AskDefine | Define universals

Extensive Definition

otheruses Universal In metaphysics, a universal is a type, a property, or a relation. The noun universal contrasts with individual, while the adjective universal contrasts with particular. Paradigmatically, universals are abstract, whereas particulars are concrete, however, some philosophies (e.g. British idealist) speak of concrete universals.
Most ontological frameworks do not consider classes to be universals, although some prominent philosophers do, such as John Bigelow.


A universal may have instances, known as its particulars. For example, the type dog (or doghood) is a universal, as are the property red (or redness) and the relation betweenness (or being between). Any particular dog, red thing, or object that is between other things is not a universal, however, but is an instance of a universal. That is, a universal type (doghood), property (redness), or relation (betweenness) inheres in a particular object (a specific dog, red thing, or object between other things).

Platonic idealism

Platonic realism holds universals to be the referents of general terms, such as the abstract, nonphysical entities to which words like "doghood", "redness", and "betweenness" refer. Particulars are the referents of proper names, like "Fido", or of definite descriptions that identify single objects, like the phrase, "that apple on the table". Other metaphysical theories may use the terminology of universals to describe physical entities. Plato's examples of universals included mathematical and geometrical ideas such as a circle and natural numbers as universals. Plato referred to the perfect circle as the form or blueprint for all copies and for the word definition of the circle.

Universal questions

Some ancient philosophers have held the notion that universal questions exist for all, or most humans, everywhere, and throughout history. Some of these universal questions are: What exists? What can we know? What should we do? What is after death?

Problem of universals

The problem of universals is an ancient problem in metaphysics concerning the nature of universals, or whether they exist. Complications which arise include the implications of language use and the complexity of relating language to ontological theory.

Ness-Ity-Hood Principle

The Ness-Ity-Hood Principle is used mainly by English-speaking philosophers to generate convenient, concise names for universals or properties. According to the Ness-Ity-Hood Principle, a name for any universal may be formed by taking the name of the predicate and adding "ness", "ity", or "hood". For example, the universal that is distinctive of left-handers may be formed by taking the predicate "left-handed" and adding "ness", which yields the name "left-handedness". The principle is most helpful in cases where there is not an established or standard name of the universal in ordinary English usage: What is the name of the universal distinctive of chairs? "Chair" in English is used not only as a subject (as in "The chair is broken"), but also as a predicate (as in "That is a chair"). So to generate a name for the universal distinctive of chairs, take the predicate "chair" and add "ness", which yields "chairness". (Though it is clear that "chairity" would not work, it is arguable that "chairhood" is preferable to "chairness". It is important to see that the Ness-Ity-Hood Principle offers no way of adjudicating such controversies.)

See also


universals in Arabic: كلي
universals in Estonian: Universaalid
universals in French: Universaux
universals in Italian: Universale (metafisica)
universals in Dutch: Universalia
universals in Japanese: 全称命題
universals in Norwegian: Type/ting-distinksjon
universals in Finnish: Universaali
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