In ordinary language we use properties, like blue, smooth, triangular, electrically charged, and so on, and it is the starting point to the problem of universals that we believe that the particular things we describe with these adjectives possess the corresponding properties objectively.

Now realism of universals tries to explain the fact that different particulars can share the same properties with certain mind-independent entities, namely universals, like blueness, smoothness, triangularity, electrical charge.

But it seems extremely implausible to believe that for every property there is a such corresponding universal. A Ming vase worth a million dollars is objectively "Ming" and probably objectively expensive, too. Or phrased differently, the properties "Ming" and "expensive" aren't just inventions in our minds, but they really objectively apply to to the vase. So does the vase instantiate "Ming-ness" and expensiveness?

If it doesn't, realists must admit that we get away in these cases without resorting universals. But then why do we need them in other cases? If there is no explanation, this sems like a reductio ad absurdum of realism. How is this argument countered by realists?

  • 1
    Is there any chance you can focus this a bit more narrowly? I was trying to rewrite the headline as a question and sort of got stuck. (Some of this may be better as part of an answer, if that makes sense)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 24, 2015 at 19:14
  • @JosephWeissman: I'm perplexed that this question has been closed. Especially after I reworded it. It is an answerable question.
    – R. Neville
    Dec 29, 2015 at 20:14
  • Hmmm, well -- a poll is "answerable" but not optimal for SE, right? This still seems significantly leading to me (especially given the rhetorical headline.) Much of this content still reads like an answer than a narrow description of the specific problem you're encountering in your study of philosophy. What exactly would you like someone here to explain to you in a few paragraphs? What are you reading that has made this an interesting or important problem in your study? --Minimally though, reframing the headline to show why you think universals might be contradictory would help a lot here
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 29, 2015 at 20:29
  • I think this still needs to be rephrased in order to avoid sounding like it's pushing a personal philosophy. Jan 11, 2016 at 20:00

3 Answers 3


There is a good essay on this by Wilfried Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.

He there argues from a similar perspective against the givenness and objectivity implicit in some views on that and for a certain form of realism that seems to be ok for him. As I understand it, his position is that if we do not stick to one form (but the correct, i.e. his) of realism (that means of some properties of perception, not necessarily objects), there would be no knowledge possible at all, we would have to fall into radical scepticism.

His favorite example is "redness".


There are different versions of realism, and some would only accept sparse properties in their ontology: all complex properties would be specific combinations of a basic set of natural properties. This could be the case of "Ming" and "expansive" so long as they can be defined in terms of other properties or relations. Other theorists might well bite the bullet and accept all kinds of properties in their ontology.

  • What kind of properties are sparse? It seems not even blue is a sparse property. Probably only basic physical properties like electrically charged would be accepted, right?
    – R. Neville
    Dec 14, 2015 at 9:01
  • Yes, a physicalist would admit only fundamental physical properties. Dec 14, 2015 at 10:09

This is a very old problem, in Platos Parmenides, the young Socrates is asked to defend the theory of Forms by Parmenides, the elder statesman of Greek Philosophy if one is to judge by the enthusiasm he is recieved outside the walls of Athens.

Socrates says he believes in the existence of the Forms of Justice and the Good, but when asked:

and would you feel equally undecided, about the things that may provoke a smile - I mean such things as hair, dirt and the like ...

To which he is answered

Certainly not, visible things like these are such as they appear to us...

So, it was already understood that some principle is neccessary to understand the forms of the Forms, to delimit them, and their number.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .