Aristotle's Theory of Universal


The concept of universal in Aristotle’s philosophy has several aspects. 1) Universal and plurality Aristotle posits universal (καθόλου) versus particular (καθ᾿ ἕκαστον) each covering a range of elements: some elements are universal while others are particulars. Aristotle defines universal as ‘that which by nature is predicated (κατηγορεῖσθαι) of many subjects’ and particular as ‘that which is not’ so. (OI ., I, 7, 17a38-b1) The plurality of possible subjects of universal is what Aristotle insists on. The inclusion of the notion of ‘plurality’ in the definition of universal might make us expect to have ‘singularity’ in the definition of particular. So, when Aristotle says that universal is that which is naturally predicable of many subjects, we expect him to define the particular as ‘that which is predicable of one subject only.’ Nonetheless, Aristotle does not and indeed cannot define it this way. We cannot find a text in which he defines particular as such simply because particulars are not predicable of any subject unless we regard their predication of themselves a predication, which Aristotle does not, at least in a genuine sense. Thus, he defines a particular only negatively. Hence, the capability of predication of a plurality is indeed the capability of predication itself because the particular cannot be predicated of anything. A particular is that which cannot be predicated of anything (or: of anything else, if saying of a thing of itself is to be considered as predication). It is ‘numerically one’ and what of which the universal is predicated (Met., B, 999b34-1000a1). Those that cannot be predicated of anything, or particulars, are of two kinds: primary substances and individual accidents. Besides Categories we can hardly find a text where Aristotle discusses individual accidents maybe because they are of much less importance for him compared with substances. However, substances are what he mentions repeatedly so that we can confine particulars to substances. In fact, it is substance that Aristotle considers so repeatedly as what cannot be predicated. As the main particulars and individuals, substances are posited as the main things that are not universal. The closeness of the two concepts of ‘substance’ and ‘unpredicability’ is to the extent that he ignores individual accidents and makes these concepts equal and as the opposite of universal: ‘what is not predicated of a subject is said a substance (οὐσία λέγετα τὸ μὴ καθ᾿ ὑποκειμένου) but what is always said of some subject is called a universal.’ (Met., Z, 1038b15-16. cf. Met., B, 1003a7-9) Therefore, since particulars cannot be predicated of any subject and, thus, every predication is necessarily a predication of a plurality of subjects, the inclusion of ‘plurality’ in the definition of universal is either i) in the sense of ‘representation’ or it must be regarded as ii) an unnecessary addition mentioned just for clarification or iii) only for avoiding cases where something is predicated of itself. By the first we mean this: though a substance is not said of anything, it represents some one thing and there is some one thing that is that substance. A universal, on the other hand, can represent a plurality of things. There is, however, a third possibility that has no essential difference with the sense of representation. Aristotle might have ‘arbitrary predication’ in mind when he suses ‘plurality’ in the definition of universal: while a particular can be the arbitrary predicate of just one thing, a universal can be predicated, both really and arbitrarily, of many things. Whatever Aristotle’s intention was, what is important for our investigation is this: Aristotle uses the notion of plurality in the definition of universal in spite of the fact that it is not necessary. What this implies is that this notion is so important for Aristotle that albeit every predictability is a predictability of a possible plurality, he adds the notion of plurality. What makes this notion important, I believe, is that he has something like a class in mind when he defines a universal because the notion of plurality is indistinguishable from a class. 2) Universal and whole; particular and part In Aristotle, the concepts of universal and whole are so close: ‘That which is true of a whole class and is said to hold good as a whole (which implies that it is a kind of whole) is true of a whole in the sense that it contains many things by being predicated of each, and that each and all of them, e.g. man, horse, god, are one because all are living things (τὸ μὲν γὰρ καθόλου καὶ τὸ ὃλως λεγόμενον ὡς πολλὰ περιέχον τῷ κατηγορεῖσθαι καθ’ ἑκάστου καὶ ἓν ἃπαντα εἶναι ὡς ἑκαστον, ...). Phil Corkum points to Aristotle’s distinction between quantitative and integral wholes in Met., 5, 26, 1023b26-33 where a quantitative whole is called homoiomerous, as the sum of animal while an integral whole, e.g. a house, is called heteromerous. He links the notion of homoiomerous to the notion of indivisibility of individuals (in 1b6-9 and 3b10-18) and indivisibility of universals. He believes that in PrA., I, 4, 25b32-26a2 it is the transitivity of mereological containment that is discussed. 3) Universal is common between instances Universal is common (κοινόν) between all the plurality of subjects it can be predicated of because what belongs to more than one thing must be common between them. (Met., Z, 1038b10-12) In the Same way, what is common cannot be a particular and, thus, a substance. (Met., Z, 1040b23-24) An individual or substance is a ‘this’ and a ‘this’ cannot be what common indicates simply because it is here in ‘this’ and can be nowhere else while common must be common between several things. In fact, what can be indicated by a common is indeed a ‘such.’ (Met., B, 1003a7-9) 4) Universal is the same in its instances We have a universal i) in all of its instances and ii) in the same way (ταὐτὸ ἐπὶ πὰντων). (Met, Γ, 1005a9-10) While the first point is evident (otherwise how could it be their universal?), the second point might seem not only ambiguous but the cause of many problems. For Aristotle, therefore, a universal must be ‘one’ in number and not many. This numerically one universal is the very universal for all its instances. It is the same universal that is predicated on each of its instances. This sameness is not, however, a mere homonymous sameness or the sameness of a homonymous word. All these three points, namely oneness, sameness and rejection of mere homonymous sameness are asserted in Aristotle’s own words τι ἕν καὶ τὸ αὐτὸ ἐπὶ πλειόνων μη ὁμώνυμον. (PsA., A, 11, 77a8-9) This non-homonymous unity is asserted also in PsA., A, 24, 85b15-16. 5) Universal as predicate Contrary to substance that cannot be a predicate, universal is what cannot be prevented from being in the place of predicate. Therefore, Aristotle distinguishes universal from subject because while the latter must necessarily be capable of being a predicate, though it might take the position of subject as well, the latter does not necessarily have such a capability especially when it is a this because it cannot be a predicate in such a case: ‘For the subject and universal differ in being or not being a ‘this’; like man and body and soul are the subject of accidents while the accident is something like musical or white.’ (Met., Θ, 1049a27-30) This indicates that a universal is basically different from subject and although it can be posited in the place of subject, it is the position of predicate that is its position as a universal. In Metaphysics, Z, 13, Aristotle asserts that ‘no universal can be substance.’ The same is asserted in Met., I, 1053b16-17 cf. 1060b21. As James H. Lesher points out, Aristotle’s position is that ‘nothing predicated universally is a substance.’ 6) Universal in substance In Met., 10388b8-9 Aristotle says that no universal is a substance. While a universal cannot be a substance in the way essence (to ti en einai) is, it is, Aristotle asserts, ‘in’ it (ἐν τούτῳ δὲ ἐνυπάρχειν) (Met., Ζ, 1038b16-18). Aristotle’s examples are: animal in man and horse. A universal is ‘in’ the thing it is its universal. But in what sense a universal can be in a thing? It cannot be in it as ‘in a subject’, which is denied in Categories for secondary substances. If we check the senses of being in, we can find some other senses of ‘being in’ some of which are compatible with this sense of ‘being in.’ Michael J. Loux believes that contrary to his earlier works like Peri Ideaon and Organon in which the immanence of universals signals a reproduction of the platonic two worlds picture, in his later works like Physics and Metaphysics, when Aristotle tells us that universals are in particulars he means that they are ‘components of or ingredients in sensible particulars.’ In Metaphysics (Δ, 1014b3-9) Aristotle compares elements with universals and call them ‘the most universal things because elements are present either in all or in many things. 7) Logos is of universal Not only universals have logos (Met., Z, 1038b18-19) but ‘Every logos and every science is of universals and not of particulars.’ (Met., K, 1059b25-26) The reason is that they are the same: the logos of the unjiversal ‘circle’ is nothing but ‘being circle’ and the logos of the universal ‘soul’ is ‘being soul.’ (Met., Z, 1035b33-1036a2) The same is said about definition. (Met, Z, 1036a27-29) 8) Universal: in the soul Contrasting individuals, universals are in the soul (So., 3, 5, 417b22-23; cf. PsA., B, 19, 100a6-7). Aristotle also says that the form, i.e. the essence, of the artwork is in the soul. (met., Z, 1032a32-b2) Moreover, as Michael J. Loux points out, ‘the Peri Ideon tells us that we need universals to serve as the objects of noetic acts.’ 9) Universal: not beside individual In spite of the fact that demonstration creates the opinion that demonstrating is based on the existence of universals as existing among the existing things, they do not have existence besides individuals (PsA., A, 24, 85a31-35; Met, Λ, 1071a19-23). Aristotle believes that universals of a P-series (B203, 71) are not παρὰ τὰ εἴδη: 999a6ff. Also check De Anima, II, 3, 414b20-25 10) Primary or commensurate universal Aristotle distinguishes ‘πρῶτον καθόλού’ (PsA., B, 17, 99a33-35) literally meaning ‘primary universal’ but mostly, and truly, translated as commensurate universal. While a universal merely ‘μὴ ἀντιςτρέφει,’ a primary universal ‘ᾧ ἓκαςτον μὲν μὴ ἀντιςτρέφει’ (PsA., B, 17, 99a33-35). Aristotle mentions three conditions for a commensurate universal. It is an attribute that i) belongs to every instance of its subject (without exception!!!), and this belonging is ii) essentially and iii) qua that subject itself (ᾗ αύτό). (PsA., A, 4, 73b26-28) However, he insists that the second and the third conditions are indeed the same. (PsA., A, 4, 73b28-30) The first condition he paraphrases as ‘to belong to any random instance of that subject’ and the second and the third as ‘when the subject is the first thing to which it can be shown to belong.’ (PsA., A, 4, 73b32-74a3) Aristotle’s example is ‘the equality of its angles to two right angles’. This attribute is not a commensurate universal of figure due to the first condition: it cannot be demonstrated of any figure. Nonetheless, though it can be demonstrated of every isosceles because every isosceles has angles equal to two right angles, it is not a commensurate universal of isosceles due to the other conditions: it is not predicated of isosceles qua isosceles but qua triangle. These conditions seem to be like regulators: they organize everything to match to the right group. The method of finding commensurate universal is like test and error method based on elimination: you must eliminate each of the higher or lower universals and check if the attribute remains or not. The commensurate universal is that which remains in between eliminated universals. (cf. PsA., A, 5, 74a37-b4) Brad Inwoodpresents an understanding of commensurate universal that is different from what I have understood and, thus, must be checked: ‘These universals are propositions in which, for example, ‘all A are B’ is true and which are still true universal statements if converted: ‘all B are A’ is also true.’

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Mohammad Bagher Ghomi
University of Tehran


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