In the preliminaries of any wrestling match, there is a lot of “dancing around” the ring, when each participant noncommittally pokes around trying to get a feel for his opponent. I felt like this in trying to come up with a focused starting point for this blog, as you can see in the About page. The present circumstances require me to continue formulating questions, a process which could take quite a while. But progress often comes in knowing which questions to ask.
In Chapter 4 of Book III of the Metaphysics, Aristotle asks the question which should dog us today like it did the philosophers of the Middle Ages: “Is there anything apart from the concrete whole?” Obviously, for Aristotle, the answer is yes – in this context, he’s arguing in favor of the idea of universals which allow us to form knowledge of the quiddity (“whatness”) of a thing that we are perceiving.
Yet it is a long road from the “this” to the “what.” That is to say, the process that occurs between our sense perception of an object and our identification of it in the intellect is a difficult one to nail down. Exploration of this subject will form one of the areas of inquiry for this blog. What are these universals?
Aristotle goes on to argue in Book VII of the same work that these universals are not substances which subsist of themselves as Plato thought (although, as Hans-Georg Gadamer argues, Plato in the Philebus seems to stray from this doctrine). As St. Thomas Aquinas points out in his commentary on the Metaphysics, “[It is not]… necessary that a thing should have the same mode of being in reality that it has when understood by the intellect of a knower.” This is key: these “universals” may have an altogether different mode of being. What, then, is the nature of this mode of being?
These questions can become that much more important when we start to ask the vaunted Socratic questions: What is justice? What is virtue? What is the Good? It is hard to argue that these “transcendentals” don’t exist, because these types of universals, that is, ones that are abstracted up to these more abstract manifestations, move us. They can become in some sense our reason for doing things. Even unto death, as has been amply demonstrated in myriad historical situations.
Are these universals nothing more than cultural beliefs as philosophers like Heidegger and seemingly every modern sociologist seem to think? Or do they point to eternal truths that we are meant to discover as human beings? If eternal truths do exist apart from the concrete whole, it will be of paramount importance to delineate which types are of the eternal variety.