The nature of the relationship between “universals” — Humanity, Justice, Goodness, etc. — and “particulars” — this human being, this instance of justice, and that instance of goodness — is a matter that philosophers have been busy at work trying to iron out for millennia. On a reasonably broad spectrum, there are two rival poles: the one is represented by Plato, the other by John Locke. Plato insisted that not only are universals real, they are ultimately more real than particulars. Universals are eternal, immutable, and incorruptible while particulars, in contrast, are temporal, mutable, and corruptible. For example, individual human beings come and go, but the universal of Humanity is always and forever the same. It is the universal that invests the particular with identity and, thus, renders us capable of recognizing it as the particular that it is. From this perspective, particulars stand in relation to universals as shadows stand in relation to the objects that cast them: particulars depend upon universals for their being.
Hence, Plato’s position has been branded an especially robust form of “realism.”
John Locke, on the other hand, didn’t just reject the notion that universals are more real than particulars; he staunchly rejected the very idea that universals are real at all. Universals have no “ontological” standing. They have no reality, that is. They are but general terms that we invent for the sake of rendering our experience of particulars more manageable. So, for instance, there is no such thing as “humanity”; there are only individual, particular human beings. From our experience with the latter, we abstract those features that are common to all humans. To this set of common features we ascribe the label, the name, “humanity.”
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Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. (photo)