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According to medieval logic, universals (Latinuniversalia, from universalis "all-encompassing") are general concepts or general ideas under which the common characteristics of a set of material or immaterial individual things (individuals) are summarised. Universals are unchanging - eternal - pure concepts, beyond space, time and causality, without direct reference to a sensual perception. In contrast to this is the concept of the individual, which refers only to a single concretely perceptible object, to a single being.

Since antiquity, it has been a philosophical problem whether universal concepts have a real existence or whether they are mere designations, which ultimately led to the so-called universals dispute in the Middle Ages.

From a spiritual-scientific point of view, the group souls and group spirits are to be regarded as the true spiritual reality that is hidden behind the philosophical concept of universals.

Moderate realism

As Aristotelians and starting from the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes and Avicenna, in High Scholasticism (13th century) Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas advocated a moderate realism. The general has a thought-independent basis in the individual things; although it does not exist itself, it is realised in things: "universalia autem non sunt res subsistentes, sed habent esse solum in singularibus"[1] ("The general, however, is not an independent thing, but has being only in the individual things"[2]). Without realisation in the single thing, the general is only a thought. Thomas distinguished

  • Universals, which are formed in divine reason and exist before the individual things (universalia ante rem or also universala ante multiplicitatem),
  • Universals that exist as generalities in the individual things themselves (universalia in re or universala in multiplicitate),
  • Universals that exist as concepts in the mind of man, that is, after things (universalia post rem or universala post multiplicitatem).

„The central idea of the Middle Ages, as it were the invisible motto hovering over it, is: universalia sunt realia; only ideas are real. The great "universals controversy", which fills almost the whole of the Middle Ages, is never about the actual principle, but only about its formulations. There were, as is well known, three directions which superseded each other in the rule. "Extreme realism" asserts: universalia sunt ante rem, that is: they precede concrete things, both in range and as cause; "moderate realism" declares: universalia sunt in re, that is: they are contained in things as their true essence; "nominalism" establishes the principle: universalia sunt post rem: they are deducted from things, that is, mere creations of the intellect, and it therefore in fact signifies a dissolution of realism: its rule, however, as we shall see later, no longer belongs to the Middle Ages proper.“

Egon Fridell: Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, vol. 1, p. 77[3]

The designations ante rem, in re and post rem (re, rem, from Latinres "thing") are also valid independently of Thomas's position as qualifying determinations of concepts. The pure concept in the sense of the "Philosophy of Freedom" is ante rem, the result of cognition, the connection of concept and perception is in rem, and the individualised concept, the idea, is post rem.


  • Herbert Witzenmann: Das Universalienproblem und der Erkenntnisprozeß, in: Witzenmann, Die Kategorienlehre Rudolf Steiners, Gideon Spicher Verlag, 1994, ISBN 3857042265
  • Herbert Witzenmann: Das Universalienproblem in linguistischer und strukturphänomenologischer Bedeutung, in: Witzenmann, Die Kategorienlehre Rudolf Steiners, Gideon Spicher Verlag, 1994, ISBN 3857042265


  1. Thomas Aquinas: Summa contra gentiles, I, 65, 3m
  2. Thomae Aquinatis Summae contra gentiles libri quattuor, edited, translated and annotated by Karl Albert, Karl Allgaier, Leo Dümpelmann, Paulus Engelhardt, Leo Gerken and Markus H. Wörner, 4th edition, WBG (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft), Darmstadt 2013, ISBN 978-3-650-26074-1, p. 237
  3. Egon Fridell: Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, vol. 1, p. 77 pdf