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Part II: On Nominalism

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Above: Engelhartszell ( Upper Austria ). Engelszell monastery church ( 1754-64 ) – Rococo pulpit by Johann Georg Üblhör: Abat-voix with sculpture group showing Saint Bernard of Clairvaux vanquishing the philosopher Peter Abelard.

Traditional Perspectives on Philosophy – pt. 1: Voluntarism

What’s That? Particulars

Imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon, and you’re sitting lazily on a couch in your apartment, staring absentmindedly out the window across a receding row of apartment rooftops. All sorts of things are sticking out of the roofs: water towers and chimneys and ventilators. You catch sight of an object you don’t recognize. Clearly it’s something, but you can’t tell what.

The object in question has presented itself to you in the way that things ordinarily do, as a discrete sense experience set apart from its surroundings. This uniqueness of the thing, its independence from other things, is what first prompts the toddler to point and ask, “What is that?” When something is experienced this way philosophers call it a particular. However, once we’ve asked the question, “What is that?” we embark on a reverse process. Instead of concentrating on what sets the object apart, we begin identifying what it has in common with similar-looking things. We begin searching for its class or kind. Even the ability to give it a word indicates that we have been able to place it in a category. Of course, I could call it “J.W.,” but a proper name wouldn’t serve the same function as a common name. Instead of telling me what the thing is, a proper name would serve simply as a placeholder, an acknowledgment that some particular has been spotted.

What’s What? Universals

In order to claim some knowledge of the object, I require an idea of it. For example, I express my knowledge of the thing underneath me by calling it “a stool.” However, “stool,” unlike the particular underneath me, is infinitely repeatable. The idea ‘stool’ is not limited to any specific stool incarnated in space and time. In trying to understand the particular, I have stepped beyond the particular, so to speak, into something I cannot see or feel but only think. On the other hand, I cannot form the idea without first feeling an instance of it. When something is experienced as a kind, a “what” instead of a “this,” philosophers call it a universal.

Particulars and Universals

As physical creatures, we are surrounded by particulars. Every object I sense is single, concrete and distinct from the others. If you asked me about my home, I would be remiss to give you a list of universals: “I live in Apartment with Ceiling Fan, over Restaurant.” We have no direct experience of ideas. I have never seen Ceiling Fan, but only this or that ceiling fan. We extract our ideas, Aristotle tells us, from the particulars that exemplify them. Nevertheless, our experience of particulars would be meaningless if we didn’t also experience them as universals. Classifying a particular isn’t just a question of drawing useful connections, the way I might observe that a finch is the color of the sky, or that a bowtie and a butterfly have the same shape. Imagine, for instance, that the object I spotted through my window were the only one of its kind, say a prototype of a new invention. The moment somebody explained it to me, I would form an idea broader and less bound by space and time than the object itself. The particular would assume a universal identity. If it didn’t, there would be no sense at all in my asking, “What is that?” The particular would be its own explanation. I would have to content myself with the answer, “Why, it’s just that!” Imagine a parent who always responded to his toddler, “It is what it is!”

So What is Reality?

Western philosophy has always grappled with universals and the problems they raise. Certainly, there is no doubting this strange paradox of human experience, that we don’t “know” what we physically experience until we have discovered the one thing that doesn’t seem to be given in physical experience (the universal). I don’t “know” what I’m holding––some mixture of tastes, textures, colors and smells––until I have the idea ‘coffee.’ But the idea is beyond sensation. We could phrase the problem this way: if the identity of a particular is its universality, then which of the two––universal or particular––more truly exists? We could call this the Prior Reality Question. (By “prior reality” I mean existence that determines the existence of something else. For example, health has prior reality to sickness, since health is the order of the body, while sickness is nothing but the absence of order.) Similarly, do we only know universals as abstractions from particulars, or do we know particulars as shadows of universals? A bunch of other problems can be spotted in orbit. If universals are real, why do we never see them? What human faculty has the universal for its “proper object” (as color is the proper object of sight, sound of hearing, etc.)? Are the universals parts of what we experience, but, then, how can the whole be a part of itself?

