The Problem of Universals

The Problem of Universals

The Problem of Universals

The Problem of Universals

Excerpt

If one were to list the sorts of things that philosophers have characteristically disagreed about, one would find disagreements not only over the solutions to antecedently formulated problems but also over the very terms in which the problems are stated. Often, the very existence of a problem which has moved one generation of philosophers is doubted by the next. The problem of universals is no exception to this philosophical ambivalence. It is and has been a paradigm case of a metaphysical problem; yet in our time there has been a great deal of skepticism over the very possibility of metaphysics. Reasons that many philosophers have found persuasive have been offered to show that metaphysical speculation is either trival or fruitless or meaningless. In offering a collection of essays on the problem of universals, one has an obligation to justify the claim that there is such a problem. In what follows, the nature of the problem is explained and a defense of metaphysics is offered against some of the arguments of the skeptics.

It is a truism that there is such a thing as recurrence or repetition in nature. The same colors, shapes, and sounds occur over and over again. We are continuously presented not only with novel things but with qualities and features of things that we have observed time and time again. And even the novel things very often belong to types—that is, to species and genera— which are quite familiar. As an example of natural recurrence, consider two leaves which are exactly alike in all their qualities; they have the same green color, the exact same shape, size, and feel. We have no difficulty in distinguishing between their qualities; a color, after all, is not a shape, a shape not a size; in other objects the same color coexists with different shapes, the same shapes with different sizes. In addition, we can easily distinguish between any one of these qualities and the thing itself—the leaf—which possesses it; we can distinguish between the leaf and its shape or its color; and we can imagine changes in quality—the color turning from green to brown in autumn or the shape being modified by a storm—though the object remains the same. The distinction between a particular thing and its qualities is well-entrenched in . . .

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