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Boethius: On Universals

The problem of universals has sometimes been taken to be the only really philosophical issue discussed in the Middle Ages. That's nonsense. But it is true that mediaeval authors had a lot to say about it. It comes up for the first time with Boethius.

What Is the Problem of Universals?

But what exactly is the problem of universals anyway? That's a long story, of course, but the basic problem can be motivated like this. Consider two pieces of white chalk. Ignore everything else about them for the moment, and concentrate only on their color. They are of the same color, of course; they are both white. Now the problem of universals is this: As you look at these pieces of chalk, how many colors do you see? One or two?

You might want to say that of course you only see one color here. Didn't I just say that the two pieces were of the same color? There is only one color involved here, whiteness, and it is found in both pieces of chalk. Here it is once in this piece of chalk, and there it is again in that piece. But it is the same color. All you have to do is look at it to see that we're dealing only one color here. If this is your answer, then you regard whiteness as a "universal" entity, shared by several things at once in a special metaphysical way that no doubt will require further explication. (Note: Despite the term `universal', no one supposes that these special metaphysical entities have to be shared by all things; not everything is white, after all. It suffices if the entity can be shared in the metaphysically relevant way by a plurality of entities.) If you believe in universals like this, you are said to be a "realist" on this issue.

On the other hand, there is another answer you might want to give instead. You might argue: No, there are two colors here, two whitenesses. One whiteness, this whiteness, is here in this piece of chalk, and another one, that whiteness, is there in that piece of chalk. The two whitenesses look exactly alike, to be sure, but they are two and not one. All you have to do is look at them to see that you have two of them. If this is your answer, then you do not believe in whiteness as a "universal" entity. There is no universal whiteness; there are only individual whitenesses. Each white thing has its own whiteness, which may look exactly like the whiteness of some other thing, but is nevertheless just as individual as the thing that possesses it. If you reject universals in this way, then you are said to be a "nominalist".

The problem of universals, then, is simply: Do universals exist or not? And realism and nominalism are the two main answers to it. Of course, as these things always go, there are lots of subdivisions and refinements to these two basic views.

There are different theories of universals in Boethius, depending on where you look.

There is one theory of universals contained in Boethius' Commentary on Porphyrys' Isagoge, the second redaction. This same view is found with some refinements and additions in the Theological Tractates - in a passage from the On Person and the Two Nature (which I will call by its more usual name, the Contra Eutychen) and in a passage from the De Trinitate. There is a quite different view, however, contained in another passage from the De trinitate.

The passage from the Commentary on Porphyry is also translated in McKeon's Selections from Medieval Philosophers, vol. 1, pp. 91-98.

Boethius' Commentary on Porphyry

Let us look now at the Commentary on Porphyry. But first, who on earth was Porphyry? And what is this book called the Isagoge? Well, Porphyry was a pupil and biographer of Plotinus, and the one who compiled and edited Plotinus' writings, the Enneads. His biography of Plotinus is wonderful reading! You should go look at it. It's short and is contained in most editions and translations of the complete Plotinus (for instance, Stephen MacKenna's English translation). It starts with the intriguing line, "Plotinus, the philosopher who arose among us, seemed like one ashamed that he was in the body."

Porphyry wrote lots of other things too, among them the so called Isagoge. `Isagoge' is Greek for "Introduction" - actually the title ought properly to be transliterated `Eisagoge', but it's generally spelled `Isagoge'. The work was meant to be a kind of introduction to Aristotle's Categories. There is a complete English translation by Edward W. Warren, Porphyry the Phoenician: Isagoge, ("Mediaeval Sources in Translation", vol. 16; Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1975.)

Porphyry's Three Questions

In his Isagoge, Porphyry raised the problem of universals in the form in which it was to be discussed throughout the Middle Ages. Porphyry was not the only source for this problem among mediaeval authors, of course, but he was certainly one of the most important ones. He raises the problem of universals in terms of three questions:

(1) Do genera and species subsist, or are they "posited in bare [acts of] understanding only" (that is, are they pure mental figments)? (Lines 3-4.)

