Category Archives: Metaphysics

Paul Vincent Spade On Motivating The Mediaeval Problem Of Universals

“It is well known that the problem of universals was widely discussed in mediaeval philosophy — indeed, some would say it was discussed then with a level of insight and rigor it has never enjoyed since.” What follows is an extremely good motivation of the medieval problem of universals, offered by Paul Vincent Spade in the introduction to FIVE TEXTS ON THE MEDIAEVAL PROBLEM OF UNIVERSALS.

“It is easy to motivate the problem of universals. Consider these two capital letters: A A. Ignore everything else about them and for now observe only that they are of the same color: they are both black.

As you look at the two letters, how many colors do you see?  Two different answers are plausible.  You may want to say  you see only one color here, blackness.  You see it twice, once in each of the two capitals, but it is the same color in both cases.  After all, did I not just say the two letters were “of the same color“?  Isn’t that obvious by just looking at them?  This single blackness is the kind of entity that is repeatable, found intact in both letters at the same time; it is what philosophers call a “universal.”  If this is your answer, then you believe in the reality of at least one universal, and are in that sense a “realist” on the question.

But now reset your mental apparatus and look at the two letters again.  On second glance, isn’t it obvious that you see two colors here, two blacknesses:  the blackness of the first A, this blackness, and then the blackness of the second A, that blackness?  The two colors look exactly alike, yes, but aren’t they visually as distinct as the two letters themselves?  If this is your answer, then you do not believe in the reality of universals (at least not in this case) and are a “nominalist” on the question.  The problem of universals is in effect the problem of deciding between these answers. ”

Of course, my eros for the mediaeval problem of universals is just a stepping stone on the path to eros for the platonic form BEAUTY.  And the stepping stone previous to eros for the mediaeval problem of universals is, in the grand tradition of platonic philosophy, eros for gorgeous young men such as this one, who is today’s homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM.


If Plato can include a bad boy like Alkibiades in his SYMPOSIUM, I can include a bad boy like Josh in my post.


The Mystery Of The Missing IS: Or, Had John Duns Scotus Been An Ordinary-Language Philosopher Working In Tagalog

Below, I have tried to start incubating the suspicion that there is something fishy about treating ‘is’ as a predicate with two parameters accepting one argument each, i.e., a two-place relation.

Tagalog doesn’t have a verb ‘is’, no verb ‘to be’.  Given that more literal translations of Tagalog sentences often display the phrase ang noun phrase structure as:


phrase [is] ang noun phrase

For example:

Titser ang babae.

Maganda ang lalaki.

Umalis ang babae.

gets rendered as:

Teacher [is] the woman.

Beautiful [is] the man.

Having left [is] the woman.

or as I prefer (see my attempt below at eliciting the ‘aha erlebniss’):

Some teacher one  [is] the woman.

Some beautiful one [is] the man.

Some having left one [is] the woman.

…given that, one might think that, always, the suspect verb aka predicate aka relation is implicitly in effect in sentences with that structure.  The lack of a verb ‘to be’, of an ‘is’ in Tagalog that so perplexed the first Spanish grammarians of the language (so that, in their total confusion and lack of understanding, they tried to interpret the Tagalog inversion marker ‘ay‘ as the verb ‘is’, a confusion and misinterpretation that has had hilarious consequences lasting to this day), is always there, just unpronounced (or unwritten).  The space between ‘maganda‘ and ‘ang lalaki‘ in the written sentence, or the lack of interruption in the string of sounds (if that is how maganda ang lalaki gets pronounced — I am not strong enough presently in Tagalog to know) or the glottal interruption (if one exists between the ‘maganda‘ and ‘ang lalaki‘)  … the space, or lack of interruption in the continuous stream of sound, or the glottal, these are, as the case may be, an implicit sign of the two-place relation ‘is’.

Following Naylor, Schachter, and my own intuition, I have been treating the space, the lack of interruption in the continuous stream of sound, the glottal as an implicit equals.  For example, I prefer to translate the above three Tagalog sentences as:

Some teacher one  = the woman.

Some beautiful one = the man.

Some having left one = the woman.

Unlike ‘is’, however, which is (if there is such a critter) a two-place relation, ‘equals’ (alternatively, ‘=’ ) is, as I am about to show, a one place relation.  It is not just that the sign corresponding to ‘is’ is lacking in Tagalog:  the (real or putative) semantics of ‘is’ is lacking in Tagalog as well.  Tagalog is working with something completely different.

