Hegel’s “Concrete Universal”

Robert Stern (in his Hegelian Metaphysics) argues that Hegel’s notion of the “concrete universal” (found mostly in Book III of his Science of Logic) provided a unique way forward for the perennial philosophical debate — going back to Plato’s Forms — over the relations among universals, their instances, and individuals. His discussion is rich enough to defy summary here, but I want to highlight one strand of it. Say that an individual is an entity that 1) unites certain properties (being human, being male, having brown skin, being American, etc.), and that 2) is numerically distinct from every other individual. One problem Stern observes is that these two criteria are in some tension with each other: any account of what it is to instantiate a common property is apt to raise questions about the numerical distinctness of that property’s bearers from other such property bearers. Hegel tries to resolve this tension by way of a simple observation: some universals (“substance” or “concrete universals”) are such that their every instance is an individual (“human” is instantiated only as individual human beings), whereas other universals (“abstract” or “property universals”) are such that their every instance is, not an individual, but the property of an individual (“maleness” and “redness” are like this). The universality of a concrete universal is realized only by way of particularity, and this dialectical relation between universality and individuality gives concrete universals an explanatory priority over property universals (in just the way that substances have explanatory priority over their accidents for Aristotle).

Here’s how Stern summarizes his argument:

The individual is no more than an instantiation of universals (there are no ‘bare’ individuals). But the universals that constitute the individual are not just property universals, as these just tell us what attributes the individual has, not what the individual is (so the ‘bundle view’ is false). But the substance universals which constitute the nature of the individual qua individual do not exist in the abstract, but only as particularized through property universals, and thus as instantiated in the form of individuals (so Platonism is false) (Hegelian Metaphysics, 157).

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One Response to Hegel’s “Concrete Universal”

  1. Pingback: Criticizing Aristotle on “substance” | A Commonplace Book

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