One of the major debates in the history of philosophy is the debate over universals. It is a debate as to the role of language and its ability to actually describe reality. It’s a debate as to whether or not there are universal, real entities which we actually observe or if we construct conventions relating things together which have no inherent connection to each other. It’s a question as to the meaning of words, if they have some inherent meaning which connects them to the things we use them to describe or if our words are sounds without any inherent meaning to them. It’s a debate as to whether or not what we perceive as common characteristics behind things actually unite them or whether or not we conveniently see things as being alike which, nonetheless, have no unity behind them. Do two chairs contain behind them some sort of “chairness” which makes them chairs, or is the idea of merely a human construct without any eternal truth behind it?
While the Western medieval debate over universals is famous, it must be said that this debate is found all over the world. It manifests itself in many different ways, each providing new and interesting questions. For example, we can see this debate occurring in China. It was once asked, “Is a white horse a horse?” Now, for the Western mind, the accident of whiteness appears non-essential to the horseness of a white horse, however, for the Chinese mind a white horse is fundamentally something different from a brown horse, and the two are different from a horse (white horseness is different from horseness; but if this is the case, what is it which connects them to make us think there is something which connects them?). Similarly, in India, we see what the West attributes as an accident as often representing something fundamental to the entity; this is how Buddhism can be seen as describing the constant flux and change of entities, to say that the atman (the self) of a person is constantly changing and unstable because the person is constantly changing and no longer the same fundamental entity from moment to moment. This, of course, makes many Buddhists say that universals are conventions (with many them pointing out, even if they are a convention there is truth contained in it, so that conventional truths are truths even if they are not absolutes).
Having observed the debates, I think the problem lies in that the debates have not been systematic enough, and they have not explored all the possible options contained in metaphysics. There are too many assumptions which are made. For example, if it is shown that there are conventions which do not tie with something real, does that make all words used for universals mere convention? I think the answer here needs to be no. And with that, many questions and debates, many pieces of evidence once brought into play, become no longer relevant. If one can accept that there are conventions without reality behind them, then one can explain those conventions which are brought up by those who deny universals as being such (if those conventions really do not have a universal backing it).
But here, one can ask a question: how can we construct conventions which are unreal, if we follow one of the traditional approaches to universals? The answer is rather obvious and has been there all along, though often, it has not often been used to engage this question. The answer deals with the gradation of being and with it, the fact that some words, which are often conceived as universals, are really constructions based upon the experience of some phenomenal absence of being. That is, we have turned evil, which is the absence of good and so not a real universal but the lack of one, into a conventional truth with a conventional reality. In the absolute sense, evil does not exist, so evil cannot be said to be an absolute universal, but in conventional, phenomenal experience, evil exists, and we create conventions which tie various evils together to establish “evilness.” Conventional truths are truth: their value lies not in absolute truth, but the truth of phenomenal experience. In conventional truths, we establish or construct universals to tie together experiences of objects mixed levels of anti-being. These phenomena exist in our experience, we experience them based upon the fact that some actual being is being used by them to make them manifest, but they do not exist in being, they do not hold universal being, and so cannot be said to be absolute universals.
We, as humans, are naming things in the world of phenomena, in the world which we experience. Our experience is with real beings, with real universals, but often we do not experience the universal, but something less than it. We construct the world of conventions and of conventional universals, a world which has a value of truth but must not be confused with absolute truth. This means there are conventional universals and absolute universals. Nominalists have caught on to the truth of convention, of the conventional reality and how we construct it through sometimes arbitrary relationships, but realists are right to point out that we experience something more than this, that we are often experiencing – and expressing – universals which are real, universals which are not always realized in concrete, material forms, universals which give the world form. And we, in our experience of them, can often put those forms to words which are proper to them, allowing us to manifest them through the invocation of their name (or names, as we know such universals are known and experienced through a multitude of names due to vast variety of languages which exist). Those names are proper names for universals which connect sounds and ideas to the universal, so that through the invocation of that name, the universal is experienced in some fashion: its presence is made known by the use of the word in question. When a word does not fit a universal, when it is a purely arbitrary construct, the word will not last, for it will have no life, no connection to the universal to give it life, and so its presence will not be manifest when the word is used. When languages change and mutate, the value or connection between sounds to a universal might change, explaining why words come and go, though the universals behind them remain the same. In this way, the nominalist is right in pointing out the changing nature of languages, but they are wrong in assuming that means there is no absolute universal which is invoked when they see a word used for a universal. The elements of a word are like elements of a good painting; the painting can represent something in reality, but as the matter behind the painting is slowly destroyed through the ravages of time, what is left on a canvas will no longer invoke that reality. It would be wrong to say that it never invoked it, because it certainly did and allowed the experience of that reality be present to the viewer of the painting. So, too, does time destroy language, making words which had connections to universals lose those same connections: the presence of the universal is manifest but slowly lost due to time. Though the connection is lost, it would be wrong in assuming that there were no truth, no connection, at any time or place between the word and the universal.
This truth can be found in the way we talk about God. God is beyond names, but yet, God is named so we can experience God through his name. God is incomprehensible and yet we can actually know something about Him. How are these possible? The reality and unreality of words, that is how.
God transcends the names and yet makes them real, so too, the universal transcend the words which invoke them and yet, by their presence, the words reveal the real. We construct words, we construct conventions of the real, and yet we must allow for the real to transcend the constructions, to be what it is as it is, beyond the words we use for them. When we think legalistically, we accept the immanent but not the transcendent nature of the real. The legalist confuses the word for all there is of the real instead of as something symbolic which manifest the real. We must understand words as symbols, where they point beyond themselves and yet manifest something of what they point to, the better they do so, the more real they are. We cannot, however, keep reality trapped in words; we must experience it beyond the words, beyond the constructions which manifest the real if we want to understand the real itself. This is why we must stop our intellect from thinking thoughts based upon words and open our mind to the experience of the real beyond all words. Then we can incarnate and live in and with the experience, to use words without being used by them, to be followers of the spirit, full of life, instead of followers of the letter, stuck in the dead-end of their untranscendent experience of the real. Words provide the real, provide the experience of the transcendent universal, according to different capabilities; but we must be willing to follow them and engage that transcendent reality if we ever want to see and know the truth contained in words. And is that not what we seek?
 Now, the connection between paintings and words is apt, because we can find paintings which have little to no connections with the real: we can see the vast potentiality of the great chain of being expressed in art, allowing us to understand how this can be true also with words.