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I have the feeling that you are having a sense of relieve from those difficult concepts – I mean the concepts of essence and existence, potency and act, and matter and form. They were quite abstract but not too difficult to grasp if you just do a bit of thinking. In this unit we want to venture intoanother controversial area of philosophy, and these have to do with the mind/body and the problems of universals and particulars. The main questions here are: Is there anything like the mind? If there is; can it be distinguished from the body? Only particular things exist: what do we mean by universals? We believe that these questions will be clarified in this unit.


The aim of this Unit is to help you become more aware of yourself and your activities. It is to help you know that you are not just the organic structure that is visible to the senses, and thus your activities have a superior source. Again you will learn that the concept you have in your mind is always the concept of a particular thing but the concept itself is not particular, because it represents all the individuals of a class or group or species. Try to follow the lecture carefully and attentively.


3.1 Mind and Body

Aristotle has this to say as the opening statement of his work On the Soul, 1.1 (402a1-4): “We regard all knowledge as beautiful and valuable, but one kind more so than another, either in virtue of its accuracy, or because it relates to higher and more wonderful things. On
both these counts it is reasonable to regard the inquiry concerning the soul [mind] as the first importance.” The above quotation sets the tone for this inquiry. And let me emphasize from the outset that the word intellect or even soul may be used interchangeably with the word mind. When we look at the animate world, we notice that there are three (3) levels of living things – plants, animals and man (human). When we compare plants and animals, there is an unsurpassable gap that creates a distinction between man and the rest of the animate world. Man surpasses plants and animals in establishing relationship with other existing things. Man because of his mind or reason, enjoys a special privilege of relating to the whole of reality, that is the totality of existing things.

Relationship here implies the establishment of a link between a subject and every other thing outside that subject. Particularly, it means a link between a dynamic center of life and activity with that which is apart from that center. In the vegetative world, plants establish relationship with the soil and air by taking from them the nutrients they need and assimilating them into their lives. This is to say that plants have their own world and relate themselves to that world. Animals on their part advance beyond the vegetative world into the sensitive or perceptive world and establish their relationship with other things in a higher and more extensive manner than plants. Animals possess sense of awareness with which they relate to their environment. Man on the other hand, has his own class, thus his relationship with other things is determined by what he is and the class to which he belongs. Man is endowed with intellect or mind and will in addition to his senses. He is an embodied spirit. The mind or the soul or the intellect is immaterial, it is spiritual. Again, Aristotle asserts: “But the mind seems to be an independent substance engendered in us, and to be imperishable …. Presumably the mind is something more divine, and is unaffected” (bk.1,ch.4). Thus it becomes clear that man is a composite of body and mind or as it is commonly said, of body and soul. The body is the material aspect while the mind or the soul is the immaterial or spiritual aspect of man. According to Aristotle, “the soul is that whereby we live and perceive and think in the primary sense; so that the soul would be the motion or form and not the matter or substrate.” So man is a substance composed of body and soul. It is the compound (mind and body) that is an. And so man is not the body just as man is not the soul; and the soul is not the body just as the body is not the soul. While it is true that the soul is in the body, it is also true that the soul is associated with the body and therefore resides in the body, and in a body of a particular kind.

Now because man has something in him, which is immaterial or spiritual, the capacity of man to establish relationship with other things is not hemmed in or limited in any way. He can relate with reality as a whole, that is, with the totality of existing things. Aristotle is right in saying that the soul is in a sense all things (3.8). It is the mind or the soul that gives life to the body, the opposite is not the case. In other words, it is not the body that gives life to the soul. And because of this, the soul can live independently because it outlives the body. The soul is immortal, it is indestructible. Aristotle supports this opinion when he says: “It is necessary then that mind since it thinks all things should be uncontaminated … when isolated it is its true self and nothing more and this alone is immortal and everlasting … and without this nothing thinks” (3,4-5).

Do you ever wonder why you perceive things? Why there is sensation or intellection in you? We can locate physical things, events and processes in space. They take place somewhere. But where is sensation, for example? Hearing or the auditory sensation is not just the sound or your ears. Between the sound and your ears, something has happened. It is possible to physiologically describe the process of hearing but the process is not the actual sensation. It means that there is a power, which is not visible because it is spiritual and immaterial and yet responsible for the physical process. Or again, have you ever thought about your ability to learn a language? This is because there is an immaterial power in man with the ability to understand the abstract symbols. And again, we know that man yearns for and indeed pursues immaterial concepts such as love, justice, beauty, happiness, etc. These are not material things that can be possessed, but they are more and still more desirable than material things. T his is the evidence of a spiritual power in man. Therefore while we may not know the exact nature of the relationship between mind and body, we may not doubt the fact that man is a composite of mind and body.