(2) If the former, are they corporeal or incorporeal? (Lines 4-5.)

(3) Are they separated from sensible things or are they in sensible things? (Lines 5-6.)(Note: This seems to presuppose that they are incorporeal, and so to presuppose a particular answer to the preceding question.)

Although Porphyry sets out these three questions, he modestly declines to try to answer them, begging off by remarking that they belong to a "longer investigation" (line 7) than that afforded by the Categories, and so have no business in a mere introduction. Now of course that's just a perfect set-up for commentators. If you want to guarantee that the commentators on your work - if any - will devote superhuman energies to a particular issue, just be sure to mention it without saying too much about it. It works every time. We will see it happen again when we come to the history of the Aristotelian theory of cognition.

Now, we'll talk about the metaphysics built into this passage later on. For the present, let's just look at the terminology of it. In this passage, Boethius distinguishes "substance" from "subsistence". Basically, a subsistent is what does not need any accidents in order to be. It is an independent entity in a fairly strong sense. A substance is a subsistent, but nevertheless stands under accidents - even though of course it doesn't need to do so in order to exist. It supports those accidents, gives them being. So substances are included among the subsistences.

Hence, when Porphyry asks whether genera and species subsist, Boethius takes him to mean: Are they independent entities in their own right? And that is one form of the problem of universals.

Boethius' discussion of the question takes the following form. First he gives arguments on both sides of the issue - pro and con. Then he resolves the issue, giving his own theory. This is a common technique in later mediaeval philosophy. It came to be highly developed, and was called the quaestio form. Take a look at Aquinas' Summa theologiae, for instance, which is written entirely as a series of such quaestiones. You have to be very careful in reading something written in this quaestio form. The author may present an argument that does not represent his own view. He may just be setting it up as one of the preliminary pro and con arguments, only to be rejected later. Always look to the context before you assume that a mediaeval author is speaking his own mind when he gives an argument.

The Argument against Universals

The first side of the argument, the negative side, is taken up on p. 3 of the translation below. Genera and species cannot subsist - that is, they cannot be independent entities in their own right. (Actually, Boethius' argument here is even stronger than that. It is an argument that genera and species are not entities at all, either independent subsistences or even accidents.) The proof runs like this:

(1) To be is to be one.

(Note: Boethius just takes this over from his Augustinian heritage without comment. Nevertheless, it is not to be taken for granted. Origen, for instance, and lots of other neo-Platonists, would have denied this. They would have put unity above being, so that to the extent that a thing is a being, to that extent it is less than perfectly one.

(2) But genera and species are supposed to be common to many and therefore not one.

Hence, they cannot subsist - or for that matter, they cannot be at all. Note the implicit assumption in the second step (at the `therefore'), that what is common to many in the way in which, say, humanity is supposed to be common to Socrates and Plato, is itself many. That is, the plurality of individuals to which humanity is common somehow infects the species humanity itself and destroys its unity. Why does Boethius think this is so? We will have to look at this more closely in a little while.

Now at this point Boethius gives a very curious infinite regress argument, the point of which is not altogether clear. (The paragraph in lines 83-94, beginning "But even if genus and species do exist".) Let me tentatively try to explain this as follows:

Suppose you agree with Boethius' argument so far, that the humanity of Socrates and the humanity of Plato cannot possibly be one humanity, but must therefore be two, that the plurality of individuals introduces a plurality into the species. Then you might say: While humanity as such is not one, the humanity of Socrates is one, and the humanity of Plato is one. Each of these two humanities is peculiar and private to the individual whose humanity it is; neither is shared or common, although of course they are quite similar. Boethius puts this by saying that the species is "multiple and not one in number". (Lines 83-84.)

This kind of view is going to be a common one in the history of the problem of universals. Indeed, it has its modern adherents. I think it is legitimate to interpret Boethius' cryptic argument in this paragraph as an argument against such a view, because this is exactly the theory he himself ends up holding at the end of the passage we are now discussing. He is raising objections in advance to the theory he is ultimately going to adopt.

