Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Varieties of Nominalism and Realism

I wish to address the topic of realism vs. scholastic realism vs. nominalism.  I hope that it will further clarify my earlier comments on the subject both here and at Footnotes2Plato, Knowledge Ecology, and After Nature.  The remainder of my discussion should not be construed as a continuance of that conversation, but that it was the occasion for the present thought.

“Realism” is usually short for “realism about the external world” that is opposed to “idealism.”  The former supposes that the world exists independently from mind, while the latter supposes that mind is fundamental to existence.  Idealism is closely associated with “rationalism,” which holds that rationality or intellect is fundamental to existence.  Given that mind implies rationalism—at least in a historic western context—rationalism implies idealism.  “Realism” is commonly affirmed by those who merely assert the existence of the external world, and that was how it was defined by Levi Bryant in the mentioned conversations, who affirmed realism and (epistemic?) nominalism.  

Suppose that one is a metaphysical nominalist, e.g., a Heraclitus or Thomas Hobbes.  This kind of nominalist asserts that things do not have a discrete identity, e.g., denies either the reality or application of the logical law of identity.  To deny the reality of the law is to say that there is no identity to anything, e.g., all is flux.  Heraclitus might be said to approach this view, as the only unities within his metaphysics are the fact of flux and the persistence of the upward and downward way, e.g., change and logos.  One could also deny the effective applicability of the law, e.g., arguing a Hobbesian corpuscular metaphysics in which body and motion are the primitives.  In this case, nothing has an essence, even though diversity might be real in the sense that different configurations of bodies and forces may have different effects.  Although neither of these examples is perfect, they do give an idea of the problems and common historic variants of metaphysical nominalism.

Suppose that one is an epistemic nominalist, e.g., a David Hume.  This kind of nominalist does not deny (metaphysical) identity, but does deny that human beings can know it.  Hume is an excellent example with which to move forward, because he is also an empiricist, and is thus a kind of nominalist that we are likely to see today, unlike Heraclitus and Hobbes.  The combination of empiricism and epistemic nominalism birth a conundrum for such a thinker who also wishes to do metaphysics.  Metaphysics becomes impossible.  Barring exotic re-definitions and qualifications, this person has denied all the intellectual tools in which to do metaphysics.  That is, an empiricist-nominalist is limited to immediate experience, because such a person cannot unequivocally name anything beyond experience.  If the person equivocally names something, then the naming has nothing to do with the (metaphysical) identity of the thing.  There are still options, for example, in pragmatic moves that redefine truth in terms of anticipated consequences.  However, such options still court Hume’s inductive fallacy of assuming that the past will be like the future, which becomes a suffocating limitation for a nominalist.

The problem with nominalism is that one berefts oneself of the intellectual tools to do metaphysics.  It is not impossible, but it greatly limits what positions one can claim without begging the question and becoming incoherent.  If one is an epistemic nominalist and an empiricist, one must defend, to an extreme degree, one’s ability to perform metaphysics.  You affirm that you experience something, but you know not what.  Even if one asserts realism (about the external world) along with nominalism, this gets that person little, because the person admits that reality cannot be known in principle.  Perhaps the best that person can do is affirm a Jamesian pragmatic principle about the “cash value” of holding this-or-that metaphysical theory.  That is a defensible hypothesis, but a pragmatic abduction requires that one should that one’s metaphysics leads to actual change in the world.  A Jamesian pragmatic hypothesis substitutes a traditional truth claim with an empirical and consequential one, and that metaphysician better like working with one’s hands.  It’s a change of intellectual venue entirely, and cannot be purely theoretically justified.  I say this because it’s too easy to claim Jamesian pragmatism and then overlook his verification requirement—having one’s cake and eating it too.   (Note that James’ view does not hold for the other pragmatists, which is something often overlooked, but the other pragmatists were unequivocal realists vs. James’ ambiguity at points.)  