Enter Nominalism

Let’s return to coffee. One attempted solution is to say that ‘coffee’ is just a name, a name for the bundle of sensations we see fit to lump together. Hence the term nominalism, from the Latin nomen, for “name.” Nominalism is the view that a universal is only the sum of its parts, a convenient name for a bundle of particulars. Logically, another word for nominalism could be “particularism,” since it follows that particulars have prior reality. Not all nominalists deny the existence of universals. After all, a name must have some degree of reality and refer to something that has some degree of reality. However, in order to understand better what a nominalist does say, it’s important to understand what a realist says.

Realism and the Problem of Universals 

Before Socrates, the general tendency was to some form of monism, or the idea that the cosmos, as one united entity, was reducible to one principle. Some Presocratics, like Parmenides, apparently denied the diversity of things.[1] If all that exists cohered in a single substance––like a giant, cosmic cake––where could you find a knife to divide the cake, except (impossibly) outside of existence? The plurality of particulars was an absurdity. This obviated the problem of universals, simply by denying that there were multiple particulars, but the cost was a strongly counterintuitive view of human perception, a perspectival dualism where philosophy rebutted the intuitions of all ordinary physical experience. The toddler’s “What is that?” made no sense, but this time because the only particular, the only “that,” was the whole universe.

Socrates and Plato’s theory of Forms was the first serious attempt to explain universals in a way that also made sense of ordinary experience, and Aristotle further developed the core concept of form.[2] However, while Socrates and Plato posited a spiritual realm of autonomous universals, Aristotle believed that universals only exist within the objects of our experience. This called for a distinction between the particular per se (the unexplained “this”) and the whole concrete object as both physical and knowable, particular and universal. Aristotle used the term ουσία (ouisa), which comes to us, through Latin, as “substance” and “essence,” for the concrete object.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would agree that any experience begins with simple sensory stimulation. However, Socrates and Plato would say that, as soon as we know or identify this experience as a “what,” we are no longer talking about that physical thing but about its spiritual Form, which exists apart from the individual, “outside” the individual. The individual is a shadow of its Form. Aristotle, contrarily, says that particularity and universality, difference and kind, jointly compose the substance. Take the stool. For Socrates and Plato, the instant I know it as a “what” I am no longer focused on this particular underneath me but rather on the idea ‘stool’ and, by implication, all stools, indiscriminately. For Aristotle, knowing the stool doesn’t imply that I cease knowing this one. Rather, each stool, by virtue of containing its form, remains knowable as a particular. In this sense, particularity and universality cease to be contradictions in terms. Instead, they are compatible aspects of a substance.

A Modern Nominalist

We can summarize as follows. Realism is the doctrine that the objects of our experience are combinations of particularity and universality; that is, of matter and form. The nominalist, on the other hand, says that the objects of our experience are particulars. Universality is an ingredient contributed by human perception. Universality, he says, is something we impose, mentally or verbally, on the object. Take the following from John Stuart Mill.

General concepts, therefore, we have, properly speaking, none; we have only complex ideas of objects in the concrete: but we are able to attend exclusively to certain parts of the concrete idea: and by that exclusive attention, we enable those parts to determine exclusively the course of our thoughts as subsequently called up by association; and are in a condition to carry on a train of meditation or reasoning relating to those parts only, exactly as if we were able to conceive them separately from the rest.[3]

Mill is arguing that, when I call this thing above me a “tree,” I am designating, with a word, certain elements of “this thing” that I wish to highlight for my own purposes. As far as the particular is concerned, there is nothing special about the bundle of properties designated by the word ‘tree.’ For example, the bundle of properties “thin, old and conical” is no less proper to it than the bundle “leafed, trunked and photosynthetic,” the only difference being that the second bundle is more useful to me as a rational observer. If, for my own purposes, I wish to “associate” this thing with others I have seen, I may emphasize certain properties over others. Similarly, it may be more useful to identify “this thing” reading my article as “rational, ensouled and embodied,” because I frequently encounter the same properties elsewhere; but they are no more essential to you, my reader, than being “fat, short and green-eyed.”