Well, what is the objection? Since the humanity of Socrates, on this view, is distinct from that of Plato, and yet similar to it, we can account for this similarity only by appealing to something they have in common, something the same for both. (This is the step Boethius will deny.) That is, the humanity of Socrates and the humanity of Plato are so similar to one another, are both humanities, because they share something in common - call it X. Humanity itself is not one, but rather multiple. Nevertheless, it appears that all these multiple "little" humanities, the humanity of Socrates and the humanity of Plato and so on, must share in something one, in order to count as instances of the same kind of thing.

But, for whatever reason we said humanity was not one thing but many, the same reason would seem likely to apply to this mysterious X too - to whatever it is that all humanities have in common. Hence, on this kind of theory, X itself will not be one either, despite the initial appearances; it too turns out to be split up, "multiple", so that the humanity of Socrates has its own X, and so does the humanity of Plato, just as Socrates himself has his own humanity, and so does Plato. Yet these multiple X's appear to be similar. And so we must appeal to yet a further stage, and so in infinitum.

If this is what is going on in the passage, then what we have is just a version of a more or less standard objection against nominalist "similarity"-views. But Boethius obscures his point by treating the progression: two humans . . . two X's . . . as a progression to ever higher genera, and so concludes that there is no last genus. But if I am right, that is not really what is going on in the passage at all. And if I am not right, then I don't know what is going on in it.

Note the opening words of the paragraph: "But even if genus and species do exist, but are multiple and not one in number . . . ." In other words, "even if we reject the Augustinian equation Being = Unity in step (1) of the original argument above". This suggests perhaps that the argument in lines 83-94 is intended as a supplement to the one in lines 69-82. The earlier argument is directed to those who accept the Augustinian equation, while the later argument is directed to those who do not. That is an attractive beginning for an interpretation of this passage, but in fact it is not clear what role, if any, the rejection of the Augustinian equation plays in this argument. In the reconstruction of the argument I have just given, the rejection of this equation means only that, when the argument describes something as "not one", we cannot automatically conclude that it doesn't exist. We could conclude that if we granted the Augustinian equation. But if I have understood it correctly, the real point of the argument does not depend on this one way or the other.

However all this turns out, let us go back and look more carefully at why Boethius thinks that no one thing can be common to many in the way that genus and species are supposed to be common to many. Well, how can a single thing be common to many?(Lines 95-112.)

(a) First of all, one thing can be common to many part by part, as happens for instance when we all share a pie. You get one slice and I get another. None of us gets the whole pie. In fact, if I do take the whole pie and hog it all myself, then we no longer are said to "share" it. But genus and species are not supposed to be common or shared in the way a pie is. Socrates and Plato don't have only slices of human nature. Each of them is supposed to possess human nature as a whole. Indeed, the point of saying that we all have a human nature in common is to be able to say that I have exactly what you have, not just a different slice of a larger whole. So universals are supposed to be common as a whole to several things.

(b) Well then, a single thing can be common to several things as a whole, but at different times. For instance, Boethius says, a slave or a horse. The idea is that I buy a slave or a horse, and he belongs to me totally, not just in part. (I'm sorry. The example is Boethius', not mine.) I don't have to share him with anyone else. But then I sell him to you, and he is totally yours, not just in part. So the slave or horse belongs as a whole to both of us, but at different times. But that's not the way genus and species are supposed to be held in common. Human nature is not something we all take turns possessing. No, universals are supposed to be common to or shared by several things as a whole and at the same time.

(c) Well then, a single thing can be common to several things as a whole and at the same time, in the way that a show or spectacle is. That is, for instance, we all stand around and watch the same performance. We all see the whole thing, not just part of it, and we all see the whole thing at the same time. (Ignore the fact that the show itself may be spread out over time. That's irrelevant. The point is rather that we don't have to take turns seeing it.) But this is still not the way genus and species are supposed to be common or shared. Genus and species are supposed to be common as a whole at the same time to several things in such a way that they constitute their substance. Boethius is of course talking about genus and species, and no doubt would have to use a somewhat weaker phrase if he were talking about universal accidents, like color. But, at any event, a universal is supposed to enter into the metaphysical make-up of things in a much more intimate way than a show or spectacle does.

