Tag Archives: problem of universals

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: Forward

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE) was Ayn Rand’s attempt to provide a foundation for her epistemology and, derivatively, the rest of her philosophy. In this post, I will summarize the forward of ITOE and comment on it.

In the forward, Rand repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the “problem of universals.” She takes the problem of universals to be the problem of what our concepts refer to in reality. For example, when I describe three men as “men,” what about those men am I referring to, if anything?

Why does Rand think that this problem is important? For one thing, since our knowledge is composed of concepts, the invalidity of concepts would entail the invalidity of all knowledge. If concepts are invalid, then there is no objective difference between mathematics and mysticism. She is probably also concerned about scientific methodology – if scientists don’t know where their concepts come from, then they might make conceptual mistakes without realizing it.

Rand lists four alleged solutions to the problem of universals that past philosophers have proposed: extreme realism, moderate realism, nominalism, conceptualism, and extreme nominalism. Rand expresses contempt for these solutions, but reminds the reader of the importance of the issue at stake for civilization.

It is worth noting that Rand introduces the problem of universals in roughly the same way the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy does:

Often we predicate properties of individuals. When we say that both cherries and rubies are red, for instance, we seem to say individuals share common properties, those that make cherries cherries, those that make rubies rubies, and those that make both red. Predicates are said of many subjects, then, but is there anything in reality to match the linguistic one-over-many? Are there general truths? Is there commonality in nature, in reality; or is commonality imagined and illusory, perhaps a mere product of language? If the latter, how can we accommodate the intuition that it is the world, and not our conventions, that make predications true or false? The Problem of Universals arises when we ask these questions. Attempts to solve this problem divide into three broad strategies: Realism, Nominalism, and Conceptualism. We’ll take these in turn, and consider the pros and cons of each.

http://www.iep.utm.edu/universa/#SH1c

Rand concludes by reminding the reader that she will be taking for granted the validity of the senses and the axiom that existence exists.