The Need for Universals

Ideas Have Consequences
- The Need for Universals

“Wonder and the passion for philosophy, let us explore all aspects of life and understand all that it has to offer.

“I had claimed to have learned little to nothing in regards to valuable life lessons in the past four years. For that much, I was correct. But in the past five months, philosophy has taught me not to ‘know’ as much as I can about life, but to ‘understand’ as much as I can about life, and for that, I am forever grateful.”  

-Gr. 12 Philosophy Student, June 2010

St. Jerome - by Caravaggio

In my previous article, I mentioned that the Holy Father expressed concern over what he called “the eclipse of reason.” I suggested that common sense is no longer common because of the relativistic mindsets within our culture. Unless we can begin to reconnect young people to reality as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, we will lose another generation to the malaise of relativism and, by extension, a lack of faith. This is why, as a teacher, I place a great deal of emphasis on our human capacity to reason in an attempt to instill a love for wisdom and God. It may seem that teaching common sense is simply stating the obvious, but as George Orwell (d. 1950) observed, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

A Small Mistake at the Beginning

In order to understand what we as parents and teachers should do in our current situation, we have to step back for a moment and examine how we got here. There is no simple answer to this question. I’m currently halfway through a book entitled, A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher. At over 700 pages it is a tough go, but very detailed. The process has been a very long one – over 500 years – and it has many elements to it, but for my purposes I start with one turning point in philosophy.

St. Thomas Aquinas once said, “A small error in the beginning is a great one in the end.” As in geometry, so in philosophy – if you’re navigating a ship over thousands of miles, being off just 1 degree in your initial course plotting will leave you hundreds of miles off course at the end. The same with philosophy; if the beginning premise is just a little flawed, you will end up with some very serious errors at the end.

In the 14th Century, William of Ockham and others broke from the then common school of thought and began a small and gradual movement that has led to where we are today. His approach countered the position of Aristotle and Aquinas, who both held that universals had real objectivity (real meaning) in themselves as concepts. Instead, he argued that universals have only subjective value and no meaning in themselves. For example, Aquinas would say that the concept of “triangle” is a universal that captures the essence of what a triangle is, though triangles can only be experienced as a particular – this triangle or that triangle. William of Ockham argued that there is only “this triangle” or “that triangle” and the concept of triangle is just a mental construct, an image useful for discussion. When we extend this idea, then “human nature” has no meaning in itself except in individual observable human beings. Thus we cannot say that human beings by nature are curious: only individual men are curious as individuals.

If you do not completely understand the concept of universals, perhaps this comparison will help you to understand the impact of the idea. The Protestant Revolt by Martin Luther is analogous to what happened with Nominalism in philosophy. As Luther’s main premise, Sola Scriptura, eventually led to the rapid fragmentation of Protestantism, so that there are now over 40,000 registered Protestant Christian denominations, so too did the rejection of universals cause a fragmentation in philosophy into many different “-isms” that in our day has prompted the Holy Father to coin the phrase “The Dictatorship of Relativism.”

The current attitude towards philosophy that is prevalent today is another consequence of this abandonment of universals. Many people see philosophy as an esoteric, academic study that has no valuable application in the real world. That mentality is unfortunate because we are all philosophers. Recently, Dr. Peter Kreeft, in a 2010 address to the Catholic Medical Association, stated that, “Everyone needs not to have a philosopher, but to be a philosopher, though not everyone needs to be a professional philosopher… You can avoid being a professional philosopher, but you can’t avoid being a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. To love wisdom is simply to be human…” Therefore, with these two realizations in mind we gain a glimpse of the task before us. Philosophy needs to be reclaimed as a proper and worthwhile human endeavour, one that must be founded on reality as it is and not merely as we perceive it to be. Simple ..but not easy.

Ideas have Consequences

My approach to teaching philosophy focuses on the consequences of ideas, rather than just the ideas themselves. Today’s students are of a mindset that “actions have consequences” and only then, if you get caught. A connection needs to be re-established between the actions and the ideas that precede them. For example, if your idea of a good time is to get together with friends and get as drunk as possible, then your actions will follow that idea. You will purchase a large amount of alcohol, get together at someone’s house or cottage and then proceed to drink a great deal – usually by playing drinking games. This leads, of course, to other more serious consequences. Change your idea of a good time and your actions will change also.

Now, I don’t tell students this right away. When I begin teaching a new semester I introduce the topic that “Ideas have Consequences” and proceed to ask questions right away. Teenagers, generally speaking, tend to suffer from overconfidence in their understanding of life. That’s a nice way of saying they think they know it all. Since none of us do know it all, I immediately try to dispel them of that fantasy. It goes something like this.

