Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.28

Riccardo Chiaradonna, Gabriele Galluzzo (ed.), Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Seminari e convegni, 33.   Pisa:  Edizioni della Normale, 2013.  Pp. 545.  ISBN 9788876424847.  €35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lloyd Gerson (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This welcome and well-produced collection of essays on universals in antiquity is notable both for its breadth and for its earnest effort to have this material reach the widest possible audience by having all the papers not originally written in English translated. At the end of this review the list of papers and their authors is reproduced.

It is generally recognized that the actual twin historical sources of the so-called modern problem of universals are Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd - early 3rd c. C.E.) and Porphyry (234 - c. 305 C.E.). Porphyry’s contribution is manifest, for he seems to be the first to announce “the problem” of the ontological status of species and genera in his Isagoge and in his commentary on Aristotle’s Categories. Alexander’s contribution is not so direct. It is only when Boethius (ca. 480 - 524/6 C.E.) came to comment on Porphyry’s Isagoge where the problem is announced and then appeals to Alexander for a solution to the problem that we can see the role that Alexander plays. But lurking beneath this apparently clear picture are a number of puzzles, ultimately and naturally related to the reading of Plato by Aristotle. Although Plato himself does not use the adverb katholou in a technical sense, Aristotle does in his criticisms of Plato on Forms. In three places in Metaphysics (Z 13, 1038b35-1039a3; Z 16, 1040b25-30; M 9, 1086a32-5), Aristotle argues that Plato’s Forms, as separate from sensibles, must be individuals. But they also must be universals if they are to be predicated of various sensible “manies.” However, claims Aristotle, it is impossible for something to be both an individual and a universal. Thus, the ultimate source of the “problem” of universals is Aristotle’s interpretation of Plato’s metaphysics. But the problem itself arises from Aristotle’s insistence, despite his rejection of separate Forms, that without universality knowledge would be impossible (cf. Metaphysics B 6, 1003a7-13). So universals must have some ontological status even if it is not that of separate individuals. Were this not the case, then any universal linguistic item of any language would be, as medieval nominalists labeled it, a flatus vocis. What, then, can this ontological status amount to?

Half of the 15 papers in this collection are devoted to the problem of universals in the works of Plato and Aristotle including possible Platonic responses to Aristotle and Aristotle’s own putative solution to the problem.

Bonazzi argues that Plato’s search for universal principles is rooted in his opposition to the “particularism” of the Sophists and the “mobilism” of the Heracliteans. The latter seems more well-founded in the testimony of Aristotle than does the former. But Aristotle, too, holds that the objects of knowledge are eternal and unchanging. So positing objects of knowledge is not the source of the dispute, but rather the ontological status of those objects. Plato’s refutation of Protagorean relativism is not, as Bonazzi suggests, rooted in a claim about the universality of the objects of knowledge; it is rather rooted in a claim about the objectivity of the knowable, something that one who rejects universals might also endorse.

Ademollo’s subtle reconstruction of the genesis of the theory of Forms, including sensible remarks about self-predication and uninstantiated Forms, concludes with the claim that Forms are universals. He argues that “the general formula ho estin F characterizes the Form of F as the entity corresponding to the notion of something that is F, and that to know the Form is to know what it is for something to be F.” This characterization justifies Aristotle’s criticism, although it does not take into account Plato’s Parmenides where at the very least Plato evinces an awareness of the absurdities that would follow if we cannot distinguish the nature of the Form, that is, what the Form’s name names, from the entity exclusively bearing that nature. If, for example, largeness is distinguishable from the entity that guarantees that if anything is large it is owing to its participation in largeness, then Aristotle’s reductio does not follow. Whether or how Plato defends such a distinction is not addressed in any of the essays in this book, although the distinction is explicitly thematized in later Platonism from Iamblichus onward. The very commonly made claim that Forms are universals or, equivalently, that the theory of Forms is a theory of ante rem universals only obscures the real problem.

Rashed’s illuminating and subtle piece shifts the focus away from the problem of universals as traditionally conceived to the mathematical ontology of Timaeus. Rashed argues that the introduction of mathematical intermediaries in Republic is the basis of Plato’s response to Aristotle. The response is fully developed in Timaeus. Rashed’s conclusion is that the positing of universals in the so-called middle dialogues, based on the distinction between intelligible and sensible, is replaced in the later works by a mathematical genesis of the structured sensible world. That is, Forms are no longer seen as separate entities, but rather more like the monads of later Platonism, principles that stand at the head of any taxis of intelligible properties. These are principles that are unfolded in the genesis of the world. The unfolding is essentially mathematical, where numbers are expressed as lines, planes, surfaces, and bodies. The ultimate ontological status of these principles is a distinct question, no doubt answered by Plato in part by the introduction of the Demiurge who eternally contemplates the Ideal Ratios that are the principles of the cosmos and all its contents. I should note that this excellent paper, written in French, I suspect, is rather awkwardly translated, unlike the majority of the papers written in Italian.

