Are events universals, particulars, or neither?


The first question that needs to be addressed is whether or not events are things that exist in some manner that they can be classified as universals or particulars.  The second question that needs to be addressed is just what exactly are events.  Only with those answers in hand can the question of the proper classification of events be addressed.  Therefore, I will deal with the issues in that order.  Along the way I will argue that events can be classified as universals, particulars, or neither according to one's metaphysical attitudes.  Myself, I classify events as particulars, and I will offer my reasons for that conclusion.

First Level Understanding

The first question is whether or not events exist, and exist in a manner that they can be classified as particulars or universals.  The first level of understanding is - of course events exist.  We speak of, and refer to, events all the time.  Ordinary discourse is full of references to events.  From the Big Bang, to the World Cup, to the next election, we cannot do without references to events of various sorts.  But just exactly what are these events of which we speak?   And how ought we classify them?

Second Level Understanding

The general consensus of philosophers is that events are (and I mean "are" in a very general and non-committal sense) changes in various things - particulars, properties of particulars, relations between particulars, universals, and any other sort of thing admitted within our ontologies.  The World Cup and the next election are events that consist of the change from a group of people not doing some particular activity to that group of people doing that particular activity.  Other sorts of events would appear to be other sorts of changes in underlying things.  Therefore, at a second level of understanding, events can be considered to supervene on changes to various more fundamental things.  Now some philosophers do admit a kind of event that consists of something that continues unchanged - like the "event" of a Newtonian particle continuing in a straight line, uninfluenced by any force.  But it would seem that this sort of event is simply an extension to the normal way of using the concept of an "event".  The normal usage of the concept is to denote, refer to, or pick out a change that is somehow noteworthy.

But if events are changes in things that are more fundamental, that would mean that "events" do not exist in the same sense as do particulars and universals.  Particulars and universals (if they exist) are generally deemed to be ontologically fundamental categories.  At this second level of understanding, therefore, events are not things that should be classed as either particulars or universals.  At this level of understanding, events are not ontologically fundamental.  They would therefore have to be classed as "neither".

Third Level Understanding

However, there is a yet deeper level of understanding to explore.  This third level requires a better understanding of just what we mean by a "particular' or a "universal".  In other words, at this level, not only do we have to understand what an "event" is, we also require an understanding of what a "particular" or "universal" is in order to determine whether events ought to be classified as particulars, universals, or neither.

The concept of a "particular" denotes an ontological category for entities that have attributes.  (I mean attributes other than "existence" - if "existence" is indeed an attribute.)  An attribute is a quality, character, characteristic, or property that is or can be attributed to a particular.  It is part of the definition of a "particular" that particulars have some sort of relationship with attributes, or characteristics.  Exactly how that relationship is described depends on the metaphysical theory one adopts.  (For the moment, I am going to use the terminology that particulars "have" attributes, understanding by this I mean to be neutral as to just what the relationship is between the particular and the attributes associated with it.)

The three most widely discussed theories of particulars are the substratum theory, the substance theory, and the bundle theory.  The substratum theory maintains that what a particular actually is, is something that underlies the attributes it "has" - something to which the attributes are "attached" in some fashion.  This means that we could conceptually remove all of the attributes of a particular to be left with nothing but a "bare" particular.  The substance theory proposes that a particular has some attributes essentially, while all others it has contingently.  We could not remove an essential attribute of a particular without changing the kind of thing it is.  But any of its contingent attributes we could remove without changing the kind of thing it is.  The bundle theory of particulars proposes that a particular is nothing other than a collection of attributes.  If we were to remove all of the attributes of a particular, there would be nothing left.  The bundle theory of particulars is maintained by those philosophers who argue that particulars are not an ontologically fundamental category of existents.  On this view, particulars are derivative, and based on the existence of attributes (or more precisely, universals).

Significantly, what these three theories accept as given is that particulars exist independently of how we think about them, and that it is the function of ontology to describe how they exist.  In other words, if events are particulars then events exist as part of reality independently from how we think of them or describe them.  When we talk about a specific event, how we describe that event could be wrong - the reality of the event transcending our perception and description of it.  Events do look a lot like particulars, and many philosophers would classify them as such.  They exist and seem to have all sorts of attributes. 

But one of the difficulties that this position creates, is the problem of boundaries.  How is it that we draw the boundaries we do around the events we identify.  Why do we identify these events and not those events?   What is it that renders event A numerically identical (exactly the same one) as event B?   Philosophers have come up with all sorts of explanations, the most famous of which is the theory of natural kinds.  This theory maintains that there are "natural kinds" of events out there for us to discover, and it is up to us to discover what natural kinds actually exist in the world.And it is up to us to provide accurate descriptions of what it is that makes one natural kind different from another.Davidson, for example, suggests that two events are the same event if they have the same causes and the same effects.But this notion may have some problems, since "cause" and "effect" are usually understood in terms of events.

