Aristotle purports that humans began to engage in philosophy because they wondered about the things right in front of them and because of greater puzzling things (Met. I 2, 982b12). The big trio of Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle wondered and offered different insights into the entities of the world in a way that has shaped not only the Western culture, but also our way of thinking and growing-up. What is there in the world? First, I have a laptop in front of me and second, my thoughts inside of me. But what has more real substance or real properties to it? And what is the difference? This article will aim to draw a clear distinction between universals (modern term for Plato’s Forms) and particulars.
Plato’s notion of “Form” describes the relation between two separate things that are somehow the same. For example: There is a “4” written on a whiteboard. A number can be defined in two different ways: as the “physical” number “4” written on a whiteboard or as an idea of “number” in my head that only exists as a symbol.1 That is, there are individual numbers such as the number “4” (particular) and there is something they all share called “numberness” (universal). Thus, “numberness” is the Form that is present in all numbers. Forms do partake in separate things by being the ultimate model of anything “being a number” in this case. Forms are non-temporal, non-spatial entities that can be only known via the intellect (as Plato thought). Forms are not mental entities though. They exist independently and high above our physical world. They exist whether we grasp them or not. It is a higher form of existence that makes the thing what it really is. Thus, Forms may be grasped as the original principle underlying each thing.
Universals are abstract entities a priori whereas particulars are individual things in space and time and thereby particulars are concrete entities a posteriori. Let me illustrate this distinction by an example: My 5-year-old neighbor recently asked me “Who is God?”. There are two striking aspects here. The first is that he didn’t asked “what”, but “who”. Thus, he must have some kind of understanding of the entity of God even though this little boy is not being brought up religiously. How did he come across the concept of God as being some sort of person and of important authority? Since he asked about God, he must have recognized God as an entity that he cannot see but that still might exist. In short, the essence of universals is the constitutive invisible nature that humans access in thinking and that organizes their knowledge of the world.
In philosophy, there are different stances when it comes to the relation of universals and particulars. Plato thought that universals could exists independently of particulars (ante rem) whereas Aristotle claimed that they exist dependently in things (in rem). The complex relation of universals and particulars shapes how we make sense of the world by apprehending objects, organizing our knowledge and drawing distinctions of substances. Without these fundamental entities, we couldn’t grasp what constitutes such puzzling concepts as God, love or courage.