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We have been considering the problem of universals, also known as the problem of the one and the many. This problem is important because the answer which we give will directly affect our account of how we acquire universal concepts. Two of the most influential accounts of universals and the process of knowledge acquisition are found in St. Augustine’s Theory of Divine Illumination and St. Thomas Aquinas’s Theory of Abstraction. These theories of how we acquire universal knowledge are based upon different theories of how universals exist. To understand how we know, we must be clear on how and where the objects of our knowledge exist.
Write an essay in which you compare and contrast these two theories and argue for or against one or both theories. In your paper, you should address the theory of universals behind each theory and the basis for each (exemplar realism in the case of Augustine and moderate realism in the case of Aquinas), describe how we come to know the universals (illumination versus abstraction). Be sure to provide a summary of each position and of the arguments which Augustine and Aquinas give. In the last section of your paper, you should present what position you agree with and the reasons why. If you do not agree with either position (perhaps you agree with Abelard or Hume), give arguments for why these positions are false.

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In this brief paper, I take up St. Augustine’s Theory of Divine Illumination and St. Thomas Aquinas’ competing Theory of Abstraction – arguably the two preeminent medieval philosophical positions concerned with providing an account of the acquisition of universal knowledge. In the course of presenting and considering these theories, the underlying and underwriting philosophy concerned with the nature of universals for each theory will be explicated. The treatment of each position will include some of the salient context that motivates the theories, as well as, of course, the arguments that constitute them. The goal is to present in as clear and concise—and, hopefully, precise—a manner the theories and positions, in such a way as to demonstrate a working grasp—an at least rudimentary understanding—of the complex ideas they contain. Nowhere will such understanding be more required and—again, hopefully—demonstrated than in the final section of the paper, where I present a (charitable) consideration of the positions and thereby decide with which Saint to throw in my illumination/abstraction lot (if at all!).
But, first, a little overall context feels warranted, to get the story going.
1. Background
The problem of universals is an intuitively immediate, familiar one: in considering my neighbor’s cats, one long and tall and lanky and grey, the other stocky and round and short and black, and each with intensely divergent personalities and behavior, I yet seem to have no problem looking past their differences and seeing and recognizing that they share their cat-ness; even when the differences are much greater, such as with the small, wiry, hard-bitten outdoor/stray cat I encountered the other day, the cat-ness he shares with my neighbor’s cats is apparent; and even when the cat is a tiger, and I see him on TV no less, the cat-ness in common with the stray and the spoiled is yet apparent. But, how is it that I am seeing and recognizing this cat-ness, or perhaps the dog-ness on show in the staggering variety of Westminster? And how is this cat-ness or dog-ness—the ‘universal’ that I am apprehending and that is seemingly common to, yet ‘above’, the individual cats and dogs of my experience—related to the individual cats and dogs I have encountered and will encounter? Somehow, in my mind, under ‘Cat’ and under ‘Dog’, I can place the multitude of creatures that share the cat-ness or dog-ness that seems to be what ‘Cat’ and ‘Dog’ exemplify, represent, conceptualize, idealize.
Plato’s explanation is, I find, stunning in its...
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