Universalia II

Thank you, Mr. Copleston.
(Frederick Copleston, (1907 – 1994). / CC BY-SA 1.0 / Contrast-enhanced)

As we saw in Porphyry’s quotation in Universalia, he abstained from the fight for the truth about universals. But by referring to the problem only with respect to genera and species, I think that he might have created another problem, a bias in the study of universals that crossed the whole of the Middle Ages and onwards up to our times to befuddle our ignorant minds on the topic — my ignorant mind, at least.

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Universalia

Imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry.
I could bet the subject would be the problem of universals.

Beginning with Socrates and especially Plato, the “problem of universals” (called universalia by logicians of the Middle Ages) has plagued the history of thought to this day. But what was — or rather, what is — exactly this problem? Is there really a problem? I put this idea in my head that I need to devote myself to this problem, but the truth is that I still do not fully understand its importance. What I would like to be able to do is to convince a complete layman in philosophy that he should be interested in this problem. At the moment, I find that completely impossible. Below, I reproduce some definitions of the problem I found online just to start thinking about it. The road ahead will be arduous, so I’ll start slowly.

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History of Philosophy – Lesson 9: Plato and his Two Worlds

“To get God out of Plato’s Form of the Good, you in effect have to do two things — drop an “o,” and add a personality (which was very shortly done).”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 9.
Plato’s World of Forms demands innate ideas, a soul separable from a body, mystic revelation and the disregard for the senses. While I admire Plato a lot, and greatly enjoy reading and thinking about his dialogues, I wonder how much more objective the world would be if he had never existed.
(Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.)

Although Leonard Peikoff (and Objectivism) disagrees entirely with Plato, he admits the genius of the philosopher. Plato was the first to gather all the “suggestions” that had been produced by the pre-Socratics and the sophists, in addition to all the teachings of Socrates in a coherent whole. In doing so, he created philosophy as it is, for better or for worse.

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History of Philosophy – Lesson 8: Socrates and the Problem of Universals

“A dog, for instance, likes a bone; he likes a number of bones. Now the question is: Why doesn’t it occur to him to start a bone store, or to start a science of bones, boneology, and find out where do bones come from and how do you get them? And the trouble is the poor dog can’t get the idea of boneness, you see; he gets this bone, and then the next one, he forgot the first one, and then the next one, and so on. And so his problem is he’s enmeshed in particulars and he can’t rise to universals.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 8.
(The “Universal Man”, by Gerald Gladstone. Socrates was probably not thinking of that when looking for a proper abstraction of man, but I guess it’s a nice mnemonic for the topic of universals. Original source: SimonP; CC BY-SA 3.0 / Desaturated from original)

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence of Socrates in the history of thought. He taught Plato, who taught Aristotle; only that would show his importance, but, of course, he did much more. Most of what we know about Socrates, however, is through Plato’s dialogues, so the truth is we do not know much about him. Scholars tend to agree that the first dialogues represent mainly the historical Socrates, while the middle and the final dialogues represent Plato himself. Be that as it may, as a fictional character, a true philosopher, or just a man of character, Socrates has been teaching all of mankind for millennia. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This could be considered his motto; today it is mine.

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