Mill explicitly rejects Aristotelian substance. “It was reserved for Locke,” he writes, “at the end of the seventeenth century, to convince philosophers that the supposed essences of classes were merely the signification of their names.”[4] He calls this a “signal service” to philosophy.

Mill’s is a clear case of nominalism, where the very act of naming creates what is named. If I coined the word “roundlerange” for anything round and orange, such as the sun, the fruit, and some racket balls, then objects bearing these properties would be roundleranges as truly as Tchaikovsky and Sinclair Lewis are men. The word doesn’t necessarily create the properties, but it does create the association of properties, the group. Locke called such groups “nominal essences.”

Medieval Origins of Nominalism

The history of nominalism, however, does not begin with Mill or Locke, but with Medieval grammar. Inspired by Aristotle’s Organon, the dialecticians Boethius and his contemporary Priscian stimulated interest in the influence of grammar upon philosophy. Among their concerns was the correspondence between words and substances. Did every noun designate a substance? What kind of things were signified by proper nouns like ‘Socrates’ and common nouns like ‘man?’ So puzzled the 12th century fathers of nominalism, Roscelin of Compiègne and his pupil Peter Abelard. Some scholars, like Constant Mews and C.G. Normore, have argued that Roscelin was not a nominalist. Regardless, Roscelin’s theory of naming, called the sententia vocum (the “doctrine of sounds”) was undeniably an influence on Abelard and subsequent Medieval nominalists. Following Priscian, Roscelin believed that every noun referred to an Aristotelian substance, which (for all physical objects) meant a matter-form complex. If so, the riddle was how ‘man,’ ‘animal’ and other universal names could be nouns at all. Of course, a Platonist would have no trouble with this, since every Form was a spiritual substance. The Aristotelian was in a pickle, however.

The conclusion, said Abelard, was that no noun, common or proper, referred exclusively to a form, but only to a particular insofar as it possessed a form or any other qualities. These qualities had been classified as accidental or essential, that is, proper to the substance as an individual or proper to the substance as having membership in a kind. For example, the noun ‘man’ picked out essential properties, like “rational” and “created,” properties shared by all men, while the noun ‘Tchaikovsky’ picked out accidental properties like “Russian,” “living in the 19th century,” and “musical.”

Abelard argued that a universal word doesn’t denote a universal substance, simply because a “universal substance” doesn’t exist. Consequently, there was no special object of a common noun, as there was for a proper noun. Both kinds of nouns referred to particular substances, but the common noun referred to many particular substances, with a distinguishing emphasis on the quality, or qualities, they share. Basically, ‘man’ was shorthand for “Socrates, insofar as he’s rational, created, etc., and also Tchaikovsky, insofar as he’s rational, created, etc., and also Jeff, with the same,” and so on and so forth. One interesting implication of this theory was that nouns were ill adapted to divine objects. If each noun corresponded to a discrete substance, then either ‘Father,’ ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ were no exception––a position that landed Roscelin in the hot seat when he was accused of tritheism in 1092––or else language, by its own logic, was barred from the Trinity. Three nouns referring, together, to only one substance was an absurdity.

Proper and common nouns picked out individuals, but proper nouns did so more effectively, focusing on the individual’s unique qualities (Tchaikovsky as Russian, bearded, funded by Nadezhda von Meck). Since common nouns also referred to individuals, the conclusion was that common nouns, by nature, were more vague and “confusing.” Abelard writes:

Thus when I hear ‘man,’ a kind of model rises up in my mind that is related to single men in such a way that it is common to all of them and proper to none. But when I hear ‘Socrates,’ a certain form rises up in my mind that expresses the likeness of a certain person. Hence by the word ‘Socrates,’ which produces in the mind the proper form of one person, a certain thing is picked out and determined. But with the word ‘man,’ the understanding of which depends on the common form of all men, that very community produces a “confusion” so that we do not understand any one form from among them all.

