The problem of universals, then, was for practical purposes inseparable in the twelfth century from the technical work on the operation of logic and language which was taking Aristotle's logic much further, and which created a speculative grammar over and above the groundwork laid by Priscian and Donatus. The logica moderna constituted a substantial advance in the field, to a degree not matched perhaps by any other branch of mediaeval philosophy. It produced a body of textbooks (the Logica Moderna) which were not mere commentary on Aristotle but which broke new ground.
The problem of universals itself arose in part for mediaeval students of the artes from Boethius' comments on De Interpretation 3.16b19.8 When it signifies, a word makes someone think of something. It can thus be said to cause something to be thought of, to have an effect upon the mind. A similar chain of causation can be traced in the way a written word evokes a spoken word and the spoken word a word in the mind (Boethius, on De Int. I.16a138 and Augustine, De Trinitate XV.10). It was difficult not to read into this 'causation' view of signification the assumption that the effects caused must have some real existence. Most twelfth-century thinkers were in some sense 'realists' about the existence of mental words (the notorious late eleventh-century and early twelfth-century Roscelin of Compiegne, and perhaps Abelard, being exceptions). Most would also (paradoxically) take the view that mental words are of a higher order of reality than spoken or written words, and that, a fortiori, those mental words we call universals or species are of a higher order of reality than words for particular things and the particular things to which they refer. At one extreme it was held that universals are distinct things in their own right; more moderate scholars would say that a universal exists at least as a substance which can be found
KNOWING AND LANGUAGE in the essence of all particular things of its kind. At the least it could be held that, say, two men or two horses have a like 'humanity' or 'horseness'. Then a universal or species might be regarded as a collective thing, made up of all its particulars. Or one might describe genera and species as 'sorts of things' (for which the technical term was maneries). The 'causative' notion is detectable once more in Gilbert of Poitiers' again controversial twelfth-century attempt to distinguish between that which a particular thing is and that 'by which' it is (in the case of a particular man, his humanity). He tried to resolve the question of the real existence of the quo est by arguing that no quo est can exist except through a quod est, that is, through the particular thing; while the quod est cannot itself exist except by that (universal or species) by which it exists (quo est). This became controversial when Gilbert tried to apply it to the case of God. If we say that Deus exists divinitate, 'by divinity', it seems possible that we are saying that something called 'divinity' is being postulated as the cause of God himself.
Peter Abelard drew on both Augustine and Aristotle-Boethius in his own account of these issues. He describes how the senses respond to what they perceive; the imagination can recall in the form of pictures in the mind things once perceived by the senses even if they are not present; the intellect classifies into genera and species. Thus he modifies Augustine's notion that the very portals through which sense-impressions enter the memory are classificatory pigeon-holes. Using Boethius on the De Interpretatione, Abelard goes on to suggest that the intellect produces thoughts which it derives from images. It seems important to him here that there can be images of things which do not exist, mere fictions, and he is willing to infer from this that there is no need to postulate real existence for universals either. For Abelard images are nothings, with neither form nor substance. Words are related to ideas by producing them in the minds of hearers (as Boethius says). Words are related to things by signifying them, but they do no more when they signify than provide a means of talking about things. Statements or propositions merely designate the way in which the things signified by the categorematic terms are related to one another. When a term such as 'man' is used with universal reference, it merely tells us what men have in common.
The debate on universals reopened in earnest in the thirteenth century, when the study of Aristotle's book On the Soul made it fashionable to look towards the forms of things in the world external to the mind as the source of thoughts in the mind. Aristotle suggests that the mind is informed with the thought in a way analogous with the manner in which the senses are themselves affected when they feel. The emphasis shifted in part away from
PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES the twelfth-century preoccupation with universals in connection with the theory of language, and towards a wider treatment, in which the behaviour of language has to be accounted for alongside the physics and metaphysics of the matter. Aquinas, for example, looked at the way in which quantities, because they are finite, introduce some sort of individuality into universal matter. Duns Scotus would answer that there must be something which causes general natures somehow to 'contract' into particulars.
The comparatively straightforward 'realism' of the twelfth century was thus subtly modified in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Duns Scotus, for example, suggested that each thing may be regarded as having a 'nature', which can be defined as 'the sort of thing it is'. This nature is not either singular or universal in itself. But it has a universal character in the mind, when the intellect holds it as a concept. William of Ockham disliked this solution because it seemed to him to imply that universals are based on something which really exists, outside the intellect. An alternative 'realist' hypothesis, also disliked by Ockham, was that a universal is a formal distinction, which pretends, for purposes of thinking about them, that things which are really one thing are more than one thing. For example, one might think of a white house that it is white, and that it is a house. The universals 'whiteness' and 'houseness' have to be distinguished if we are to think clearly. But we understand that there are not two things, a white and a house, but one. Even the acceptance of a formal existence for universals was too much for Ockham. He held that everything which really exists in particular, and only words or mental concepts can be universal. For the older, Aristotle-derived, view that things which really exist cause thoughts in the mind (from which it is to be inferred that thoughts are of real things), he substituted the idea that a thought in the mind (ficta) 'stands for' (supposit) a thing in the world. From this he infers the notion that thoughts are merely acts of supposition, and when such an act takes place, all that happens is that the thought informs the mind, rather as whiteness informs a white thing. We use words to stand for single individuals or for classes. We can do the same in thought. There is no need, says Ockham, to regard the classes as having any independent or 'real' existence.
Was this article helpful?