Reading Time: 10 minutes By Joreth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 10 minutes

I recently posted about abstract objects and things that are called universals, writing about how I think the whole area is thoroughly problematic for metaphysics and thus theology. I won’t go through it all again – you can read more here – but I will redefine universals. There is a danger this post could be huge, so I have been necessarily succinct or frugal in wht I talk about. The reason for this post is that one commenter claimed I didn’t really deal much with Aristotelian realism, and that I concentrated on Platonic realism (true, but for good reason, as will hopefully become apparent).

Abstract objects are incredibly important aspects within the context of philosophy. They include all of the labels and categories of things (tokens). These types are abstract. So, for example, a chair is both the token (actual chair) and the type (an abstract labelling as such). This can include numbers, universal ideas like redness, ideas like courage and justice, and even individual humans, such as Jonathan Pearce.

Because of their very nature, in being abstract, they can cause headaches for physicalism (and naturalism) and causality. Ever since the Greek times, there has been the famous problem known as the Problem of Universals. This deals with the problem in defining what the properties of objects are, ontologically speaking (i.e., what existence they have). Universals are common (universal) properties contained by more than one object. Two cars and a ball being red – what is redness? How can these different objects have an identical property and is that property real or in the mind of the conceiver, or indeed, contained within speech? Are these abstract objects and universals causally potent? Can redness take a position in a causal chain or relationship?

Let’s look to see how Aristotelian Realism differs from Platonic realism.

Platonism Realism

Realists claim that these abstracta are real – that they exist in some tangible way. Plato, from whom the term came, believed that universals, like redness, existed separately from the particular objects (particulars) which contained said property. Platonic realism states that such entities exist independently from the particular, as opposed to Aristotelian realism states that the universals are real but dependent on the particulars.

Some arguments propose that, in order to have truth value in statements, universals must exist, such that “This apple is red” implies that the universal of redness exists in another realm for the proposition to be truthful.

One fundamental issue for such theories is: where is the locus of these universals? Where can they be found and what is their ontology?

Aristotelian Realism

The problem of universals existing in some other realm is seemingly solved by an Aristotelian approach whereby universals exist when they are instantiated in individual particulars. Universals exist in things, or in re. Each green thing has a copy of the property of greenness.

There is a kind of prototypical empiricism in Aristotle’s viewpoint in that it is investigating things that we discern knowledge of the world – we acquire knowledge through sensation, and by tapping into, say, the treeness of a tree to find out about trees and treeness. Unless there is instantation, there is no universal (form).

As Martin Tweedale says in “Aristotle’s Realism” of Aristotle:

He was, rather, a realist, but of a very tenuous sort…. he viewed universals as real entities but lacking numerical oneness; each is numerically many, and yet each is also one in some sense. The specific identity of numerically distinct particulars creates something like a class, and this is the universal.

“In some sense” is key here. Personally, I see Aristotelian realism (AR) as a fudge. To me, this is just an attempt to make certain properties ontologically real. That manness is instantiated in a man and thus manness is a “real” concept does little for me. In my opinion, this is just saying that person X has A, B and C qualities and that we have agreed that A, B and C are properties that, when seen together, constitute a “man” and thus “manness”.

However, we know that gender is being called into question and, as such, we can see this concept is a human conceptual construction. After all, we see male seahorses giving birth, and gender and sex being two differing concepts, and so on. When we agree on such terms, we codify this in dictionaries (very roughly) and encyclopedias (more deeply) as to what properties together constitute a given label.

But these are open to change. We have hangovers from history and society in receiving certain labels-to-properties relations, but these are not magicked into some reality when we commit them to thought or paper. They can be argued and changed. The properties themselves don’t change (though our scientific methods give us more details on them, and our understanding of them changes with new knowledge). The fundamental properties remain what they are, and we use language to essentially invent descriptions thereof.

