The explanation of an intricate idea of universals (or perfect forms, or categories) together with the unveiling of the eternal question of the sources of truth (if they even exist) has always been the point of destination for numerous philosophical inquiries down through the ages.
I find, that in looking at the different approaches of works from Plato, to the theories of Armstrong, and better yet next to the categories of Vaisesika, will allow us to get a very well-rounded overall view on the question. From time periods and cultures so different, the similarities and parallels we might find will be of great importance, and the understanding of each of the theories will help us to better grasp the other ones. We will start at the base of the three different views, and by climbing the ropes of the explanations with the help of Plato, Armstrong and Vaisesika school views, we will (hopefully) get to the top of contemplating the truth, thus forming the pyramid, a perfect form filled with understanding.
I am going to begin by comparing Plato’s theory of truth (true knowledge comes from contemplating the source of knowledge or the good itself) with Armstrong’s theory of truth in his analysis of States of Affairs.
First, I must begin by analyzing both Armstrong’s and Plato’s conception of Universals by introducing Plato’s Allegory of the cave, and Armstrong’s principle of instantiation, in which he permits one to bring universals down and out from the abstract, and into the world of particulars. I do not want to harp on Plato’s allegory of the cave for to long, so as not to get caught up in the inapplicable intricacies.
In Plato’s Allegory there are four different stages. The First represents the stage of not knowing the truth, or even worse believing that the truth is the shadows of sensible things. This is a stage of complete ignorance. The second stage comes when we are released from the illusion and able to look around us and perceive the things that produced the shadows. In this stage Plato tells us that due to our ignorance we would not believe the things we saw to be more real than the shadows of those things. The third stage for us comes as Plato or the philosopher king drags us up and out of the cave and into the sunlight. Once our eyes became adjusted, or our soul turned, we would begin to think about the crooked stream, and perfection of a line, and begin to see the largeness of mountains, and ask from where did they get their size. In the final stage we would not just think about the perfect physical properties of the particular things, but also would begin to contemplate the good, or perfect ideals such as courage, beauty, and truth.
Going back to the comparison of theories of truth I would like to emphasize that for Plato the truth is unattainable in the world of sensory experience. Just like his ideal forms or universals do not exist in the world of sensory experience apart from the relation particulars hold to properties, that partake of the forms of the Good. Therefore for Plato Universals remain un-instantiated, existing outside of the world, in a separate realm.
Armstrong differs on his account of universals. At the beginning of his States of Affairs Armstrong separates universals into two categories, one being property universals, and the other – relation universals (Armstrong, 243). Yes, Plato also makes the distinction between properties and relations, but not in terms of universals, for him universals remain single, perfect and unchanged. It is the particular that holds the property relation to another particular, with both of their properties partaking of the same form.
Furthermore, Armstrong takes the emphasis away from the notion of universals. He says, that simply recognizing particulars and universals might not be enough, and considering instantiation does not make up for it (Armstrong, 243). Thus, Armstrong ignores the importance of universals when looking for truth, bringing our attention to the mysterious relationship between the particulars and universals, that he calls the state of affairs.
Armstrong goes even further when throwing the universals down from the throne of ultimate importance and the single source of truth. Assuming the truth of Principle of Instantiation he permits one to bring these universals down and out of the abstract, and into the world so we may gain a better understanding without having to cross realms. This cancels out the theory ‘universalia ante res’ (Universals before things), which in turn cancels out Plato’s other realm or realm of forms.
The next theory that Armstrong confronts is ‘universalia in rebus’ (Universals in things) in which we assume the properties of a thing to be the universals. Armstrong says here that the theory of Universals in things is “of course a layer cake view, with properties as universals as part of the internal structure of things”(Armstrong, 236). The last of the theories Universals after things or ‘universalia post res’ will be brought up later in the discussion of categories according to the Indian philosophical school of Vaisesika, but for now will remain dormant.
In Armstrong’s case against uninstantiated universals he refers to the ‘argument from the meaning of general terms’ in Plato’s Republic. In the argument Plato through Socrates argues for a single form for every set of things that we call by the same name. “There has to be an object that constitutes or corresponds to the meaning of the general word” (Armstrong 237). This in turn applies to a word like unicorn, and since it is meaningful, that is contemplatable, then “there must be something in the world that constitutes or corresponds to that word” (Armstrong237). Armstrong refers to the argument as promiscuous, and in bringing universals down to earth (instantiating them), we find that no such entity exists. Therefore the word has meaning, but lacks an instance, and this lacking does not imply its existence apart from the idea.
