Universals vs. Particulars

A universal is something that is true of anything’s nature. For instance, a human is a rational-animal. That means, he can think in abstracts (he can think of “redness,” he can do things a computer or animal cannot do with his mind) and he is also physical (he has a material body, like other animals). So the thing that ties all humans together is that they’re rational-animals.

A particular is something that is particular to a nature, but not in the definition of the nature (a property). Then there are things that flow from the particulars that are called “accidents.” So let’s take John.

Universal – John is a rational animal

Particular – John can run

Accident – John can run faster than most men

If we look at David, we can see the following:

Universal – David is a rational human being

Particular – David cannot run

Accident – David must be in a wheelchair because he cannot use his legs

Now, while David might have the capacity to run (if his legs worked), he currently cannot. But when the universal is in the right place, he’s still a human being even if he doesn’t share in all the properties.

All the branches are particulars; they are things generally found within the nature of humanity, but they don’t always exist.

The view that universals exist is called Realism and is often divided into different types of realism, the two most famous ones being Platonic Realism and Aristotelian Realism. What both teach is that there are real categories that exist for us to say, “This Spruce is closer to other trees, such as oaks, than it is to a human.” It teaches that inherent within the nature of an object is a category that makes it different from some things and similar to others.

In the modern world, we elevate the particulars above the universals because we don’t believe in the universals. So we take the above example and it looks like this to the modern world:

Notice that “humanity” does not apply to either of them. That is because under the modern view, there are no universals, only particulars. Thus, David and John are defined by what they can do. If one wanted, they could define humanity as, “An organic being that can sing.” Then humanity would apply to “Can Sing.” But there’s nothing innate within John and David that makes them similar.

This view is called “nominalism,” which means that we create the categories and name them. It’s why particulars are put above universals.

So you take Schaeffer’s example of putting the particulars above the universals. God is the ultimate universal since He defines all things. So when He defines man as a “rational-animal,” He places man ethically and ontologically higher than other animals:

God gives meaning to what it means to be human. The problem is, when we remove the universal (God), we end up without anything giving meaning to us:

Because there is nothing to give meaning to man, animal, plant, and machine, we can only look to the particulars. We see that all of the particulars are related by being material, so we assume they must all be the same. Any divisions we put between them are purely for survival’s sake and not necessary. In other words, there’s really nothing right about killing a deer and wrong about killing a human; both are equal acts (something dies). We just ascribe value onto it. But since we’re no better than an animal or plant, it’s only our view and doesn’t mean we should force others to take our view.

For instance, Jane and John both look at a rock. To Jane, it’s just a rock and can be tossed aside like any other rock. To John, his wife jokingly gave it to him as a present before she passed away. So to him, that particular rock has value. Does this mean that John should make Jane also value that rock? Of course not.

Likewise, Jane and John look at a human. Jane has no relation to that human and just like she would step on a cockroach or pull apart a machine, she would also just kill the human if he was in the way. John, however, recognizes that human as his father and thus puts value on him. Now, John doesn’t have to do this, as the value is just a mental construct and the value doesn’t actually exist. But he chooses to, but that doesn’t mean he should force that value on anyone else.

That’s what happens when the particulars overtake the universals. The universals become constructs. It used to be that things such as “value” and “God” are what gave meaning to life. Now, we elevate the particulars and what formerly gave value is now determined to just be a mental construct; it’s fake.

The best (and final) analogy is this:

You walk into a house and see a TV and a microwave. You look at both and both have buttons, both have a cord, and both rely on electricity. Your friend Aristotle looks at both and deduces, “These are different because they have a different purpose.” He then walks upstairs and finds the man who made both of them and discovers that both actually do have a different purpose.

Your friend Ockham, however, looks at both and says, “They both have a cord, they both have buttons, and they both run on electricity, so they must be the same thing.” You object and say they are used differently. He responds, “Only because you choose to use them differently. You could make them do the same thing if you wanted.” You ask him to go join Aristotle upstairs, but Ockham replies, “There is no upstairs.”

And that’s how it works. Realists, like Plato, Aristotle, and Christians, believe that God is ultimate reality and gives meaning to things (even Plato and Aristotle believed this). Nomialists, such as Ockham, John Stuart Mills, or many modern philosophers, believe that individuals put meaning on things and therefore meaning is subjective and doesn’t really matter.

And that’s what Schaeffer is trying to point out. He’s saying that when we get rid of universals such as “beauty,” “art,” “grace,” or “God,” we’re only left with the particulars. We lose the things that give meaning. Thus, “art” can be anything an individual labels as art; he interjects his own meaning. “Beauty” is subjective to the person who finds it beautiful. “God” is whatever we make Him to be. He doesn’t actually exist, He only exists within the mind.


2 thoughts on “Universals vs. Particulars

  1. I have never had any training in philosophy and until recently I never really expected to have a reason to learn any philosophy (I have a technical background and philosophy never seemed worthwhile). A couple of years ago I listened to a bible study where the teacher believed that Cornelius Van Til had done more to advance Christian apologetics than anyone else had done in centuries. I never looked too deeply into what Van Til had written at that time but I have recently discovered that I am uncomfortable with some of what Van Til wrote and I tend to think that Gordon Clark had valid points against Van Til’s apologetics. I am assuming you are familiar with the writing of these two men because of you studies.

    The reason that I am bringing this up is that, if I am correct, Van Til really hated universals as you have outlined them here but I still think that he would be classified as a realist. Now, here’s my question: Does it matter one bit to Schaeffer’s point here whether Van Til or Clark was correct?

    1. I think Van Til’s hatred of universals comes from his presuppositionalist apologetics. I don’t think Van Til didn’t believe in universals, I think he believed that outside of the Christian experience, universals couldn’t be known.

      Van Til’s views are inconsequential to Schaeffer though, as Schaeffer wasn’t a strict presuppositionalist. A great book that explains the difference between the two men is Truth With Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer by Bryan Follis.

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