Whenever one takes lessons on the history of either Western philosophy or theology that includes the medieval period, they will encounter the ancient discussion about the universals. Long words with too much syllables that give a lot of possibility to be misunderstood were and are still employed in such debates, so it’s easy to lose sight of relevance in such matters… And yet something seems to tell me that hidden beneath a lot of dust, endless lingo and adventures in overcomplicating the point there is something very important. That’s why I have decided to dedicate a blog-post to some of the discussion and weigh in on some aspects of a very ancient discussion it in my unique Bram-way.
For the uninitiated who haven’t had basic philosophy: the question is whether the universals do exist somehow and what their relation to the particulars. Universals are universal characteristics here, particulars are the individual things that we encounter around us. So the question could be asked: does the dogness (universal) of a certain dog (particular) have some separate existence or not. This whole way of thinking might seem quite silly, but with some more abstract universals as goodness and Truth it might become more interesting, as we’ll see later if you manage to finish this post.
I will try to only use as much lingo as is strictly needed, although I probably can’t help mixing up jargon from different worlds as I often end up doing..
To oversimplify I will give an overview of the discussion I will go back to the example of dogness of a dog:
The most important players are Platonic Realism which would say that all dogs derive their dogness from the Platonic Idea Dog. For Plato that Idea would exist somewhere in the world of Ideas. All particular dogs are just like imperfect 3D-printouts of that Idea into the inferior matter of this world and nominalists who say that universals do not exist and are just words in our heads, and the dogness of the dog is just something we call it and actually corresponds to no reality beyond our words.
An in-between position of more moderate Aristotelian realism or conceptualism does also exist, which locates the universals in the particulars. (The dogness of the dog is present inside all dogs). Educate and/or confuse yourself here, here and here.
(Note that ‘Realism’ has an almost opposite meaning here than when used in a modern context. Scientific Realism as an epistemology is more like the opposite of Platonic Realism. Well long live language and its abilities….)
So where do I start? I suppose best just with my own view, which can be described as a postmodern mix of basically Aristotelian and Christian Platonist Realism: I’d propose that there are natural and abstract universals that are located in the things themselves or at least in this world in some way, but much more interesting, that there are also Higher Universals too that are located in the character of the Creator. And there I have to add a probably more (post)modern layer where all of these are most likely to be interpreted with our human minds and thus described into human language and brought into a thoughtfield, which is a more manmade ‘worlds of ideas’ that has not much connection with Plato’s world of ideas, even though it might exist in some mental astral plane . I don’t claim to have much knowledge about such matters though..
The ‘world of ideas’ as just a set of thoughtfields
Lets first start with that last one, where I probably differ from classical thought most and make up my own clumsy mishmash: There is a world of ideas in our individual and collective minds, (in thoughfields probably more or less a la Jung) which is like I said not at all a Higher World as Plato envisioned, but something on a mental plane that is derived from our human thoughts. Part of it just consists of constructions of human interpretations of the material world. It’s not even one world, but there are countless one, every culture and time and group has such a world, and it’s derived from our collective and individual minds.
This is also probably the closest that I get to Nominalism, but even then I don’t say anything is ‘just words’ with no existence. I do still think these things have an existence of sorts on some kind of mental plane.
These thoughtfields are always a needed intermediary between us and Reality: we look at Reality and interpret it and construct pictures of Reality in human languages in a mental world. I do not believe we have unmediated access to Reality, it is always interpreted.
But that’s probably not even half of what’s going on in there. We as humans are highly creative beings, that can create new stuff inside the thoughtfields. There are a lot of things that do originate in there: all of our cultural movements and pure ‘social constructs’ belong to this same world of thoughtfields, from useless abstract discussion about the nature of the universals, and all of theological systems to dubstep and unjust caste systems. (or even thoughtform entities, but that’s another story) And things don’t stay there. We actualise them and bring them into the material world. All things that we make or remake in natural reality are nothing but a translation of what we make first in the world of thought too btw.
Natural and abstract universals
This might have been a weird beginning, but now I’m going to get more classical with the natural and the abstract world. for the ‘natural universals’ or properties of natural things like species of animals, plants or minerals for example I’d just follow the Aristotelean line that for example the horseness of the horse is found in all horses together. (My theoretical dog needed some rest so I summoned a theoretical horse for now…)
I can probably add something about the DNA of living beings or the chemical composition of minerals but that might go too far for now, and then I did remove the question of universals from philosophy to the natural sciences, which might be a valid thing here…
A side-note: this is where I would probably disagree with putting stuff like gender completely in the ‘social construct’ category, which would be in the terms of my post like saying that it only exists or at least is derived from the thoughtfields. Gender is indeed to a certain degree a thoughtform-concept that varies per culture, but it’s still built a higher construct upon a reality that’s found within material nature, and translated and given form within every human culture. The starting point is the biological world, and not the thoughtfield; so I’d see all cultural expressions of gender not as pure social constructs, but as better or worse translations of the biological Reality of sex that is found in the particulars, or in other worlds in us individual humans.