If you combine all this, we are now in a position to see that a universal is supposed to be something that is common to many things (a) as a whole, (b) simultaneously, and (c) in such a way as to enter into their metaphysical make-up in an intimate way. In effect, we have just seen an attempt to define the notion of a universal. And, although there are still some questions (particularly about the kind of relation involved in (c)), it is really a pretty good account. It will be very influential.

Now Boethius thinks that no one thing can be common to many things in all the ways required by this account of a universal. And obviously, this will rest on what the peculiar sort of metaphysical "intimacy" is that universals are supposed to have with the things that possess them. Unfortunately, Boethius doesn't say anything more about it in this passage, and we are left with not quite everything we need for a complete assessment of the force of the argument.

In any case, this is the argument, and it is supposed to show that genera and species do not subsist. (We also saw that curious infinite-regress argument that appears to be an objection to this view.) Abelard shall present other arguments for this nominalist answer later on in the twelfth century. For the present, however, note one very important thing: the argument is a purely metaphysical one. The difficulties with a realist view of universals are metaphysical or ontological difficulties. How can there be the kinds of entities that universals are supposed to be? This is not of course to say that such difficulties cannot be resolved; it is just to say that is where they are.

The Argument for Universals

Let us now turn to the second side of the question. If genera and species do not subsist in their own right, then it appears that they must be pure fabrications of the mind. That is, generic and specific concepts are concepts taken from things, but "as the thing is not [really] disposed" (lines 116-117). We form generic and specific concepts for the sake of dealing with external realities, but those concepts have nothing answering to them on the side of reality. The objection to nominalism then is that it makes our concepts "false" and empty. They would be at best arbitrary, and possibly worse, outright distortions of reality. Hence we would have no real knowledge of the world, since our knowledge - or at least any that's going to be very important - proceeds in terms of general or common concepts. Hence, this nominalistic second side of the question leads to epistemological difficulties.

Boethius' Own View

These then are the preliminary arguments, pro and con (or rather con and pro, respectively). We now turn to Boethius' own resolution of the problem, beginning on p. 5 of the translation.

Boethius says he is taking his solution from a certain "Alexander". This is Alexander of Aphrodisias, the famous ancient commentator on Aristotle, and indeed one of the two or three truly all-time great commentators on Aristotle. How does the solution go?

Well, terminologically at any rate, the view is a bit ambiguous, as we shall see. But on our first approach to it, let us say that it proceeds by adopting the second of the alternatives considered above, the one that says that genera and species do not subsist, but exist purely in the mind. The solution then rejects the counterargument to this view. That is, it denies that concepts formed from things "as the things are not [really] disposed" need to be false and empty. That depends on how they are formed.

First, what do you suppose Boethius means when he talks about a concept's being formed "as the thing is not really disposed" - or for that matter "as the thing is really disposed"? Let's try to explain it like this. A concept is a kind of picture or representation. (We can say this without committing ourselves to the view that confuses thoughts with fantasy images.) Now we can say that a concept is formed "as the thing is really disposed" if and only if the concept is an exact picture or representation of something. That is, it includes all and only what is included in the object. A concept is formed "as the thing is not really disposed" if it fails to be like this. This failure may come about in one (or both) of two ways:

(a) Because of composition. For instance, when we put together the concept of a horse and of a man, to get the concept of a centaur. The concept includes more than is included in any real object. A concept that departs from reality in this way, Boethius says, is false and empty. (Note: He is not talking here about false judgment. He is talking about what he calls false concepts, by which he means vacuous or empty ones.) So the epistemological problem is really serious if our concepts depart from reality in this way, by composition, by adding more than is there in reality.

(b) On the other hand, concepts may also be formed "as the thing is not really disposed" by what Boethius calls "division" or "abstraction". (The second term will be the usual one in later terminology.) Concepts formed in this way are never false and empty, even though they do in a sense depart from reality, by leaving out certain things included in the real object. For instance, I can form the concept of color without considering surface. I can treat them separately. There is nothing false or empty about the concept of color. There really are colors, and the concept of color is really of them.

Notice what Boethius is not doing here. He is not saying that the concept color-without-surface is not empty, because it is. Boethius is not talking about a concept that includes only certain features of the reality and then positively excludes all the rest; he is talking only about a concept that includes certain features of the reality and completely ignores the rest, has nothing to say about the rest. This is the distinction that will later be made between "abstraction" and "precision" (from Latin `praecidere' = to cut off).

Boethius' own example (lines 151-158, 176-185) is of a geometrical line, which is present in and inseparable from a physical body, he says. Yet the mind can "separate" it from the body and consider it apart from any consideration of the body, even though it cannot exist apart from the body.

Note some things about this passage. First, Boethius thinks mathematical notions can be derived from sensation by abstraction. Boethius takes a basically Aristotelian view of mathematics. If you want to pursue the matter, take a look at his De trinitate, where he divides up the theoretical sciences in a basically Aristotelian way, into physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. The way he says mathematics proceeds is very interesting in the light of our earlier discussion of ideal concepts.

Second, note the activity of the mind that is involved here. The mind separates things out, abstracts. Contrast this with the passivity of the mind in Augustinian illumination. Boethius is here being influenced by Aristotle.

Boethius thinks our generic and specific concepts are formed in way (b) above, by division or abstraction. But now here is where the terminological ambiguity begins to emerge. For he goes on to say that genera and species subsist, they are incorporeal, and they are in individuals. (Note: This answers all three of Porphyry's questions.) But how can he say that? I thought we just said that he accepted the second view, that such universals do not subsist. Well, the answer is, of course, that there is an equivocation going on. (But see the qualification below.) I want to emphasize that the theory is perfectly coherent (at least on this point); it is only the terminology that is confusing. Let's look at it more closely.

Boethius has a kind of slogan (lines 196-197): Genera and species exist in individuals, but they are thought of as universals.

We have to understand just what he is saying is or subsists here. (In line 203 he says almost the same thing using the word `subsist'.) It is not something common or universal that he says subsists. The antirealist arguments at the beginning of the passage are correct here. On the other hand, Boethius does want to say that the genus of Socrates, that is, his own private animality, does subsist, and so does his species, his own private humanity. And so do the animality and humanity of Plato. But they are not the same things; there is nothing shared here. That this is what he means is indicated by the fact that he goes on immediately to say (lines 197-200):

And species is to be regarded as nothing else than the thought gathered from the substantial likeness of individuals that are unlike in number. Genus, onthe other hand, [is] the thought gathered from the likeness of species.

That is, the common concept of the species has no common thing corresponding to it in reality; what corresponds to the concept `humanity' is the individual humanities of Socrates and Plato and the rest of us, which are alike and yet have nothing really in common. So the concept is not empty and false. It is just that the correspondence with reality is not one-to-one; it is one-to-many.

Note the terminological shift in this passage. First he says that genera and species exist in singulars or individuals (line 196). Here he is talking about the individual humanities and animalities of Socrates and Plato, and calling those species and genera. Then, in the very next words (lines 197-200), he turns around and says that species must be considered to be a kind of thought. Here he is talking about the general concept. That is the ambiguity I was talking about.

A qualification: Although I have presented this as an ambiguity, it may be closer to the truth to view it instead as a reflection of the basically Aristotelian view that holds that the knower is the known. On this view, the concept just is formally identical with its object, so that there is no ambiguity at all, and Boethius can with impunity use the term `species' or `genus' both for the concept and for the correlate in reality. In fact, I think that is probably what Boethius had in mind. Still, the main lines of Boethius' solution can be understood without bringing in this odd Aristotelian view. And that view really is odd. It eliminates the ambiguity I was talking about, but only at the expense of requiring us to make sense of the notion that a concept is somehow identical with several distinct things. I'm not sure that we cannot make sense of this notion, but I am sure we cannot do it here. Note that it cannot be explained away in the way we explained how many divine ideas were nevertheless all identical.

