The Problem of Universals is an often overlooked topic. It is usually only brought up when studying scholasticism and medieval philosophy. This now neglected epistemological/ontological issue, which moderns often believe has been solved with the progress of philosophy and development of psychology, once held the attention of the greatest European thinkers. However, the triumph of nominalism, the accepted position on the matter, has acted as a catalyst for further degradation. What seems like an unimportant debate resulted in the soiling of philosophical thought as well as its divorce from faith and theology.
To understand the destructiveness of nominalism, we first have to look at what the Problem of Universals is and the solutions that were offered to it. Many people are not taught this, especially in modern schools, which is why I feel the need to write this summary. I’ll try to be brief, as the subject matter is abstract and dense. I have no doubt that some of you will find this quite tedious, but bear with me.
The debate started as a result of a section from Porphyry‘s (a student of Plotinus) Isagoge where he is discussing Aristotelian logic. He writes:
For the moment, I shall naturally decline to say, concerning genera and species, whether they subsist, whether they are bare, pure isolated conceptions, whether, if subsistent, they are corporeal or incorporeal, or whether they are separated from or in sensible objects, and other related matters. This sort of problem is of the very deepest, and requires more extensive investigation.
Now for a quick note on terms. “Species” is a statement on a thing’s essence, and “genus” (pl.: genera) is a part of the essence that is also predicable of other things, while the “differentia” is what separates the species from one another. Here’s a classic example to make this clear: a triangle is a three sided figure (species); it is a plane figure (genus) that has three sides (differentia).
Basically, the question is: What, if anything, in extra-mental reality corresponds to universal concepts in the mind?
The processes of predication and differentiation fascinated medieval thinkers, and they sought to understand what it was that linked singulars together. The general answers to this were as follows:
- Ultra-Realism: Universals exist both in the mind and separately in nature, e.g. what we call a tree gets its “tree-ness” from some existing thing outside of it (Plato and his Forms)
- Moderate Realism: Universals exist as being individualized in particulars, e.g. “tree-ness” exists in all trees as a quality (Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, etc.)
- Conceptualism: Universals do not exist in reality but in the mind as mental concepts, e.g. the word “tree” denotes similarities between two particulars which are understood in the mind (Peter Abelard, arguably William of Ockham, etc.)
- Nominalism: Universals do not exist. Only particulars are real, e.g. the name “tree” is just a social construct (Roscellinus, arguably William of Ockham, etc.)
“Who cares? Why do these odd distinctions matter? All this seems trivial, unprovable, and primitive.” Well, medieval theologians cared and this all has more consequences than at first glance. Alright, I won’t bore you with more details. Suffice it to say most scholastics fell somewhere in or between the second and third categories.
However, William of Ockham’s thought became heavily influential in modern philosophy. He’s well known for the principle of parsimony that bears his name, Ockham’s Razor, which states that the hypothesis with the fewest possible variables should always be chosen over others. Often viewed as a nominalist (whether that label is correct or not is irrelevant), Ockham saw the imposition of something abstract like a universal as humans trying to create order and meaning in a meaningless world; metaphysics and ontology had turned into pointless prattle to explain the unexplainable. Only individuals truly exist, and nothing is inherently connected to anything else. Furthermore, he saw reason as being useless to faith, and that the process of understanding God could not be done at all through philosophy. Ockham was one of the first to try and break apart the beautiful medieval synthesis of theology and philosophy, faith and reason.
No wonder, then, that this is the man from whom modernist philosophers would borrow. The major flaws in nominalism are quite easy to see. Under a moderate realism system, Socrates and Plato would both have immanent “humanity,” though the two are distinct. A conceptualist would say that there is some similarity which allows the two to be connected as “human,” even if it is just a process of our way of knowing and categorizing things. But, the nominalist will deny that there is “humanity” at all. Their reasoning for this is that because if you say that Socrates is a man, and that Plato is man, then Socrates is Plato. To reduce concepts of universality in order to trap them into some incoherent statement of logic is missing the greater whole for the parts, something that is common with modern sciences. The only reason for them of why we would call both Socrates and Plato “human” is due to some sort of general consensus between all minds, although no one person’s idea of “human” would be alike with another’s. A nonsensical notion, that isolates and severs all things from each other.
Expand this further and you get the breakdown of everything. No longer is there a world out there for a mind to understand, but a mind to project itself onto the world. Subjectivism, egotism, and individualism take over since the only arbiter is each person’s own mind. Prominent ideas like teleology and formal causality are discarded. Goodness or any other virtue cannot be said to exist. They are too vague and abstract. Following this, morality goes right out of the door. The only truth is that of experience and the senses. Nominalism breeds skepticism, positivism, and rigid empiricism. All that we can know are the brute facts of the universe. Materialism arises. Need I go on?
Nominalism brought about the idea that there is nothing divine throughout all creation, no order in the universe, and no natural hierarchy. Are these not obvious, though? Creation bears the mark of its maker and order and hierarchy can be observed all around us. Denying the obvious has only led to destruction and degeneration. The answer is to affirm that there is order and meaning, which will allow the bonds of nominalism to be cast off.
NOTE: For further reading on the topic, see Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver.