PHIL2109 Contemporary Metaphysics
Week 12: Particulars and Universals

A distinction

  1. It is a common view that (a) everything is either a particular or a universal, (b) nothing is both, (c) some things are particulars, and (d) some things are universals.

    This is thought one of the most fundamental distinctions in metaphysics.

  2. But there is much controversy:

Drawing the distinction

  1. Assuming that there is a distinction between particulars and universals, how should we draw it? What is the difference between a particular and a universal?
  2. Suggestion. No two particulars can be in the same place at the same time, and no particular can be in more than one place at the one time. But two universals can be in the same place at the same time, and a universal can be in more than one place at the one time.
  3. Suggestion. Universals can be instantiated, particulars cannot.

    (Note: this allows that universals can be instantiated by universals, not just by particulars.)

Doing without universals

  1. It seems ontologically extravagant to have universals in addition to particulars if we can do without them, or reduce them to particulars. Can we?
  2. According to realists we cannot; according to nominalists we can.
  3. Here are some reasons that realists sometimes give:
  4. According to realists, to be blue (say) is to instantiate a certain universal. What do nominalists say it is to be blue?
  5. Suggestion: to be blue is to be a member of a certain set of particulars (which is itself a particular).

    Which set? It is does not help to say: the set of blue things.

  6. Suggestion: It is the set of things that resemble certain paradigm objects.

    Resemble in what respect? It does not help to say: in respect of colour. For that appeals to colour, which in turns need to be reduced to a set of things that resemble certain paradigm objects, and a vicious regress threatens.

  7. Suggestion: It is the maximal set of things that resemble certain paradigm objects, and such that any two of them resemble each other at least as much as either of that pair resembles any particular which is not a member of the set. Call this a resemblance set.

    But consider the following world:

    We need it to come out that {O1, O3, O5} is a resemblance set. Now, O1 and O3 resemble each other at least as much as either of them resembles anything not in the set. So too for O1 and O5. But this is not the case for O3 and O5. So {O1, O3, O5} is not a resemblance set.

    Now delete O1 from the world. We need it to come out that {O2, O4} is a resemblance set. Now it is true that O2 and O4 resemble each other as much as either resembles O3 or O5. But this set is not a maximal such set, because {O2, O4, O5} has this property too. The problem is that in this world, every red particular is a small particular, but not every small particular is a red particular. This is called the problem of companionship.

    Now delete O1 and O4. The class {O2, O3, O5} is clearly a resemblance set, according to the proposal. But there is no one thing that all of them have in common. This is called the problem of imperfect community.

Doing without particulars

  1. Here is an idea: There are no particulars - everything is either a universal or a bundle of universals. A chair, for example, is a bundle of universals.

    Note: if bundles are particulars (e.g. if they are sets or classes) then this proposal does not get rid of particulars. Perhaps they can be understand as not being particulars.

  2. Objection: It is possible for there to be two things which have exactly the same properties and relations (e.g. in Black's two sphere universe). So these are different bundles of the same universals. But in virtue of what are they distinct bundles?


  1. Consider a blue chair. Consider the blueness of this chair. Let's try taking the blueness of this chair to be something, a trope. Let's take this to be a particular. It is distinct from the blueness of any other blue thing. Let's take 'is blue' and 'blueness' to denote a resemblance set of tropes. And let's take the chair to be a bundle of tropes. So universals are resemblance sets of tropes, and particulars are bundles of tropes: tropes are the basic building blocks of everything.
  2. This better handles the problems above.


  1. But what about resemblance - isn't that a universal, one that is instantiated by pairs of particulars?
  2. If a resemblance nominalist tries to apply the same strategy to resemblance, then she will be involved in either a vicious circle or a vicious regress.
  3. Perhaps she can say that resemblance is not really a relation?

    Note that it seems to obtain in virtue of the intrinsic properties of the pair (like being taller than, unlike being between)

    Also note that not every predicate need denote a universal, and it seems that some cannot: 'is non-self-exemplifying').

  4. The trope theorist might have the upper hand here - tropes do not instantiate properties.