The problem of universals and Aristotelian realism

Universals are qualities, properties etc. that a particular participates in or that can be predicated upon an individual. To take an example from a previous post, all trees participate in the universal of tree-ness whether they possess leaves, branches, bark etc. Another example is that both Aristotle and Plato have (or had) the universal quality of being human. Looking again at a previous post, we can see that Plato uses a system of universals (namely Platonic idealism) to solve the dialectical of being vs becoming. Of course, this was not without controversy.

Aristotle was a student of Plato, whose nickname for his pupil was “the Brain.” Reputedly, Aristotle had a great deal of affection for Plato; however his affections were unrequited. The epistemology of Plato and Aristotle was radically different. As discussed previously, Plato was skeptical of sensations ability to produce anything other than an opinion (as differentiated from knowledge) and proposed a thesis of innate ideas which firmly grounds him as a rationalist in regards to epistemology. Aristotle denied the innateness of ideas and rather thought knowledge was made newly through experience acquired by sensation. In this way, Aristotle was the prototypical empiricist.

Once this difference in epistemology is understood, it is clear logically that the Platonic and Aristotelian view of universals must also be different. For Aristotle, knowledge of universals comes through the empirical study of their particulars. Consider again a tree, a botanist may examine a tree and learn things about its tree-ness. While Aristotle has good reason to believe a universal of tree-ness is real, due to his affirmation of the primacy of sensation and denial of innate ideas he has no reason to believe that tree-ness exists in a world that is not accessible to the senses. Thus, Aristotle believed that universals were real insofar as they are a part of their particulars. In contrast to Plato who is a realist and idealist, Aristotle is a moderate realist in regards to universals.

This impasse between Plato and Aristotle was the second significant dialectic of western thought, and resulted in a renewed wave of skepticism in the ancient world.

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23 responses to this post.

  1. […] Remember that although Aristotle undoubtedly inherited the concept of forms from his teacher Plato, his own ideas were quite different. For example, the form of tree-ness (which inheres in the tree) is the cause of the matter […]

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  2. […] Aristotle the dilemma is a false one. To understand this dilemma more fully, one must realise the differences between Platonic and Aristotelian realism. For the Platonic realist, universals are external to things; following from this the gods must of […]

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  3. […] via the study of imperfect instantiations, then Socrates’ argument appears very robust. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, would later contest this. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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  4. […] Induction and deduction are two types of reasoning. A philosophers thoughts on induction and deduction will be influenced by their ideas regarding epistemology and the problem of universals. […]

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  5. […] According to Plato, there is the physical world and the immaterial world of the forms. Aristotle, while altering Plato’s theory, maintains dualism through his theory of substances as composites of matter and form, actuality and […]

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  6. […] Anselm (like Plato, Plotinus and Augustine) is thoroughly rationalist. For Anselm, there is no issue in moving from the world of the intellect to reality (as his ontological argument proceeds). Aquinas, who is Aristotelian, affirms that all knowledge of essences, natures etc. must come from sensation, including knowledge of God. (See this post here for more details of the epistemological differences of Plato and Aristotle). […]

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  7. […] with Aristotle, Thomas was an empiricist and a moderate realist. Universals are real and inhere in substances, and are known after experience through sensation. His writings follow from this – for example, knowledge of natural law is possible because of […]

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  8. […] is self-existent i.e. non-contingent. According to Aquinas (who follows Aristotle), God does not participate in forms the way creatures (or contingent things) do. When God is said to be good, wise or powerful etc. he […]

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  9. […] affirming the supremacy of the divine will over the divine intellect, encounters a problem: if universals are real (i.e. natures and essences exist in things as Aquinas/Aristotle say) then voluntarism cannot be […]

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  10. […] classical period of philosophy was dominated by the Socratic philosophers Plato and Aristotle and their various theories of the forms. Augustine is generally considered to be simultaneously the […]

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  11. […] The philosophical problem of abstraction consists of  whether abstractions are real and what their ontology may be. It is an ancient problem. Consider the Pythagoreans, the pre-Socratic cult lead by Pythagoras that taught that the mot fundamental reality of the world was numbers. Thinking of the table before, a Pythagorean would answer that the 3 x 3 metre measurement of the table’s dimension was far more real than the wood and nails of which it is made. In this way, the Pythagoreans can be considered ultra-realists in regards to abstractions. […]

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  12. […] between Aristotle and Plato. In particular, the differences in their respective theories of universals and epistemology. In summary: according to Plato universals are real in a world distinct from […]

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  13. […] has been contended that William sought to jettison universals in order to decrease the supposed limits on God’s power that they imposed. William thus […]

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  14. […] One can see clearly the necessity of Locke’s dismissal of innate ideas. As a man and his consciousness are made from atoms, it is impossible that his ideas could exist prior to the arrangement of atoms which cause his consciousness. Locke says that a man is born tabula rasa i.e. a blank slate. All knowledge is a priori and is generated through sensation. […]

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  15. […] Berkeley’s criticisms focus on John Locke, rather than on other empiricists such as Aristotle or Aquinas who arguably present much stronger cases for abstraction. Berkley’s criticism is […]

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  16. […] This is because Smith is clearly an artifact; that is he is clearly made by another from an idea that exists prior to its manifestation. But take for example Neo or Morpheus, a man born of a woman – a natural substance. […]

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  17. […] continental idealist thinkers called the “German Idealists”. Hegel, like greats such as Aristotle and Aquinas before him, was a systematic thinker. In his works, he constructs a framework that […]

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  18. […] innateness of ideas. The debate over the origin of ideas about universals is as at least as old as Plato and Aristotle. For the most part, science has sided with Aristotle on the importance of experience (empiricism). […]

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  19. […] of his epistemology. Nietzsche begins by dismissing the ideas of rationalist thinkers such as Plato and Kant regarding an objective reality and our minds ability to known it. Nietzsche’s […]

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  20. […] The contrast with Plato is interesting. Plato was known for criticising artists that would represent the external world in differing perspectives. Plato considered this kind of knowledge a mere opinion (doxa) based upon a shadow that was cast by true reality, the Forms. […]

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  21. […] organisms as one organism for the production of a new life. However, this takes something like a Platonic or Aristotelian realism and a fundamentally teleological view of nature for granted.  This just begs the question: can a […]

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  22. […] Previously, under the Aristotelian and Platonic hierarchies, man was differentiated from animals by his possession of an immaterial intellect or soul i.e. man was a rational animal. One of the consequences of Darwin’s theory was that while man […]

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  23. […] innateness of ideas. The debate over the origin of ideas about universals is as at least as old as Plato and Aristotle. For the most part, science has sided with Aristotle on the importance of experience (empiricism). […]

    Reply

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