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Universals, Particulars, and Defining a Species

ttruong's picture

When we examine the world around us we intuitively recognize that there are certain groups of similar characteristics that are pervasive among certain groups of objects (by object I also mean living things).  Because of this repetition of similar characteristics being manifested together in a number of objects we are able to then call those objects by the same name.  Thus, when a set of objects are called by the same name it is understood that those objects are in possession of similar characters.  In our daily lives we perform this activity of discerning whether an object has a similar collection of characteristics as that of another object which has already been assigned a name.  When we decide that the object in question does indeed have a similar collection of characteristics we can then comfortably call it by the same name of the known object.   This characteristics-assorting, name-giving activity is often done so rapidly at imperceptible speed that we fail to see that the conceptual foundation, on which this activity is based, is actually quite precarious.

The activity assumes that since a quality or set of qualities repeatedly occurs among certain objects or living things such things are then instances of a universal.  This unconsciously unquestioned concept of universals permeates our daily life as well as the sciences, inducing us to call different objects by the same name at the same time. However, this concept that we freely utilize for the convenience of language and daily function must not be hastily accepted as truth, for when it is brought to trial in the court of intellectual consciousness this concept of universals and those derived from it cannot prevail, and instead is convicted of incoherence.

The process of demarcating species also assumes this concept of universals in its quest to ascribe names to groups of living things believe to be in possession of a similar collection of qualities.  It takes organisms and endeavors to sort them into presumably existent universals.  However, if the concept of universals is incoherent, then the concept of species must also be so, since the notion of species is dependent on the validity of the notion of universals. In order to understand the connections and interdependency between the process of defining a species and universals better we must explore the concepts of universals and particulars from a philosophical standpoint.

The question whether or not there are universal properties of which objects in the world possess has produced two polarized views. One view, Nominalism, delivers an adamant "No!" in response to this question.  The doctrine posits that there are only independent, individual objects that do not possess universal qualities.  On the other side of the spectrum, Platonism maintains that there are qualities that perpetually recur in the world called universals and the objects that have such qualities are particulars of the corresponding universal.
 In Metaphysics: The Big Questions H.H Price defines quality (synonymously universal), the main supporting pillar of Platonism, as a "recurrent feature of the world which presents itself in individual objects or events taken singly," (Price, 24) with the operative word here being "recurrent." For example, the color red of many objects may be considered a recurrent feature and any item that can be described as red is a particular of the universal redness.  However, in order for a feature to be viewed as recurrent it must first be ascertained that it is the very same feature being manifested again.  The issue of whether or not a feature can be indubitably perceived as the same as another feature is where the crux of the matter resides, for if we cannot say that it is the same then we also cannot claim that it is "recurrent."  Without recurrence there is no universal.

Let us for now postpone the issue of recurrence and allow that "recurrent features" may have varying degrees of resemblance and still be qualified for the same universal.  Unfortunately for the Platonist, this allowance only serves to produce many more unsettling questions.  To what degree of variation can a quality or feature fluctuate before it is eliminated out of the realm of a particular quality and switched to that of another?  How do we even decide on the criterions to judge the degree of resemblance between features and for so many diverse universals?  When given a set of objects, such as "a piece of paper which has been used for wrapping meat in; the handkerchief with which I have been dusting a rather dirty mantel piece; a full evening dress bow-tie which has been lying about for several years on the floor," (Price, 27) to ascribe a quality of "whiteness" we are confronted with the problem of degree of resemblance. It is undeniable that these objects are different in degree of whiteness (assuming that is allowed).  Perhaps some of them might have even resigned as a particular of whiteness and assume the position of a particular of grayness.  There is no unambiguous standard by which a particular can judged for assigning a particular to a universal if the degree of variation among particulars in a universal is allowed.

If such questions are problematic for the idea of universals in general, just imagine what it would do to the idea of a species.  By simply substituting species for quality or feature, we can ask the same question: “To what degree of variation can an organism fluctuate before it is eliminated out of the realm of a particular species and switched to that of another?”  In both concepts of universals and species variation cannot be allowed since it fails to provide a limit to what types or percentage of variations (if variation is even quantifiable) will qualify the organism or particular as a particular species or universal.  Even Darwin, who named his book Origin of Species, is dubious of the concept of species, saying “…it will be seen that I look at the term species, as one arbitrarily  give for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other…” (Darwin, p 52)

When degree of variation is not longer permitted, a particular or individual organism may only (in the strict philosophical sense) be said to have a recurrent feature—the necessary component for the participation of a particular in a universal—if the supposed recurrent feature resembles the previous one exactly. Only the maximum intensity of resemblance can be called "exact resemblance in this or that respect" (Price, 28).  However, according to Leibniz's Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles, "complete or total likeness is an ideal which can never quite be reached, though some pair of objects (two envelops, for example) come closer to it than others" (Price, 28).  
Even if we assume that such a maximum intensity of resemblance is possible, how can we ever decide with absolute certainty that one object possess the exact feature of another?  If the feature being compared between two objects is shape, for example, I truly believe that there will be no exactness in shape between any two objects in even the most seemingly similar pair of objects.  When shape is examined at more and more basic and precise levels of atoms, then protons, neutrons, and electron, then quarks and electrons, the myriad of particles cannot possibly arranged themselves to produce shapes that can imposed on one another with absolute exactness.
Since we can assert with reasonable confidence that every physical object has a shape at any given point in time and no object is exactly the same as another, due to its inability to hold the exact same shape of another, we can then say that all objects are individually independent.  Universals require that objects purporting to be instances possess exactness because without exactness there is no consistency among objects; and consistency is a key element that the concept of universal depends on. In order for a universal to exist the quality or qualities must be uniform among the particulars.

Similarly, in order for species to exist, the organisms must possess the very exact same set of qualities. However, such uniformity or exactness cannot be found in either case. What is it that makes to shades of green be called similar and a shade of green and of red be called different?  Why can it not be that every shade of color that a person encounters is its own individually different shade, and different combinations of wavelengths of light of different intensity of brightness?  The alikeness of these colors is simply whatever we choose to or misled by our own limited faculties to decide.

In regards to species we can also question what prevents us from taking each an individual organism as its own particular species since no two organisms are exactly alike, though their intensity of resemblance is strong.  No matter how much organisms assumed to be the same species seem to resemble each other they can divert anytime in their linage to acquire new qualities or lose qualities.  In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennette describes this accumulation of modifications as the birth of a new, descendant species (Dennette, 44).  But what traits or changes will be considered a modification?  Since every organism is different from its parents, both genotypically and phenotypically, has it not taken on modifications?  Also it is unclear how much accumulation must take place before there is a new species.  I highly doubt that there can be a logically and prevailing answer to such questions because the allowance of degree in variation within both a species and universal is inconsistent and incoherent. And once the degree of variation is disallowed we are only left with individual organism and individual particulars.

 It may feel counter-intuitive to reject universals, and subsequently reject the idea of species, when our very own means of communications has incorporated the concept of universals so deeply into its interworkings.  Our categorization of objects and organisms into pockets of universals and species has less to do with any recurrent features and more to do with our own somewhat arbitrary judgment of defining resemblance.  Only the occurrence of exactness can substantiate that a feature is recurrent in a second object or organism.  Because exactness is an unreachable relational quality between any two objects, there are no recurrent features.  Without the existence of recurrent features to provide support for universals and species, defining either is impossible.




Works Cited
Daniel C. Dennett. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks,

H. H. Price. “ Universals and Resemblances: Chapter 1 of Thinking and Experience.”
Metaphysics: Big Questions. Ed. Peter Van Inwagen and Dean W. Zimmerman.
UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1998