Teacher: “Show of hands, how many of you are NOT the same person you were back in Grade 1?”

(All hands go up)

Teacher: “So, when did you change your name and obtain new identification?”

(Stunned looks from students)

Teacher: “Well, if you’re not the same person you were in Grade 1, then you can’t be going by the same name or identity because that’s not you. The you that used to be you is no longer the you that you are now. So… are you going to change your name and ID or will you continue to live under a false identity???”

Students: “But Sir, that’s not what we meant!!!!”

Teacher: “But that IS what I asked and you held up your hand. So what is it? Are you the same person or not?”

That little exchange leads us to discuss the difference between who I am – my personhood – and my constantly changing attributes, characteristics, personality, etc. This little exercise will serve a role later when we discuss human nature, ethics, marriage, etc.

I follow the same format for questions like, “How many of you want to marry someone who will make you happy?”

Of course, many hands go up (which leads me to wonder about the owners of the hands that didn’t go up). I call them “foolish”. After the initial shock wears out, I explain to them that no one can make us happy because happiness comes from within. We also have an infinite capacity for happiness that no one person can fill. Therefore, it’s unfair to ask our spouse to “make us happy” and to do so is a sure recipe for divorce. Interestingly enough, a former student came to visit me last week and informed me that she had separated from her boyfriend for just this reason. Apparently, he said that she wasn’t doing enough “to make him happy” and she told him what she thought of THAT idea! It’s a real joy when your teaching pays off!

The big question I eventually ask concerns freedom, which students define as being able to do what they want, when they want, with no restrictions. By that definition, no one is free and any freedom you might have is an illusion. This leads to examining the idea that freedom is the capacity to choose the good… which leads to the question of what is good… which leads to the question of why we should choose the good… and so on.

G.K. Chesterton once described education as initiation, “It is in its nature a progression from one thing to another; the arrangement of ideas in a certain order.” As teachers and parents (parents are by definition teachers), we serve our students and children best when we lay out ideas “in a certain order.” Fortunately, when we see reality as objective – that is, real in itself and not just a construct of our minds, hence the recapturing of universals I spoke of above – this order comes out naturally. Take any subject, remember that good ideas have good consequences and that bad ideas have bad consequences, then follow the logic.

This will be my approach in this series; you can use it in class or with your children during dinner – because it is my experience that the best philosophy is done where food is involved! 

One Soul at a Time

I would like to conclude with a word of encouragement. The state of our culture did not come about overnight and it will not be resolved overnight. Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow; today’s trouble is enough for today (cf. Matthew 6: 24-34). God gives us, as parents, the children we need and He gives our children the parents they need. As much as we might be tempted to think otherwise, this was not a mistake. We should use every teachable moment that comes up (especially the evening meal) as an opportunity to examine life, for as Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.

The same goes for teachers. Every student we have in our classroom is there for a reason. Nothing is random for God. This is all within God’s plan. Once we are comfortable with this reality, we then daily take St. Augustine’s advice to heart – work as if everything depended on you and pray as if everything depended on God.

This article is a part of the ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences – by Dennis Buonafede. We value your comments and encourage you to leave your thoughts below.  Please share this article with others in your network.  Thank you!  – The Editors

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About the Author

As of February, 2011, Dennis Buonafede has been teaching High School Religion and Philosophy in Ontario, Canada for the past 10 years. Dennis grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia before moving to Ontario where he completed his B.A. in Philosophy at St. Peter’s Seminary at the University of Western Ontario, his M.Div. as a lay student at St. Augustine’s Seminary at the University of Toronto and his Bachelor of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Prior to transferring to St. Augustine's, he studied at Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut from 1990-1992. Dennis has been married to Teresa for 15 years and they have two children aged 12 and 14. Dennis is an active member of his parish and has been a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1995. He was a Charter Member of Council 11708 and PGK of Council 8851. He co-developed a leadership program for the KofC sponsored Ontario Catholic Youth Leadership Camp and was the camp director for 3 years. Dennis is currently a Civilian Instructor with Air Cadet 242 Squadron where his son is a Sergeant. Dennis is a voracious reader, likes to ride motorcycles and enjoys fishing. He follows hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs), football (Chicago Bears) and NASCAR (Dale Jr.). His family agrees that he makes THE best home made pizza ever!

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6 Comments

  1. Dennis,

    It seems to me the qualities you point out will naturally serve people very well as they seek to deepen their prayer lives – well arranged thoughts, governed by universals (and the context provided by the Church’s teachings), that lead meditation upon eternal truths from one thought to the next. Well written!

    Deacon Mike

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