Universals and Particulars

Posted on 17 May 2006

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A Universal is a general class or category, as contrasted with particular instances of it. For example, my cat is a particular instance of the general idea of a cat. Often we take it for granted that particulars are real, while universals are mere ideas. Yet, some philosphers (such as Plato) teach the opposite view that universals are, in fact, more real than particulars. How can we make sense of such a counter-intuitive view?

First, a closer examination of universals shows that there are degrees of universals, with some universals being more general than others. For example, the universal cat is itself an instance of a larger universal animal, which is an instance of an even more general universal life. Conversely, in the other direction, the class ragdoll cat is an instance of cat, and my cat is a particular instance of ragdoll cat. But even my cat is a general idea. Just as the idea cat encompasses all variety of cats, the idea my cat encompasses all variety of attributes and properties that are manifestations or instances of my cat. I never actually find the general idea of my cat. All I find are instances of this idea. Particulars are really just very specific universals, and not some different type of thing.

So, the question now becomes: How can we make sense of the view that general universals are more real than specific universals? One way of understanding this view is to see it as serving to orient us toward the general, and weaning us from our attachment to particulars. For example, our love is often conditional: we reserve it for only particular objects, like our friends and family. The cultivation of universal love and compassion helps us to let go of these conditions that limit love to specific objects. Similarly, our hatred has more limitation and restriction than conditional love, so love is more universal than hatred.

Viewing universals as more real and more valuable than particulars thus serves to free us from limits and conditions. In this freedom, we come closer to direct experience of the ultimate universal, nondual Consciousness Itself. (If you enjoyed this post, you may also like my article Plato’s Parmenides)

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Posted in: Philosophy