Armstrong confronts another of Plato’s attempts to confirm the existence of uninstantiated universals, before taking us into his world of instantiation. Plato was in the search for perfection, and knew that he could not find it in the world where even the most virtuous act fell short of true virtue, and the straightest line, although appearing straight was in fact crooked and flawed. Plato’s Forms were the perfection that the world of sensory experience could not obtain, but only partially partake of, or in Armstrong’s terms – “never fully instantiate” (Armstrong 238). Armstrong refers to this perfection that Plato was seeking as ideal standards, and then goes on to say that “nothing comes up to the standard, but by extrapolating from ordinary things that approximate to the standard in different degrees, we can form the thought of something that does come up to the standard”(Armstrong, 238). Here I think that Plato like Thor would have pounded his hammer on the ground causing Armstrong’s single realm to split at its seems as Plato transcended far above holding onto the “Good”. Armstrong is not easily deterred by Plato’s transcendent ideals, because he knows that they are nothing but Plato’s ideas. Armstrong then looks directly at Plato and asks “why attribute metaphysical reality to such standards, couldn’t they just be useful fictions” (Armstrong, 238)?
Immortality has departed from Plato and he is now left to confront the onslaught of Armstrong’s truth principle of instantiation. First, we must confront disjunctive, negative, and conjunctive universals under this principle, and from there move into the role of predicates and universals, as Armstrong does, so that the next theory we confront being states of affairs is easily transitioned to. We must tune up, like the orchestra, so that when we begin to play upon our instruments the sound is sweet, and when others join in the transition is smooth. The universal Properties and the universal Relations are confronted in what follows. Armstrong rejects disjunctive property universals, because “they are not identical in their different instances”(Armstrong, 239). Negative universals, “or the lack or absence of a property is not a property, and lack or absence does not do any causing”( Armstrong,240). Plato would disagree by saying that “Nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not” (Plato, 233) ? But I think Armstrong like myself finds this to be only another play with words, and in a world of instantiation would find non-being, not being and therefore irrelevant. His last class of universals to confront is that of Conjunctions. Here he says that we have “Identity” since we have both properties together. These two properties therefore form a whole, which in turn can have an even greater effect than if they were separate. Armstrong relates this to synergism, and Einstein expounded on a principle similar that states that the whole is more than the some of its parts. Armstrong accepts this last class of Universals under the condition that they have been, are now, or will be instantiated.
Predicates are the last step for Armstrong before states of affairs, but he must tread lightly for Plato is waiting in a dark corner, imagining something great is looming overhead. Flipping awkwardly around he begins to see the figure of a great anti-metaphysician and realizes that the shadow cast over him is none other than Wittgenstein his arch enemy. He turns to run, but turns to far, running right out of his corner and into Wittgenstein’s discussion of Family resemblances. In this discussion Wittgenstein gives an example of games showing that “predicates and universals do not line up in any simple way” (Armstrong,241). Some games may have the property of being played with a ball, invoking competition, and having a point system, while another like dice may have the property of numbers that don’t correspond to points, along with the property of chance.
Similarities and relationships are the common thread between particular games. Wittgenstein says that “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail” (Armstron,241). These similarities are what he terms Family Resemblances. Wittgenstein would have not been happy that his theory not only didn’t cancel out universals, but spurred Armstrong to develop his theory of States of Affairs.
In this theory we will confront what it is that connects a particular to a universal property, and also see why the relation universal holds between pairs of particulars. Now remember that Armstrong has rejected un-instantiated Universals, and in doing so brought universals into the world as properties of particulars, and relations that hold between those particulars. As Armstrong says in states of affairs we will be “examining particulars that instantiate properties, and pairs of particulars that instantiate relations” (Armstrong,243). The sum of the particular, the universal property, and instantiation does not explain why that certain particular instantiates the universal, so we must find the reason for this. In order to do this we must confront the Truth-Maker principle, and find out what it is that makes a truth true. This principle says that “for every contingent truth at least (and perhaps for all truths contingent or necessary) there must be something in the world that makes it true”( Armstrong 243). The truth maker principle is the requirement that a particular holds all the necessary ontological properties to make the instantiation of the universal possible. Therefore the particular must be or exist in a certain way in order for the universal to be instantiated. Through the Truth -maker principle Armstrong emphasizes the importance of the relationship between particulars and universals, the string of truth that pulls them together, and this is a state of affairs.
Would Plato agree with the Truth- maker principle? My instincts, or better yet my experience shows that philosophers have found it difficult to agree in the past, and why must they start now. Plato as most would not agree that in order for something to be true there must be something in the world that makes it so. For Plato things in the world could only resemble that which was true: The Forms, perfect blueprints or paradigms. He does however acknowledge that there is a relationship between the particular and the universal, but in what way it held he remained unclear on. An example of this would be his take on beauty…”If there is anything beautiful besides Beauty itself, it is beautiful for no other reason than that it share in that Beauty… nothing else makes it beautiful other than the presence of, or the sharing in, or however you may describe its relationship to that beauty we mentioned, for I will not insist on the precise nature of the relationship, but that all things are made beautiful by Beauty”. It is hard to ascertain just what Plato means in this passage on the Beauty, but in this short piece of poetic philosophy it seems that his Form of Beauty comes close to straddling the realm, and even at times seems to dip itself into mysterious worldly particulars.