One of the theories that is much neglected in modern ontology, is the Conceptualist theory of particulars.  The Conceptualist theory posits that what marks the boundaries of a particular (in space or time) is our current cognitive purpose.  Contrary to the standard approach, particulars (and events, if events are particulars) do not exist independently of how we think of them.  If one is a metaphysical realist, then one can accept that the world as a whole exists independently of how we think of it.  But whether one is a metaphysical realist or an anti-realist, the boundaries of any given particular are drawn to suit our cognitive convenience.  They are not given by the world for us to discover.  The boundaries of a particular can change as our cognitive purpose changes.  The boundaries of the thing we identify as an event can change according to the context of discourse.  The conceptualist approach turns the debates between the substratum theory, substance theory, and bundle theory of particulars into differences in point of view resulting from different cognitive purposes.  On the conceptualist view, two events are the same event if they both incorporate the same noteworthy change(s) to the same noteworthy underlying particulars.  Contra Davidson, for example, the boundaries are a matter of subjective cognitive convenience, not a matter for objective discovery.  If the context of discourse is the history of Napoleon, then the Battle of Waterloo is the same event as the defeat of Napoleon on Sunday 18 June 1815.  If the context is military strategy, then the Battle of Waterloo spanned more than just that one Sunday and is therefore not normally considered the same event as the defeat of Napoleon on Sunday 18 June 1815.

One of the corollaries of the conceptualist theory, however, is that it views particulars as derivative rather than ontologically fundamental entities.  The fundamental entity that exists is the world (or the space-time continuum, if you will).The existence of any specific particular is dependent on our cognitive purpose in establishing its boundaries.From the perspective of a conceptualist, then, "particulars" are parts of the world around which we choose to draw boundaries to most economically meet our need to understand and predict how the world is going to react to our efforts.  They exist because and only when we create them by drawing suitable boundaries around parts of the world that interest us. 

What this means at this third level of understanding is that, for a Conceptualist, events can indeed be classified as particulars.  Events are just another sort of particular that is picked out of reality by our current cognitive purpose.  Neither events nor particulars in general are ontologically fundamental.

But now let's consider the meaning of "universal".  Every individual particular "has" attributes.  (Remember, I am being neutral to the exact nature of this "has" relationship.)   And some particulars have attributes that we would recognize as similar.  In metaphysics a "universal" is the term used to refer to what individual particulars have in common when they exhibit some resemblance in their respective attributes.  The term "universal" is used, in contrast with the term "particular", because by definition, universals can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things (ie. universally), whereas particulars can be instantiated only once - each particular is unique.  Universals are employed to explain why it is that we judge many particulars similar with respect to some attribute. 

And there are some philosophers who do indeed classify events as universals.  These philosophers distinguish between "event-types" and "event-tokens".  Events like the World Cup or "the next election" are multiply instantiated, just like the universals for red and sweet.  What some see as attributes of an event particular, these "universalist" philosophers see as adverbial modifiers of an event universal. 

When it comes to universals, philosophers fall into two main camps: Realists endorse universals as an ontologically fundamental category of mind-independent existents, while Conceptualists and Nominalists deny the Realist claim.  Nominalists and Conceptualists deny that universals have ontologically fundamental existence.  They are creations of our minds and hence do not properly belong in our ontology.  They claim that independently existing entities are not necessary to explain the perceived similarity in particulars.  The fundamental entity that exists is the particular.  The Conceptualist, for example, will argue that the existence of any specific universal is dependent on our cognitive purpose in establishing its boundaries.  From the perspective of a Conceptualist, then, "universals" reflect how we react to the world around us, and how we choose to draw boundaries to most economically meet our need to understand and predict how the world is going to react to our efforts. 

What this entails is that in order to classify an event as a universal rather than a particular, one would have to maintain a Realist (ie "Platonic") attitude towards universals.  For a Realist, what is more significant is the event-type, while the event token is derivative.  But a Nominalist or a Conceptualist will argue that the more fundamental category is particulars, and events ought to be more correctly classified as a particular.  From that perspective, it is the event-token that is the more significant, and the event-type that is derivative in just the same way that universals are derivative on particulars.

Now, because I am myself a Conceptualist with regards to both particulars and universals, I also maintain a Conceptualist attitude towards events.  Along with the Nominalist, I would regard the event-token as more significant and fundamental than the event-type.  I would therefore classify events as a species of particular rather than as a species of universal.  Recognizing, of course, that neither particulars (and hence events) nor universals are ontologically fundamental.


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