When we go to the abstract universals (characteristics of logic, mathematics, equations, etc..) I suppose that they are just part of a less obvious ‘dimension’ of reality that is probably more transcendent in nature. I’d still say that they’re just part of Created nature anyway, and do not really reside inside of some Higher Platonic world of ideas (which I do not believe in btw, if that wasn’t clear yet). They just belong to a less tangible dimension of the natural reality we live in, and they will probably be discovered by most sentient species independently from each other, and then probably described in completely different terms and formats. But like earlier, they too cannot be reached directly with the human mind though (except for maybe some very simple ones, like basic geometric forms as a triangle) and will always have to be translated into languages that we humans understand with words and numbers and symbols and so on, and placed into our thoughtfields before we can access them.
Higher Universals: Love, Truth, Beauty, Justice…
Up till now we had something of a moderate postmodern Aristotelean realism (I guess) for what I’ve called the ‘natural universals’. But that’s still only half of the story, and we haven’t had the most important half yet. And here I will turn to a form of Christian more or less neo-Platonist Realism:
My view on what I will call the Higher Universals (stuff like Love, Goodness, Justice, Truth and Beauty, and even Life and Being itself too) is that they are not primarily a part of this created world, but that their source is ultimately found in the character/nature/attributes of the Creator Godself. (yes, I conflate some terms that are used very precisely for other things, and that often are used for different things in different traditions. I just mean that these things are a part of the Being of God, not just of Creation. All more precise terms might have more detail than we humans can be certain about anyway…)
But again, in this form of ‘universals’ they are just Absolutes. And while I do believe that Absolutes do exist (bad bad postmodernist that I am), I do not believe we can ever reach them, by definition.
They cannot be accessed directly by humans because they are in a completely different Realm, and have to be translated to every context and language. Which might look very different depending on the particulars in which they are given form.
Still if we look with the right mindset and open eyes we can see glimpses of them everywhere, and we as Christians need to live a life that contextualises and brings them into the concrete world, incarnates them even. Jesus as the Incarnation was the most perfect translation of the Higher Universals into a human being like us.
Realism and not Nominalism
That I end up on the side of Realism and not Nominalism might be more significant than we realise at first sight. If you read the internet you will find certain people who denounce Nominalism for different and sometimes even opposing reasons, which I will not go into now. (You can read about Luther and Nominalism here -don’t skip the commments- for example, or about Ockham and Nominalism here. (Yes that’s the razor guy)
So what is the problem with Nominalism here? From what I’ve read about Nominalism and from some discussions with people who know more than me it seems safe to say that Nominalism expects us to say that there are no real realities behind what I’ve called the Higher Universals. And this is where it gets dangerous: If we do not locate them inside if the Being of God, they have to be located elsewere. This will have them to be located in the will or decrees of God. And then we open up the door for people who say that anything (even ‘hate thy neighbour’) can be good whenever God decides it to be good (Ockham the razorguy seems to have thought so, but I won’t go into that here now). And here we come into a ridiculous and dangerous domain where nothing makes sense that is to me completely unacceptable.
This is why I find it very important to note that Love, Goodness and the other of the Higher Universals are located in Gods Being somehow, not Gods will or something created. God IS Love (1 John). Love is a part of God, not a creation of God that could have been completely different and utterly unrecognisable in another world. People could be blue and even the value of pi might have been different if God wanted to create things differently, but Love and Justice have an Unshakeable Source, and will always be contextualisations of the same Attributes of the eternal Creator, even in the weirdest world possible.
God has created a world that was good in His eyes as a reflection of His character. Every inch of goodness within creation refers to the Creator. Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Creation. This means that nothing good or true (or even beautiful) in our Reality is ever arbitrary. No law in the bible is arbitrary, but somehow they are contextual ans sometimes for us incomprehensible translations of the Higher Universal of Justice into a historical context that often comes across as strange and counter-intuitive to us moderns.
Since God as the Creator is universal, there is a Trace of Justice in every just law in every society except for probably the most wicked unjust corrupted ones. There is a Trace of Goodness in every genuine act of goodness everywhere, no matter how imperfect. There is a Trace of Beauty in every expression of beauty made by humans that truly captures something, as well as a lot of very vapid Traces of Beauty in nature. There is a Trace Truth in every human idea that expresses something true.
All of these, no matter how many layers and worlds of interpretation, in their imperfect way, do point to God somehow. Even then we Christians have to go beyond those Traces, and incarnate the Way of Christ more directly in a lost world in deeds and in explicit words. We are to embody the Higher Universals as much as we can. “Be perfect for I am perfect.” Says Jesus in the middle of the Sermon of the Mount. The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is to align our character with the character of God.
Part of salvation is conforming to the likeness of God, and to partake in the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), not only for our own sake but also to manifest in our particular way the Higher Universals more and more in this fallen and troubled world that is in need of more Love, Truth, Beauty, and so on. We can only fully become ourselves if Christ lives in us and God shines through us.
Let’s close this post with a quote from E. Stanley Jones’ Christ of the Mount that summarises what I’m trying to say here:
Moreover, if we are to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect, then the same moral laws that govern God’s acting must govern ours. In other words, the moral laws are not rooted in the shifting customs of men, but they are rooted in the very nature of the Divine. This gives us a stable moral universe and it means that moral distinctions have ultimate meaning. Moral laws are not based on the divine will, but on the divine nature. They are not whimsical, for God is not whimsical. They are dependable and orderly, for God is dependable and orderly. I can morally respect a God who will act on everything he requires of man. (E Stanley Jones, the Christ of the Mount)
This post was way too long, and my anarchist and unacademic approach to philosophy is probably quite sloppy… But I had to write this somehow…
What do you people think?