a reemergence of the problem of Universals in the subsequent Late Medieval period that presented conflicts with the long synthesis of Greek metaphysics with Christian theology. 

There arose at this moment a growing tension between the omniscience and omnipotence of God, between the logical necessity of the intellect and the freedom of the will. The Franciscan Duns Scotus took exception to his interpretation of Thomas Aquinas or at least certain "Thomists", seeing a two-fold problem with the assertion that matter was the basis of individuality. First, God himself was immaterial thus what was the basis for His individuality? Secondly, if individuality is tied up with matter which does not survive the dissolution of the body at death, it would appear that there is only left the universal form of the species, no individual soul that might enjoy life after death. Scotus wanted to place greater emphasis on the unlimited will of God by saying that creation was not determined or limited by the Ideas in the divine intellect, rather was wholly contingent on God's act of will. In so doing, he posited that in addition to matter and a common nature of the species there must be an individualising form, what he calls a "thisness" that is included in God's act of creation. As such, God is an individual who creates individuals that he knows directly, thus at once safeguarding God's freedom of will and the possibility of life after death according to Christian doctrine.

We finally turn our attention to William of Ockham who on the one hand followed Duns Scotus in asserting the primacy of the will of God yet entirely rejects the Greek metaphysical framework of Forms and Universals. Ockham was an incredible logician who paid considerable more attention than his predecessors in how we use language, ever mindful of the danger of subtle equivocations. Below are a few important technical terms that arise in his logic:

signification - a term that refers to something particular, definite; e.g. "man"

supposition - a term that already has its signification and "stands for" something definite in a proposition; e.g. "man is mortal"

categorematic - a term that has self standing meaning; e.g. "man"

syncategorematic - a term that stands in relation to categorematic terms; e.g. "every" man

absolute - a term that refers to something particular, definite without reference to any other thing; e.g. "man"

connotative - a term that refers to something only with reference to something else; e.g. "father" 

conventional sign - a term written, spoken or otherwise that is arbitrary; e.g. "man" (English), "homme" French

natural sign - the logical significance of the term, the meaning, the reference

first intention - a sign standing for something that is not itself a sign, has direct reference; e.g. "man is mortal"

second intention - a sign standing for something that is a sign, stands for class names e.g. "species is a subdivision of genera"

universal - a term that signifies individual things and stands for them in a proposition

Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers had held that the similarity we find among particular things is owing to the Universal forms that bind them in the creation derived from the divine Ideas in the mind of God. William of Ockham rejected this entirely insisting that there are neither universals before things (Forms/Ideas) nor are they immanent in things (Universals), rather they are only intellectual concepts that we form after the perceived similarities we make by observing things. It's only these individual things that exist in reality. Therefore, when we use universal terms they have no corresponding reference to an universal reality. Moreover, Ockham eventually arrives to the conclusion that we don't even hold universal concepts in the mind. Instead, the universal is nothing more than the very act of referring, pointing to individual things in reality. Universals are fictions in the literal sense of something "made", subjective and psychological; Universals are not things in themselves, simply the mind at work in an act of referential understanding. Ockham stresses that when we find "agreement" between our concepts and extra-mental reality we must me careful not to equivocate. Such particulars only agree in that they "resemble" not that they "share" in some universal essence. Rather than a common nature there are a number of individual natures that appear similar.

For two millennia, from the dawn of Ancient Greek philosophy through the Late Medieval period we've been discussing, the prevailing scientific approach in Western civilisation which had been grounded in a formal, teleological perspective. The basis for the order of the cosmos lay in eternal Forms as described by Plato or the divine Ideas in the intelligence of God as converted by Neoplatonists and adopted into Christianity. Likewise, due to these Forms or Ideas the universe was conceived as coherent and purposeful, literally "one turn" of the divine compass. Created things were organised by their specific Form to fulfill their proximate "telos" or end. All things in turn were woven into a greater tapestry to serve the ultimate end, God. However, Ockham's critique was the beginning of the decline of the dominance of this teleological perspective. The formal and final causal arguments were undermined of their explanatory support for how things are in reality and reduced to something akin to anthropological psychology; metaphysics amounts to little more than talking about how certain humans conceive their reality rather than reality as it is. Of Aristotle's four causes only material and efficient causes remain, opening the door for the rise of an empirical, mechanistic science of matter and motion.

The next time I pick up the series we'll be inhabiting a new frontier where philosophy has experienced a rift with theology and finds itself in tension with the emerging mechanistic science. It will be interesting to explore the morphing conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as philosophers transition toward the modern age.


Contributed by Patrick Webb