Edward Feser states, in The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism:

Like Plato, Aristotle is a realist in the sense we’ve been discussing. But he thinks Plato needs to be brought down to earth a bit. For Aristotle, universals or forms are real, and they are not reducible to anything either material or mental. Still, he thinks it is an error to regard them as objects existing in a “third realm” of their own. Rather, considered as they are in themselves they exist only “in” the things of which they are the forms; and considered as abstractions from these things, they exist only in the intellect. [p.30]

And later:

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our mind when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our mind when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. [p.124]

I think Feser is trying to have his cake and eat it. Damned cake-eater!


The problems with AR, as I see them, and I have hinted at some above, are as follows.

1) These instantiations are only accessible through human sensation and are subjectively interpreted. In Aristotle’s time, the universal of a solar system would have been described really very differently to today’s description of one. I struggle to see how such a theory can escape subjectivism.

2) Given the massive range of, say, colour (or anything that sits on a spectrum), the only sensible way of interpreting all the instantiation is that there isn’t blueness, but only individual instantiations of any given colour. Let me remind you of this:

evolution change

What humans do is arbitrarily assign a label to things. Above, there is blue or red. Or blue, purple and red. Or blue, purple, lilac, pink, puce, scarlet and red. And so on until we get to the level of labelling for any given instantiation. This is essentially what Photoshop does – it gives a code for every single colour. Now, you could perhaps argue for an AR account of each of them (assuming that you can’t go further down, to a more granular level) but what does this then say of the simple labels of blue and red? Do they disappear when they are found to be sub-optimal? When there appear to be no real demarcations? What of the “edgeness of redness”?

Aristotle did make a distinction between colour and, say, the label of “Socrates”. Socrates is a substance that exists in and of itself, whereas he saw colour as being an accident, a sort of modification to the substance (this could include weight or motion, for example). Substances always have accidents, but they are not essential to the substance. To me, however, this distinction still reflects the concept of labelling. Accidents are labels of properties which are assigned collectively to substances by labelling. Wetness emerges as a label to reflect the properties of multiple H2O molecules. This, in modern philosophical speak, is seen in terms of essenceproperty and contingency. Arguments abound as to whether there are, indeed, any essential properties (Anti-Essentialism) or whether all properties are necessary (Modal Necessitarianism).

I don’t think that this distinction particularly helps the Aristotelian get around the issues of the realism of these labels. The accidental properties of substances are still universals that are, at base, abstract.

And yes, humans understand these labels, but they are terribly fuzzy.

We understand what “adult” means, but this differs widely from culture to culture, and can be assigned from twelve to twenty-one, for example.

Fuzzy logic of boundaries play merry havoc with a clear understanding of AR.

3) What Feser above seems to hint at is the similarity between the instantiation and the sensation in the mind of the conceiver of the instantiation. But these are not identical. These are mental interpretations of properties. And we get these wrong, or disagree on them. In the species problem, you have palaeontologists disagreeing about which species a hominid fossil should belong to because it has properties of two hominids. The fossil, being transitional (as they all are) happens to sit right “between” the two species (itself a problematic ideal). As such, it is both. Or neither. And so humans actually disagree on the form or instantiation of the fossil. As Richard Dawkins said of this in The Greatest Show on Earth: “Once again we see how fickle and transitory our names are…. these three fossils have been variously called, by different authorities at different times”. Indeed, as states:

Homo habilis is a very complicated species to describe. No two researchers attribute all the same specimens as habilis, and few can agree on what traits define habilis, if it is a valid species at all, and even whether or not it belongs in the genus Homo or Australopithecus. Hopefully, future discoveries and future cladistic analyses of the specimens involved may clear up these issues, or at least better define what belongs in the species.

The reason this is, is because both species (in my first example) don’t exist in an ontic sense. There is a constant transition to which we apply two labels somewhat arbitrarily. As with the colours, we could have applied fifty, a hundred, or, indeed, none.

And the same can go for “dog”. So “dogness” doesn’t have ontic existence because the very label of dog is conceptually constructed to apply to certain animals on a biological and evolutionary spectrum. But not wolves. Perhaps.

Answering Criticisms

When I last posted about this and said:

Properties of particular objects can account for eventual similarity between objects (such as the green of grass and the green of a painted wall). Universals do not exist.

