Universals

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

I will try, as briefly as possible, to summarize the argument that I think supports the view that the intellect is the immaterial factory needed, in addition to the brain, for the occurrence in the human mind of conceptual thought. The argument, as stated, is not to be found in the philosophical writings of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but its main tenets can be found there.

The argument hinges on two propositions. The first asserts that the concepts whereby we understand what different kinds or classes of things are like consist of meanings that are universal. The second proposition asserts that nothing that exists physically is ever actually universal. Anything that is embodied in matter exists as an individual, a singular thing that may also be a particular instance of this class or that.

From these two propositions, the conclusion follows that our concepts, having universality, cannot be embodied in matter. If they were acts of a bodily organ such as the brain, they would exist in matter, and so could not have the requisite universality to function as concepts that enable us to think of universal objects, such as kinds or classes, quite different from the individual things that are objects of sense perception, imagination, and memory. The power of conceptual thought, by which we form and use concepts, must, therefore, be an immaterial power, one the acts of which are not acts of a bodily organ.

The reasoning that supports the first of the two foregoing propositions is as follows. Our common or general names derive the meanings they carry from the concepts we have. The meaning of a common or general name is universal. It always signifies a class of objects, never any particular instance or member of the class. Particular instances are designated by proper names or definite descriptions. When we use the word “dog,” we are referring to any dog, regardless of breed, size, shape, or color. To refer to a particular instance, we would use a canine name, such as “Fido,” or a definite description, such as “that white poodle over there lying in front of the fire.” Our concepts of dog and poodle not only enable us to think about two classes of animals, they also enable us to understand what it is like to be a dog or a poodle.

The second proposition about the individuality of all material or corporeal things is supported by the facts of common experience. The objects we perceive through our senses are all individual things–that is, this individual dog, that individual spoon. As I pointed out in the preceding chapter, we have never seen a triangle in general, nor can we imagine one. Any triangle that we can draw on a piece of paper, any triangle we have seen or imagined, is a particular triangle of a certain shape and size. But we can understand what is involved in triangularity as such, without reference to the character of the angles or the area enclosed.

Whatever exists physically exists as an individual, and whatever has individuality exists materially. No one has ever experienced or produced anything that has physical or corporeal existence and also is universal in character rather than individual.

The argument then reaches its conclusion as follows. Our concepts are universal in their signification of objects that are kinds or classes of things rather than individuals that are particular instances of these classes or kinds. Since they have universality, they cannot exist physically or be embodied in matter. But concepts do exist in our minds. They are there as acts of our intellectual power. Hence that power must be an immaterial power, not one embodied in a material organ such as the brain.


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