A Universal Mistake

One of the most important of Ayn Rand's contributions to the field of epistemology is contained in the seventh chapter of her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology entitled, "The Cognitive Role of Concepts."

In it she explains how the world we are conscious of is comprised of an infinite complexity of existents, events, and relationships and why it is not possible for us to comprehend this complexity simply by perceiving it. To understand it, we must "break it up," into manageable pieces we can identify and understand. This, Ayn Rand explains, is the role of concepts.

"The essence ... of man's incomparable cognitive power is the ability to reduce a vast amount of information to a minimal number of units—which is the task performed by his conceptual faculty." ["The Cognitive Role of Concepts," Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology," Page 63.]

The principle clearly explicated is this: the development of knowledge is essentially a process of simplification.

The Simplification of Philosophy

If there is any hope philosophy is going to be successful answering the most difficult questions, it must do so in terms of concepts that are simple, clear, and exact. With notable exceptions, the history of philosophy is the record of a relentless effort to make its concepts as complex, obscure, and incomprehensible as possible. The exceptions are the high points in the history of philosophy from which the most significant advances can all be traced.

One example of those high points is Occam's Razor, which, as Bertrand Russell observed, "swept away mountains of metaphysical lumber." Other high points of clarity and simplicity include Aristotle, Abelard, Bacon, Locke, and most recently Ayn Rand.

Despite the efforts of these and other great minds dotting the landscape of philosophy's history, the field continues to labor under a load of unnecessary complexity. It is the purpose of this article, the previous one on "Perception," and additional planned articles in this series, to address these points of unnecessary complexity and confusion which continue to infect the field of philosophy, and to correct them.

Superfluous Concepts

One of the most damaging concepts to ever infect philosophy is the concept of universals. Originated by Plato in his "forms," and "improved" by Aristotle as "universals," the idea has existed in some manner in every philosophy (with the exception of Abelard) since.

It might be interesting to trace the destructive effects of this concept throughout history to observe how it has corrupted every area of philosophical inquiry, but that is not my purpose. My purpose is to eliminate the concept from philosophy completely; because it is not a concept at all. It is a pseudo-concept, impossible of meaning, which even corrupts valid concepts when mixed with them.

What are universals? That is an excellent question and there are many answers to it and they are all different. There has never been a general agreement on what universals actually are; nevertheless, every philosopher has been sure there are such things and all have felt obliged to discuss and explain them. Even Ayn Rand felt obliged to solve, "the problem of universals," which she equated with, "concepts," calling it, "philosophy's central issue." [Foreword, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Page 1.]

Where Did Universals Come From?

There are two different though related questions of philosophy the concept of universals attempts to answer. The first has to do with the meaning of certain words. For example, we have general concepts, like "circle", "man," and "book," but to what, exactly, do we refer by those words? We know what a circle, a man, or a book is when we see one, but when we say, "that is a circle," "that is a book," or, "that is a man," what exactly are we saying?

I think it is safe to say what we and all men have always supposed we are saying is, "that is one of those things with the qualities of a circle," or "that has the qualities of a book," or "that has the qualities of a human being," which leads directly to the second question. What are the qualities of a circle, or the qualities of a book, or the qualities of a man? And what exactly are qualities, anyway?

There are lots of circles, but almost no two are exactly alike. How can they all be circles if they are all different? How can there be "qualities of a circle," if they all have different qualities? The problem is even greater for books and men, because circles only differ in size, but the differences in books and men are practically infinite. How can they all be books, with the qualities of books, or men, with the qualities of men, if they are all different and all have different qualities?

Universals and Essence

The problem gets worse. Before we even begin to think about the answer to the first two questions, another philosophical concept pops up. That is the concept of essence.

It is easy to imagine that all circles, despite their differences, have some quality which is common to them all. We can see it. Though they are all different (in size), the common quality is what makes them all look like circles. The ancient philosophers called that common quality which made circles circles, whatever other attributes they might have, their essential quality or essence.

Essence was thought to be what makes a thing what it is, and it was assumed everything has an essence; "circleness" is the essence of circles, "bookness" is the essence of books, and "manness" is the essence of man. As we mentioned, we can more-or-less see what "circleness" might be, but what in the world would "bookness" or "manness" be?

Philosophical Sleight of Hand

Plato was the first to attempt to provide an answer to the question of what the essence of a thing, which makes it what it is rather than something else, actually is. It was obvious to the early philosophers there is something about human beings that makes them men, and not books or rhinoceroses, no matter how different they are, and there is something about books that makes them books, and not men or pickles, no matter how different they are.