Hence the view Boethius is adopting is the one he tried to refute earlier (of course he was not speaking for himself then, but only presenting an objection) by his odd infinite regress argument. The argument presumably fails because it assumes that if the humanity of Socrates and the humanity of Plato are alike in being two humanities, then they must have something in common. At least it assumes that if I interpret the argument correctly.

At the end of the entire passage (lines 220-228) Boethius observes that Plato and Aristotle disagree over the answer to Porphyry's third question. Aristotle says that genera and species (though not universal genera and species, according to Boethius) are in individuals, whereas Plato says they are separated - that is, that they are the Ideas or Forms. (Notice that the Platonic Forms are probably not universals in the sense in which Boethius had described universals earlier. Platonic Forms are external to the particulars that participate in them, and so probably violate the third requirement Boethius lists. I say "probably" because of course it all depends on that crucial but unexplained phrase `constitute the substance'.)

After noticing this difference between Plato and Aristotle, Boethius makes a truly astonishing remark. He says that he has followed Aristotle here (through his commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias) not because he thinks this theory is true, but because he is commenting on a text, the Isagoge, that is supposed to introduce the reader to Aristotle's Categories, so that it is his job to be Aristotelian about it.

What does this mean? Does it mean that Boethius doesn't believe a word of all the stuff he has just been feeding us? Well, if you look at the Consolation and at the Theological Tractates, where Boethius is speaking in his own right, and is not operating under the constraints of a faithful commentator, you can piece together another view that is somewhat more Platonic and Augustinian than the view we have just been looking at. In fact, you can piece together two views, one of which is more or less like the one we have been looking at, with some disagreements and adjustments that may be responsible for Boethius' disclaimer at the end of the passage from the Commentary on Porphyry, and the other of which is quite different and much more realist. Let us then look at the Theological Tractates on the question of structure of an individual. (I will mention the Consolation at the appropriate point.)

The View in the Theological Tractates

In Passage 1, we get the picture of a fully constituted individual substance, to which accidents can be added and from which they can be removed. Substances do not need accidents, recall, even if they happen to have them.

The Principle of Individuation

Given this picture, we can raise the question of individuation. That is, how do we get from the genus and species down to the individual? What is it that narrows down or "contracts" (as they came to say) the genus and species to yield the individual? What do you have to add to the genus and species to get the individual? On this question, there are two views in the Tractates, one implicit in the Contra Eutychen text and the first passage from De trinitate, and consistent with what he says in the Contra Eutychen about subsistence and substance, and other explicit in the second passage from De trinitate but inconsistent with what he says in the Contra Eutychen and moreover unacceptable in itself.


The first, implicit view is that matter is the principle of individuation. From Passage 1 (taken from the Contra Eutychen), we get the view that particulars can substand accidents, and when they do they are "substances". On the other hand, genera and species, according to that passage, cannot do this. That is the difference between particulars on the one hand and genera or species on the other. From Passage 2, the first passage from De trinitate, it follows that accidents do not really inhere in genera and species, but in the matter that underlies genera and species. Putting these two texts together, it seems that it is the presence of matter that allows particulars to substand accidents, and that therefore distinguishes particulars from genera and species. To get from genus and species to the individual, you add matter - and that gives you the ability to substand accidents, which is what characterizes particulars or individuals.


The second, explicit view is contained in Passage 3: Accidents are the principles of individuation. "Now it is the variety of accidents that makes for difference in number."