3.2 The Problem of Universals

The problem of universals is a complex one and a big concern of philosophy. It forms a central problem in both the metaphysics of knowledge and the metaphysics of being – epistemology and ontology. This problem has led to different doctrines and ideologies such as idealism, empiricism, materialism and realism and above all different understanding of reality. We know that human knowledge begins in sense perception and that knowledge is completed in the intellect, when  the intellect grasps the essential nature of the thing. Sense knowledge is of particular and individual things but what the intellect grasps is universal. Let us try to explain this. What exists and what we know are particular things, individual objects. They are independent of our knowing, they exist before we know them and they exist even without our knowing them. To know something means to receive that thing and to think that thing, in other words, to make that thing an object of thought. The concept formed of my thought is universal even though what I know is individual. This is to say that the judgment I make of the object of my knowledge is a universal judgment. Take for instance; I know an elephant or an apple or vulture, etc. My concept or judgment of elephant, apple or vulture represents the multitudes of individual elephants or apples or vultures, existing in all parts of the world. Let us suppose that I met an elephant in a zoo in Ibadan and I form a concept of elephant, my concept is universal and applicable to all elephants whether in India or South Africa or Brazil or Denmark; but I have only known a

particular elephant. Now the big question or problem is this: What is the relationship between the individual things that I know and which exist extra-mentally and the universal concepts which exist in my mind? This has been a cardinal problem in metaphysics because of its importance in the realism of knowledge and the affirmation of reality. Many philosophers have battled with this question in the course of history of philosophy. We shall look at just a few of them

Plato, no doubt is one of the greatest Greek philosophers. He lived between 428/7 -348 BC. He was the first to introduce the problem of universals. Plato believed and in fact held that alongside the concrete world of individual objects, there exists a realm of perfect and eternal

entities which he called Forms or Ideas. Whenever plurality of individual things has a common idea, there is a corresponding reality of that concept existing in the eternal realm. In other words, for Plato, there are two worlds: the world of idea which is not assessable to humans in this life and the world of the individual sensible objects. For example the concept or the idea of elephant exists concretely as an archetype in the eternal world different and separated from the particular elephant that I met in Ibadan zoo. So what then is the relationship between the two worlds? According to Plato’s teaching, there is no real relationship between them except that the sensible things of our world are merely imitations of the idea or the archetype. They exist separately. The sensible objects serve only to trigger off the process of recollection or remembrance of the idea which was already intuited in the previous world.

Plato was not alone in tackling the problem of universals. There were the Nominalists, here represented by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and William of Ockham (c 1280-1349). They believed that universals exist neither in themselves nor in the things of our experience. They observed that there is nothing in the sensible world that fit’s the definition of universals – one-common-to-many because only individual things exist. Nothing in the world corresponds to the universal in the mind. Therefore, they described universals merely as words, or names or terms. Universals are words or names used to describe things which resemble each other. Ockham went as far as saying they are mental fiction fashioned by the intellect to represent what it knows. He described universal as isolated because it is not sensible; bare because it is an abstract concept, and pure because it is not identified with any single thing. Thus according to the nominalists, universals are mere names applied to things that resemble, hence no relationship with the sensible objects.
We should not forget the position of Aristotle which was later adopted by Thomas Aquinas known as moderate realism. Aristotle believed in the existence of universals as well as particulars. Universals exist “out there” though not in a separate world. They do not only exist in our minds and their existence does not depend on our minds. They would still exist without our knowing them. According to Aristotle, universal is simply a property that is common to number of instances. It is a kind of property that is shared by individuals of a specific class. For example, there are many human beings in the world but they all share a common nature or property namely, rationality. Thus each individual human being is an instance of that general property or essence or nature – rationality.

Rationality does not exist as an entity anywhere separate from an individual human person. We arrive at this general property or essence by the process of abstraction from particulars. We see Nkechi or Kehinde or Abdul or Amos, each of these is a rational being and by abstracting, we arrive at rationality.

Therefore there could be no universals without particulars just as there could be no particulars without universals. In simple terms we can say that there are no qualities or properties which do not exist in something, on the other hand, there are no beings without properties or qualities. The two are logically dependent on one another. Universals have their foundations in the individual existences or individual sensible realities. As we have seen there are no universal realities. For example, there is no universal elephant or no universal man existing outside the mind. But there are individual elephants and individual men. Universality, as such, is in the mind only. Nonetheless, the universal concept has its foundation in the individual sensible object that we know. Put it simply, a thing exists in reality as individual but in the mind as universal.


The problem of philosophy is continuous because man will never stop pondering on reality and reality itself can never be exhausted by the human mind.


In this unit we have seen that man is both material and immaterial. He is a composite of mind and body. The mind is immaterial while the body is material. We have also seen that things exist differently in our minds and in reality. In our minds they exist universally and in reality, they exist individually. Thus universals have foundations in reality.


  1.  How would you explain to a secondary school student that man is a composite of mind and body? 
  2.  What do you understand by universals? 


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