Introducing system philosophy

Types, tokens and the problem of universals

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 articles at Last updated 15/02/2018 20:05



This paper explains types and tokens and challenges the explanation offered in these two sources.

2014 “Types and tokens” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2018 “Splitting Chairs” in Philosophy Now, Jan 2018.


Description by typification. 1

Wholes and parts. 2

Types and tokens. 3

Case study: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. 3

Case study: Beethoven’s 9th symphony. 4

The problem of universals. 6

Conclusions and remarks. 7


Description by typification

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.

We describe and understand a thing with reference to familiar types it instantiates.

We use signs and symbols to signify the types to which that thing belongs.


“In describing a situation, one is not merely registering a [perception], one is classifying it in some way, and this means going beyond what is immediately given.”

Chapter 5 of “Language, truth and logic” A J Ayer.


E.g. the message: “The White House is a building” describes a situation.

It tells us the named thing (“The White House”) instantiates, embodies, exemplifies, manifests or realises the named type (“building”).

The type name “building” is a meaningless symbol on its own.

It only becomes meaningful information when mapped to a familiar type (“a structure with a roof and walls”).


This idea (describing particular things with reference to general types) is very important.

Not only in philosophy, mathematics and computing, but also in everyday human existence.

It is essential to remembering things and communicating about them.

To describe all the properties of a physical thing is impossible.

But we can communicate some information about a thing by associating it with one or more types.


Types (“beautiful”, “yellow” and “fluid”) help us remember, describe and understand things (a daffodil, a river).

Yet the concept of “type” is elusive.

Is a type best seen as a set (as in mathematics), a kind (as in logic), or a law (as in sociology)?

Do types exist independently of things, or of life?

The table below is a (questionable) characterisation of some philosophical positions.


Position statement


Types exist eternally (regardless of things that instantiate them)


Types exist only when things instantiate them


Things exist only when observed by a life form


Things existed before life forms used types to describe them


Types can be created by life forms before things instantiate them 



People speak of a “type” being manifest in “occurrences”, “instances” and “tokens”. Are these the same?

Some reputable philosophers (below) appear to confuse the token with instances.

If you have read or thought about these things, this article may turn your thinking upside down.

Wholes and parts

The reality of the universe may be a space-time continuum, with no gaps in space or time.

However, all descriptions of the universe chunk it into discrete things,

There are infinite ways to do this, and many influences on how we do it.


There are physical phase boundaries, such as where a solid (its surface) meets a liquid, gas or space.

Logical or designed boundaries, such as how a chair, tennis match or IBM is bounded by design, specification or law.

Biologically evolved boundaries, since every animal is bounded by the specification in its DNA.

And we also draw arbitrary boundaries, as around the Atlantic Ocean, and our circle of friends.


The things we describe can be touching or separate, nested or overlapping, and cooperative or antagonistic.

They can be nested physically: galaxy, star system, planet, mountain, rock, molecule.

Or biologically: living matter, human race, human, organ, cell, organelle, molecule.

Or logically: organisation, division, unit, team, employee role.


The article “Splitting Chairs” in Philosophy Now, Jan 2018, asks a question.

“When a rock breaks, you get two rocks; but when a chair breaks, you get two parts of a chair. Why the difference?”

It starts by discussing the type/token distinction aired by Plato and Aristotle.

“Types are concepts or categories for a set of similar objects... tokens are particular concrete examples of those types.”


More accurately, concrete examples of the rock type (real world rocks) are instances.

A token of the rock type is the word “rock”, as shown in the table below.



Type (and token)


A body of mineral material, separable from its environment.


To communicate using a token, two parties must share the same token-type association.

Many philosophers presume a type is an ethereal concept, independent of life, not locatable in time and space.

If that is true, then the copy of the type in the table above is another token of the rock type.


The article proposes: “The field to which we must turn is mereology, the study of part-whole relations.”

“In summary, if two entities are the same type, one must be considered more than a mere ‘part’ of the other, even if it did originate from that thing.”

Clearly, one entity may be separate from another of the same type (two people), or a part of it (an unborn baby), or start as a part and become separate.

What does mereology add to this everyday understanding?


A better answer is found in general system theory, which proposes a system’s parts are holistic.

Parts interact (by evolution or design) to give the system one or more emergent properties.

The parts of a rock do not combine to give the whole rock any emergent property of note.

By contrast, chair parts combine to provide a seat – the purpose of its design.


Parts of a rock are instances of the type “rock”, because rock is homogenous and the whole has no emergent property.

Parts of a chair remain instances of the type “wooden artefact”, but not instances of “chair”.

Less because the chair is heterogeneous, more because no part meets the aim of the whole.

Types and tokens

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains an entry on types and tokens (last updated spring 2014).

The entry is very learned; it exposes many viewpoints and debates.

However, this article presents a different perspective of types and tokens.


The entry starts: “The distinction between a type and its tokens is an ontological one between a general sort of thing and its particular concrete instances.”

