Universals problem

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The universals problem (also universals dispute , universals question , nominalism dispute , rarely also realien dispute ) is one of the central themes of philosophy and concerns the question of whether there is really a general or whether general concepts are human constructions.

Universals are general terms such as “human” and “humanity” or mathematical entities such as “number”, “relation” and “class”. A general term refers to features that several objects have in common, such as their red color, or covers a common species of individuals, such as "living beings". In philosophy there has been a fundamental discussion since antiquity about whether universals can be assigned an ontological existence ( realism ) or whether it is purely intellectual conceptualizations ( nominalism ). This controversy reached a climax in medieval scholasticism and continues to the present day.

Basic problem

Terms have the function of identifying objects , processes or properties . They carry a meaning and everyone will recognize that the sentence “The rose is red” can be checked for truth , that is, it makes sense. Both “rose” and “is red” (so-called predicate expressions ) can be related to several objects. General applicability applies to all terms with the exception of names that are intended to distinguish a particular, an individual , from the general.

Anyone thinking of making a plate can imagine an object made of porcelain, ceramic, wood, glass or metal. The object can be circular, angular or oval. These features determine the specific shape of a singular plate. In order to be able to produce a plate, however, the idea of ​​the function and the principles of a plate must first exist. The idea of ​​the essence of a plate must be known.

The starting point of the debate about universals is Plato's doctrine of ideas . B. in Phaidon the thesis that ideas have an independent existence. In the course of the arguments, very different conceptual principles were identified as universals. In addition to the mentioned ideas of Plato, these were mainly rules , virtues , transcendentalities , categories or values . The position that assumes the existence of such abstract entities is called realism . It is, of course, a question of so-called semantic realism , the meaning of which is in a certain sense opposed to that of ontological realism (cf. realism ).

The representatives of the opposing position, nominalism (Latin nomen = name) are of the fundamental opinion that all general terms are conceptual abstractions that are formed as designations by people. You would not talk about the idea of ​​a plate, but rather use the term “plate” as a name for a group of objects. According to nominalists, reality only belongs to individual things.

Since nominalism is the historically more recent point of view, the name Via moderna arose in the Middle Ages , while the opposite position is called Via antiqua .

In the Christian and Islamic monotheism of the Middle Ages the problem of universals came to a head. It was not about a "purely philosophical" problem detached from everyday life, but about very specific questions of the concentration of power and its legitimacy, for example when the unity of the Trinity was discussed. When generalizations are real, they have much greater authority than when they depend on interpretation. The increasing abandonment of realism in the course of the late Middle Ages also meant an emancipation from authorities who claimed the divine for themselves. In this sense, nominalism promoted the natural sciences and the secular state.

The basic problem is also discussed in a modified form in the present. The philosophy of language deals with the question of whether properties ("redness") and classes ("living beings") exist independently. In the philosophy of mathematics it is discussed whether logical classes, numbers, functions have an independent existence, which is affirmed in Platonism or in semantic realism. This view is rejected by representatives of constructive mathematics and intuitionism . While Charles S. Peirce , Edmund Husserl , Bertrand Russell and, more recently, David Armstrong represented a universal realism, Ludwig Wittgenstein , Rudolf Carnap , Willard Van Orman Quine , Peter Strawson , Nelson Goodman and Wilfrid Sellars are among the representatives of a nominalism. The contemporary sociologist Pierre Bourdieu includes aspects of realism and nominalism in his theory and tries to combine both views.

Concept of universals

Even the definition of the concept of universals is problematic. Universals can be collective terms used to denote species or genera ; they can be used for properties such as B. roundness or they can express a relationship (relationship, causal relationships, spatial or temporal relationships). General terms such as redness or living beings refer to several objects. In contrast to individual things (particulars), they can be repeated and implemented multiple times. In the case of properties, some objects may be permanent or temporary, or they may be absent from other objects ( accidents ). They are rightly or wrongly ascribed to several objects. If mathematical quantities such as the number Pi are also to be recorded, it is better to speak of abstract objects. Other names for universals are forms , ideas (e.g. in Plato) or concepts (especially since Gottlob Frege in analytic philosophy ).

Criteria for universals:

  • Time independence
  • pure terminology
  • lack of perceptibility
  • lack of causal effect

None of the criteria alone is sufficient to determine universals. It is not clear whether individual criteria can be dispensed with. There are terms that designate several elements of a class (human), and those that serve to designate a class itself (humanity). The terms “human” such as “humanity”, but also “justice” or “the set of even numbers” are independent of time, purely conceptual, imperceptible and also not causal without any specific reference (this person; humanity at that point in time).

The different understandings of the concept of universals are already expressed in the definitions of the various views, which are presented below:

Thomas Aquinas (realism)

"If a thing is named from what it and many have in common, then it is said that such a name denotes a universal, for the name denotes such a nature or disposition that is common to many things."

Johannes Duns Scotus (Conceptualism)

"Universals represents three things:
a) for a two ink ion, a relationship of the conceptual Prädizierbaren is to that which it is prädizierbar. It is this relationship that the word universal means concretely and universality abstractly. Furthermore, Universale stands for what is named from that second intention, i.e. for any first intention, since second intentions are applied to first intentions. So now it can stand for something double:
b) for the indirect and
c) for the direct application of this second intention. In the first way, nature in and of itself is called universal, since it is not individuated by itself and it does not contradict it to be stated by many. In the second way, the universal is only that which is also actual and indeterminate, so that a single concept of every single thing can be expressed, and that is the universal in the true sense of the word. "

Wilhelm von Ockham (nominalism)

"Every universal is an individual thing and therefore a universal only by designation."

Pierre d'Ailly (nominalism)

"Since there is a universal not in terms of being, but in terms of representation, a general term is rightly understood, what is formed by the soul and is common to several things in the sense that it presents them together."

The question of universals can theoretically be viewed from various angles:

  • Logical : Can all things be expressed by individual variables in scientific discourse or are there variables that cannot be broken down into individual things and yet express general information?
  • semantic : Do general terms designate something as a sign that does not exist in individual things?
  • Ontological : Are there only particulars in reality or does the general also have its own existence?
  • Epistemological : Are knowledge and knowledge that are geared towards generality and necessity based on grasping structures of reality or on bringing together individual things according to the rules of logic and grammar?

