[4.4.1] Abelard on Universals

Peter Abelard (1079?-1142 AD), in his work Logica Ingredientibus, concluded that the uttered words and the related concepts are the only real universals. According to his nominalist (or irrealist) theory, the individual’s status is the common cause by which we can create a common concept and give a common name to all individuals belonging to the same kind.

Here are Abelard’s responses to Porphyry’s questions (see [2.5]):

Porphyry’s questionsUniversals according to Abelard
(a) whether genera and species are real or are situated in bare thoughts aloneare situated in thoughts (as concepts and words)
(b) whether as real they are bodies or incorporealsthey are not real things
(c) whether they are separated or in sensibles and have their reality in connection with themthey are not real things

Abelard’s model of universals is presented in the following OntoUML diagram:

Abelard on universals
WordWords here = ‘voces,’ which I said earlier might best be translated ‘utterances’. Only they are predicated of many. […] .”
E.g. ‘man’ – which names and is imposed on Plato, Soctates and Justin Bieber.
names, imposed on Individual; signifies establishes understanding of Concept
Concept“but for Abelard, universals were not just voces but also sermones—significant voces [..]
What are we made to think of when we hear the word ‘man’? In short, what is the link-up between our universal terms, our concepts, and the external world? How are we going to save Abelard’s nominalism from the epistemological skepticism it threatens to yield? This is the meat of Abelard’s theory. Well, here is where considerations about equivocation do apply. If a universal term is going to be univocal, it must establish in us a single understanding, a single concept. (‘Understanding’ in these contexts does not mean the faculty of understanding, but either the act of understanding or else the object of such an act.)
That concept has to be a general concept. But what is it a concept of? Not of a general or universal thing, since there aren’t any, as Abelard has argued at length. Neither does the universal term make us think of individual things, for the reasons we’ve already seen, reasons the objection states and Abelard apparently accepts.”
in material relation with Individual
Status“There must, therefore, Abelard says […], be some common cause or reason why the universal term [concept] is “imposed on” the several individuals it names (“imposition” is the assigning of names to things), and so names the several individuals it does, and which links the name to the general concept we have when we hear the term. This ‘common cause’ is going to be the linkage between our concepts and the world that saves the objectivity of our knowledge. So it’s going to be pretty important. It common cause (?) imposed on, names concept ‘man’ establishes an understanding is whatever it is that answers the question, ‘What is it that links the general concept generated by a universal term with the individual things the term is truly predicable of?
Well, how does it work? We need to look at both sides of the question: (a) at this mysterious “common cause,” and also at (b) the ‘common concept’ that it
grounds […].
Ad (a): We have seen that Abelard criticized William of Champeaux’s second theory for saying that, while Socrates and Plato had two distinct essences, nevertheless they agreed — ‘indifferently,’ to be sure, but ‘agreeing’ nonetheless — in man or in humanity. Abelard thought this was just a verbal smoke screen. He says instead that Socrates and Plato agree, or are alike in being a man, or in that they are men, or in being man […].
So what? What is the big difference here? Well, there is a big difference. A man is a thing — a res. And there is no thing in which Socrates and Plato agree, no thing they can share, as Abelard has already argued at length. Nevertheless, they must somehow agree, there must be some community between them, or else there would be no objective basis for our calling them both ‘men,’ and we would be left with subjectivity and skepticism — and Roscelin’s doctrine.
The common predication of the word ‘man’ of both of them must be tied to reality somehow. Well, Abelard bites the bullet. Since Socrates and Plato cannot ‘agree in’ or share any common thing, and since they must nevertheless have some community, it follows that they must agree in or share some non-thing, something that is not a thing — not a res. They do not agree in man, he says […], but they do agree in being a man (= hominem esse), otherwise translated as ‘to be a man.’ Being a man, therefore, is not a thing. This doesn’t mean that being a man is ‘nothing,’ that it isn’t really out there. It is really out there. It has to be, since there is an important epistemological job for it
to do. But it is not a thing — not a res.
Instead, it is what Abelard calls a ‘status’ (fourth declension, so that the plural is ‘stat¨s’ — spelled the same, but with a long ‘¨’). This word ‘status’ as a technical expression is not unique to Abelard in the twelfth century. Other people used the word too. For example, Walter of Mortagne used it. But we shouldn’t assume immediately that the word always means the same thing for all these people. And in fact, in many cases it may not be clear just what a given author means by it. In any case, let’s look at how Abelard is using it here.”
is the common cause for the relation between Individual and Concept

Related posts in theory of Universals: [1.2.2][1.3.1][1.3.2][2.5][2.7.3][4.3.1][4.3.2], [4.4.1]


  • All citations from: Spade, Paul Vincent, “History of the Problem of Universals in the Middle Ages”, Indiana University 2009
  • King, Peter and Arlig, Andrew, “Peter Abelard”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Klima, Gyula, “The Medieval Problem of Universals“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Harjeet Singh Gill, “The Abelardian Tradition of Semiotics”, Conference Adress, 1993

First published: 25/06/2020

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