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The name refers on the one hand to the inclination towards uniformity (uni-versus) existing in different things, in virtue of which different things may be represented by a single idea applicable to all in the same way; and on the other hand to this one idea which is applicable to the different things (unum versus alia).


Universals are those ideas which, while excluding whatever constitutes the difference of things of the same genus or species, represent that which is necessary to their constitution, is essential, and is therefore common to all, remaining fixed in all vicissitudes (universalia post rem, in re). Universals are thus merely an expression of those Divine ideas which are concerned with the universal (universalia ante rem). Universal ideas are opposed to sense impressions, which represent that which is merely individual and contingent in a concrete phenomenon, and thus that which changes with circumstances in corporeal things of the same kind. These sense impressions correspond to those Divine ideas which are concerned with the corporeal individual.


In so far as the nature of a thing is the object of a direct act of perception, it contains no relation to individuals, but is recognized in itself only according to its essential parts. When, however, the intellect has represented to itself the essential form of a thing (whether this be a substance or an accident), it can by reflection make this representation of the essence the object of its perception. It can apply the idea to various individuals of the same kind, can compare it with other ideas, and thus determine relationship and differences. The universale directum thus appears as an embryo, which is developed, ever more clearly arranged, and constantly more nearly perfected by reflection and various logical operations. It is but another way from the imperfect idea which an entomologist formed when as a boy he first saw an ant, to that perfected idea of the animal which he now possesses as the result of all his investigations and studies.

The means to arrive at a perfect idea and an exact definition is the clear distinction between the parts of a thing, which are grasped directly, if obscurely, by the perception. It should here be remarked that our intellect proceeds from the more general and thus less precise ideas to the less general and more precise. In the direct recognition of a corporeal being, it grasps first its reality, the idea of existence. This is the most universal of all ideas, but it is no true universal, since existence pertains to different things in different ways, and consequently cannot be predicated equivocally of all of them. While the senses are grasping what is individual in the phenomena, the intellect presses onward to the essence or nature of the thing, and grasps especially that which is most universal, its independence, and forms the idea of substance. It simultaneously seizes the notes of existence pertaining to and borne by the substance (accidents), which in the individual phenomenon are the object of the senses. Meanwhile it does not escape the intellect that quality and quantity are possessed by the substance which they determine in an entirely different way from the actio (action) and passio (passion), and these again in an entirely different way from the ubi (where) and quando (when), and that relation stands on the extreme border of accidental existence. In short, it grasps the various modes of existence of the above-mentioned accidents in the first substance. It thus comes that the idea of an accident is only analogous, like that of substance, and that it has no greater claim than this to be considered a true universal. The case is otherwise with the idea of substance and the ideas of the individual accidents mentioned above. They are the most universal of universals in the true sense of the word.

If these ideas be applied with the help of reflection to individuals, they become the highest predicates (categories) of concrete substance, and prove also the highest ideas of genera. The intellect is not yet satisfied. If possible, it proceeds step by step from the highest and least determinate idea of genus to the lowest and most determinate, which represents that which is common to two immediately related kinds. Only then is it possible to form a clear and distinct idea of species. This having been accomplished, one can distinguish the difference constituting the species, and by noting this lowest species and this difference, supply an exact definition. But in many cases, the intellect must remain content with the greatest possible approximation to the definition. For this purpose are employed description, the characteristics, explanation, and discussion. The final object in this is to give the lowest clearly recognizable species and that which, in the notes added to the substance, is proper (proprium, idion) to all the individuals of the same kind. Consequently, the connection of the accidents with the substance must be established to discover which of those accidents necessarily and of themselves arise from the substance (and from this alone), as speech in the case of man. Other properties are to be referred to fortuitous external influences, as lameness in the case of individual men. We thus obtain the logical accident, which indeed must be distinguished from the metaphysical, which, in accordance with what was said above, may be a proprium, or logical accident. One may even inquire into the genus, species, and specific difference of a metaphysical accident (e.g. of continued quantity).

In summary

According to their origin in a direct act of perception or in reflection, universals are divided into direct and reflex universals.

The direct universal, waiving, as it does, the question of the reality of the perceived being in nature, is metaphysical. In it lies only the possibility of being applied to many things, but the relation of universality is not recognized in it. Consequently, it is also known as the "material universal".

The reflex universal includes the relation to individuals, and is thus known as the universale logicum, or also as the "formal universal", since it is recognized as universal.

The universale directum is divided into the categories, since these represent the various modes of existence in the actual being. Recognized by reflection as the highest species, the categories are included under the universale logicum, which is divided into the five predicables: genus, species, specific difference, proprium, and logical accident.

Importance of the problem of the universals

Science in general, inasmuch as it is the knowledge of the necessary and permanent drawn from the nature of things, is impossible without the recognition of the universals. Without such recognition, it is degraded into the description of successive individual impressions. The war between the pure Darwinists and the physicists, who recognize natural species which, in consequence of their mode of development and the influence of conditions, can be arranged into various systematic species, has been already designated a new phase of the Scholastic controversy concerning universals. In physics and chemistry the constancy of the laws of nature depends on the constancy of the nature of things. In psychology the existence of universals has led to the recognition of the intellect as a faculty fundamentally distinct from the senses. It is self-evident that metaphysics and logic would be an impossibility without universals. Without universals, ethics and æsthetics would also be surrendered to a relativism ungoverned by principles, and thus to annihilation. Without universals, impressionism in art and individual autonomy in life must attain undisputed sway. To these tendencies correspond in religion the exclusive validity of religious experiences, the belief in the changing content of dogmas, and the complete displacement of dogmatic by historical mode of thought. A history of the controversy concerning the universals and their relation to existence must necessarily be a presentation of the most fundamental differences of all philosophical systems. It would reveal that a deviation from Aristotelean Thomistic moderate Realism leads, on the one side, over Conceptualism and Nominalism to Scepticism and Agnosticism, or to barren Empiricism and Materialism, and on the other side over extreme Realism to false Idealism and Pantheism.

About this page

APA citation. Pichler, A. (1912). Universals. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Pichler, Alois. "Universals." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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