Plato's "solution," was to simply to give the notion, "that which makes a thing what it is," a name. The name he chose is forms. Just giving a concept a name does not exactly answer the question of what these "forms" are, or explain how they "work". Plato might have succeeded with the trick if he had left it at that, but felt constrained to explain what forms were. Plato's explanation of forms, however, as things which existed independently, and ideally, somewhere, that when infused or impressed on existents cause them to be what they are is very confused, and obviously wrong. Aristotle saw through it right away.

Aristotle's improvement was to rid the notion of essence of its mystical independent "real" existence. According Aristotle, essences exist only as attributes of existents; but they are actual attributes and they are universals, which is where we began. By universals Aristotle only means, the essence of any kind of existent is present in all existents of that kind, and it is the presence of that essence that makes the existents the kind of existents they are.

Two Solutions, Two Kinds of Qualities

Aristotle's "solution" does not really answer the question of what essence is, but it does answer the two original questions about universals. The second question was, how can two things with different qualities be the same kind of thing? Aristotle's answer to that question is there are two different kinds of qualities: essences and accidentals. Essence is that quality or property a thing has that makes it what it is; a thing must have its essence (or essential qualities) to be that thing, and having that essence, it cannot be anything else. All other qualities are accidentals, and for any existent, accidental qualities are any qualities it might have but which it does not necessarily have.

The answer to the first question of universals which was what do we mean by words like "circle", "man," and "book," follows directly. Aristotle's answer is we mean by, "circle," anything with the essential quality, "circleness," no matter what other " accidental" qualities it has, and by, "man," we mean anything with the essential quality, "manness," no matter what other " accidental" qualities they have, and by, "book," we mean anything with the essential quality, "bookness," no matter what other "accidental" qualities they have.

What is left unanswered by Aristotle is exactly what the essential qualities of, "circle," "man," and, "book," are. It is only asserted that they are universals.

Everything is a Universal

But what exactly does it mean to say something is a universal? It means that, whatever it is, it can be a quality or attribute of more than one thing. Of course this must be true if there is to be more than one of any kind of thing. Unless there is only one circle, "circleness" must be a quality of more than one thing, and unless there is only one man or only one book, manness and bookness must be qualities of more than one thing too.

This is where the concept of universals becomes very confused. It seems like it is the answer to the question, "what is essence?" but if all it means is it can be a quality or attribute of more than one thing, it means all qualities are universals, for the very same reason essences or essential qualities are universals. Unless there is only one "red" or only one "round" or only one "new" thing, "red," "round," and "new" must be qualities of more than one thing, and therefore universals.

Answers to Nothing

If universals are nothing more than qualities (any attribute, characteristic, or property), then what does the concept explain and what purpose does the concept serve?

It does not, in fact, answer any questions. It does not explain what we mean by words like circle, book, or man. Aristotle, at least provided the answer in abstract. Circle means anything with the essential quality, circle, and book means anything with the essential quality book, and man means anything with the essential quality man.

So What Is Essence?

Aristotle observed there are two kinds of qualities, essential qualities and accidentals. Though Aristotle wrongly identified what essential qualities are, his answer at least explained how things with different qualities can be existents of the same kind. What makes them existents of the same kind is they all have the same essential qualities, while their accidental qualities can be and usually are different.

Interestingly enough this solves another question as well, which is how a single thing can be the same thing over time if its qualities change. The answer is, the essential qualities do not change, only the accidental qualities change. A man starts as a baby, becomes a child and then an adult, the whole time, his knowledge is increasing; he then grows old, and may loose both physical and mental attributes in the process. Yet, the whole time it is the same "man," because the essential quality, "manness" remains the same the entire time, while all the other "accidental" qualities are changing.

Essence, for actual existents, is never a single quality, however, but a combination of all the characteristics and attributes necessary for an existent to be that existent. This is why I do not choose to use the term essence, but rather, the expression, "essential qualities," or, even better, necessary qualities.

At this point I must make two important notes to avoid confusion.

NOTE 1: Essential qualities, ontologically are different from essential qualities in the context of a definition. Ontologically, a thing is whatever all its qualities are, and as a member of a class or category, it is all the qualities necessary to that class; that is, all the qualities a thing must have to be one of the things belonging to that class. The necessary qualities also exclude any qualities with which the existent would be something else. The necessary qualities are, "all of these and only these," even if all of these are not entirely or perfectly known, and even if they are not known at all.

For purposes of a definition it is not necessary (and would be mistake) to enumerate all the necessary qualities. It is not necessary for a definition to name any of an existents actual qualities. It is only necessary for a definition to isolate the existents subsumed by the concept, which in some cases is accomplished by naming a quality or some qualities that within the scope of present knowledge, identify the things the concept subsumes, but meaning those existents with all of their qualities.

NOTE 2: The, term "accidental," for those qualities that are possible to an existent, but not necessary to it is unfortunate. I prefer the term possible for two reasons: 1. they are possible to any member of a class of existents, but for any particular existent, all the qualities of that existent are necessary, not, "accidental," and, 2. since not just any other qualities other than the necessary qualities can be true of an existent, the other qualities an existent may have, must be possible to that kind of existent. It is an existent's necessary qualities that determine what other kinds of qualities are possible to existents of that kind.

What's Wrong With Universals

If the fact a quality or attribute that can be true of more than one thing is all that is meant by a universal, there is nothing inherently wrong with that idea, but it is unnecessary. It is at least a violation of Occam's razor. Universals add nothing to our understanding of anything and can only add confusion to what is already perfectly well understood. But the concept of universals not only adds an unnecessary level of complexity to already difficult concepts, it blurs distinctions that are useful and important.

Disparate Concepts

One of the most damaging aspects of the pseudo-concept, universals, is that it conflates totally unrelated concepts, making them referents of a concept for which there is no purpose whatsoever.

A banana is a banana because it has the necessary qualities of "banananess," and a cow is a cow because she has the necessary qualities of "cowness." Everything has its necessary qualities, humans, mountains, dogs, and books, the necessary qualities of which we call humanness, mountainness, dogness, and bookness. All these necessary qualities of are called universals.

But other qualities, like redness, sharpness, heaviness, and wetness are also universals. Even abstract qualities, like oldness, importantness, goodness, and fiveness are universals.

Subsumed by the concept universals, therefore are all these: banana, cow, human dog, book, mountain, red, sharp, heavy, wet, old, important, good, and five. If it were not for the concept universals, we would never know these were in some sense, all the same kind of thing. Anyone can see, just by looking what all these have in common, NOTHING! It is a huge confusion.

There is another confusion. Since universals include all qualities (characteristics, attributes, and properties), both necessary (essential) and possible (accidental) qualities are included as universals. What is the point of a concept that confuses this most important distinction between two categories of qualities.

The only possible commonality between the things called universals is that they can be predicated of something. Well, we already have the perfectly good term, "predicates," which has none of the nonsensical implications of the pseudo-concept "universals." If that is all that is meant by "universals," it is simply superfluous.

Making Something of Nothing
In More Than One Place at the Same Time

No matter how clearly it is demonstrated there is no rational basis for the concept universals, the advocates of this mistaken notion persist. There are two questions always presented as necessitating the concept of universals, "how can the same thing be in more than one thing?" and, "how can it be in more than one thing at the same time?" Even if these were legitimate questions, which they are not, how the concept of universals would answer them is not explained, but, we are assured it is necessary because otherwise the questions pose some great mystery.

The always unstated (and denied if pressed) implication of these questions is qualities are something which are actually in things. I suspect these questions are really a confusion of language and could be corrected simply by pointing out qualities are not "in" things, they are "of" things. A thing's attributes are not the result of anything added to, impressed on, or infused into it, a thing's attributes are what that thing is or does.

Not Things and Not Abstractions

Qualities are not things and they are not abstractions. (There are abstract qualities, however.) Suppose we have a bunch of tin sheets, all perfectly flat. Someone comes along and, with a hammer, pounds dimples into several of the sheets. Looking at the sheets of tin we immediately notice there is something different about some of the sheets. The quality that makes those sheets different is "dimples." We may call that quality "dimpled." Obviously "dimpled" is not something added to the sheets. Its not a "something" that in any sense is in them, because nothing as been added to them at all. The dimples are an aspect or attribute of the dimpled tin sheets. But "dimpled" is also not "abstract." Dimples are real features or characteristics of some of our tin sheets.

The mistaken notion that qualities are "in" things, once it has gripped someone, seems very hard to shake. One other way this "great mystery" is sometimes expressed is, "how can there be multiple instances of the same thing in different places at the same time? How can redness, for example, be present in more than one thing like an apple, a traffic light, and an LED all at the same time?

There is nothing that can be present in multiple instances, at least not at the same time. Of course I can be present at the barbers in the morning and at the supper table in the evening, but that is not what is meant here. The idea is that there is actually "something" which is present in different things, even at the same time. If that were not what is meant, there would be no mystery?