This “intuitive and preliminary declaration” may lead the reader to confuse tokens of a type with things that instantiate that type.

The word “concrete” can mislead, since instances can be descriptions, sights, sounds, smells and other intangibles (prayers, memories, truths).


The entry goes on: “The type-token distinction is not the same distinction as that between a type and (what logicians call) its occurrences.”

It is unclear how the reader should distinguish occurrences from instances.

This article treats “occurrence” and “instance” as synonyms, and contrasts both with “token”.

Case study: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”

The entry’s initial example of tokens is this poetic but apparently meaningless sentence.

“Consider the number of words in the Gertrude Stein line from her poem Sacred Emily on the page in front of the reader's eyes:

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

In one sense of ‘word’ we may count three different words; in another sense we may count ten different words.

C. S. Peirce (1931-58, sec. 4.537) called words in the first sense “types” and words in the second sense “tokens”.


What Peirce meant by token is confused rather than clarified by this example.

Partly because the meaning of each word is irrelevant to the words counted above.

The 10 words are the 10 letter sequences on the page, separated by spaces.

The 3 words are the 3 specific letter sequences “rose”, “is” and “a”, regardless of their meaning.

Read all sentences ever written, there will still be only 3 words in that enumerated set.

This word kind is the “Platonic ideal” form of a letter sequence, independent of its existence in space and time.




Total in set

Word kind 1

A unique sequence of letters


Word kind 2

An instance of word kind 1 on a page, and a token of a type



Unfortunately, this being poetry, “rose” may be a homonym.

Stein might have been using the word “rose” as a token for up to four different types.




Total in set

Rose kind 1

The unique letter sequence that is the ordered set {r,o,s,e}.


Rose kind 2

An instance of rose kind 1 on a page, and a token – perhaps of rose kind 3


Rose kind 3

A flowering bush with a woody stem that has thorns, or a flower of that bush.



The entry says: “It's instructive to consider what our paradigm of a type is—a word.”

But if you are confused by the example, or my analysis of it, then I don’t blame you.

Because equating words to types is to confuse tokens with types.

To understand tokens, it is better to lift your eyes from this circular discussion of words.

And remember that the concept of a type is far older and wider than linguistics.

Case study: Beethoven’s 9th symphony

Again referring to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on types and tokens

The entry says: “Unfortunately, tokens are often explained as the “occurrences” of types, but not all occurrences of types are tokens.”

Which is to suggest some occurrences of types are tokens (see type-tokens below).


If that were not puzzling enough, the entry goes on to imply some instances of a type are tokens.

Ibid. “the rest of us have all heard [Beethoven’s 9th symphony], that is, we have all heard tokens of it.”

Surely the symphony performance we hear is an instance of the symphony type.

The score used by the orchestra is a token of the symphony type (see type-tokens below).


Beethoven’s 9th symphony is an exceedingly complex designed thing.

The many performances of Beethoven’s 9th symphony form a set.

That type of that set is the symphony score, which is instantiated (embodied, exemplified) in each performance.

In system theory terms, the score is a “theoretical system” that describes or typifies orchestra members and the activities they perform.

Any symphony performance we hear is an “empirical system” in which orchestra members perform prescribed activities.


Pre-eminent “Type tokens”

Ibid. “Wollheim [says] much of the time we think and talk of the type as though it were itself a kind of token, though a peculiarly important or pre-eminent one”.

Yes. Given a set of similar tokens, people do select a pre-eminent token as the definitive type token (my term).

The choice between similar tokens of a definitive type token is entirely in the gift of the chooser.

E.g. They might choose the last version of a symphony score drafted by Beethoven, or the first performed by an orchestra.


Ibid. “with respect to oil paintings like the Mona Lisa... there is and perhaps can be only one token.”

Consider the Mona Lisa as a singular type token.

Then all copies of the Mona Lisa are tokens of that type.

And all women who look similar, sitting in similar backgrounds, can be seen as instantiations of that type, or a token of it.


Can we distinguish a type from a token at all?

Ibid. “Types are generally said to be abstract and unique; tokens are concrete particulars.”

Earlier, this article proposed types can be concrete, as in the laws of tennis.

And instances can be abstract descriptions, sights, sounds, smells and other intangibles (prayers, memories, truths).


Can there be a token without a type? No, since a token stands for a type.

“Rose” cannot be a token of the rose bush type if there is no rose bush type.


Can there be a type without a token? Yes, many philosophers would say.

They presume a type is an ethereal concept, independent of life, not locatable in time and space.

However, consider Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

What if all symphony scores (drafts, original and copies, in mind or documentation) were destroyed?

There would no token from which instances can be constructed.

Surely the symphony (the type) would be lost to the universe?

Else, we have to presume the infinite symphonies never written also exist!


This article proposes some types are predetermined in the DNA of the organisms that use those types to recognise things.

E.g. symbols for the “direction” and “distance” of a pollen source are somehow encoded in the DNA of honey bee.

