’ Argument Against Universals Essay, Research Paper

Boethius’ Argument Against Universals

In the essay From His Second Commentary on Porphyry s Isagoge Boethius discusses

the existence of universals.. By proposing two main arguments, he first shows why a view

such as that held by Plato (one claiming that universals exist independent of particulars

and that a universal exists wholly in each particular at all times) is false. Then he presents

his own view of the relationship between universals and particulars which is based on the

idea that the universals exist in the collectivity of the particulars.

Boethius first argument against a Platonic view of universals concerns how a

single universal can exist wholly and entirely in each particular thing to which it is

common. A universal is supposedly one entity existing in every particular to which it is

common at all times. But Boethius argues that if it is to exist wholly in several things at

one time, it cannot in itself be one entity. According to Boethius everything that exists

exists for the reason that it is one. And therefore, if the universal is existing in several

things at one time (and thus is not one in number) then it cannot exist in this Platonic


Boethius second argument deals with universals if they are to be spoken of as

being many rather than one. He explains that to say is also false. For to say this is to

imply that there will be no last (universal set above the others). This is because there

will be a universal set over many things and will thus be multiple. And because it is in

many things, it has a likeness of what is a (universal). But it is a likeness that is not one

in number and therefore, another (universal) of that (universal) is also to be searched

for. Boethius explains that this is an infinite cycle and because of that the universal has

no real meaning in this context

Boethius tells that in order to exist and remain one in number, the universal must

instead exist either: in parts belonging to individual things (the universal is divided among

many particulars), in its entirety to one single particular at some given time (the particular

in which it exists changing over a period of time), or in that it is common to all particulars

at once but not in a way so that it is of the substance of what it is common to… (but

rather) as a stage-play, or some spectacle which is common to all the spectators. But the

universal cannot exist in any one of these ways, as Boethius explains; for it is supposed

to be common in such a way that both the whole of it is in all its singulars, and at one

time, and also it is able to constitute and form the substance of what it is common to.

Boethius finally presents his own understanding of the existence of universals.

Rather than a Platonic view where the particular things are dependent on the universals,

Boethius speaks of a theory where the universals are dependent on the particulars. That

is, it is the collective particular things which create the universals. Boethius uses the

example of individual man and his relationship to species and genus to illustrate this

concept: distinct individual men give the likeness of humanity. Boethius claims this

likeness to be the species. Likewise, the likeness of distinct species (those of a wide range

of different animals) make up a genus. In this example, the species and the individual men

are analogous to the particulars. The genus then, is analogous to a universal, thus

showing that it is from particulars that comes the universals.


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