Particulars and Universals

Particulars and Universals



It is a truism regarding particulars that they cannot be in two places at the same time. This is why alibis work in the law. Types of particulars can have multiple spatially separated instances, but not particulars themselves. Particulars are necessarily singly located things. Of course, they can have parts that are at different places simultaneously, but not the whole object. It is an essential property of any particular that it occupies a unique position in space at a given time. But the same is not true of universals: they can be manifest at different locations simultaneously. We can rightly say that they exist at different places at the same time: for example, the universal green exists wherever there is a green leaf. The same universal can be present at multiple locations simultaneously; and not just parts of it—the thing itself. Universals don’t even have parts; it is the whole universal that exists at a given location whenever a leaf is green. The single thing is spread out over space without detriment to its unity. We don’t think it must be a different green that is present in one place in contrast to another place; it is the same universal green that enjoys multiple locations.  The same particular must exist at one place only, but the same universal can exist at many places—sometimes billions of places. Particulars are spatially tied down, but universals can roam freely—except that there is no roaming, just multiple spatially separated instantiations. The universal is spatially distributed, but the particular is spatially localized. Herein lies an essential difference between the two—their different relation to space. Particulars are individuated by their location, while universals are not—they can be anywhere (sometimes nowhere).

This point should be obvious, but its metaphysical implications less so. Our world is made of two sorts of entities, one that is spatially monogamous and one that is spatially promiscuous. Both are essential to the formation of facts: for a particular to exemplify a certain property is for space to contain an entity necessarily at a single location that instantiates another entity that necessarily has many locations. Even if this second entity happens to have just one instance, it has potentially many instances—as in a world containing a single green leaf. Facts consist of the interplay of the spatially unique and the spatially common. Space offers itself in two ways, as the unique location of a particular and as the residence of a multiply located universal. We should take literally the idea that a universal exists in many places: it is here, there, and everywhere. Space cooperates with particulars and universals to produce facts, where these facts are a combination of the spatially confined and the spatially free-ranging. The world is the totality of combinations of the spatially singular and the spatially profligate—particulars and universals.

We should contrast this metaphysical picture with Plato’s picture (or at least how it has been represented). If we regard universals as existing in platonic heaven, conceived as a separate quasi-space housing the Forms, then they will have a single locus of existence. Within this quasi-space they have a unique location—perhaps all the color universals are clustered together in one corner of a vast hyperspace of universals. We will not then say that universals have their existence in the sublunary particulars that exemplify them; rather, the particulars are said to “participate” in the universals that exist in the otherworldly realm. According to this picture, universals are logically (ontologically) like particulars in that both enjoy a confined existence within their respective spaces—they have a unique location in the order of things. But if we insist on following ordinary language that is not the case: universals exist in, and at, the particulars that exemplify them. They are a totally different kind of being, not locally bounded at all, not sealed off from other being. For all his dedication to the special existence of universals, Plato modeled them too closely on particulars, taking them to be (quasi-) spatially compartmentalized–like so many celestial ducks in a row. But the essence of universals is to be spread out, borderless, scattered, nomadic. When I look out of my window I see greenness (that universal) at many different places: the single entity spreads itself across the landscape, seemingly without strain or limit. It does not (condescendingly) offer shards of itself to individual green objects but rather takes up full-blown residence in particulars, like a lodger. It divides its time between one place and another, but without having to do any traveling between them. Particulars can only get from A to B by taking a trip between them, but universals can effortlessly occupy many places simultaneously, with no travel required.  Thus they don’t descend from platonic heaven (a kind of journey) but rather find themselves spread hither and thither as a matter of course. Their original being is to be located multiply. For particulars, space is a challenge, a cage, and a trap; but for universals, space is no impediment, no constraint, just an arena of absolute freedom. Absolutely nothing prevents a universal instantiated here from also being instantiated (that universal) millions of light-years away. The particular cannot share its being with any remote object, while the universal spreads its being effortlessly. The particular cannot be in two places at once, but the universal is invariably in many places at once.

This has implications for epistemology. Russell talked about acquaintance with particulars and universals, picturing the latter as a kind of non-sensory intuition. Both are necessary for propositions to be grasped and known. But if universals are the distributed entities I have described, then that is too simple—the acquaintance must take a different form. I hesitate to enter this fraught territory, but we might suppose that at least part of acquaintance with universals involves direct perception of them by means of the senses. When you look at a leaf you literally see the universal green. That universal permeates the leaf in all its glory, and you see the leaf as green, so don’t you see the universal itself? Maybe some additional cognitive act is necessary in order to make real acquaintance with the universal in all its generality, but can’t we say that you are literally seeing it whenever you see a green leaf, despite its presence elsewhere? In any case, we need not slavishly model acquaintance with universals on acquaintance with particulars, as if each took a segregated entity as object—as if we can gaze at the individual shining inhabitants of Plato’s heaven. Rather, the universal has an essentially fragmented existence, i.e. it exists at each of its instantiations. The epistemology of universals should reflect this ontological character.

There have been two opposing tendencies in thinking about particulars and universals: one tendency takes particulars to be constructions out of universals, as with the “bundle theory” of particulars; the other takes universals to be constructions out of particulars, as with the idea that universals are collections of particulars (a kind of “bundle theory” of universals). The former theory has trouble accepting that particulars are spatially locked down—why couldn’t the same bundle of properties crop up at different locations? The latter theory has trouble with the fact that universals can exist independently of any specific collection of particulars—couldn’t the same universal exist in some other collection? The truth is that particulars and universals have very different kinds of being, as is clear from their different relations to space. A convincing alibi will always exculpate a particular, but misdeeds by universals can never be exculpated by reference to remote instantiations. Particulars can only be in one place at a time, but universals can be dispersed through space during a given time interval and generally are so dispersed. Any attempt to assimilate the two must face this fact.[1]



[1] This is one of those rare instances in which a robust dualism is indicated.

1 reply
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Reading this prompts me to ask whether universals are prior to space, and whether space emerges from the way universals manifest as collections of particulars (that may stand in some relation to kne another); which brings to mind Lee Smolin’s Real Ensemble Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics


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