The types we usually discuss appear as tokens in memories and messages, in mental and documented models of things.

Proposing this is to take a position regarding age-old “problem of universals”.

The problem of universals

The debate here is not about whether reality exists independently of description (of course it does).

Or whether we can describe a given reality in one ideal or perfect way (of course we cannot).

The debate is only about whether some or all descriptive types exist as “universals.”

Does any type exist in an eternal ethereal form, outside of space and time, independently of life, thought and record of it?


The Stanford encyclopedia entry says “types are usually thought to be universals”.

This is clearly questionable in some examples (surely most would say “yellow” and “beauty” are psychological phenomena).

However, other examples (“even number” and “circle”) seem more convincing.


The “problem of universals” relates to the debate between idealist, realist and other philosophical positions.

Wikipedia (in 2017) referred to the “problem of universals” thus:

“Taking "beauty" as example, three positions are:

Platonic realism: beauty is a property that exists in an ideal form independently of any mind or description.

Aristotelian realism: beauty is a property that exists only when beautiful things exist.

Idealism: beauty is a property constructed in the mind, so exists only in descriptions of things.”


Others draw the idealism/realism distinction in other ways.

What Bhaskar (1997) called “critical realism” shares a similar perspective to that of idealism.


The Stanford encyclopedia entry presents the problem of universals thus:

“Since types are usually thought to be universals, the debate over whether they exist [independently of thought and life] is as longstanding as the debate over universals, and debaters fall into the same camps.

Realists say they do [universal exist independently of thought and life].

Nominalists who renounce universals and abstract objects, say they don't.

Conceptualists argued that there are no general things such as the species homo sapiens; there are only general ideas—that is, ideas that apply to more than one thing.”


The encyclopedia entry swiftly dismisses conceptualism (aka idealism) and ignores it thereafter.

But let us explore the idealist position here.

Idealism is not so much a philosophy as the stance taken by a psycho-biologist regarding semiotics and epistemology.

It is has no use for a type (concept or quality) that is not symbolised somewhere in space and time.

And since the notion of a “Platonic ideal” is not needed, it can be cut out using Occam’s razor with no loss to science.


Humans naturally presume that types they share (if not “yellow” then “even number”) are eternal.

True, some types have been reinvented many times by many people because they are helpful models of reality.

And we may validate shared types by logical reasoning or verify them by empirical test cases.

But those are not reasons to suppose a type is eternal and independent of thought, memory and record.


The proposal is that types emerged from bio-chemical symbolisations of things that recur and are important to an organism’s survival.

Tokens are appearances of types and signs.

Animals communicate with each by translating tokens in memory into and out of tokens in messages.

To communicate, animals must share an understanding (inherited, learnt or negotiated in discussion) of the tokens they use in messages.


Moreover, all types are concrete tokens of some form or another.

Somehow, animals remember general ideas, which apply to more than one thing.

The form taken by types in memory (and our stream of conscious) is mysterious biochemistry.

The form taken by types in communication (sounds, gestures, images, built structures) is evident to message senders and receivers.


In short, tokens are psychological phenomena that first emerged during biological evolution.

We promote some tokens to be types – meaning the pre-eminent and definitive token – likely of use to many.

But what if all life forms and records made by them disappear from the universe?

Then there will be no types or tokens.


This article concludes that conceptualism/idealism (or hybrid of that with nominalism) is the philosophy most compatible with Darwinian evolution and modern science.

The idealist position is not so much a philosophy as the stance taken by a psycho-biologist regarding semiotics and epistemology.

Conclusions and remarks

I didn’t set out to say anything new in this article, and doubt I have done.

Some see the conclusions as controversial but the logic seems inexorable.


Certainly, a type must exist before a describer can use it to describe a thing.

Imagine you saw Venus in the night sky before the type “planet” was conceived, named and defined

Then, you could not describe it as an instantiation of the type named “planet”.

You could only say, ridiculously: “That light in the sky already instantiates all as-yet-undefined types that might be created or used to describe it in future.”


Surely few would presume a type like “enemy” or “danger” existed before life.

And even fewer would presume that human-specified types like “football” and “unicorn” existed before life.

Yet many assume that mathematical types like “circle” exist for eternity – before and after humans.


Why presume some types have existed forever while others have not?

Could any types exist before there were describers, before there were life forms?

Conclusions here include:

·         There can be no concept without a conceiver, or description without a describer

·         Before life, there was no description.

·         A type is a description

·         All types are tokens, meaning they take a concrete form

·         Some tokens are types, others are only signs

·         Types do not exist in an ethereal and eternal form, independently of human thought

·         There was no Platonic ideal “circle”  before it was conceived by a describer

·         Mathematical types like “circle” are exceptions rather than the norm.

·         Communications depend on types being shared well enough, rather than perfectly, between communicating parties.


For more, see the papers under PHILOSOPHY on the "System Theory" page at


Realism or Idealism?

A philosophy

Other triangular philosophies



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