Ontology: The Study of "What Is"

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Philosophy can be an exceedingly mind-boggling subject, especially where the question of being and existence is under investigation. In this essay, I attempt to understand the branch of philosophy known as ontology, the study of \\"what is\\", by tracing the concepts of Plato, Aristotle and several other ancient schools of thought.

Submitted: January 02, 2012

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Submitted: January 02, 2012




A Study of the Dichotomy of Universals and Particulars


By Niamh Jiménez.




Ontology is the study of the being, reality or existence of a thing. Ontology seeks to place everything within a category of being or existence, where it shares properties and relations with other things in that category and cannot be reduced to anything simpler. Just as in science, a true chemical element cannot be reduced by any form of chemical means to anything simpler, the categories of being aim to reduce the thing to its simplest definition of being. Ontology was formerly acknowledged and dealt with as a branch of metaphysics (another philosophical spectrum dealing with similar questions of being), but has broadened to include a hierarchy of entities, which is subdivided into categories according to their similarities and divergences, as well as the manner in which they exist. For the purpose of this essay, I will examine the ontological dichotomy of universals versus particulars.

To place the psychology behind ontology into the context of its historical evolution and development, one might look to the Athenian philosopher Aristotle. Ontology may be defined as a form of analytic study of the fundamental categories of being, rather like a chemist reduces a complex substance or entity into a simpler, unalloyed element, through a process of arduous purification and isolation.  However, unlike the chemist, the ontologist never truly reaches a technical solution after this process of “purification”. We cannot define or understand being within its numerous categories in the sense that a scientist understands and unlocks a complex problem.

Philosophers of the Platonic school believe that all nouns describe an entity in existence. However, many other modern philosophers contend that most nouns refer to collective entities, for example the word “mind” does not describe a sole existent entity, but rather a combination of different cognitive activity or “mental events”. Hence, ontology seeks to isolate those nouns which describe existent entities from those which do not, and examine the relationships between the resultant categories and more complex hierarchies.

Aristotle achieved this division of entities by linking and identifying them with different ontological “dimensions”. In other words, he could analyze and ultimately identify an entity by determining whether that entity is false or true, exists within itself or exists as an accidental by-product or result of something else, and the category in which the said entity exists.

A dichotomy refers to the division of a whole into halves or subdivisions; in the case of the ontological dichotomy of universals versus particulars, dichotomy describes two opposing ideas, entities or theories.  To define a “particular”, let’s look at a group of living things; in this instance let’s look at a group of whales. The whales, as a collective group, are identified as a class. The class of whales has what philosophers call “internal unity”, in other words, the individual whales within the group exhibit enough fundamental similarities to be identified as a unified group. However, each of the whales is a particular, with its own slight idiosyncrasies, despite the overall class unification. All living things, whether whales, mammals or mice, are physical things and all physical things may be defined as particulars.

The common facet which unifies any group of things refers to a quality or property of these particular things. The common property of the whale group is that they are all whales. Whales and monkeys, although seemingly unrelated, share the property of being mammals and are thus distantly unified. We refer to properties and particulars on a regular basis through our use of language. For example, properties are usually identified through predicates: y is a mouse, and the house is a building.  In grammar, the predicate is the sentence minus the subject. When the subject y is removed from the sentence “y is a mouse”, the identifying property is left over: “is a mouse”. The identifying property is similarly left over when the subject “the house” is removed from the sentence “the house is a building.” Predicates generally evoke two kinds of property: qualities and relations. A quality is the unifying facet of a thing explained above, i.e. the property of the house is that it belongs to a collective group of “buildings” and thus is unified within a category or group. An example of a “relation” described in a predicate is: “the whale is larger than the mouse.” Similarly, “to the north of “or “to the south of” are relations.

Moreover, qualities and relations, collectively known as properties are not the same as particulars. “Being a mouse” and “to the north of” do not identify nouns or discrete entities; hence, they do not qualify as particulars. These phrases evoke things which the particulars or individuals of a class hold in common, just as specific nouns such as “size”, “height” and “colour” modify the single entity or particular. Philosophers equate the word “property” with the word “universal.” Universals and properties are separate or opposing categories, i.e. they represent an ontological dichotomy. Universals refer to a thing generally within a collective group, while particulars refer to one sole entity or thing.

There are a branch of philosophers, known as nominalists, who reject the idea that universals exist independently of particulars. They believe that universals or identifying words or properties such as “size” “blue” or “being a whale” do not exist as separate things, but are subjective words which our minds invent in order to classify particulars. In this sense, the property “blue” does not exist, but is simply a classification which our minds have invented in order to unite all blue things. “Blue” in itself, however, does not exist, while a whale, the sky and the ocean, as discrete particulars which resemble each other, do exist. According to the nominalists, we recognise this resemblance and attempt to subjectively identify it with the non-existent modifier “blue”.  

