The realism of universals in Plato and nyāya

Journal of Indian Philosophy 37 (3):231-252 (2009)
It has become commonplace in introductions to Indian philosophy to construe Plato’s discussion of forms (εἶδος/ἰδέα) and the treatment in Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika of universals ( sāmānya/jāti ) as addressing the same philosophical issue, albeit in somewhat different ways. While such a comparison of the similarities and differences has interest and value as an initial reconnaissance of what each says about common properties, an examination of the roles that universals play in the rest of their philosophical enquiries vitiates this commonplace. This paper draws upon the primary texts to identify the following metaphysical, epistemological, semantic and soteriological roles that universals play in the philosophy of Plato and of Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika: Metaphysical: causal of the existence of x Metaphysical: constitutive of the identity/essence of x Epistemological: cognitively causal (i.e. of the cognition of one over many) Epistemological: epistemically causal (i.e. of knowledge of x) Semantic: necessary condition of speech and reason Epistemological: vindicatory of induction (Nyāya only) Metaphysical: explanatory of causation (Nyāya only) Soteriological: cathartic contemplation (Plato only) These roles provide us with motivations or reasons to believe that universals exist. As we examine these motivations, we find pressures mounting against our assimilating Platonic forms and the universals of Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika in the discourse about common properties. It is especially when we appreciate the utterly different contribution that universals make in securing our highest welfare that we realize how Plato and the two sister schools are not so much talking somewhat differently about the same thing, but talking somewhat similarly about different things. This better understanding of this difference in these philosophies opens a route for our better understanding of their unique contributions in the ongoing dialogue of philosophy.
Keywords Comparative philosophy  Universals  Forms  Ideas   sāmānya   jāti  Realism  Soteriology  Causation  Semantics  Vaiśeṣika
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DOI 10.1007/s10781-008-9060-x
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