Clearly the ‘equals’ that is in play here is not given by the ‘equals’ in the following two-place relation:



Morning Star Evening Star
3 3
Rose With Barcode 3185321 Rose With Barcode 3185321
Clifford Wirt Clifford Wirt
The murderer of Jones The butler

…because in sentences such as Maganda si Taylor Lautner, the word ‘Maganda’  does not, at the moment of its utterance, specify, identify, locate, expose, or pick out any one particular thing.   ‘Maganda’ is equivalent to ‘Some beautiful one’, or the part of the formal sentence below that occurs before the ‘=’:

∃x ∈ MAGANDA: x = si Taylor Lautner.

The x that belongs to the set MAGANDA is left unspecified, unidentified, unlocated, unexposed, un-picked-out at the start:  Maganda … though it does get specified at the end:  …si Taylor Lautner.  But a two-place relation requires two identified, specified arguments for its two attributes.

Let me try to capture in D the sentence ‘∃x ∈ MAGANDA: x = si Taylor Lautner’.  Let me posit the following 1-place relation:

Taylor Lautner
Sunset at time t and place p
Rose With Barcode 3185321
Wine Red
The Taj Mahal
Haendel’s Umbra Mai Fu

Taking this relation as my springboard, I capture ∃x ∈ MAGANDA as MAGANDA{} (which gives us TABLE_DEE, or TRUE, or YES), then do a CARTESIAN PRODUCT of that with a restriction of MAGANDA:

MAGANDA{} as t_sub_0,
MAGANDA{MAGANDANG_BAGAY} where   MAGANDANG_BAGAY= ‘Taylor    Lautner’ as t_sub_1:
t_sub_0 X t_sub_1

CARTESIAN PRODUCT is a special case of JOIN.  TABLE_DEE JOIN r, where r is any relation, yields r.  So the D statement above yields:

Taylor Lautner

which expresses the semantics of the sentence ‘Maganda si Taylor Lautner’.  In this way, we get rid of the doubtful (I think) verb aka two-place relation ‘is’.

To sum up, a bit impishly:  the semantics of ‘is’ is different in Tagalog than in English because Tagalog really doesn’t have an ‘is’.  Later, I will try to develop this into part of an argument that Tagalog lacks a subject.  Tagalog’s lacking a verb ‘to be’ is related to its lacking a subject.

To stray back for a moment to philosophy:  were Duns Scotus an ordinary-language philosopher working in Tagalog, it may never have occurred to him to try to find a single relation (e.g. ‘contracts’ ) between the entity Beauty, as the argument on one side of the predicate ‘is’, and Taylor Lautner as the argument on the other side of the predicate, and so on for every other proposition formed by supplying arguments to the parameters x and y in the predicate x is y.

11/10/2012:  Updated to make a point a bit more clearly.

11/10/2012:  Updated to parenthetically add some snark about the first Spanish grammarians of the Tagalog language in the 1600’s.


Update:  11/25/2012:  Post grayed-out because I am dissatisfied with it.

That Strange Predicate/Relation IS

The predicate IS has two parameters.  Placing arguments in those parameters produces something like the following Relation:

IS (0)
3 Prime
Car With Serial Number 1235813 Red
Rose With Barcode 3185321 Red
Grain Of Salt Mentioned By Hegel Cubical
Grain Of Salt Mentioned By Hegel White

This is a SINGLE relation, one may note, just as INVITES and TO_THE_LEFT_OF are. But while the relations INVITES and TO_THE_LEFT_OF are fairly easy to get one’s mind around, IS is a more difficult case. What is the relation between a property and the thing of which it is the property? Should we say that the property “inheres” in the thing? (Whatever “inheres” means.) Should we follow Plato and think of the relation between thing and property as analogous to the relation between reflection in the mirror and the thing or person reflected? So that the thing is a wholly relational entity wholly dependent upon something more real that exists independently, i.e., the property existing as a Platonic Form? Should we be more Aristotlean and think that, while yes, a given property (e.g. RED, e.g. PRIME) is one thing, not many, it is always already “contracted” (the ‘contracted’ business always makes me think of the old freeze-dried instance coffee commercials … the property gets “sucked” into the thing accompanied by the corresponding sound) ala John Duns Scotus into (but where does the ‘into’ come from? Does this mean ‘inhere’?) the thing so that it never exists independently of the thing? So that it has a “unity less than numerical?” (Source of the ‘unity less than numerical’ thing comes from some writing of Duns Scotus which I do not remember.) Should we think, along with William of Ockham, that it is nonsense to think of a single thing, e.g., the property RED, as existing in several places at the same time, so that we have to think of the red of the car and the red of the rose petal as in fact two different properties, even if they exactly match the same color sample held by the Interior Decorator? (So that ‘Red’ in the Relation above would always have to be marked by a number serving as an index?)

Or maybe the Relation IS is not a real Relation at all, but an artifact of a Word. Given the Word ‘is’, we think there is a corresponding Predicate generating Propositions which, when true, form a Relation. But in reality there is no such Relation. Perhaps?