Theory of ideas in antiquity

Diagram archetype-image

One of the core themes of Plato's philosophy is the relationship between the so-called 'ideas' ( ideai ) and the empirical objects and human actions. In the Platonic Dialogues , Socrates asks what is just , brave , pious , good , etc. Answering these questions presupposes the existence of the ideas expressed in the general terms. The idea is that which remains the same in all objects or actions, however much they differ from one another. It is the form ( eidos ) or the essence ( ousia ) of things.

The ideas are the "archetype" ( paradeigma ) of all things. They are immutable and placed before the individual things ( universale ante rem ) that only participate in them ( methexis ). Only they are being in the true sense of the word. The visible individual things only represent more or less perfect images of the ideas. Individual things arise, change and perish. Your place is between being and not-being.

Compared to his early and middle writings, Plato relativized his view in the late writings ( Parmenides ) and pointed out problems of the theory of ideas.

Aristotle softened in his Metaphysics the idealist from Plato's approach with a new doctrine of abstraction. But he also represented a universal realism. He, too, believed knowledge to be possible only if the universal ( catholic ) has existence ( on he on ). For him, however, this existence was not independent of individual things. Universals are not separate ( chorismos ). There is only general if there are individual things. The general arises “when a general conception of similarity is formed from many thoughts gained through experience” (Met. I, 1, 981 a 5-5). The general is an abstraction, something “extracted” from the individual things. Thus the being of the individual things has priority over the general. In the categories Aristotle summarized universals as "second substance". They mark the essence ( eidos ) of a single thing, a "first substance" ( ousia ). Ideas and the being of the perceived objects still coincide in the objects ( universal in re ) and are only separated from them by intellectual acts.

Against Plato's doctrine of the independent existence of ideas, Aristotle objected (especially Met. XIII, 6-9 , see also Chorismos ) that

  • the Platonic ideas cannot explain movement because they are immutable.
  • the notion of an independent existence of ideas leads to an unnecessary duplication of objects in the world.
  • for the determination of the similarity of the idea “man” with an individual person another person is needed as a benchmark (argument “the third person”), for whom another person is required as a benchmark and so on, so that an infinite regress arises.

The Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyrios wrote in the 3rd century an introduction to Aristotle's theory of categories in Greek with the title Isagoge . In it he also explains the Aristotelian predicables : the way of talking about something. The extensively annotated Latin translation of this work made by Boethius was read throughout the Middle Ages and was a prerequisite for the discussion of the problem of universals in scholastic philosophy. It says (Book I, 2nd Comment):

“As for the genera [genera] and species [species], I will discuss the question of whether they subsist or whether they exist only in the intellect, furthermore, if they subsist, whether they are corporeal or incorporeal and whether they are separate of the sense things or exist only in the sense things and in them, avoid expressing myself; because a task like this is very demanding and requires a detailed investigation. "


Strong realism

In early scholasticism , the position of universal realism is found first, since the neo-Platonism of late antiquity (5th century) was the predominant philosophical basis. This path led through Boethius and above all through Augustine , who saw the ideas as thoughts of God before creation.

The first prominent representative of radical realism was Eriugena in the 9th century , for whom the universals were spiritual beings who preceded the individual things in their development. Because of the hierarchical organization of the particulars on the type ( species ) to the genus ( genus ), of the kind is inherent, Eriugena assumed that there is only one substance in the world at the end - a pantheistic worldview.

Anselm von Canterbury and Wilhelm von Champeaux also represented a similarly consistent realism in the 11th century . Since each substance was assigned to commercials , individuality had to emerge from the various commercials. The universal was reduced to a single identical substance. From this, in turn, the indifference of the universal resulted logically. This “indifference theory” of Wilhelm had an effect for generations later.

Strong nominalism

Roscelin is considered to be one of the founders of extreme nominalism . Most of his opinion has been passed down through his critics. According to this, there are only objects that can be perceived with the sense organs . They are special (particular) and indivisible (individual). Concepts on the other hand - which the realists regard as actually existing - are merely designations ( flatus vocis = breath of air produced by the voice) and as such are only sound and smoke.

According to Anselm von Canterbury's Critique of Nominalism, these include color and wisdom that are abstracted from the body and the soul. According to the nominalistic conception, the relations between things consist of the things themselves. Nothing consists of parts. Therefore there are no species. So universals are not real, and logic is just a word art ( ars vocalis ).

One conclusion was that the Trinity was just a term denoting an aggregate of three substances . This " tritheism " was a clearly heretical view that Roscelin had to revoke at a synod in Soissons in 1092 at Anselm's instigation. Roscelin's point of view is also called vocalism .


In the universality dispute Abelard (1079–1142) got to know the contrary positions of his teachers - first the radical nominalism with Roscelinus and then the decided realism with Wilhelm von Champeaux . In his investigation of this question, Abelard in his writings Logica Ingredientibus and Logica Nostrorum Petitioni Sociorum placed the linguistic perspective in the foreground in addition to the purely ontological aspect . First of all, he criticized the existing arguments. For him the universals could not be a single entity , because they could not exist in different, separate things at the same time. The universal could also not be something summarized, because each individual would then have to contain the whole. He also rejected the thesis that universals are both individual and universal, since the concept of individuality as a property of the universal is defined in a contradictory manner by itself. So could z. B. Concepts such as living beings do not exist because they cannot be rational (humans) and non-rational (animals) at the same time.

Since the arguments for the reality of the general terms did not lead to a tenable result - Wilhelm von Champeaux had to correct himself angrily - Abelard concluded that the universals are words ( voces ) that are determined by humans to denote . As they pertain to sensuous concrete perceptible relate saw Abelard them only as names, so improper universals ( appellatio ). Insofar as they relate to something that is not perceived by the senses, they are real general terms ( significatio ). Such concepts would be conceived by humans in order to denote what is common and indistinguishable between different objects of the same kind. The knowledge about this does not arise through physical sensory perception ( sensus ), but through conceptual understanding ( intellectus ) of the soul, in that the spirit ( animus ) creates a similarity ( similitudo ). Matter and form existed together and would only be separated by the imagination ( imaginatio ) of reason ( ratio ) in the way of abstraction ( forma communis ).