There are two things wrong with this second view. First, it seems to freeze the individual, so that no individual can change in any way by acquiring or losing an accident without changing its very identity. All change is substantial change. When I wiggle my finger, I acquire some new, accidental (and really quite trivial) property concerning the spatial configuration of my body and its relations to other bodies around me. But since the accidental features have changed, and since it is just "the variety of accidents that makes for difference in number", it follows when I wiggle my finger, I become a new individual, numerically distinct from the individual I was. And that seems too high a price to pay.

Note that Leibniz later on will solve this problem by adding explicit time-references to accidents, so that Caesar for instance did not have the property of crossing the Rubicon, just like that. He had - and always, tenselessly, has - the property of crossing the Rubicon on such and such a date, at such and such a time. Now while this is very reminiscent of the kind of move Boethius himself makes in his solution to the problem of foreknowledge and human free will, he does not adopt it here, and seems to be unaware that there is even a problem that might warrant adopting it. Leibniz's view, incidentally, is already present in Augustine, in the doctrine of seminal reasons. And for that matter, Augustine took it over from the Stoics. The idea is that the reasons (rationes) or structures of things are already built into creation from the very beginning, and just unfold over time like seeds. Augustine, at any rate, has such a theory in part to accommodate the view that creation was over at the end of the sixth day; any novelties that have emerged since then are really just the unfoldings of "seed reasons" that were there all along. If you want to look at this a little more, see Bourke, The Essential Augustine, pp. 102-103, the passages from Augustine's De trinitate and his De Genesi ad litteram ( = "Literal Commentary on Genesis").

The second thing wrong with the view contained in Passage 3 is that it violates what Contra Eutychen says about subsistence and substance. According to Passage 1, particulars do not need accidents in order to get their existence and identity. According to Passage 3, they do.

In the Theological Tractates, particularly in the De trinitate, you get a kind of laminated view of individuals. The view comes in two forms. In its first form, for instance is Passage 2, you have matter, and in matter you have several images of the separated Forms. Now the Forms are just the divine Ideas. The picture then is that in the matter of an individual human being, you have for instance the image of corporeality, of animality, of rationality, plus accidental images, all piled one on top of another more or less in layers. Images are not forms. Forms are separated from matter; they are the divine Ideas. The images are like impressions from a seal-ring. Just as a seal-ring can leave its impression in wax, so too the Forms or divine ideas leave their images in matter. (Get familiar with this metaphor. It is an important one.) The Forms are the true genera and species - they are common by way of being a common exemplar or paradigm, just as the one seal-ring is common to all the several impressions it makes. But the Forms are not universals. They are not metaphysically intimate enough with the individuals to which they are common. Recall, from the end of the discussion in the Commentary on Porphyry, how Boethius says Plato and Aristotle disagree over Porphyry's third question, and that while Aristotle holds that genera and species are in individuals, Plato holds that they are separated. In the terminology of the Contra Eutychen, Plato calls the Forms genera and species, while Aristotle calls the images genera and species, and completely ignores - or worse, rejects - the Forms.

This is a famous and influential view. It goes back to Plato's Timaeus and to the Seventh Letter (whether that is genuinely by Plato or not). Chalcidius (remember him?) calls what Boethius calls "images" impressed forms. In the twelfth century, Gilbert of Poitiers will call them native forms - that is, innate forms. All of these people have the same basic picture in mind, a picture perhaps best expressed by the common metaphor of the seal-ring.

What's Wrong with the Commentary-View

We are now in a position to speculate about what Boethius found objectionable in the theory of universals he sketched in his Commentary on Porphyry, and why he added that odd business at the end about how he has said all of this not because he believes it but because he is a faithful commentator. If you think about it, the view we have just sketched from the Theological Tractates looks very much like the one in the Commentary on Porphyry. The individual humanities of Socrates and Plato are the impressions or "images"; Socrates and Plato have nothing really in common in the way a universal is supposed to be common.

The difference, of course, is that in the Commentary on Porphyry there is no mention of divine ideas at all, and no real discussion of matter. Once you bring them into the picture, then you no longer have to say that the mind gets its common concepts by abstracting them under its own power; you can say that the mind gets its common concepts by somehow getting in touch with the divine ideas, which is the common exemplar of all the "images". That is, you don't need a theory of abstraction any more; you can do it by illumination.

