The Debate of Universals, What Does the Problem of Universals Mean?

The Debate of Universals, What Does the Problem of Universals Mean?

June 28, 2021 Off By Felso

The discussion of universals is a bundle of philosophical problems and inquiries that reached its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries. Universals emerged as a name given to the general ideas considered as the essence of beings in scholastic philosophy and became the main concept of the philosophical inquiry called the discussion of universals. Universals are also synonymous with the terms generals and general concepts.

The Emergence of the Universals Debate

Although the discussion of universals was not understood as a problem in itself in Ancient Greece, it is frequently seen that answers are sought for various questions posed by the problem. However, the problem first became understandable in Porphyrios’ Isagoge.

Isagoge was written mainly for the better understanding of Aristotle’s Categories. Porphyrios addresses Khrysaorios at the beginning of the work and says that in order to learn the doctrine of Categories, it is necessary to know what genus, distinction, trait, species and accident are, and that he will give himself a superficial and simple explanation for this.

With this introduction, Porphyrios takes up the work of explaining many of the terms used in the Categories in the Isagoge, and Porphyrios poses the fundamental questions of the discussion of universals as follows:

“First, in matters concerning the genus, the species, whether they are permanent substantial realities, or whether they are simple concepts of the mind, and whether, given substantial realities, whether they are bodily or incorporeal, and finally whether they exist in separate or sensible things and in relation to them. I will refrain from talking about it.”


It is understood that Porphyrios has set three questions here:

Are genera, species permanent substantive realities or simple concepts of the mind?
If they are substantial realities, do they have corporeal or immaterial existence?
Do they exist in and according to sensible things, or are they separate from them?

These questions, which Porphyrios refrains from answering because they constitute the subject of further investigation, are fundamental questions we must answer as we explore the discussion of universals.

Rather than answering the above-mentioned questions, Porphyrios examines the meanings of the basic terms in Aristotle’s work called Categories and the relations between these terms. This study will play a decisive role in the terminology of the research field that will emerge in the following periods. Even if the work does not directly seek solutions to the questions, it plays an important role in the discussion of the problem in terms of determining the questions and terminology.

What is the Universals Debate?

The discussion of universals is actually a subject of ancient origin; but during the Middle Ages, it became a philosophical discussion based on it. In addition, this debate is not just a discussion that remained in the Middle Ages; It is still a matter of debate in philosophical circles today.

In his work “Isagoge”, Porphyrios questions the condition of species and genera, which are called universals (katholou) and which Aristotle calls “secondary substance”, and asks this in the introduction to his work, “Are genera and species permanent realities?” expresses it with a question. In this context, “Do the kinds and types of things existing in the external world exist before or not?” The problem also lays the groundwork for the discussion of universals.

Here is whether the universal exists; If there is, various interpretations of “Isagoge”, which includes questions such as where it is located and whether it is material or not, has revealed the separation called the discussion of universals.

Philosophical Comments on the What of Universals

The term “universals” is a term that caused the greatest philosophical debates of the Middle Ages and shook the foundations of scholasticism. Plato argued that ideas are the essences of objects, that they exist before and outside of objects, and that they carry an objective existence separate from objects.

In the scholastic Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages, those who maintain Plato’s view are called Realists (because they said that ideas are real entities), while those who oppose this view of Plato are called nomenclaturists (because they said that ideas are not real but only names).

The debates between them shook the foundations of scholasticism and prepared the preconditions for its collapse, because if universals are not considered real, religious dogmas, especially the concept of God, have no reality.

The discussion of universals is essentially about whether universals exist or not, but whether they have objective reality. In other words, the existence of universals is accepted in all cases; however, where they are and how people reach or reach them have been the subject of discussion. Let’s try to explain the issue with examples:

Let’s imagine two shoes, one yellow and the other dark blue, standing side by side. These two shoes differ from each other in terms of both their physical properties and the place they occupy in the space. So what