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For others meanings of universal or universality, see universal (disambiguation) page.
Universality is opposed to relativism in philosophy. Truth may be said to be universal, as well as rights, for example in natural rights or in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, heavily influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and its conception of a human nature. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is inspired by the same principles. A proposition is said to have universality if it can be conceived as being true in all possible contexts without creating a contradiction. Some philosophers have referred to such propositions as universalizable. Truth is considered to be universal if it is valid in all times and places. In this case, it is seen as eternal or as absolute. The relativist conception denies the existence of universal truths - although they are, of course, grades of relativism: most relativists deny the existence of universal moral values, which make them moral relativists, but few deny the existence of universal truths when mathematics are concerned. In other words, since truth has various domains of application, relativism does not necessarily apply to all of them. A classic argument against extreme forms of relativism rely on the relativist fallacy: claiming that "all truths are relative" is, in itself, a universal proposition, since it asserts something about a totality. Thus, this extreme form of relativism is seen as self refuting (however, relativists often argue that, as sceptics, they have never made such universal assertion).
A universal proposition is one that affirms a property of all the members of a set. For instance, the proposition that all dogs are mortal and the proposition that all cows can fly are universal propositions, the former (assumedly) true and the latter false. A universal proposition is logically equivalent to the negation of an existential proposition. Thus, claiming that all cows can fly is equivalent to denying that there is a cow that cannot fly.
It may be noted, along the lines of Humean causal scepticism, that the only universal propositions that must be true are those that exist a priori, drawn from definitions (i.e. "All dogs are mammals"). Universal propositions that are drawn a posteriori, from one's experience of the world (i.e. "All dogs are born with four legs"), can never be confirmed as true, simply supported to be true (though such propositions are falsifiable).
Universality in metaphysics
In metaphysics, a universal is a type, a property, or a relation. The noun universal contrasts with individual, while the adjective universal contrasts with particular or sometimes with concrete. The latter meaning, however, may be confusing since Hegelian and neo-Hegelian (e.g. British idealist) philosophies speak of concrete universals.
A universal may have instances, known as its particulars. For example, the type dog (or doghood) is a universal, as are the property red (or redness) and the relation betweenness (or being between). Any particular dog, red thing, or object that is between other things is not a universal, however, but is an instance of a universal. That is, a universal type (doghood), property (redness), or relation (betweenness) inheres a particular object (a specific dog, red thing, or object between other things).
Platonic realism holds universals to be the referents of general terms, i.e. the abstract, nonphysical entities to which words like "doghood", "redness", and "betweenness" refer. By contrast, particulars are the referrents of proper names, like "Fido", or of definite descriptions that identify single objects, like the phrase, "that apple on the table". By contrast, other metaphysical theories merely use the terminology of universals to describe physical entities.
The problem of universals is an ancient problem in metaphysics concerning the nature of universals, or whether they exist. Part of the problem involves the implications of language use and the complexity of relating language to ontological theory.
Most ontological frameworks do not consider classes to be universals, although some prominent philosophers do, such as John Bigelow.
The term universality also refers to the medieval concept of an absolute, all-encompassing morality that justified a universal secular rule by one all-powerful Holy Roman Emperor, and also justified as universal the religious rule by one all-powerful all-encompassing (hence the term catholic) church. In the 17th century, the doctrine of universality gave way to the doctrine of raison d'état or national interest. Universality is comparable, but not equivalent, to the concept of the Mandate of Heaven in Chinese history.
As a state (truth)
Absolutism contends that in a particular domain of thought, all statements in that domain are either absolutely true or absolutely false: none is true for some cultures or eras while false for other cultures or eras. These statements are called absolute truths. A common reaction by those who newly criticize absolutism is the absolute truth statement: Absolute truths do not exist.
The statement, 'Absolute truths do not exist.', reveals the characteristic of absolute truth. Absolute truth does not apply to reality, existence, belief, or to human intelligence. In the logic of dichotomy of true-not true, application is without respect to what is absolutely true. Certainly, absolute truth does not define material existence, but supports material existence, position, and state of being. Absolute truth is as applicable to 'not true' as it is to 'true'. The double negative reveals this monistic status of absolute truth. The non-existence of absolute truth would, if true, be as true as the existence of absolute truth in an absolute sense. To postulate the non-existence of truth, however, is to violate the most fundamental capacity of mind. It is as though a snake could swallow itself by starting at the tail. Therein lies the value of absolute truth for thought. Violation of truth value in an absolute sense, validates the truth value of existence versus non-existence. Some say, "If I see it I believe it." Others say, "I believe it if I know it." If the sense of knowing is little better than the sense of sight, little can be made of the analogy. The acuity of the sense of absolute truth may not be good enough for most to clearly distinguish the difference between what is true and truth itself.
One could ask, 'Is it true that truth exists?' One can also ask, 'Is it true that truth does not exist?' The first can be affirmed by mind, while the latter cannot be affirmed without a gross distortion of sense. If truth does not exist, it would certainly be true that truth does not exist. That is the quality of absolute truth. If the negation were true, one could not ask the question and expect a true answer. Absolute truth is the essence of thought and distinguishes the capacity of the sapient being.
As an action (verity)
In action form, absolute truth most closely represents verity. This form can be likened to the action usage of metaphysical truth, but not its state usage (which represent metaphysical truths in state form). Absolute truth in action form is considered by many to be metaphysical only, and therefore the same as the action usage of metaphysical truth. Some believe the outcome of absolute truth (verity) can be metaphysical truths, physical truths or both, but by definition not any form of a lie.
A particularly confusing absolute truth in state form (but good for example) is:
- Absolute truth cannot be a lie.
Some interpret this to mean:
- The outcome of absolute truth cannot be a lie.
But that refers specifically to the action form of absolute truth. Others interpret it as:
- Absolute truth statements cannot be lies.
But that refers specifically to the state form of absolute truth. The original statement can be interpreted as either the state or action form. In the state form the statement is not true, but in the action form it is true. Either way the statement is an absolute truth in state form.
A potential example of absolute truth in action form is:
- The words you are reading exist because of absolute truths in action form supporting their ability to exist.
Attentive readers will recognize the previous statement as an absolute truth in state form describing absolute truth in action form. Whether or not the statement is true is left as an exercise for the reader.
An interesting paradox arises when someone refutes the existence of any absolute truths. Their statement might be something along the lines of:
- There are no absolute truths.
If this statement were true, it would imply that it is an absolute truth itself. And if this statement is an absolute truth, it would contradict its original statement and mean that the statement is in fact false. Therefore it is impossible to prove that there are absolutely no absolute truths. However, this doesn’t necessarily imply that they exist.
A more proper way of stating it would be to say that "Relative truth is correct". Although this seems to be an absolute statement, it is in fact not, because it does not exclude that "Absolute truth is also correct". To a relativist, whose culture holds this as a tenet; relativism is indeed correct. But a relativist can also allow that to one raised in a culture of absolutism, it would be incorrect.
"What is absolutely true is always correct, everywhere, all the time, under any condition. An entity's ability to discern these things is irrelevant to that state of truth." - Steven Robiner
- Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law."
- 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights
References & Bibliography
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