Part 8: The World of Universals: The Nature of Universals

A Brief Introduction to Epistemology

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

PART EIGHT: The Nature of Universals


The so-called “Problem of the Universals” has been a controversial topic in modern philosophy. Controversy aside, however, universal ideas are of the utmost importance for philosophy and science. The particularities of the controversy need not concern us here and the arguments regarding their philosophical status are highly technical and beyond the scope of this discussion.

We will simply accept the necessity of universal ideas. Without universal ideas it would be difficult to see how we could discuss philosophic and scientific theories since universals are the very foundation upon which philosophy and science rests. Our presentation here is in accord with the conception put forth previously; we are dealing with matters of common sense critically examined. We accept that there is a real world out there and that we can know it directly in some manner.

The Nature of Universals

We have said that ideas are representations of things as they are in themselves. Universal ideas, therefore, must also represent things as they are in themselves. This, however, presents us with a problem.

The comprehension of a universal idea applies to a class as a whole and also to each and every member of that class. Our idea of “human being” applies to each human being taken individually and also to all human beings taken together as a class.

It would seem, then, if the universal idea of “human being” is a true representation of human beings as they are in reality, that “human being” has a nature which is single in each individual and one in the whole class of human beings. The nature of human being would be one since it applies to a class as a whole, while it would be multiple since it applies to each individual member of the class.

This seems to a contradiction. How can it be one and multiple at the same time? Such a contradiction would invalidate the universal idea as a true representation of things. This problem, however, is easily overcome.

When we look about our world, we perceive individual, single objects, each consisting of individual natures. There are over five billion human beings on planet Earth, each possessing his or her own individual nature. Each nature possesses many characteristics such as height, color of eyes, emotional temperament, bodily structure, and so on. No two human beings are perfectly alike in all characteristics and this is why we can distinguish one human being from another.

Our senses perceive individual human beings and from these sense perceptions we form a sense image which represents each individual human being, including all the individual characteristics or attributes which are part of that individual. Jane is different from Sally, John is different from Peter, and we perceive the differences. We form one sense image of Jane, one of Sally, one of John, and one of Peter. These are concrete, particular individuals.

Our intellect, however, when considering each sense image, realizes that there is something permanent and common to all these individualsWhile recognizing that Jane, Sally, John, and Peter are different individuals, the intellect realizes that some characteristics are always present in each and every individual. There is something that makes each of these individuals to be what they are, that is, members of the class of human beings. Such characteristics constitute the nature or essence of the individual.

Human beings are substances with living material bodies who are sentient and capable of rationality. Since we share with animals the characteristics of substance, living material body, and sentience, and the only difference between human beings and animals is the characteristic of rationality, we can refer to the essence of human beings as “rational animal.”

What is it that distinguishes a human being from any other thing? It is the capability to be rational. To be a human being means to be a “rational animal.” If these characteristics are missing, there is no human being. Jane, Sally, John, and Peter share this essence or nature. The intellect recognizes this common nature and puts these individuals into the class of human beings.

The intellect also recognizes the differences among these individuals. Jane has blonde hair, Sally has blue eyes, John is taller than Peter, and Peter has a dark complexion. But any of these characteristics may be absent or different and it would not change the essence or nature of the individual. Jane could have blonde hair or black hair and Sally could have blue eyes or green eyes. Regardless of these differences in attributes, Jane and Sally share in common the fact that they are “rational animals.”

What has been said above gives us the basis for the origin and validity of universal ideas. The sense image represents the individual in all its concrete characteristics and differences. The intellect abstracts from this sense image the essence or nature which is common to all the members of a class, leaving aside the characteristics which distinguish them from one another. This essence or nature is a reality that is really present in the individuals and is independent of our intellect.

The intellect includes this essence or nature in a single idea which is a true representation of the essence or nature. Furthermore, the intellect recognizes this essence or nature as being the same with the sameness of a perfect likeness in each individual taken singly and in all individuals taken as members of a class. In other words, the intellect recognizes that the comprehension of the idea of “human being” will apply to the class of “human beings” taken as a whole, and also to each individual as a member of the class of “human beings.” This is what a universal idea is.

The universal is a true representation of things as they are in themselves. The universal simply leaves out of consideration all the characteristics and attributes which are different to each individual member of the class. It doesn’t matter whether we are considering Eskimos and Pygmies, African-Americans and Native Americans, white Europeans and Arabs. All of these peoples, while differing in many respects, have, individually and collectively, one common essence or nature. This idea of the common essence, since it applies to all, individually and collectively, is a true universal.

It is important to remember that there is no really existing universal essence or nature in the things themselves. Jane, Sally, John, and Peter do not actually share in one universal essence or nature. Each one of them possesses his or her own individual essence or nature distinct from that of other human beings. The universality of the universal idea is a product of the intellect, which has the power to recognize the common essence or nature in the various individual members of the class of human beings.

Therefore, the universal idea, as a universal, exists only in the intellect. Its foundation (or basis), however, lies in the common essence or nature existing in the individuals themselves. Viewed in this way, there is no contradiction in this conception of the universal, and the universal is a true representation of reality.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.