The consideration of Platonic universals consequently rouses controversy among
philosophers. Thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Thomas Hobbes contribute
reflective explanations for the undeniable usage of question-begging ideas in
language and thought. While the deliberation of Platonic universals might seem
to be fruitless and, at best, obscure to the layperson, it does function as a
critical foundation for metaphysics and epistemology. Whether a philosopher
agrees or disagrees with the idea of Platonic universals is irrelevant to the
certain truth that he or she must form some opinion of them preceding most any
philosophic endeavor. To attempt to summarize Platos theory of universals in
a paragraph would do it a great injustice but a simple, working definition of
the theory is necessary to move any further. Platos theory can be condensed
as follows: A universal (or form) is an independently existing, nonspatial,
nontemporal “something” known only through thought and that cannot be known
through the senses; independently existing objects of thought; that which makes
a particular thing uniquely and essentially what it is. In even simpler terms, a
universal would be something like the “redness” of an apple. According to
Plato, the red quality of the apple must exist because the apple is red. But”redness” itself isnt a tangible thing that can be directly experienced
with the senses. You cannot produce “red” itself, only things that are red.


But it is not only the fact that an apple is red that distinguishes it from
other objects in the world. In addition to its “redness”, an apple is an
apple. An apple is not a pear. The quality unique to the apple is its “appleness”.

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Thus, by appealing to the Platonic universals one can make a distinction between
an apple and a pear, or all other things in the world. I. Thomas Hobbes
Nominalism Plato concluded that universals must actually exist. That is, that
when “appleness” is appealed to, something out there provides
classification for the thing in question. This was (and still is) a radical
notion that demanded explanation and was highly susceptible to criticism. Among
those critics was Thomas Hobbes, a 16th Century social and political
philosopher. In his work, The Leviathan, Hobbes argued that thought is a purely
material event and that universals are just a result of language. Hobbes was a
nominalist. Nominalism is the view that there are no universals over and above
particular individuals2. For Hobbes, one of the answers to the question of
universals could be found in the commonality of things. For instance, if a rock
and a table are both hard, it is not because we refer to a universal,
“hardness” for them, it is because we use the word “hard” to describe
both of them. Another point made by Hobbes was that humans place things into
categories in order to satisfy certain needs. Heimir Geirsson made a good
analogy of this idea in his Metaphysics textbook, Beginning Metaphysics. He uses
a weed for the analogy: A good example of this is the term “weed,” which is
defined as a plant that is not desired or cultivated by human beings and grows
profusely. This is not a natural species that would exist even if human beings
had never decided to classify some plants as “weeds.” Many human beings are
interested in having a special category for plants they dont like and that
grow abundantly, and they create that category for plants they dont like, and
they create that category with that name and definition. If human beings had not
worried about weeds, then there would be no weeds. Of course, there would still
be plants that we now call “weeds,” e.g. dandelions and crabgrass, but they
would not be weeds. Whether or not there are weeds depends on human beings
classifying these plants as weeds.2 Geirssons analogy is an interesting one
because of the question it evokes. Why arent all definitions like that of the
weed, i.e., human classification? Hobbes thought that they were. For Hobbes,
there were no real universals. Those things, which we refer to as universals,
are simply created by humans out of a need to organize the world. II. Bertrand
Russell on Platonic Universals Bertrand Russell attempted to defend the theory
of Platonic universals. In order to do this he first thought it necessary to
distinguish between universals that were qualities of things and those that were
relations between things. The most practical way to separate qualities and
relations is to understand them through their linguistic functions. Adjectives
and common nouns express qualities or properties of single things, whereas
prepositions and verbs tend to express relations between two or more things.3
For example, the sentence “The dog ran around the tree.” Contains instances
of quality and relation universals. “Dog”, “tree”, and “ran” refer
to a universal that is a quality of the objects and the action. When we think of”dog” and “tree”, we first have neutral objects that we distinguish by
attaching their respective qualities, which are “dogness” and “treeness”.


Similarly, the verb “ran”, being in the past tense, not only attributes the
quality of running to a neutral action, but also refers to a point in time when
the action took place. To think of the whole phenomenon of a dog having run
around a tree, there must also necessarily exist a corresponding universal for
the preposition “around”. This universal differs from the previously
mentioned ones in that it connects and relates the other universals to each
other. Without it, the sentence would read something like this: “The dog ran
tree.” In order to make any sense of the statement a relation between”ran” and “tree” must first be established. Thus, it follows that”around” must be a different type of universal than “ran”, “dog”, or”tree”. No sense can be made of anything unless there is some understood
relationship between them. Russell thought that since inference of relation
universals was unavoidable, there was sufficient metaphysical evidence to
approve of the ontological status given to them by Plato. In order to further
shield his argument from scrutiny, Russell also thought it was necessary to
adjust the language about universals in regard to their ontological position. He
judged that it was preferable to allude to universals as subsisting rather than
existing. To speak of some as existing implies some sort of spatio-temporal
location. If the question is asked, “When and where does this universal
exist?” the answer must be “Nowhere and nowhen,” says Russell.3 The realm
of universals is rigid an unaffected by the world of perception. The term used
for objects within the world of perceptions that refer to their obligatory
universal cannot be used. This is also to avoid the objection that universals
only exist in the mind. Russell suggested that the word subsist should be used
in language about universals. This is because the term simply implies that they
have being.3 In doing so, Russell seems to adequately preserve his logic from
Hobbes-like arguments. III. Conclusion While Russells argument does seem to
refute those made by the likes of Hobbes; it is not without uncertainty. A more
obvious objection to Russells argument would be that of an infinite
regression of universals. If there is a relation between “dog” and”tree”, then there must certainly also be a relationship between the
relation universal “around” and the whatever (around) that it
classifies. But it might not stop there. Why would there not be yet another
relationship between these three relationships? Anytime there are ideas or
things; there must be some relationship between them. So, for “The dog ran
around the tree,” there must be a relationship between “dog,” “ran,”
and “tree.” Those relationships are “ran,” and “around.” But of
course there must be an understood relationship between “ran” and”around” also for the statement to make any sense. Since realists like
Russell contend that these things refer to some universal, there must be a
relationship between them and the universal. But now we have two universals and
there needs to be a relationship established between the two universals. That
relationship could be as simple as their equality as universals. And now that
equality must too be a universal. And there is a relationship between that
equality and its universal. This web can continue indefinitely, preventing any
objective classification from exposing itself out of the statement, “The dog
ran around the tree.” As for Hobbes, his argument has a similar fate. Using
his logic, a statements meaning would be circular in nature. Going back to
Geirssons analogy of the weed, we can infer the statement “Weed satisfies
the need for humans to categorize certain types of plants.” Geirssons own
opinion of this is that now the term “satisfy” needs to be satisfied and
thus leads to a vicious circle.2 It is unfortunate that both men are dead and
unable to respond to such objections. However, of the two, Russells
point-of-view still seems to be the more persuasive. Russell, having been a
mathematician as well, could have fairly easily pointed out that there is
nothing subject to controversy in the idea of an infinite measure of anything.


An elementary principle of mathematics is that no matter what number you have,
one more can always be added. Just because this infinite amount of relationships
seems to make anything impossibly complex, does not make it illogical or
inconceivable. Consequently it is my conclusion that, while not error-free,
Bertrand Russells concept of relationship universals is, so far, most
impressive.