So ‘man’ is correctly said to signify neither Socrates nor anyone else, since no one man is picked out by the force of the name, even though it names singular men. But ‘Socrates’ or any other singular term, is not only able to name a singular but also to determine a subject thing.[5]

The tone here is strikingly un-Aristotelian. As I first argued, universality is precisely what explains our capacity to know and not merely distinguish the particular. Abelard, by contrast, finds that universality loosens our grasp of what something is, by distracting us from the particular. His view is compatible with a theory put forward in the anonymous Glosule, or commentary, on Priscian from the 11th century.[6] Universal names might have arisen as proper names that highlighted common qualities of the particular. For example, the first person to say “man” had in mind specific men who shared certain qualities, and when he used the word he imagined these men in particular. The more we conceive of individual men as resembling each other, the harder it is to concentrate our imagination on any one of them, and so our relation to the word’s objects becomes distant, hazy, “confused.”

The Test of Ordinary Experience

Let’s return to the original scene and play out Abelard’s theory on the stage of ordinary experience. Seeing the object in the distance, I study and inquire about it, I observe it for a period of time, and so come to know it. Throughout, I am encountering the thing only as a particular. If I stumble across another object, I may note how they resemble each other in some properties, which I name “essential.” I require a new word, ‘nobject,’ to describe each insofar as it resembles the other. ”Nobject’ is a practical word, but, like a magnifying lens, loses its focus as it pans over an ever wider field of individuals.

There is some wisdom in this interpretation. Analysis can circle into itself, until we are no longer thinking about something, but thinking about thinking-about-something. How often do we think about a flower? How often do we actually look at a flower? How would the idea change and develop if we did look? Human understanding must perpetually revisit its physical objects, like a poet returning to his meter. We cannot let our ideas float away from the sources of our experience. This, incidentally, is a key, legitimate insight of the philosophical school called Phenomenology. However, Abelard’s vision is belied precisely by this re-connecting with experience. If we consider how we ordinarily process objects, and how we identify and name things, we see that universals are much more than resemblances––even important resemblances––among particulars. I cannot satisfy myself that I know what a thing is until I have discovered something that is, paradoxically, beyond it. I cannot make sense of what I am holding until I realize it is both a “cup” and not the only possible cup. I can’t know the physical until I have stepped into the world of forms. Nor can I really know another person, William or Jeff, without knowing something about human nature. At least in the realm of physical creatures, nothing has a “particular nature” that can be known apart from or prior to its “universal nature.” Failure to grasp this lies at the very heart of modern theories about personal identity. Modern identity theory swaps the priority of form and individuality, giving us a mystical individual behind the form––an individual we can hear but not know, accept but not challenge, whether he tells us he is a woman, an aardvark, or a floating idea.

This is a series of articles about how philosophical controversies have shaped cultural controversies in the modern history of the Church, especially in the 20th century. I have spent necessary time on background, because I will show later on that one very influential movement, a movement embraced by many important thinkers––from Scheler, Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Pope John Paul II, to Peter Kreeft and John Crosby––is a species of nominalism. This movement is called Personalism. Personalism is heir to nominalism because it shares the “particularist” orientation, the doctrine that particularity is prior to universality. This movement, with its good guys and bad guys, has great importance in the culture of the modern Church.

[1] It’s hard to be sure about Parmenides, from what we have of his writings.

[2] I follow the convention of distinguishing Socrates and Plato’s spiritual Forms with an uppercase letter, and Aristotle’s immanent forms with a lowercase.

[3] John Stuart Mill, 310, “An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy and of The Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in his Writings, 310,.

[4] John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, vol. 1, 132..

[5] Peter Abelard, Glosses on Porphyry, in Philosophy in the Middle Ages, 3rd ed., ed. by Arthur Hyman, James J. Walsh, and Thomas Williams, 195.

[6] Cf. Constant J. Mews, “Nominalism and Theology before Abaelard: New Light on Roscelin of Compiègne,” Vivarium, 30.1 (1992), 4-33.

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