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Institute of Advanced Study

Anselm's Theory of Universals Reconsidered


There is much disagreement as to the nature of Anselm of Canterbury's solution to the ontological problem of universals. I propose a new interpretation by introducing, first, two distinctions between different forms of realism concerning the existence of universal entities, and various ways in which these can be combined to form full-blown theories. After
reconsidering some recent views of Anselm's theory of universals in the light of these distinctions, I then argue that it is of an ‘Objective Idealist' (or ‘Pan-realist') type. It constitutes the core of Anselm's ontology, which may be characterized as a ‘five-category ontology.' The gist of his theory of universals is a three-level account of reality where the entities on different
levels vary in their degree of being or existence. Anselm has recently been taken to be saying that a universal is strictly immanent to its corresponding particulars. But this interpretation seems to miss the point. His ontology is of a decidedly neo-Platonic bent. Still, Anselm takes the metaphysics of Aristotle's ‘Categories' very seriously as far as it goes.

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