Boethius doesn't actually say any of this in the Tractates, of course. And in fact, at the beginning of Passage 1, he says that the "understanding of universal things is taken from particulars" - not, presumably, from divine Ideas. Furthermore, Boethius definitely does have a theory of abstraction. It makes its appearance in several other passages as well. Nevertheless, the illumination picture does fit in well with the highly Platonic flavor of the Consolation - for example, Book IV, m. 1, where we get a doctrine of recollection.

In short, then, we can speculate with some plausibility (although it is no more than educated speculation) that Boethius' doubts about the doctrine of his Commentary on Porphyry center on the fact that that doctrine ignores the Forms or divine Ideas. There may or may not be additional doubts involving the theory of abstraction, which is not needed if you have divine Ideas and have a theory of illumination available. But all these are relatively minor complaints. If I am right, then we should not take his disclaimer at the end of the passage in the Commentary on Porphyry as an indication that he accepted a radically different view of universals - for instance, a screaming realist view, or a view that simply accepted all the skeptical consequences of denying genera and species any status in reality at all.

A Strongly Realist View

The view we have just looked at is, I think, probably Boethius' best considered opinion. Nevertheless, if you look at Passage 3 carefully, you might get an altogether different view. There accidents are said to individuate; there is simply no mention of matter. If you are going to take this text as your starting point, you have no need to bring in matter, and so no need to use the seal-ring metaphor or to make the distinction between Form and "image".

This text is open to development in a strongly realist way (although it does not require such an interpretation). The humanity of Socrates, if you push this realist line, is the same as - that is, identical with, not merely like - the humanity of Plato. In Socrates and Plato, you have a total of one humanity, not two. To this humanity, you add certain accidents to get Socrates, and certain other accidents to get Plato. Similarly, Socrates and Browny the ass (a standard example, although it doesn't arise until the time of Abelard in the twelfth century - the Latin name is `Brunellus' or some variation on that) really do share a single animality. You add certain other things to get Socrates, and yet others to get Browny. For instance, Socrates has rationality, but Browny has irrationality. Here you have a real laminated" view of the structure of an individual. The individual is built up like a layer cake.

This strongly realist view, I said, is suggested by Passage 3, but it is not explicit there. Although there is no appeal to matter or to Forms and "images", there is no denial of them either. (You would not expect matter to appear in this context. Boethius is talking about the Trinity, after all, and there is no matter in God.) And the claim that accidents individuate is not entirely out of line with the picture developed in the other texts. After all, we saw how, in that other picture, it was matter that got you from the genus and species down to the level of the particular substance. But on that same picture, as Passage 2 says explicitly, the role of that matter is to provide the support for accidents. Hence, if accidents individuate, as they do in Passage 3, and if accidents inhere only in matter, as Passage 2 says, then it is not hard to see that in order to have individuals, you are going to have to have accidents, and so matter too. (And never mind about individuation in the case of God. We can handle that as a special case, I suppose.) Both matter and accidents, then, would be required for individuation. To this extent, therefore, Passage 3 is not all that incompatible with the view contained in the other passages.

Nevertheless, in another respect it becomes clear that we do not have a single, unified theory here after all, and that Passage 3 does not really, in the long run, fit with the others at all. For Passage 1 explicitly tells us that substances do not need accidents. And that just won't fit with individuation by accidents, as in Passage 3, where individuals get their very identity from their accidents.

The strongly realist view of Passage 3, I said, is only suggested there, and is certainly not explicit (although individuation by accidents is). Nevertheless, the view is important. For certain later authors, as we shall see, developed views like this, and looked to Boethius - indeed, to this very passage - for authoritative support. In fact, both of these views, the strongly realist one suggested by Passage 3 and the more nominalist one in the Commentary on Porphyry and most of the rest of the Tractates, will be important in the twelfth century and, for that matter, throughout the Middle Ages.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest