In this second post I will consider the realist position towards universals and related objects such as propositions, relations, etc. For starters, consider the following three statements:
The one who will not work fits what is written about the virgins of Israel: he gives birth to wind — but the one who will work gives birth to his own father.
– S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
- Fido is green.
- Rover is green.
- Socrates is green.
Statements (1) through (3) predicate green of certain concrete particulars, Fido and Rover, specific lizards that have been so named (this lizard, that lizard), and Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher. The word “green” is both a noun and an adjective. In all three statements it has the latter, adjectival function. But (1) can be rendered in the logically equivalent “greenness characterizes Fido” where greenness is a noun and thus, presumably, it refers to an existing something.
So prima facie, an ordinary language statement like (1) seems to commit us to the existence of an entity, greenness, that makes (1) true. The realist will take this at face value and say that greenness does exist as an extra-mental object; more precisely, that greenness is a universal multiply instantiated, or exemplified, by the many concrete particulars of our sense experience. It is the fact that Fido and Rover instantiate the universal greenness, and thus have the property or attribute of being green, which grounds the truth of sentences (1) and (2) .
Similarly, it is the fact that Socrates does not instantiate the universal greenness that grounds the falsity of (3). Furthermore, it is the instantiation of one and the same universal—greenness—that explains unity within plurality; that is, it is because Fido and Rover both instantiate the same universal greenness that they belong to the natural class of green things and why they resemble each other in this one aspect, while the fact that Socrates does not instantiate said universal is what accounts for him not belonging to the natural class of green things and thus not resembling Fido and Rover in the aspect of greenness.
Besides predication and resemblance, or as it has been historically known, the One over Many, the third phenomena that the realist purports to account is that of abstract reference, that is, the fact that universals themselves instantiate universals, stand in relations, etc. Consider the statements:
- Greenness is a color.
- Greenness resembles blueness more than it resembles yellowness.
The realist has a straightforward, simple, uniform account of the truth of (4): the universal greenness, being an entity in itself, instantiates a universal—the second-order universal color-ness—and it is that fact that grounds the truth of (4). The same simple, uniform account can be applied to (5), namely, that there is relation of resemblance, an objective feature of the fabric of reality, between the universals known as colors, that accounts for and grounds the truth of (5). Moreover, the realist account gives a simple, plausible explanation for why such statements as (4) and (5) are seemingly necessarily, unchanging truths, that hold in all possible worlds, by appealing to the de re necessity of the relations between the relevant universals, themselves necessary beings.
The realist accounts of predication, resemblance and abstract reference can be turned into arguments in favor of realism. Let us consider the latter case. To make the argument more forceful it is useful to drop Green Lizards and work instead with mathematical objects, triangles say. The triangles we encounter in reality are imperfect instantiations of the mathematical notion of triangle, for not only they are not perfect triangles, as being en-mattered they cannot have perfect straight sides, but they also have features that no mathematical triangle has, such as being drawn in sand or in paper or in a computer screen, being of this or that color, being at this or that region of space-time, etc. so that the universal triangularity cannot be identified with any particular concrete triangle.
Furthermore, concrete triangles, or even the class or scattered object of all triangles, are contingent, or it could be the case, and if cosmologists are correct it certainly will, that there was no intellect in the universe
to perceive them. It follows that not only is not triangularity reducible to a thought in the mind, but since the (non-tautological) truths about triangularity are necessary rather than contingent, the subject of such truths, the universal triangularity, is itself mind-independent and a necessary rather than contingent being.
Before proceeding, some words are in order about the realist ontological commitments. In the traditional realist account a universal like greenness is an abstract object. Both the universal greenness and the relation of instantiation are abstract in the sense that they are not localized in space-time. Greenness is “in” Fido not in the sense of being localized at the space-time location of Fido, but of being an ontological constituent of the substance known as Fido. Furthermore, the relation of instantiation is a primitive one that is not analyzable in terms of more basic or fundamental entities.
A realist of an Aristotelian bent would now add that universals are ontologically dependent on the particulars that instantiate them, and that apart from them and abstracted away by the mind they are mere abstractions, or beings of reason. To be even more specific, the substance Fido, The Lizard, instantiates a certain substantial form that, speaking somewhat loosely, fixes the range of potencies within the being of Fido, namely the potency for being green that on a normal, healthy lizard like Fido is, becomes actual and instantiated or exemplified, as opposed to say, being hundred-legged or composing long tracts on the problem of universals using silly examples with lizards instead of dogs. A realist after Plato would deny this ontological dependence and insist that universals stand over and apart the particulars that instantiate them. In other words, there can be, and surely there are, uninstantiated universals and thus the Platonist is compelled to posit a third realm to house them.
This then is the realist challenge: either accept the reality of universals, or offer a competing, satisfying account of predication, unity within plurality and abstract reference.
There are objections to the realist account that boil down to a restatement of some form of anti-realism; I will get to them in the next post. There are plausible objections directed against realism and I will also address (some of) them in due time. And then there are the clueless objections. The realm of clueless objections is potentially infinite, as vast and infinite as is human clueless-ness (which the reader will observe is the universal exemplified by the clueless, and only the clueless persons). Trying to peer into such an abyss and guesstimate a clueless objection is a vain affectation. It makes one stoop down to the level of the clueless and there is a serious risk of being confused with one. I dare say that one might as well be one. It is a dirty job but someone’s got to do it; so it might as well be me, as I am just as clueless as the next guy.Objection no. 1: Fido is green not because he instantiates the universal greenness but because the surface of Fido is such that it reflects photons within a certain energy range, and only those photons, and that is why we perceive Fido as green. Go learn some physics.
