Friday, November 25, 2011

On Nominalism

Nominalism and realism have been a frequent subject in my online conversations of late.  I think it would be beneficial to define the terms so that we are clear about what we mean.  Primarily, I am concerned about realism and nominalism of universals and names.  This statement may say more than it appears, because much of contemporary philosophy tends to equivocate on the term "realism."

There is a realism of the external world and realism of universals/names.  The former is usually expressed in terms of a correspondence of idea or experience and what is experienced, which is invoked when we say that an idea of word has a real referent.  The realism of universals/names is often thought in such ideas as Kripke's "rigid designation," although that is a cousin many times removed from the topic that I wish to discuss.  In Kripke's case, a rigid designator is a name that refers to the same object in all possible worlds.  It is a logical construction.

In contrast, the realism of universals/names argues for the reality of universals, e.g. the phenomenal qualities (white, red, vanilla, etc.), etc. that can be predicated of a subject.  It is more an issue of onto-logy rather than mere logic, the logic of being rather than of signs. These two realisms are separable, but I hold them together, though not in the conventional way, though that is another topic.  E.g., a felt quality is not merely a one-to-one mirroring of what is in the external thing; it is neither one-to-one nor a mirroring, which is what most contemporary realists (external world) would wish either in fact or ideally.

What's the point?  Without a realism of universals, of which the phenomenal qualities are a case, then any experience becomes arbitrary.  We run into all the problems of empiricism that Hume and Berkeley exposed.  Should we then seek shelter in Kant and psychologism?  Qualities are law-like by-products of human experience that have no basis in external reality?  No.

What is at stake?  Without a reality of universals, then phenomenology really is every bit of trash that most analytics think it is.  This is in part why they almost universally denigrate it--because they are NOT REALISTS about universals, and thus they think that mere experience is hokum.  And thus they retreat into a neo-Cartesian position of thinking that what is really real is the rational and intellectual, err … "scientific."  This was part of Husserl's ferocious critique in the Crisis; they mathematized being and did not even realize it.

Finally, I have already indicated what is at stake in pragmatic process metaphysics elsewhere, which includes pragmatic phenomenologies.  The latter are non-Husserlian and realist in a more robust sense than Husserl, and are scientific without being any flavor of scientific realist.  What is at stake is the incoherence of a process metaphysics that rejects autonomous identity (substance) and becomes nominalist (what a thing is said to be, is arbitrary).


  1. For those just tuning in, much of this is a response to the following proposed schema.

    Why don't we call THIS experience a product of THESE factors beyond experience.

    Fine, we can try that. Ignore the epistemic issues for a moment. Now, if we're nominalists about THIS experience, then we remain nominalists about THESE factors. Therefore, naming THIS experience tells us nothing more than what we learn from our system of naming, which is not nothing. But we do not want to be nominalists at the level of metaphysics if we wish to do metaphysics, else we can never know or even speculate what we're taking about other than to propose various systems of naming. That might work in a pragmatic vein, e.g., we chose a system of naming for ameliorative purposes etc. (John Dewey), but is hard to defend on most other grounds.

    I did not add it above and I meant to. See Thomas Hobbes' introductory metaphysical/physical section of the Leviathan for an excellent example of what nominalism is. He makes it very, very clear what the position is, and I'm not sure that contemporary thinkers are so clear.

  2. Another point. The necessity of the "God" principle revisited in light of the current discussion.

    "God" is important for Whitehead because he must explain the particularity of concrescence; e.g., why do these or any eternal objects ingress at all--why is there some-thing rather than no-thing. This means something different than the question of why there is something rather than nothing, i.e., existence vs. non-existence, especially since the eternal objects (Whitehead) or pure possibility (Peirce) are real but do no exist per se. The implicated issue is why is there this particular determine existence rather than that particular determinate existence. There must be some concept , principle, or thing that explains why the eternal objects ingress (Whitehead), i.e., why matter takes form (Plato), why matter is in constant flux yet tends towards a particular form (Aristotle per teleology and the Unmoved Mover). This is analogous to the ontological-ontic gap. Whitehead accepts the principle of sufficient reason enough to give an explanation for this, and since we are doing speculative (abductive) metaphysics, this is a reasonable move.

    We need not posit absolute transcendence of the Godhead. In fact, such a posit violates the proffered notion and its logical necessity. Attacking the notion of eternal objects is respectable if one wishes to attack realism (vs. nominalism), but one is misguided if one identifies the notion with some transcendent godhead, as some recent interlocutors might be doing.