In the Republic Plato says that the “Good is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding”(Plato, 232). For Plato truth only comes when we are able to contemplate the form of it after a long journey, or turning of the soul. He further explains that in order to comprehend the truth one must move up from the visible realm, or realm that is experienced by the senses, into the intelligible realm or realm of Universals/Forms, which is referred to as the Good. One must move from sensory experience to comprehending abstract forms, that exist outside of space and time. I liken Plato’s forms to the all-encompassing God of the Christians. Mysterious, hard to comprehend, and possesses all knowledge, understanding, and truth. If he were not, then nothing would be. He is perfection, and possesses all that is perfect. As for Plato he was looking for the alternate of religious theories, but didn’t stray far from their principles in his idea of the Good.
Now coming back to states of affairs, Armstrong says that they solve a pressing problem in Universal theories, and that is ” how to understand the multiple location of property universals, and the nonlocation of relation universals”(Armstrong,244). In states of affairs their can be “two different states of affairs that have exactly the same constituents” (Armstrong,244) Mary loving Jon could be the first state of affairs, and Jon loving Mary our second. One of these loves could fail. Jon might lose interest in Mary, and with interest his love may also fail to obtain, but Mary still Loves Jon, and keeps her Love for Jon, even when he fails to love her back. The same also applies to properties. There can be two states of affairs holding all of the same constituents, but we must remember that “constituents do not stand to states of affairs as parts to a whole”(Armstrong,245). Plato’s one over many problem can be solved by instantiating Universals and recognizing their relationship to particulars as states of affairs with constituents rather than parts.
Now we must go back to the truth -maker principle, and see if the Indian philosophical school of Vaisesika solves the problem by conceiving of categories as the “metaphysical correlates of linguistic structures” (Ganeri,1.2).
Every theory has a staring point, the place in relation to which the direction of development is defined. For Plato in his Allegory of the Cave that journey starts from seeing the shadows. Further, Plato’s slaves move on to seeing physical objects, thinking the Forms and finally contemplating the Good. Well, it seems to me that Vaisesika school had a very similar journey in mind for us. Just like Plato starts in Visible world, step by step moving into the world Intelligible, Vaisesika school starts its theoretical journey with language world, and through categorizing, analyzing and contemplating they intend to end up in Intelligible World.
However, even though I find it helpful to compare Plato and Vaisesika to aid me to better grasp the concepts of both, there are, of course, some significant differences. It is important to mention that Vaisesika put a lot more… lets say value in their starting point – the linguistic structures – than Plato does in his shadows. To say more, the very existence of the certain word can be the base for existence of the notion that it explains. As Ganeri writes “the hypothesis that a certain type of substance, quality, etc. exists is supported on the ground that it explains some features of our linguistic practice” (Ganeri, 2). This hypothesis is that “something” Armstrong was looking for, which makes that makes things true. The linguistic structure is Vaisesika’s truth-maker.
Ganeri points out similarities between the Vaisesika system and the Sanskrit grammar. This makes me think of something I can relate to. Coming from experience and knowledge of some of the basics of meditation according to the Buddhist tradition, I would like to compare the word Dukkha – a notion of suffering that permeates existence, to the richness that can emanate from linguistic structures. The meaning of Dukkha defines more than just description, it also takes us through the experience of the forms of suffering covering all seven categories of the Navya-Nyaya, especially the seventh category of absence, in which we experience freedom from suffering.
So, can we have definitions as precise as Vaisesika offers without assuming that universals exist? Lets assume, first we are talking about the existence of the idea of universals. Now, it seems to me that if it is the idea of universals, than in order to have all the different categories of the linguistic structure we must have a bond or connecting idea, and this idea is the universal. Therefor my answer is no. We cannot have definitions as precise without assuming that there are universals that hold the structure together. Feeling rather circular, but here I can almost hear Armstrong voice on the background saying: “That’s no easy state of affairs!”
Choosing not to partake in humor any longer, we can see how our three theories evolve and entangle in front of our eyes, bringing an overall better understanding of the universals, truth, and the world around them.
Armstrong, D. M. Selection from Universals: An Opinionated Introduction. Metaphysics: A Guide and Anthology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 235-48. Print.
Ganeri, Jonardon, “Analytic Philosophy in Early Modern India”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Plato. “Selection from Parmenides and Republic.” Metaphysics: A Guide and Anthology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 227-34. Print.