Answer to objection no. 1: So you do not know the difference between metaphysics and physics? Read again what I wrote. I did not say that Fido is green because it instantiates the universal greenness, rather, the fact that Fido is green is the same thing as instantiating the universal greenness. There are no explanatory becauses in the realist (or anti-realist) metaphysical account of predication. The causal story you tell while interesting, is completely irrelevant. Furthermore, even if I granted the cogency of such a causal story, such an analysis will necessarily appeal to universals for these are what ground the truth of such predication statements as that photons have energy levels, or that the the surface of Fido has certain reflection properties, etc. and etc.
Objection no. 2: “Greenness is a color” is a tautology, not a necessary truth. It is that way because of how the words “greenness” and “color” are conventionally defined.
Answer to objection no. 2: This objection is in fact a covert appeal to a form of linguistic nominalism, which will be dealt with in the next post. So you do not know the difference between a real and nominal definition? Yes, it is a contingent historical fact that in the English language, the particular word “greenness” has been made to point to, refer, or denote the property of being green. But once we grasp what the key abstract singular terms “greenness” and “color” point to, refer, or denote, we cannot help but give our intellectual assent to the truth of the statement “greenness is a color”, but also come to recognize that there is no possible world in which greenness failed to be a color, for it is a color by virtue of what greenness is, not by virtue of the contingent fact that the word “greenness” points to, refers, denotes greenness.
Objection no. 3: What a load of tosh; these are just dull and boring word-games.
Answer to objection no. 3: I cannot really retort to the charge of dullness and boringness; but no, these are not just “word-games”. Rather, universals are the link between thought and language on the one hand, and reality on the other, since they are what ground the intelligibility and the truth-conditions of statements like (1) to (5). You are certainly free to reject the realist account, but what you cannot do is evade the issue and say it does not matter; for otherwise when you make a predication statement like (1) you are speaking unintelligible gibberish since you have not deigned to clarify what is the meaning of such statements or what their truth conditions are.
 Some points of terminology: the meaning of universal was already explained, and should be contrasted with that of particulars that are not multiply exemplifiable (there is only one Fido, one Socrates, etc.). A relation is a universal that applies to pairs, or more generally n-tuples, of objects. For example: the spatial relation of taller than. Aristotelians will also introduce further distinctions in the general class of universals: kinds (substantial forms), properties, accidents, etc. These need not concern us, but for the interested reader, D. Oderberg’s Real Essentialism is a modern defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic essentialism. Propositions assert something, and thus are either true or false. Statements (1) to (3) all express propositions. In this series I will concentrate mainly on universals. For the problems anti-realists face when dealing with propositions see for example A. Plantinga Warrant and Proper Function, chapter 6.
 We have no pictures of Socrates, but I think we can be fairly certain that he was not green. If someone cares to dispute this, let him present his evidence.
 Possible worlds, the nature of necessity and contingency and allied problems constitute a huge topic, and currently a very popular one, in metaphysics. Here, I will take a possible world to be a possible state of affairs of the whole of reality, and hide beneath this simple statement a good deal of complicated details. See any good introductory book on metaphysics like E. Lowe A Survey of Metaphysics and references therein.
 In The Medieval Problem of Universals, Gyula Klima makes the argument particularly vivid. He goes on to discuss the immediate problems facing “naive” forms of Platonist realism and the fairly sophisticated nominalist controversy going on in medieval times.
 I say “traditional” because, obviously enough, there are non-traditional realist accounts of universals. Foremost that of D. M. Armstrong, who, because of his naturalist commitments, is compelled to deny that universals are abstract and the attending axiom of localization. For a critique of Armstrong’s views see J. P. Moreland’s Universals, chapter 4, pg. 83 ff.
 This is the ontological sense of abstract. Anti-realists will tend to use the word in an epistemological sense, that is, a feature abstracted away from its concrete instantiations by an act of the mind. For the most part, I will be using “abstract” in the ontological sense, but sometimes I will slip into using it in the epistemological sense; context should make clear when I am using “abstract” in this latter sense, e.g. by the use of such expressions as “abstracted away” or “beings of reason”.
While I am at it, a useful rule-of-thumb for distinguishing realists from anti-realists is that the former will start out from ontology, or reality, and build their epistemology from there, while the latter have their starting point in their epistemological stance and then project it onto reality. I freely admit that this description is a simplification, but it does express something true about the actual state of affairs.
 Sub-stance, or that which stands under.
 There is a subtle epistemological point lurking here. I will return to it when dealing with the epistemological objection to realism. I will also add that the Thomist has available to him the neo-Platonic move of positing universals as existing ante rem, as the archetypes of creation pre-existing from all eternity in the mind of God. This is one way (but not the only one) of escaping some dilemmas like the flip-flopping dilemma, when a universal is instantiated at one moment in time, becomes uninstantiated at a subsequent moment of time and then instantiated again.