Sedley’s meticulously argued paper explores the so-called one-over-many principle in the dialogues and the question of whether or not this entails Form of artifacts and the self-predication of Forms. Sedley shows that on balance the evidence weighs against the maximal extension of the range of Forms to include artifacts and that self-predication does not entail that anyone, including the gods, could recline on the Form of Couch. But Sedley does not show why the legitimacy of self-predication in any sense does not short-circuit the regress arguments of Parmenides. He concludes that the trajectory of Plato’s theory of Forms has its endpoint in a general theory of universals at the expense of Forms’ metaphysical transcendence. This conclusion seems to me to run up against the emphatic assertion of transcendence in Timaeus and, as shown in Rashad’s paper, of the mathematization of Forms.

Castelli addresses the central Aristotelian argument against Forms, their apparently self-contradictory nature. The way she approaches this argument is by reflecting on Aristotle’s questioning of how the entity that the Form is can have the property of oneness. She suggests that Aristotle, who himself distinguishes numerical and specific unity, thinks that Plato has confused the two sorts of unity. She argues that Aristotle thinks this confusion rests on a deeper confusion at the level of ultimate principles. That is, unity is not the substance of anything and unity is not itself a substance. If this is so, then the real problem with Forms is their reduction to ultimate principles, the One and the Indefinite Dyad. For if the One cannot be a substance or the substance of anything, then the supposed unity of the Forms themselves is destroyed. That is, any Form F would have to be one, presumably by means of its ultimate participation in the One. But the One, if neither a substance nor the substance of anything, does not seem able to fulfill this role.

Mariani focuses on universals in Aristotle’s logical works. The paper is a nice companion to Castelli’s. He wants to show that the core of Aristotle’s response to Plato is that whereas universals are common, in which case the entirety of the universal is in each thing of which it is predicated, the Form is a particular, in which case only a part of it is in each of its participants. But this is to make the objection in the first part ofParmenides decisive, eliminating the plausible inference that Plato was aware that such an objection would indeed scuttle the theory and that he understood how it should be answered. Mariani returns from different angles to the claim that universals cannot be numerically one, although we might wonder why, if this is so, the question “How many primary colors are there?” makes perfectly good sense. And granting, as Mariani does, that universals are a part of the fabric of reality, how is numerical oneness is to be unqualifiedly avoided?

Galluzzo asks a seemingly simple question: is there any room for universal entities in Aristotle’s Metaphysics? His answer is that the forms of everyday objects are themselves universal. Thus, many individuals can share the same repeatable or universal form. Galluzzo wishes to make a sharp distinction between universal form on the one hand and species and genera on the other. The latter have become, by the time of the writing of the Metaphysics mere concepts by which we can think of particular objects universally or generally. Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s Forms as universals is in fact a rejection of the separate ontological status of species and genera; forms are indeed universal, but they are not the sort of universals that Aristotle rejects. This solution rests upon Galluzzo’s claim that matter is the principle of individuation among things. If this is so, then it follows that the form of particulars or individuals is universal. But this seems to me to be mistaken, both because matter is potency and so completely indeterminate and because Aristotle is then susceptible to the following dilemma: either forms are just in our heads, in which case realism is destroyed, or else they are universals, part of the real world. But in the latter case, why are they not also individualized, whether numerically or as species?

The above essays take up about one half of the entire book. I have concentrated on them because they seem to me to comprise a coherent discussion of some central and well-known texts, studied from many different angles. The remainder of the book skillfully canvasses a diverse range of topics, including the reasons why Stoics and Epicureans rejected universals altogether (Bronowski), how the Greek commentators, especially Alexander of Aphrodisias, tried to understand Aristotle’s not entirely perspicuous response to Plato (Chiaradonna), Plotinus’ puzzling argument concerning the possibility of the, in principle, unique instantiation of some Forms (Adamson), how later Platonist commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories produced important reflections on the nature of language and the role of universals in knowledge-acquisition (Griffin), the role of universals in theoretical medicine, especially in the great philosopher of medicine Galen (Chiaradonna), and finally the surprising account of how the lingering problem of universals impacted early Christian theological debate, in particular how the Father and the Son could be said to be homoousios without our accepting that there must be some “one” over and above to account for their sameness, making their relationship more like that of siblings (Zachhuber).

Altogether this collection provides an excellent horizon-broadening opportunity for those who are not well acquainted with the work of contemporary European scholars of ancient philosophy.

Table of Contents

Riccardo Chiaradonna, Gabriele Galluzzo, Introduction
Mauro Bonazzi, Universals before Universals: Some Remarks on Plato in His Context
Francesco Ademollo, Plato’s Conception of the Forms: Some Remarks
Marwan Rashed, Plato’s Five Worlds Hypothesis (Ti. 55cd), Mathematics and Universals
David Sedley, Plato and the One-over-Many Principle
Laura M. Castelli, Universals, Particulars and Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Theory of Forms
Mauro Mariani, Universals in Aristotle’s Logical Works
Gabriele Galluzzo, Universals in Aristotle’s Metaphysics
Ada Bronowski, Epicureans and Stoics on Universals
Riccardo Chiaradonna, Alexander, Boethus and the Other Peripatetics: The Theory of Universals in the Aristotelian Commentators
Peter Adamson, One of a Kind: Plotinus and Porphyry on Unique Instantiation
Michael Griffin, Universals, Education, and Philosophical Methodology in Later Neoplatonism
Riccardo Chiaradonna, Universals in Ancient Medicine
Johannes Zachhuber, Universals in the Greek Church Fathers
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