Universals are thus neither ideas "before things" (Platonic universal realism), nor generic forms "in things" (Aristotelian universal realism), but conceptual abstractions in the mind, which, however, have arisen from the comparison of the real individual things. They only arise “after things” ( post res ). The word as a natural sound ( vox ) is part of creation. But the word as meaning ( sermo ) is a human institution, a human use ( institutio hominum ). Because general terms have their own meaning, they stand between real things ( res ) and pure conceptual designations ( ficta ). Universals are thus semantically existent and mentally real. This view, similarly advocated by Gilbert de la Poirée , Adelard of Bath, and John of Salisbury , was later referred to as conceptualism . A classic example of Abelard is the name of the rose , which does not refer to any object when there are no more roses, but still retains its meaning.

Moderate realism

As an Aristotelian and based on the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes and Avicenna, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) represented moderate realism in the high scholasticism (13th century) . The general has a basis independent of thought in the individual things; it does not exist itself, but it is realized in things ( non est ens, sed entis ). Without the realization in the individual thing, the general is only a thought. Thomas made a difference

  1. Universals that are formed in divine reason and exist before individual things ( ante rem ),
  2. Universals that exist as general in the individual things themselves ( in re ),
  3. Universals that exist as concepts in the human mind, that is, according to things ( post rem ).

The fashionable language theory of Thomas von Erfurt also takes a position of moderate realism.

Natura Communis at Duns Scotus

Johannes Duns Scotus (1266–1308) developed a new school of thought on the universal question. He raised the question to the knowledge-critical (language-critical) level and argued that terms only denote something general. The singularity cannot be grasped by a term. That which constitutes an individual cannot be expressed through language, however much the individual can be approximated through differentiations and subdivisions.

Scotus was convinced that there are generalities or universals, and in this respect he was universals realist like Aristotle and Thomas. He viewed the individual as something positive, independent in nature , which stands separately from the species . What is more, for him the individual object was the ultimate perfect reality of a being.

Scheme for the teaching of Natura Communis and Universals

By conceiving the individual human being (the single thing) and being human (its species nature) as two formally different objects that are contained in nature even before perception, Scotus created the concept of the distinctio formalis . For Scotus there was already in the true being outside the soul a commonality between the different individualities that do not depend on the 'operations' of the intellect. Being human, for example, belongs to Socrates regardless of how he is recognized. The perception focuses on the individual thing. This already contains the species nature ( natura communis ) as a real foundation of the abstraction of general terms ( fundamentum in re ).

Only in the intellect is the natura communis transformed into universals through reflection, in that the general is formed from several acts of sensory perception. The active, abstractive intellect spontaneously forms terms based on the opportunity ( occasion ) of the perception, even if the perception is wrong or if a thing appears in the perception for the first time. The transition from grasping sensation to cognition takes place when the intellect grasps the truth of the relationship between two individuals who unite the two. On the one hand, universals are conceptualistic (only in the intellect) because they relate terms to several things, for example “human”. On the other hand, they are realistic ( in re ) when it comes to general terms that apply absolutely, so to speak, that cannot be related to anything individual, for example “humanity”.

Species nature is before things because it was created by God. It is in things as a formal framework for things. The individual in its thisness ( haecceitas ) is more perfect because it cannot be grasped by the concept, by the general, in its entirety, but only through intuition in intuitive knowledge. Universals show themselves as constant beings ( natura communis ) in things and are thus realities of the second degree without physical existence. Man recognizes the general ( qua natura communis ) through abstractive knowledge, in that he forms the corresponding concepts for species and genera (universals).

However, terms that compare real terms (e.g. plants and mammals) with one another, such as the five predicables of Porphyrios - genus, species, specific difference, proprium (essential characteristic) and accident (insignificant characteristic) - are not realities. Such logical concepts of the second order are completely universal ( complete universale ) and therefore only in the mind (nominalistic). Scotus' nuanced exposition can be seen as a conceptualist compromise that paved the way for Ockham's nominalism.

Scotus himself resolutely ruled out the possibility of pure nominalism, which Ockham did not teach either, and made a number of arguments against it. Above all, Scotus protested against the view that there was no other conceivable unit than the individual object and no differences other than a numerical difference.

His main theses on this are:

  • If everything were only differentiated numerically, then how can two white entities be distinguished from two others, one white and one black? Without the species, this is not possible. (Why are two white swans just as two swans as a white and a black swan? According to Scotus: because they have the type of "swan" nature.)
  • If there were numerical distinctness for all objects, all these objects would have part in the phenomenon of distinctiveness. The phenomenon of the participation of all elements is, however, a contradiction to numerical differentiation.
  • The individual is unspeakable ( individuum ineffabile ) because every term already includes generality. The individual is even mute because the concept does not arise in the real world, but in the intellect. The objects are what they are - without logos .
  • The unit of the genus is not a numerical unit, as Aristotle emphasized. If everything were only differentiated numerically, no real similarities or contradictions could be established between the individual things.

Semantic nominalism

In the 14th century the linguistic and philosophical debate intensified. As a discipline, logic gained increasing importance compared to metaphysics . The question of the essence of being was not as much a question of being, but rather the ways of speaking about being. What was the meaning associated with the terms used?

Sketch from a manuscript of Ockhams Summa logicae from 1341 with the indication frater Occham iste

Wilhelm von Ockham (1285–1347) is regarded in the reception as an outstanding representative of a more differentiated nominalism, which combined the question of universals with considerations of the theory of signs and in this respect referred to the modern logic of language. For Ockham, only extramental individual things had reality . "It can be shown with evidence that no universal is an extramental substance." In particular, Ockham rejected Scotus' doctrine of the species nature of individual things, which can be separately grasped through a formal distinction. The general terms have no existence of their own, but are only the sum of the things thought. For example, a single rose has a real existence, "the rose" itself, as a term, but only has a purely intellectual existence.

Concepts initially arise independently of the spoken and written language in the mind ( conceptus mentis ) and are used to designate ( significatio ) extramental things. The basis for speech sounds and writing is the agreement of their meaning as signs. General terms are formed in the mind alone and serve as signs that can refer to several things ( signum praedicabile de pluribus ). Unless general terms refer to extramental things, they are signs of signs. As a sign, terms stand for something, with the meaning resulting from the context of the sentence. Depending on whether it is said: “A person runs”, “A person is a species” or “A person is a term”, the word person has a different meaning.

Ockham was a sharp critic of traditional realism. Against the Platonic notion of independent ideas, he objected that these were then again individual things. Against Aristotle he argued that abstract objects cannot have an independent existence even as a second substance; because otherwise it would not only lead to a doubling, but even to a “multiplication of beings”. Universals cannot have existence outside of the soul. Correspondingly, he also rejected the existence of relations, advocated by Duns Scotus, and the doctrine of species nature ( natura communis ). But by accepting general concepts as a quality of the soul ( qualitas mentis ), he granted the universals a being in the spirit ( ens in anima ). “Every universal is an intention of the soul which, according to a probable opinion, does not differ from the act of knowledge.” With that he was more of a nominalistic conceptualist than a pure nominalist.

The nominalist Pierre d'Ailly defended the thesis at the Council of Constance that the heretical doctrine of consubstantiation followed from realism , which contradicts the doctrine of transubstantiation . This successfully placed the realist Jan Hus in a heretical position. In the years that followed, many universities pushed back realism in favor of nominalism. The official reason was that realism, in contrast to nominalism, was more difficult to understand and therefore only gave rise to philosophical misunderstandings that led to heresy.

Other representatives of nominalism were Nicolaus von Autrecourt , Marsilius von Inghen (the first rector of Heidelberg University ), Jean Gerson and Gabriel Biel (professor in Tübingen), Johannes Buridan and Albert von Rickmersdorf, as well as Nikolaus von Oresme as an important natural philosopher of the 14th century .

However, the increasing effectiveness of nominalism did not mean the end of the debate. In the period that followed, realistic positions were also taken, e.g. B. by Walter Burley , John Wyclif or Johannes Sharpe .

Modern times

René Descartes in a portrait by Frans Hals , 1648

In modern times, philosophical questions shifted from the 17th century, particularly as a result of the question of knowledge raised by René Descartes .

The influence of scholasticism waned, although its aftermath continued into the 18th century. The deduction of the special case of accepted doctrines, customary in scholasticism , was increasingly opposed by the reverse procedure, namely the induction of empirical facts on general rules. As a result, the traditional authorities lost their influence, and new general terms, principles and laws were found or created. Nominalism had prepared this change with its preference for the particular over the general.

Descartes gave the concept of realism an additional meaning, used in parallel, as epistemological realism. The opposing pair of empiricism and rationalism was formed . The question now was whether the objects are immediately recognized (realism) or whether they are determined by ideas ( idealism ). In this sense, the representatives of rationalism predominantly took a position of realism, while the representatives of empiricism primarily followed the nominalist basic conception.

The problem of universals was no longer in the foreground for characterizing philosophical differences - it was, however, generally treated as a component of philosophy. In modern times, too, there are all fundamental variations from realism to conceptualism to nominalism. The empiricists tended to nominalism; on the other hand, a conceptual realism prevailed among the rationalists alongside the epistemological . Conceptualistic weakenings and differentiations can be found in both camps.

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

In his predominantly materialistic , empirical philosophy, Thomas Hobbes represented a strong nominalism. He differentiated names for the individual things and general terms that are used in the linguistic classification of individual things.

"A general name is added to many things because of the similarity in terms of quality or another job (of these individual things)"

Even John Locke was of the opinion that all things that exist, individual things (particulate) are. He developed a psychologically oriented theory for the emergence of general terms. Words receive generality as signs of general ideas. These arise through an abstraction process in which space, time and other factors for determining individual individuals are disregarded. The abstraction process is an intellectual activity that analyzes the similarities of individuals and uses them to form an abstract idea. The abstract concept is therefore a name of the general idea.

“The general does not belong to the realm of existing things, it is rather the invention and product of the mind which makes it for its own use; the general refers only to signs, be they words or ideas. "

Locke advocates a nominalistic conceptualism on the universals question, that is, he assumes that the general ideas obtained through abstraction are independent entities in the mind.

George Berkeley and David Hume

George Berkeley

George Berkeley particularly criticized the abstraction process described by Locke. Accordingly, if the specific characteristics of an individual are disregarded, nothing can be described. So the general in the term "fast" cannot be explained by thinking away from a fast moving person or a fast moving ship the idea of ​​a person or a ship. Also, contrary to Locke's representation, the general concept of a triangle cannot be conceived by imagining it to be obtuse, right-angled and acute-angled at the same time. Rather, according to Berkeley, the meaning of a general idea derives from its use.

This thesis is strongly reminiscent of the late Ludwig Wittgenstein , who viewed general terms as subject to the respective conventions. This purely nominalistic conception of a universal avoids the connection between the concept of universality and the concept of an ideal being. In this way, general terms were formed independently of the existence of a primary principle - a connection that had dominated the thinking of the whole of scholasticism and had served realism as a strong defensive argument.

The detachment from the metaphysics of being was an important stimulus for the Enlightenment . David Hume fully joined Berkeley and emphasized that general terms can be introduced as representations of individuals and maintain their independence through habit. These are not abstractions. Rather, it is based on a specific individual who is representative of other individuals.


The rationalists Spinoza, Descartes and Leibniz represented a more or less conceptualist realism. As represented Spinoza 's position is that it will come to different views of the connotations of the subjective, the formation of general concepts. He saw this as one of the causes of various currents in philosophy . The ratio and the Scientia intuitiva were for Spinoza higher modes of knowledge through which the essence of a thing was to be grasped.

According to Descartes , from the outset man has a multitude of ideas about the unchangeable true nature of things. The universality is a name for a particular way of thinking.

Leibniz saw similarities not only as a product of the mind, but ascribed them a reality. Empirical induction cannot lead to generality. This requires the truths of reason .

Kant and German Idealism

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant did not take a direct position on the problem of universals, but through the way he differentiated views and concepts he exerted influence on the discussion that followed. "Intuition" is what Kant calls a single representation ( repraesentatio singularis ) that relates to an immediate object. A “concept”, on the other hand, arises through the formation of a synthesis in a judgment , in that an indirect relationship to the objects is established from the multiplicity of views on the basis of common characteristics. According to Kant, “generality” is pre-conceptual and is captured by the function of the judgment. The power of judgment is the ability “to think of the particular as contained under the general” (KdU B XXV).

“The concept of the dog means a rule according to which my imagination generally records the shape of a four-footed animal, without being restricted to any particular shape which only presents experience, or any possible image that I can represent in concrete terms . "

Humans form concepts “through actions of pure thinking” (KrV B 81). They are therefore always “general” reflected ideas ( repraesentatio per notas communes ), so that it would be tautological to speak of “general concepts”. Kant distinguished empirical concepts (on the basis of sensory experience ) from pure intellectual concepts, which without sensual perception originate exclusively in the understanding . Kant only used “idea” to refer to pure concepts of reason such as the idea of ​​the republic or the idea of freedom . These arise from principles residing in the concepts and judgments of the mind.

In German idealism , Fichte already called for the abolition of the opposition between “general” and “particular” that arises from the positing of the “ I ”. The individual as a posteriori , as it is treated in the sciences, is posited and justified by the a priori of the general. For Fichte, therefore, the concept is not the general, but the limiting, determining factor of perception.

Hegel polemicized against the pre-conceptual generality as “the night in which all cows are black”. The infinite and the finite cannot be described abstractly as opposites, because the infinite must contain the finite if it is not itself to be finite. For him, the “true” consisted of a general that is special in itself. Knowledge of the absolute is a process of self-knowledge. The “reason knowing itself” is the “absolute universal”.

19th century

After Kant, the problem of universals was no longer explicitly in the foreground of the philosophical discussion. The scholastic tradition, which put the problem in the context of a divine order, lost its validity after the French Revolution . In the 19th century, a nominalist position was mostly represented in connection with empiricism ( Herbart , Beneke , Mill , Bain ).

This also applies to Franz Brentano , who rejected the notions of a priori views as well as a priori concepts. Judgments based on experience, the truth of which everyone can see immediately, are general ( evidence ). Such empirical judgments arise from a direct, intentional relationship to an object ( intentionality ). For Brentano, terms such as “the blush” or “triangularity” were abbreviations for designating several individual things. He regarded pure intellectual concepts as fictions. The general arises through abstraction, in that people associate general predicates with certain types of images. This view is not purely logical, but empirically verifiable, which is why Stegmüller called Brentano a psychological conceptualist. Most of the representatives of psychologism ( Fechner , Wundt , Munsterberg , Lipps ) also followed Brentano's nominalistic view .


The problem of universals in modernity is predominantly associated with the concepts of (epistemological) Platonism and essentialism . It is still being discussed whether terms such as class or natural law are names or entities.

Ideas of generalizing origins or laws that exist and are to be discovered independently of their perception are close to universal realism or conceptualism. This has been evident since the late 19th century in trends in psychology (cf. archetype ), anthropology (“anthropological constant”), or aesthetics (see, for example, universals of music perception ). The philosophical naturalism and numerous terms with the word component "nature" such as state of nature , natural law or natural law are connected with realistic ideas. - Against such determinations and against such determinations. a. different variants of constructivism .

Realistic positions of modernity

Charles Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles S. Peirce advocated an explicit universal realism . His concept of reality can be described with the short formula: What is not fictional is real . In this respect, laws of nature have reality, as they have “a decided tendency to be fulfilled” (CP 1.26). Because it is possible to make prognoses with the laws of nature, “future events are actually governed to a certain extent by a law” (ibid., Cf. also CP 5.100). In particular, the laws of logic and mathematics also had a reality for Peirce. He tied his idea of ​​the reality of universals closely to the concept of the continuum . He saw one of the justifications in the theorem of the mathematician Georg Cantor , "that the power set formed over a set is always greater than this."

“It is absurd to assume that any collection of well-differentiated individuals, as all collections of uncountable thicknesses are, can have as great a thickness as that of the collection of possible collections of their individual elements.” “So the continuum is in which dimension it may be continuous, whatever is possible. But the general or universal of ordinary logic also includes all sorts of things, of whatever kind it may belong. And so the continuum is what turns out to be true universals in the logic of the relative. "

Peirce found it a special disposition of the human mind to think in terms of a continuum, as in the case of the concept of time . Ideas are not independent, but continuous systems and at the same time fragments of a large continuous system. “Generalization, the pouring out of continuous systems of thinking, feeling, and doing is the true purpose of life.” Reality for Peirce thus meant “that there is something in the being of things that supports the process of inferring that the world lives and moves and has its being, in which the logic of events corresponds. ”According to Peirce, even the“ mechanistic philosopher ”, who advocates a fundamental nominalism, cannot avoid such an idea.

Edmund Husserl

Edmund Husserl took over the epistemological concepts of evidence and intentionality from his teacher Franz Brentano , but saw the access to the general in the Kantian distinction between view and concept:

“It is generally assumed that the general ideas have genetically grown out of the individually intuitive. If, however, the consciousness of the general is ignited again and again in individual perception, drawing clarity and evidence from it, then it does not arise from individual perception. So how did we come to go beyond the individual perception and, instead of the appearing detail, mean something else, something general that is isolated in it and yet not really contained in it? "

With regard to the conception of essence, Husserl formulated a realistic position: “The essence (Eidos) is a novel object. Just as the given of the individual or experiential perception is an individual object, so the given of the essential perception is a pure being. ”With Kant, Husserl differentiated empirically general and purely general. While Kant's concepts are formed as spontaneous actions in judgment, Husserl tries to grasp the logical constitution of general concepts by analyzing consciousness. Empirical concepts are obtained by comparing and varying views, by eliminating the different and retaining the absolutely identical as an unchangeable quantity (invariant). The concrete seen is contingent , but it invariantly contains the pure essence as the highest category of the given. Pure (a priori) terms set the rules for experience. They are not determined by experience, rather they encompass the “infinity of continuity”. The propositions of logic are entities that are independent of time and space and that have ideal reality.

Nicolai Hartmann

For Nicolai Hartmann , reality in all beings is:

“The being of beings is one thing, however varied this may be. All further differentiations of being are only peculiarities of the mode of being. "

Reality and ideality are mutually exclusive. An existing is either real or ideal. The ideal is not something that is only thought, but something that is non-objective. Hartmann included mathematics, entities, logic and values. Ideal being is timeless, general and unchangeable. Real being, on the other hand, is temporal, concrete and transient. Reality is intrusive. You experience it in an experience of resistance. The ideal is contained in the real as a structure or law. A geometric sphere is an ideal structure that describes the structure of a material sphere. Empirical judgments always relate to real entities, mathematical judgments to ideal beings. Both types of judgments are a grasp of something that is in-itself ( critical realism ).

The being and its properties are independent of the subject. The ideal is contained in the real (“universalia in rebus”). “The general does not exist beyond the cases (ante res) for itself, but also in no way in ments as abstracted from them (post rem), but rather in rebus.” (GdO, 259) The in-itself-being of the ideal founded Hartmann said that you couldn't explain that nature is mathematically formed if there are no ideal relationships. (GdO, 265) This view corresponds to the Aristotelian universal realism. Logical propositions are valid because they agree with structures of being (GdO, 302). Real being is accordingly the higher being, which builds on the ideal being contained in it (GdO 291).

Bertrand Russell

Logicians like Bernard Bolzano and later at the beginning of the 20th century Gottlob Frege , Alfred North Whitehead or Bertrand Russell clearly professed Platonism. Willard Van Orman Quine called this attitude "ontological commitment". After Russell discovered the paradoxes of set theory , he sought a more cautious analysis. Nevertheless "every knowledge of truths presupposes the acquaintance with universals."

He distinguished three types of entities for which terms are formed:

  • Sensory data as simple content and concrete individuals;
  • Data of introspection (introspection) that arise from the reflection of perception (the perception that we perceive);
  • Universals.

Every statement about a fact contains at least one universal and one relation. Universals cannot be viewed as individuals: “Because there are many black things, there must be a similarity between many different pairs of comparative black things, and this is precisely a characteristic of universals. There is no point in saying that every couple has a different resemblance; because then we would have to admit that these similarities are similar, and so we come back to the fact that the similarity must be a universal. "

Russell discussed the problem of universals from an epistemological point of view using the example of the concept of motion. Perceptions relate to objects; logical statements, however, presuppose other statements. Relationships exist between “facts of perception” and “statements of law” which one must regard as real if statements are to be recognized as true .

For nominalists like Wilhelm von Ockham , movement was a word used to describe the number of positions that a moving body takes. For Isaac Newton , on the other hand, movement was an independent form with an independent quality. Using the arrow paradox of Zeno von Elea , Russell examined the mathematical nature of motion. A uniform movement can be represented as a linear function , so that a quantification is possible for every position of the arrow during the flight. Movement would then be a quality (property) of the second degree and could be interpreted nominalistically. However, if acceleration is also taken into account, a non-linear relationship results in which the forces as vectors must also be taken into account. The mathematical representation of this state of affairs requires a function in which continuity is assumed as an axiom . However, continuity presupposes the tightness of rational numbers in which there is an infinite number of intermediate values ​​between two values, no matter how small. According to this, movement would not just be a collective term, but a separate entity.

Russell dealt with the question of the continuum in a similar way to Peirce, but came to the conclusion that a continuum cannot be derived from the sensory world because there are only correlations of different (particular) sensory impressions. As a student of Peirce, John Dewey objected to this that the acceptance of individual sensory impressions already presupposes a reality and that individual perceptions are to be counted on a higher, more comprehensive level of a continuum.

Theodor W. Adorno

Theodor W. Adorno did not want to separate the problem of universals from legal philosophy and put it from the perspective of a “failed Enlightenment” in the time of National Socialism in a socio-historical context: nominalism is the “prototype of bourgeois thinking”, in which external forms prevail Content and the injustice could happen if it was only formally and legally correct. It is the "self-sustaining ruse" of the officials who want to distinguish "between word and thing".

Contemporary philosophy

David Armstrong is a well-known exponent of universal realism in contemporary philosophy . As with Aristotle , universals only exist in connection with individual things. "The general is in the individual." Armstrong also advocates a strict physicalistically based scientific realism. He describes the laws of nature as universals, which describe the objective structures of nature. They are relations of a higher order that describe the connection between universal properties.

In contrast to Armstrong, Roderick Chisholm took an idealistic position in epistemology . Yet he thought universals were real. Building on the notion of Franz Brentano about the intentionality Chisholm was of the opinion that everything is real, is what intentions judge can.

As an important argument in favor of universal realism, it is often put forward in modern philosophy that statements in which universals occur can be "true" or "false". Universals are therefore needed as "truth makers".

Nominalist positions of modernity

Analytical philosophy of language

With the linguistic turn and the philosophy of language of the 20th century, a strongly nominalistic position prevailed. Particularly in the neopositivism of the Vienna Circle , knowledge was limited to the sensually perceptible individual things. Accordingly, it was believed that the meaning of terms and statements can only be traced back to experience. Carnap and the early Wittgenstein in particular wanted to reduce all concepts to phenomenalistic basic concepts and develop a purely nominalistic language from them. From this point of view, there are no designates for general terms outside of consciousness . Classes are not real, but summaries in thought.

Statements in law are therefore understood as mere syntactic rules without truth values ​​(in Hermann Weyl , Frank Plumpton Ramsey and others) or as mere hypotheses (in Moritz Schlick , Karl Popper and others).

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein changed some of his earlier views in the Philosophical Investigations , but he continued to adhere to a nominalism. Terms are based on regularities in human behavior. Their meaning results from their use. Generalities can be described as family similarities. The analysis of the use of the term “game” shows that it is not possible to bring the generality of this term to an exact, uniform point. He tried to describe language as a language game consisting of a variety of different language games.

This linguistic conception of Wittgenstein is a modern formulation of the pure nominalism of Berkeley, which can be described as similarity nominalism. Other interpreters see it as a rejection of the universals problem as a pseudo problem , similar to what Carnap had done. Wittgenstein also saw the family similarities in the concept of number: “We extend our concept of number as we twist fiber to fiber when spinning a thread. And the strength of the thread is not that any single fiber runs through its entire length, but that many fibers overlap each other. "

WVO Quine

Quine investigated the problem of universals by means of quantifier logic . For a precise handling one has to read the sentence "This is a red rose" like this:

There is an X for which the following applies: X is a rose and X is red.

X is called a bound variable. The reformulation means that terms are only used as the name of an object. Quine's thesis is that predicates can also basically be formulated as logical subjects and transferred into the logical form of statements as variables. But the decisive factor is which term can be used as a value for the variable. The nominalist will demand that the scope of the variables be limited to terms that can actually be reformulated as names. The Platonist, on the other hand, will want to use the formula for terms such as “value”, “being” or “variable”.

The analytically formulated way of the problem of universals brings more precision, but still does not provide a decision criterion for the problem. The Platonist can further say that by speaking about universals, their existence is already recognized. Likewise, the nominalist can point out that the general cannot be an object, because such a concept can be part of a different kind of general right up to the infinite regress . Quine drew the conclusion that in certain areas of application of mathematics and logic “classes” are indispensable. However, such conceptual levels arise through human constructions and are not discovered. He described his position as conceptualistic as opposed to Platonic realism. He called nominalism agnosticism towards an infinity of entities.

Peter Strawson, Nelson Goodman

Strawson developed a critical position towards Quine , who pointed out what from his point of view was an essential functional difference between terms for the individual and the particular. Singular terms have the task of identifying concrete objects. General terms are used in statements in which the existence is already assumed. They do not have an "identifying reference".

Predicates in propositional sentences can refer to different subjects, depending on which is the case. Predicates are therefore always more general than subjects. Therefore, a consistent replacement of predicates by "logical subjects" is not possible. Statements about individual items are only possible on the basis of empirical facts. The conception of the general as a “logical subject” presupposes that there are identification systems in which references to individual spatio-temporal things can be made.

Nelson Goodman advocates a so-called mereological nominalism, according to which it is not permissible to form infinite chains of new entities from individual basic elements. According to this view, the possibilities of set theory are formally restricted. This follows from the principle that of several applicable theories the simplest is to be preferred ( Occam's razor ).

Vilém Flusser

Vilém Flusser viewed the problem of universals critically in connection with the development of information technology . The printing press decided the universality dispute in favor of the realists, because it made people aware that writing consists of types and made these types tangible. Speculative thinking has subsequently become a firm manipulation of signs, and the modern universals have shifted from the level of the conceptual to that of the practically formed types, because "atomic particles", "genes", "people types" or " Social classes "believe. Positivists and phenomenologists , on the other hand, are the modern nominalists.

Philosophy of mathematics

The classic view in the philosophy of mathematics is a universal realism, according to which the objects of mathematics have an independent existence and are not invented but discovered. The realists, however, do not agree on how and to what extent man is able to penetrate to these universals. From the point of view of the formalism , which was established by Hilbert , or the logicism of Frege (see also: Conceptual writing ), a systematic approximation is possible. For Gödel , on the other hand, it is intuition that allows mathematicians to come closer to their universals.

As a countermovement in the 20th century, nominalistic conceptions emerged: Constructive mathematics limited the concept of existence to constructible objects. The Intuitionism believes that truth arises only in the process of verification. These approaches were founded by LEJ Brouwer and worked out by Paul Lorenzen, among others . They assume that the subject areas of mathematics are invented through the gradual development of theories . The habit then confirms that the premises make sense.

Gödel mediated between classical and intuitionist standpoints. If the development of theories is linked to the idea that the general terms created by human achievements have a semantic existence, the term conceptualism is also used here . So Quine in his essay What There Is . This terminology is later adopted by Stegmüller .

Theological Positions in Orthodox Theology

The orthodox theology of the early 20th century, which was dominated by the dispute over the Imjaslavie movement, the worship of the name of God, can also be understood against the background of the universal dispute of scholasticism. Michael Hagemeister uses this terminology to characterize the position of Imjaslavcy Pavel Florenskij .


  • David Malet Armstrong : Universals: an Opinionated Introduction , Westview Press, Boulder / Colorado 1989.
  • Innocentius Bochenski , Alonzo Church , Nelson Goodman : The Problem of Universals. A Symposium , Notre Dame, Ind., (1956)
  • JM Bochenski: To the problem of universals. In: Logical-philosophical studies, Alber, Freiburg / Munich 1959.
  • Pierre Bourdieu : Meditations. On the Critique of Scholastic Reason. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp 2nd edition 2004. ISBN 3-518-29295-1
  • Carl Friedrich Gethmann : Keyword “Generality” in: Handbook of Basic Philosophical Concepts, ed. by Hermann Krings, Hans Michael Baumgarten and Christoph Wild, Kösel, Munich 2nd edition 2003 (CD edition) as well as keywords "Universalien", "Universalienstreit" and "Universalienstreit, modern" in: Enzyklopädie Philosophie und Wissenschaftstheorie, Volume 4, ed . by Jürgen Mittelstraß, Metzler, Stuttgart 1996
  • Richard Hönigswald : Abstraction and Analysis . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1961 [Manuscript: New York 1946, posthumously ed. by Karl Bärtlein and Gerd Wolandt]
  • Guido Küng: Ontology and logistic analysis of language. An investigation into the contemporary universal discussion. Springer-Verlag, Vienna 1963.
  • Wolfgang Künne : Abstract Objects. Semantics and ontology . Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann 2007, ISBN 978-3-465-04032-3
  • Alain de Libera: The universal dispute. From Plato to the end of the Middle Ages , Munich: Fink 2005 (Original: La querelle des universaux, 1996). ISBN 3-7705-3727-0
  • James Porter Moreland: Universals. A philosophical introduction , Ontos, Frankfurt 2009, ISBN 978-3-86838-055-2
  • Wolfgang Stegmüller : Belief, Knowledge and Recognition. The problem of universals then and now , 3rd edition Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchges. 1974. ISBN 3-534-03322-1
  • Wolfgang Stegmüller (Ed.): Das Universalien-Problem , WBG, Darmstadt 1978 anthology with an introduction by Stegmüller and important articles by Russell , Ramsey , Quine (4 ×), Church (3 ×), Goodman , Dummett and Carnap, among others
  • Peter Frederick Strawson : single thing and logical subject , Stuttgart: Reclam, 3rd ed. 1983. ISBN 3-15-009410-0
  • Hans-Ulrich Wöhler (Ed.): Texts on the universal dispute. 2 volumes, Berlin: Akademie 1992. Volume 1: ISBN 3-05-001792-9 , Volume 2: ISBN 3-05-001929-8

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Thomas Aquinas, In Perihermeneias , quoted from HWPh , Vol. 11, 180
  2. Duns Scotus, Questiones subtilissimae de metaphysicam Aristotelis , quoted from HWPh, Vol. 11, 181
  3. ^ Wilhelm von Ockham, Summa logicae , quoted from HWPh, Vol. 11, 182
  4. Pierre d'Ailly, Tractatus de anima , quoted from HWPh, Vol. 11, 183
  5. Jan Peter Beckmann uses this structure to characterize nominalism in: Ders .: Wilhelm von Ockham, Beck, Munich 1995, 121-122.
  6. Gottfried Martin : Plato's theory of ideas, de Gruyter, Berlin 1973, 133ff
  7. Cf. Petrus Abelardus: The problem of universals . In: Kurt Flasch (Hrsg.): History of philosophy in text and presentation . Vol. 2: Middle Ages . Stuttgart 1982, pp. 233-262.
  8. Andrea Grigoleit, Jilline Bornand: Philosophy: Western thinking in the historical overview, Compendio Education Media AG, in 2004, 57; see also: The expression "The Name of the Rose" from Peter Abelard (accessed on May 19, 2011; PDF; 109 kB).
  9. ^ Thomas Aquinas: Summa contra gentiles, I, 65, 3 m
  10. Summa Logicae I, 15, 2. Wilhelm von Ockham: Texts on the theory of knowledge and science, translated and edited by Rudi Imbach , Stuttgart 1986.
  11. ^ Richard Heinzmann: Philosophy of the Middle Ages, 2nd edition, Stuttgart 1998, pp. 254-257.
  12. Summa logicae, I, 14.
  13. Summa Logicae I, 15, 10.
  14. Marten JFM Hoenen, Controversies in Philosophy, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, 5th lecture on November 22, 2010, 1:05 - 1:20.
  15. Cf. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) I, 4
  16. Thomas Hobbes: Elements of Philosophy I: From the Body, Chapter 11, Section 3
  17. See John Locke, An Essay concerning Humane Understanding (1690) III, 3 and ibid. IV, 21
  18. John Locke: An Essay concerning Human Understanding, III, 3, 11)
  19. Cf. George Berkeley, A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge (1710)
  20. See David Hume, A treatise of human nature (1740)
  21. ^ Spinoza, Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata (1677) II
  22. Descartes, Principia philosophiae (1644) I.
  23. Leibniz, New Treatises on Human Understanding (1704) III
  24. Cf. the section “Of the logical concepts of understanding” in the Critique of Pure Reason, B 92ff
  25. KrV B 180
  26. Cf. Wissenschaftslehre
  27. Phenomenology of Mind, Sept.
  28. Stegmüller, The problem of universals once and now, p. 78
  29. ^ Charles S. Peirce: Natural order and drawing process, ed. and introduced by Helmut Pape, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1998, pp. 378-399 (MS 439 from 1898), here: footnote by Pape, p. 393
  30. Peirce, ibid.
  31. Peirce, ibid. 395
  32. Peirce, ibid. 399
  33. Peirce, ibid. 396
  34. Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume II, Part 1, Halle 1928, 189
  35. Husserl, Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, first book 1913, 14
  36. ^ Nicolai Hartmann: On the foundation of ontology, Berlin 1935, p. 38.
  37. ^ Bertrand Russell: Problems of Philosophy, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1967
  38. ^ Bertrand Russell: Problems of Philosophy, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1967, 85
  39. Bertrand Russell: Our knowledge of the outside world (after the Lowell Lectures of 1914), ed. and introduced by Michael Otte, Meiner, Hamburg 2004
  40. ^ Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer: Dialectic of Enlightenment , in: Adorno: Gesammelte Schriften, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1997, vol. 3 p. 79.
  41. See David M. Armstrong: Universals - An Opinionated Introduction, Westview Press, Boulder 1989, 139
  42. Cf. Roderick Chisholm: A Realistic Theory of Categories - An Essay on Ontology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1996
  43. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 67
  44. Cf. the basic essays Quines in Wolfgang Stegmüller (ed.): The Universalien Problem: “About Universalien” (1947), “ Was There Are ” (1948), “Semantics and Abstract Objects” (1951), “Logic and the reification of universals "(1953) and" designation and modality "(1953)
  45. Quine in Stegmüller, Logic and Reification of Universals, 158
  46. Strawson: Individual thing and logical subject, especially Chapter 8 (Logical Subjects and Existence)
  47. ^ Vilém Flusser: The writing. Does writing have a future? , Göttingen: European Photography, 5th edition 2002, p. 51
  48. http://www.kontextverlag.de/florenskij.hagemeister.html