If we believe the nominalists’ theory with respect to universals, we must attempt to account for the meaning of universals. Where does the meaning of these general terms come from? Are universals truly a product of our own need for classificatory schemes, or do they exist as independent entities?

Let’s examine the first question and its possible solutions: where does the meaning of universals come from? Many philosophers believe that the meaning of universals such as “blue” emanates from the collection of blue particulars which exist, i.e. it describes all blue things. However, this hypothesis has been countered by three different arguments:

  1. The unifying characteristic of classes (groups of particulars) can alter with time. For example, blue things may cease to be blue.
  2. If the meaning of universals is dependent upon the existence of a uniform set of particulars, properties such as honesty cannot exist.  Honesty does not apply to all living things; hence it is not dependent upon the set “all honest people”. As it cannot be applied to all of the particulars of a set, its meaning must therefore be derived from some other place.  
  3. Predicates such as “has a shape” and “has a size” may serve as two different properties of the same set, carrying two separate meanings.

Another theory by-passes these objections by stating that universals are the products of our own experience. Through experience, we perceive many “blue” things. Our mind, in an effort to unify these particulars or account for their seeming resemblance, creates a universal or abstract idea. This abstract idea is a direct mind-dependent product of our experience, as we “abstract” it from our experience. However, this theory is challenged by another objection, which questions the origins of universals such as “y is a witch”. This predicate evokes a universal which cannot possibly exist in our experience, and is inconsistent with universals refer to a set of existing particulars; witches do not exist, so the universal cannot exist as a result of the set “all those things which are witches.”  It is simply an abstract idea with no apparent origin, as it is not founded upon our past experience or perceptions. This problem presents the essential question: what are the origins of our classification scheme?

To answer this question, we must first establish the nominalists’ definition of universals. As described above, the nominalists believed that universals derived from patterns of resemblance between existing particulars, but did not exist independently. What is the concept behind identifying a particular as “blue”? The nominalists responded that we created the universal “blue” based on past experience or perception of other particulars, who share the same resemblance, i.e. “blueness”. In other words, nominalism recognises the pattern of resemblance as the explanation for our concept. However, the entities do not resemble each other as a result of the universal “blue”, but rather their resemblance is “metaphysically fundamental”.The nominalists’ theory has been proven to be contradictory. Their mistake was in emphasizing the universal quality of “being blue”, instead of the universal relation between entities, which “look the same colour”. Nominalists have argued up until this point that we create a mind-dependent abstract idea, which constitutes the universal (quality). By contradiction, they also argued that these abstract ideas were founded upon our perception of the particulars’ pattern of resemblance. Therefore, it can be inferred that resemblance exists as a being before the creation of the abstract idea.

Moreover, resemblances are universals, or more specifically relations, which do exist. When two blue entities or particulars resemble one another, it is true to say that a third quality of resemblance does not independently exist. However, when we encounter two pairs of blue particulars which bear a resemblance, we can say the first pair resembles the second pair by way of a relation: the first pair resembles the second pair in the same way.

According to Plato, the referents of universals exist independently of the particulars. In other words, beauty, as a common or unifying quality of many particulars, exists independently of the beautiful things to which it refers or describes. He proves this by stating that the destruction or elimination of all beautiful things (particulars) could not supplant the universal quality of beauty; when all beautiful things disintegrate, beauty itself still remains. According to Plato, universals could exist beyond flux, sense experience, time and space. While many modern philosophers have since repudiated Plato’s theory of the autonomy of universals, they do accept some of Plato’s ontological assertions: 

  • Universals or general terms can be applied to many different particulars; this is known as the “one-over-many”
  • The universal describes the characteristic or property which unifies all particulars in a class; this is known as instantiation.

Another ontological theory, concerning the existence of universals, is realism. Chambers Dictionary defines realism as:

“The doctrine that objects of sense perception has an existence independent of the act of perception.”

Without the existence of universals, we are incapable of generalising and categorizing the particulars we perceive. Not only that, we would be incapable of drawing resemblance; hence particulars would not exhibit similarities and new objects would prove unclassifiable. We would be incapable of identifying semblances between the new object and particulars which we have already perceived.  For someone who has never encountered a yellow car, the semblance between the car and the banana is the property yellow. This property or universal allows us to identify common properties between unknown particulars and particulars already encountered by our sense experience. The same universal is embodied by the two particulars (i.e. yellow); yellow exists as a whole in both the car and the banana. We cannot say that part of the property of yellow exists in the car and part exists in the banana, but rather that yellow exists as a whole in every yellow entity. This whole property exists beyond the act of mere perception and is exemplified within all yellow things wholly.

According to the realist theory, a particular either has a universal or not. For example, a banana either exemplifies the quality of “all bananas” or not; a shark is either a fish or not. However, this theory does not appreciate or account for change. By this rule, particulars are identified by comparison with an accepted exemplar or archetype, or else they are recognised through a pattern of resemblance, discussed above.  This idea is consistent with the nominalists’ theories.