Consider jumping beans. One of the attributes of jumping beans is that they jump. Jumping is an attribute of jumping beans. It would be absurd to say that "jumping" is in more than one jumping bean at the same time. What is in more than one jumping bean is a worm that makes them jump. It is a different worm in every jumping bean. It is the same kind of worm, however, that is in each jumping bean, but each worm is a distinct existent.

All attributes are "in" things in the same way as jumping bean worms. Just is it may be said loosely, it is the same worm in all jumping beans, but means the "same kind of worm," when we say, it is the same color (or shape or any other attribute) in things, it would be more accurate to say, it is the same kind of color, such as red, that is "in" all red things, but each instance of red is unique.

The Physics of Qualities

While there is no general agreement about what universals are, exactly, they usually include all possible qualities and attributes. In most discussions, however, the examples given are usually attributes of physical existents. For example, roundness would be a universal because it is an attribute of apples, oranges, and other round things. But non-physical attributes are also considered universals. For example difficultness is a universal because it is an attribute of some mathematical problems, computer programs, and other difficult things. Roundness pertains to physical existents, difficulty pertains to some kinds of problems relative to achieving some objective; these are concepts, not physical existents.

For the moment, I only want to consider those concepts called universals that pertain to physical existents. By demonstrating their true nature, it becomes obvious they are not anything of which it can be said, "they are in more than one thing."

Ultimately, all physical properties can be reduced to the behavior of entities. We know this is true, for example, of the quality red. Red is not a something that is in red things, it is something red things do. What they do is caused (by reflecting it, transmitting it, or producing it) light within a specific range of wave lengths or frequencies to emanate from them. An object may be red because its surface only reflects red light or it is illuminated only by red light for it to reflect. A traffic light is red because the lens only transmits red light. An LED is red because it produces red light. Redness is not something in red things, redness is how we perceive what red things do.

This is how all the attributes of physical things can be understood. Since someone is bound to ask, I will explain this in terms of an attribute that does not seem like something an entity does, the attribute of roundness. How is roundness something a round thing does? There are two answers to this question. The first is somewhat general. Any shape is an attribute of things that maintain a shape. (A shape might be a transitional state for some things, however.) To be round it must behave in a way that allows it to be round, for example a marble, a drop of water (under the right conditions) and a smoke ring are all round. The roundness in each case is the result of the behavior of the entity, however nebulous (or smokey). It is fairly easy to see how the roundness of a smoke ring, or a drop of water falling is simply an attribute of what it does, but what about the marble. It doesn't do anything to be round, does it?

This is where the physics comes in. I do not believe philosophical problems can be solved by appeals to science, but since I do not regard universals as a legitimate philosophical concept (or any other kind of legitimate concept), an exception may be safely made in this case.

Physics tells us there is nothing static in the physical universe. Even those things that seem most solid and, "still," just beneath the surface of what we can see, they are a seething cauldron of ceaseless atomic and subatomic activity, and all those attributes of solidity and "stillness" are the manifestation of that activity at the physical perceivable level. We cannot see all that activity, but in even the most solid of entities, we can feel it, in the form of heat.

A marble is round and remains round because that is the manifestation of all the behavior of the molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles of which it is comprised. If all the molecules suddenly bent in one direction, or all the atoms suddenly shifted to one side, or most of the subatomic particles suddenly left, the marble would, at least, have a different shape, and would probably cease to exist.

The Phoenix of Philosophy

For physical existents, those attributes and characteristics said to be "the same quality in more than one thing," are actually only actions, and the actual case is, the common attributes and characteristics are only the same actions by those existents that exhibit those qualities. This fact alone should dispense with the false notion of universals once and for all; but, there are still those abstract qualities for things which are not physical, like effectiveness (of a processes or program, for example) or beauty (of a work of art or a woman, for example). Obviously these kinds of universals are not "actions." But, it is equally obvious they are not characteristics that are in anything. In fact, neither is in the object predicated by them at all, because they are both, "evaluations," the first in relation to some objective, the second in relation to someone's values, and no matter how objectively analyzed, the object of the evaluations remains the same however it is evaluated.

The concept, "universals," is a useless and confusing concept first interjected into the body of philosophical thought by the mystic Plato. It is a synthetic concept like the phoenix or unicorn, completely devoid of objective meaning. The concept of universals must be relegated to the trash heap of junk concepts along with phlogiston, animal magnetism, and ectoplasm.