…Jayman (a Christian commenter) said:

This sounds incoherent. You want to say the greenness of the grass and the greenness of the painted wall are particulars but experience shows that greenness transcends either item. How can greenness be both particular and transcendent?

What appears to be happening is that AR proponents are looking at the correspondence of our thoughts to properties and seeing that as evidence of a realist sort of form rather than qualia, or sensations, of given properties. When our human sensations are similar to others’ (as they should be, with similar language, brains and social contexts), we see sameness, and apply labels. But if some of these differ (say, social context), then the labels and interpretations of the properties can differ. I might think a twelve-year-old is a child who should be treated morally appropriately and with whom adults should not be allowed to have sex. Someone else may have a completely different experience, thinking they qualify as an adult and sexual partner.

These are difference experiences of the same properties, both giving out different “forms” or “types”. For one person, there is an “adultness” of the twelve-year-old and their forty-year-old self, and for the other person there is not an adultness instantiated in both, but separate forms of human developmentalness: childness and adultness. And yet the properties in both cases are the same (indeed, the instantiation is one individual).

Who is right?

In some sense, under conceptualism, neither. Because these are subjective experiential labels. We have to try to agree on as much as we can, using logic and reasoning, and come by some moral rules that lead to legal codification.

This appears clearly what actually happens in the world. AR doesn’t seem to account for this, for what actually happens, whereas conceptualism does.

Jayman went on to say:

The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

The relation is itself a conceptual construction. Relations, seen as ontologically real things (as they would be under both types of realisms here) suffer from something called Bradley’s Regress:

Suppose that the individual a has the property F. For a to instantiate F it must be linked to F by a (dyadic) relation of instantiation, I1. But this requires a further (triadic) relation of instantiation, I2, that connects I1and a, and so on without end. At each stage a further connecting relation is required, and thus it seems that nothing ever gets connected to anything else.

Conceptualism is a form of eliminativism here, with regard to this problem. There is only a relation when we think of one.

Jayman continues (with my comments in italics):

We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter/energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of “rock” or “chair”, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism.

Platonic realism is not the only kind of realism. Furthermore, an arrangement of matter-energy just is a part of a chair’s formal cause. Even when trying to deny realism you aren’t able to do it coherently.

What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some form or other before the “chair” came to be. So the matter or energy did not “begin to exist”. This merely leaves the label of “chair”.

You are correct that the material cause of the chair pre-exists the chair. But you are incorrect in concluding that we are merely left with the label of the chair because you ignore the formal cause of the chair. You also admit that the molecules and atoms already existed in some form before taking on the form of a chair.

I could list some more quotes, but the point is the same. Jayman, and other Christian thinkers, really do favour Aristotelian accounts of causality (material, formal, efficient and final causes). Causality is a difficult concept over which people disagree. Aha! Look, you see, this is another concept over which there are fuzzy boundaries. It’s another case of conceptualism, in my mind. Just because Aristotle thought up four types of causes, it doesn’t mean these hold as objectively codifying causality!

I don’t want to get into critiquing the four causes here, but since the final cause is essentially “purpose”, you could imagine where I would start. That’s not to say purpose isn’t a valid idea, but I would not call it a cause. A tree stump doesn’t have an intrinsic purpose, but I could use it functionally as a table or a chair, and a cat could purpose it as a bed. That doesn’t mean it is objectively all these things now. It simply means that some entities have used it as those things and says little about its cause in the manner I would entertain “cause”.


So, on your view, science is just as unreal as God and objective morality?

Science is about investigating and understanding the world using language that describes reality functionally for us. We attempt to understand phenomena in the most accurate way possible (approaching corresponding to or reflecting their actual properties), and the scientific method self-corrects, often utilising forms of pragmatism to do so.

Our minds are about constructing maps of reality.

What Jayman and others do is confuse the map with the terrain. As Kant knew, we can never access the terrain-in-itself. The best we can do is approximate it as accurately as we can so that it is as pragmatically useful to us in flourishing as possible.



I don’t really see how AR gets you to realist accounts of morality and other theological labels. These still all appear to be conceptual constructions and we will continue to argue over them for many years to come.


Edward Feser, The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008)

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...