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Russell On Platonic Universals

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The consideration of Platonic universals consequently rouses controversy amongphilosophers. Thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Thomas Hobbes contributereflective explanations for the undeniable usage of question-begging ideas inlanguage and thought. While the deliberation of Platonic universals might seemto be fruitless and, at best, obscure to the layperson, it does function as acritical foundation for metaphysics and epistemology. Whether a philosopheragrees or disagrees with the idea of Platonic universals is irrelevant to thecertain truth that he or she must form some opinion of them preceding most anyphilosophic endeavor.

To attempt to summarize Platos theory of universals ina paragraph would do it a great injustice but a simple, working definition ofthe theory is necessary to move any further. Platos theory can be condensedas follows: A universal (or form) is an independently existing, nonspatial,nontemporal “something” known only through thought and that cannot be knownthrough the senses; independently existing objects of thought; that which makesa particular thing uniquely and essentially what it is. In even simpler terms, auniversal would be something like the “redness” of an apple.

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According toPlato, the red quality of the apple must exist because the apple is red. But”redness” itself isnt a tangible thing that can be directly experiencedwith the senses. You cannot produce “red” itself, only things that are red.

But it is not only the fact that an apple is red that distinguishes it fromother objects in the world. In addition to its “redness”, an apple is anapple. An apple is not a pear. The quality unique to the apple is its “appleness”.

Thus, by appealing to the Platonic universals one can make a distinction betweenan apple and a pear, or all other things in the world. I. Thomas HobbesNominalism Plato concluded that universals must actually exist. That is, thatwhen “appleness” is appealed to, something out there providesclassification for the thing in question. This was (and still is) a radicalnotion that demanded explanation and was highly susceptible to criticism. Amongthose critics was Thomas Hobbes, a 16th Century social and politicalphilosopher. In his work, The Leviathan, Hobbes argued that thought is a purelymaterial event and that universals are just a result of language. Hobbes was anominalist. Nominalism is the view that there are no universals over and aboveparticular individuals2. For Hobbes, one of the answers to the question ofuniversals could be found in the commonality of things. For instance, if a rockand a table are both hard, it is not because we refer to a universal,”hardness” for them, it is because we use the word “hard” to describeboth of them. Another point made by Hobbes was that humans place things intocategories in order to satisfy certain needs. Heimir Geirsson made a goodanalogy of this idea in his Metaphysics textbook, Beginning Metaphysics. He usesa weed for the analogy: A good example of this is the term “weed,” which isdefined as a plant that is not desired or cultivated by human beings and growsprofusely. This is not a natural species that would exist even if human beingshad never decided to classify some plants as “weeds.” Many human beings areinterested in having a special category for plants they dont like and thatgrow abundantly, and they create that category for plants they dont like, andthey create that category with that name and definition. If human beings had notworried about weeds, then there would be no weeds. Of course, there would stillbe plants that we now call “weeds,” e.g. dandelions and crabgrass, but theywould not be weeds. Whether or not there are weeds depends on human beingsclassifying these plants as weeds.2 Geirssons analogy is an interesting onebecause of the question it evokes. Why arent all definitions like that of theweed, i.e., human classification? Hobbes thought that they were. For Hobbes,there were no real universals. Those things, which we refer to as universals,are simply created by humans out of a need to organize the world. II. BertrandRussell on Platonic Universals Bertrand Russell attempted to defend the theoryof Platonic universals. In order to do this he first thought it necessary todistinguish between universals that were qualities of things and those that wererelations between things. The most practical way to separate qualities andrelations is to understand them through their linguistic functions. Adjectivesand common nouns express qualities or properties of single things, whereasprepositions and verbs tend to express relations between two or more things.3For example, the sentence “The dog ran around the tree.” Contains instancesof quality and relation universals. “Dog”, “tree”, and “ran” referto a universal that is a quality of the objects and the action. When we think of”dog” and “tree”, we first have neutral objects that we distinguish byattaching their respective qualities, which are “dogness” and “treeness”.

Similarly, the verb “ran”, being in the past tense, not only attributes thequality of running to a neutral action, but also refers to a point in time whenthe action took place. To think of the whole phenomenon of a dog having runaround a tree, there must also necessarily exist a corresponding universal forthe preposition “around”. This universal differs from the previouslymentioned ones in that it connects and relates the other universals to eachother. Without it, the sentence would read something like this: “The dog rantree.” In order to make any sense of the statement a relation between”ran” and “tree” must first be established. Thus, it follows that”around” must be a different type of universal than “ran”, “dog”, or”tree”. No sense can be made of anything unless there is some understoodrelationship between them. Russell thought that since inference of relationuniversals was unavoidable, there was sufficient metaphysical evidence toapprove of the ontological status given to them by Plato. In order to furthershield his argument from scrutiny, Russell also thought it was necessary toadjust the language about universals in regard to their ontological position. Hejudged that it was preferable to allude to universals as subsisting rather thanexisting. To speak of some as existing implies some sort of spatio-temporallocation. If the question is asked, “When and where does this universalexist?” the answer must be “Nowhere and nowhen,” says Russell.3 The realmof universals is rigid an unaffected by the world of perception. The term usedfor objects within the world of perceptions that refer to their obligatoryuniversal cannot be used. This is also to avoid the objection that universalsonly exist in the mind. Russell suggested that the word subsist should be usedin language about universals. This is because the term simply implies that theyhave being.3 In doing so, Russell seems to adequately preserve his logic fromHobbes-like arguments. III. Conclusion While Russells argument does seem torefute those made by the likes of Hobbes; it is not without uncertainty. A moreobvious objection to Russells argument would be that of an infiniteregression of universals. If there is a relation between “dog” and”tree”, then there must certainly also be a relationship between therelation universal “around” and the whatever (around) that itclassifies. But it might not stop there. Why would there not be yet anotherrelationship between these three relationships? Anytime there are ideas orthings; there must be some relationship between them. So, for “The dog ranaround the tree,” there must be a relationship between “dog,” “ran,”and “tree.” Those relationships are “ran,” and “around.” But ofcourse there must be an understood relationship between “ran” and”around” also for the statement to make any sense. Since realists likeRussell contend that these things refer to some universal, there must be arelationship between them and the universal. But now we have two universals andthere needs to be a relationship established between the two universals. Thatrelationship could be as simple as their equality as universals. And now thatequality must too be a universal. And there is a relationship between thatequality and its universal. This web can continue indefinitely, preventing anyobjective classification from exposing itself out of the statement, “The dogran around the tree.” As for Hobbes, his argument has a similar fate. Usinghis logic, a statements meaning would be circular in nature. Going back toGeirssons analogy of the weed, we can infer the statement “Weed satisfiesthe need for humans to categorize certain types of plants.” Geirssons ownopinion of this is that now the term “satisfy” needs to be satisfied andthus leads to a vicious circle.2 It is unfortunate that both men are dead andunable to respond to such objections. However, of the two, Russellspoint-of-view still seems to be the more persuasive. Russell, having been amathematician as well, could have fairly easily pointed out that there isnothing subject to controversy in the idea of an infinite measure of anything.

An elementary principle of mathematics is that no matter what number you have,one more can always be added. Just because this infinite amount of relationshipsseems to make anything impossibly complex, does not make it illogical orinconceivable. Consequently it is my conclusion that, while not error-free,Bertrand Russells concept of relationship universals is, so far, mostimpressive.

Cite this Russell On Platonic Universals

Russell On Platonic Universals. (2019, May 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/russell-on-platonic-universals/

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