However, two objections have arisen with respect to the relationship between universals and particulars. Aristotle raised one of these objections against Plato’s idea of realism. According to Plato’s realism, particulars instantiated universals; in other words, universals are symbiotically related to particulars. For example, a mouse (the particular) instantiates the universal by exemplifying the property of “being a mouse.”  The problem relates to the infinite number of universals which arise from this state of “instantiation”:  a relation exists between the particular and the universal, as the particular instantiates the universal. However, a relation is a form of universal; hence it can be said that the particular and universal are related to a third universal, “instantiation.” This relation to the universal is another form of universal and so on. One method of defending realism is to reject the notion that instantiation is a universal, rather like the nominalists rejected “resemblance” as a relation.

The second problem of instantiation arises from Plato’s claim that universals and particulars exist beyond space, time and the temporal world. How can the mouse exemplify the property of “being a mouse” through instantiation, if universals do not exist within the temporal world of the mouse? Modern philosophers tend to reject Plato’s theory and support the idea that universals do exist within the “spatio-temporal” sphere. However, questions relating to the ontological meaning and nature of instantiation persist.

Realism claims that our minds invent universals to cope with resemblance between particulars; in other words universals or “general terms” are mind-dependent. They seem to reject the theory that general terms refer to universals independently of our minds and sense experience. However, there are many objections to this rule. The most obvious objection, inconsistent with the mind-dependent model, is change; when a particular changes or is subject to change, the particular does not cease to be the same particular. While it is the same particular, it has undergone some form of change: what explains or accounts for this concept of change? The most obvious answer is the loss and substitution of a universal. The banana was formerly “blue” but has now become “purple.” The nominalists seek to account for this change through a shift in the banana’s pattern of resemblance: it has resembled all blue things, but now resembles all purple things.  While this may describe or illustrate the change, it does not explain the concept of the change, as the universal strives to. In other words, we must ask ourselves why the particular changed.  The answer to this is also dependent upon universals.

To illustrate this theory, let’s take the example of a 2kg bag of sugar. Having placed the bag of sugar on the scales, our initial calculation is 1.5kg – an inaccurate result. After measuring the weight for a second time, we obtain the correct weight: 2 kg. So how do we describe or account for the change in weight of the bag of sugar? Through the use of a relation (universal), we can say that its true weight is different from its miscalculated weight.  While we have conceived of the method and system of measurement, the actual result (i.e. the weight of the bag of sugar) is independent of us (the opposite of mind dependent) and our calculation. The bag exemplified the property of “being of a weight x”, and this universal is said to be independent.

Moreover, the universal of this bag of sugar will always be different to the universal of another bag of sugar, even if the two bags exemplify the same weight. In reality, the two bags of sugar do not exemplify the same weight, but rather exactly similar weights. The explanation of the weight of one bag is different to the explanation of the weight of another, as the two bags are discrete particulars, i.e. explanations of universals for different particulars are never the same.

The realist is able to uphold his theory of universals through their role in explanations. He does this in two ways. The first relates to predicates which allude to universals; only universals of explanation exist. This eliminates the problem of predicates which express obscure, non-existent universals, such as “x is a witch.” The realist identifies these predicates as merely abstract ideas, unfounded upon sense experience. A universal concerned with explanation must exist, as it strives to explain or modify an existent particular, e.g. the bag of sugar. Secondly, the realist explains how universals exist; universals exist as a result of the particulars which “instantiate” them.

Modern philosophers strive to reduce and define universals and how they exist. As mentioned above, Plato argued that universals existed independently of particulars and therefore instantiation; they were capable of existing beyond our spatio-temporal world.  Aristotle countered Plato’s belief in the autonomous universal, and believed that universals could only exist through the particulars which exemplified them. For example, the quality “red” cannot exist without the existence of “all red things.” Hence, from this it can be inferred that universals must exist within the boundaries of time and space. On a more complex level, universals exist simultaneously at many different points in time and space throughout the temporal world. For instance, a red tent which is placed 250 miles from another red tent signifies the existence of the universal of “redness” at two different geographic points at the same time. Similarly, it is argued that universals shift into and out of existence all the time. In order for a universal to exist, it must be instantiated by a peculiar at a moment in time. At certain phases in time, the absence of these required particulars (which exemplify the universals), means that the universal is correspondingly absent too.  The role of universals in explanation would seem to invalidate this theory, as universals, even when they are not instantiated by concrete particulars, are instantiated by our use of certain predicates in language. 

In conclusion, we refer to universals and particulars every day of the week, through the use of the even most mundane language.  They form a significant category of being into which things can be further reduced and these relations between things are analyzed. Universals allow us to explain resemblances and the unifying differences and similarities between everyday objects and entities. The dichotomy of universals and particulars continues to be investigated and studied to this day; new theories on relations, qualities and the role of instantiation are constantly being churned. While no conclusive solution has been found to the underlying problems and objections to these rules, philosophers strive to create a synthesis of different theories and ideas from which to abstract.



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