Universals


For the past hundred years or so most philosophers have regarded ‘universals’ as grammatical items (the ontological ‘is’ of governed by grammatical rules that explain how we use them (the epistemological ‘is’ of truth). Few, and certainly not the postmodern seriously regard them now as metaphysical items.

The view taken here is that both the ontological and epistemological uses of our ‘is’ (e.g. when used in the term ‘is true’) are subjective, instrumental constructs, grounded in the evolved structure of our brain and conditioned by our physical and cultural environments. The view of objective transcendental universals, as free-standing entities, ‘out there’ is not only wrong, it has become meaningless.

Nevertheless, as Russell pointed out, there are metaphysical problems here when we consider the question of the ‘existence’ of some abstract ideas such as truth; justice; whiteness; etc, which are not concepts of a particular object and would appear to have some form of universal standing. Russell says:

‘Thus thoughts and feelings, minds and physical objects exist But universals do not exist in this sense: we shall say they subsist or have being, where “being” is opposed to “existence” as timeless.’
The Problems of Philosophy

In this way Russell makes a distinction between things existing in time, in the way external objects ‘exist’, and conceptual ‘things’ which exist out of time i.e. ‘subsist’.