My Red Dress

The distinction Between Universals and Particulars / Metaphysics 101

A universal is a property which is predicated of, or possessed by, all the members of a class (OED B, n, 2, a). For example, the property of redness is a universal asserted about a class of red things, of which my red dress is a class member. In contrast, a particular is an individual instance of such predication (OED B, n, 3, b). My red dress is a particular about which the property of redness, a universal, is predicated (is red).

Plato suggested that universals (he called them Forms) are entities in their own right. They exist separately from particulars, which like my red dress, are objects of perception in the natural world (White, 346). This means my red dress still can instantiate, or be bound to and possessed of, the universal of redness even if my colour-blind friend cannot perceive it (White, 348). Naturally, my red dress is not the only particular that can instantiate the property of redness. A car, hen, or even a unicorn may also instantiate redness and thus join my dress as members of the class of red things. Plato took the view that particulars like my red dress are mere copies or reproductions of the universal whose properties they instantiate. As such, by focusing on particulars rather than universals we are led astray in our search for truth (Blackburn, 80).

Some, like the nominalist William of Ockham, argue that there are no universals but only particulars; he thought the distinction between them was unnecessary, often incoherent and besides, despite arguments to the contrary, this had been Aristotle’s true teaching (Spade, 100). According to the OED (n, 1), nominalism would suggest that my red dress shares nothing with other red things except the name or label of ‘red’. Hence, according to Ockham (Spade, 100), the apparent distinction between universals and particulars is a matter of language, not metaphysics. 20th century thinkers like Derrida and Foucault (‘the death of the author’) would seem to agree (Kugler, 87).

Other philosophers, like Armstrong (238), take the position that whilst universals may exist, they can do so only when there is some particular that is capable of instantiating it in the natural world of space and time. Assume that as an intended particular, unicorns do not exist in space and time. Therefore, according to Armstrong, unicorn-ness cannot be a universal. Fair enough. But other thinkers like Hobbes would argue that space and time are imaginary as are unicorns because no one has had direct experience of them (Tuck, 53). Quite where that leaves us, is an interesting question.

Finally, for those who accept that universals do exist, there remains the question of where they reside. Plato argued they reside in an eternal world separate from the natural world of space and time. Aristotle argued they reside within the material world of the particular (Kugler, 78). The psychologist CG Jung, who modelled his ideas about archetypes in large part on Plato’s universals, argued that they reside within the human psyche (Kugler, 86). By contrast, most agree that particulars must reside in our everyday world of space and time. But even that is a tricky conclusion to reach because of course, as noted above, not everyone agrees that space and time exist.


Armstrong, DM (2004). Selection from Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. In T Crane & K Farkas (Eds.), Metaphysics; a guide and anthology (pp. 235-248). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blackburn, Simon (2006). Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Penguin Books. Kugler, Paul (2008). Psychic imaging: a bridge between subject and object.

The Cambridge Companion to Jung (2nd
Spade, Paul Vincent (1994). Medieval Philosophy. In A Kenny (Ed.), The Oxford Illustrated

History of Western Philosophy (pp. 55-105). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tuck, Richard (2002). Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

White, Nicholas P (1992). Plato’s metaphysical epistemology. In R Kraut (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato (pp. 345-384). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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