19 July 2002

Just a couple words more about universals. In Aristotle's language, universals are the "forms" of things that exist in the things themselves and generally inseparable from some kind of physical instantiation, though Aristotle's theory of forms itself was woefully incomplete and developed in very different directions by later thinkers such as Aquinas.

Generally, "forms" are real, active, dynamic structures within things that explain the distinctive behavior and various latent potentialities of the thing given the material of which the thing is composed. Forms are what cause the thing to be the kind of thing it is, constituting it as that kind of thing, and they do so in such a way that this causation is everywhere simultaneously present within the thing (e.g., as the structure of a wave is everywhere simultaneously present throughout the water through which it moves, explaining the behavior of the water even though the wave-form itself is not made of water since it is moving through it). Forms can have a multiplicity of physical instances and even be realized within various kinds of matter (e.g., the principle of an arch, whether made or brick or stone or concrete block). They can be intelligently apprehended in the thing, conceived, and often defined or described, even mathematically.

Forms account for the replication of things whether an animal species, a song, a genetic code, a book, or a computer program. They account for the scientific behavior of things in a law-like way. They also explain how certain structures can be transmitted or replicated without being fully realized and manifest during transmission or replication (e.g., the color of a thing does not color the atmosphere between the object and you, a program isn't running as it is being downloaded from the internet). Scientific descriptions that describe the behavior of things and predict outcomes are not generally explanatory in the way forms are, but simply are reflecting the regularities that forms produce. But forms go beyond mere regularity to embrace purpose and design.

That, at least, is roughly what I understand forms to be. Hopefully this is suggestive enough so that one can grasp the concept of a universal and how they may be both really in things and shared by them.