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Do universals genuinely exist?


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Do universals genuinely exist?
Date: 25th January 2011 12:56

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 13 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, 'Only particulars genuinely exist.' Discuss.'

I found this very difficult, although I suppose that it is a virtue of your essay that it had me trying to think out the problem of universals from scratch. This sheet of paper is white and so is that sheet. What explains the fact that they are *both* white?

That's such an odd question, isn't it? Haven't I already explained why the sheets are 'both' white by saying that the first sheet is white and the second sheet is *also* white? But what does 'also' mean? Why are things 'also'? Why do we ever say the same thing (predicate 'white') of different things (e.g. the two sheets)?

I'm emphasizing this point because in your essay you make the claim that there is something that 'needs explanatory work', which, e.g. someone like Quine would deny. So let's get back to the beginning. You list four requirements for the 'best' ontology: a) best explanation, b) least number of unexplained categories or postulates, c) maximum economy regarding ontologically basic entities, d) least violation of our intuitions.

As you go on to say, 'the important thing is that particulars are uniquely instantiated items in space and time.' -- But what's so great about that? Why should we care? Why does that give particulars any privileged status so far as responding to requirements a-d is concerned?

I think you need to answer this question. It isn't good enough to say that our 'intuitions' surely tell us that particulars exist (genuinely exist) if anything exists, that particulars are the very paradigms of 'existence'. Intuition is important, but maybe in metaphysics it is just pure prejudice. Plato thought so. He thought that particulars aren't genuinely real at all, they're just shadows on the wall of our cave (see my latest Tentative Answer). I'm not going to go there now, but you can see the direction in which I'm pointing.

Back to basics: there are two fundamental human capacities which, whatever else one says about theories or intuitions seem impossible to deny: the capacity to 'identify' objects at a location in space and time, and then later 're-identify' them at another space and time, and the capacity to 'say things about' these objects, such that in principle the 'same thing' can be said of two such objects separated in space or in time. 'X is white and Y is white.' Two kinds of 'sameness', which require two closely connected kinds of recognitional capacity: the ability to *trace* an object through space and time, and the ability to notice recurrent *features* of those objects.

I'm here alluding to a project which P.F. Strawson undertakes in his book 'Individuals', an important work which marked the revival of interest in metaphysics amongst English-speaking analytic philosophers. Without Strawson, the present landscape in academic discussions of the problems of metaphysics would be vastly different. Strawson puts forward some powerful arguments, for example, that a 'feature placing' language not based on the identification and re-identification of particulars would not be possible. It could never get going, if one assumes (a big 'if' but difficult to deny) that we are dealing with a scenario where two speakers are trying to communicate with one another about 'the world as they find it'.

OK, but why would we want to say anything about anything? what good is that? What good is saying that something is 'white', for example? Here, I think we do need to go further and respond the the 'explanatory challenge' which you allude to. In Strawson's basic picture, it seems that our two speakers are just aimlessly pinning labels on things. 'That is white, and that is white.' Why are two labels ever the same? because that's what a 'recognitional capacity' implies. That point doesn't go without saying. The world has to be a certain way to make that possible, to make it possible e.g. that this sheet of paper is white and that sheet of paper is also white. But there's something else too: something has to follow from all this labelling. Black paper is no good for writing on (at least with black ink).

Where is this going? Instead of saying that one can identify examples of 'white' because 'whiteness exists', what we are saying is that the human activity of identifying things and saying things about them (i.e. describing things in language) has a) certain basic physical requirements in terms of worlds in which such an activity is possible in the first place, b) has consequences for the necessary form that any such activity can take.

With regard to the 'trope' theory, I am perfectly agnostic (though mostly puzzled). My intuition would be to say that this is an 'abstraction too far', which loses the thread of what ontology is about. You haven't convinced me that I'm wrong, as your essay merely reports on what philosophers have said. I'm sorry but I don't feel gripped at all at this point.

However, you will get marks for displaying considerable knowledge of the contemporary landscape of the discussion of the problem of universals.

All the best,