Category Archives: Nominalism

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.

most_beautiful_men_04

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

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That Strange Predicate/Relation IS

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

IS (0)
THING PROPERTY
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?