Metaphysical nominalism is opposed to scholastic realism per the reality of universals.  If one affirms the reality of universals, i.e., the reality of descriptive categories (cf Aristotle’s Categories), then one is much empowered.  One need no longer perform the contradiction of claiming to do metaphysics without the descriptive categories to do so.  When claiming the reality of universals, by the way, one is not claiming that (human) conceptual categories match the ontological categories.  One claims that there are ontological categories towards which our conceptual categories might aim, i.e., that unity in the universe is real.  In contrast, recall that Kant said that unity (or rules) are a feature of the (human) understanding, and therefore at best metaphysics extends little past sensibility.  That is precisely what being a realist about universals denies.  Moreover, if one is a process metaphysician rather than a substance metaphysician, another option is opened.

Process metaphysicians following in the wake of C.S. Peirce, who affirm the reality of continuity, may rest assured that there is a continuity of the ontological categories and the phenomenological and conceptual categories.  That is, to leap a few steps ahead, experience is real.  We experience things in their immediacy, and not through some annihilating Kantian mediation.  However, I did not say that the experienced quality is isomorphic to the thing itself, because what also frequently comes with this view is non-representation theories of experience.  Human experience is a semiotic process by which we interact with the thing and encode part of the interaction as consciousness.  Sorry, no mirroring of nature here, despite being twice-over a realism and a naturalism.

I am, of course, describing in my own way the pragmatist position.  Its empiricism is too often mistaken for a Lockean empiricism rather than a Hegelian empiricism; i.e., experience is a mediated immediacy.  Following Peirce, phenomenologically-speaking, the mediation is physico-semiotic.

I hope that this post has been informative.  My intent was to further delineate the various forms of nominalism and give some historic examples, while explaining my own interest in the topic.  I have more to say that  I will likely add in the comments.


  1. My barring of exotic redefinitions and qualifications is not nothing, as there are far more options for nominalism than stated here. However, I'm interested in the varieties that truly aim to be explanatory and not purely speculative.

  2. I take it back. I'm also interested in the other varieties, so please do offer them, as knowing what one might not agree with is very informative. Besides, you might convert or at least intrigue me, and we could have a mutually informative discussion.

  3. Did you read any of Bryant's book? I would look into the introduction, particularly sections 1.2 and 1.3 where Bryant draws on Bhaskar and Deleuze (whom are central to all of Bryant's work). Bryant argues here that his onticology is an extension of Bhaskar's transcendental realism. Bryant also follows Deleuze in affirming the "transcendental" but not the "transcendent." I'm not exactly sure why this is such a trigger point for you, when it seems that many of the qualifications you are demanding from Bryant have already been made.

  4. Yes, I did read some of it, but haven't had the time to do so carefully. That is why I refrain from discussing his or anyone's work that I am not well-familiar with. Instead, I go over basics, upon which later comparisons can be made.

    Some have taken my recent comments to be implicit references to him--I am not saying that you claim this of me. I just want to be clear that they are not implicit references to him, and if they were, it would be unscholarly of me to do so and I am not so foolish. But that is also why I asked him to explain his views, since we were on the subject, and he refrained from much in-depth discussion and wouldn't give me the reference you just gave. I'm going over this, as I said, for my own projects and not for criticism.

    As for a "trigger point," I think that is not a good phrase to describe what I was doing. I was originally defending why process metaphysics has certain characteristics and why they were necessary for certain incarnations of it. I explained this intent to Levi, as I did not intend to be pointedly critical, and he rejected my explanation in email correspondence. In conclusion, I thank you for patience on our current and future discussions as you do not jump to conclusions, or when we misunderstand each other, we allow for mutual reconciliation.

    All that said, thanks much for giving the reference, because I have enough time to check sections and be enlightened.

  5. p.s., this semester is my first FT job and I carry a 5/5 load, so I'm always serious about asking for direct and contained references and thank you for being specific rather than just saying "read this book." Not being a Deleuzean or doing anything related to that, I'd not read a book merely to carry a blog conversation, else by that logic I'm going to start assigning all us bloggers MUCH more homework..... ;P

  6. Adam,

    Sections 1.2-1.4 do not address the mentioned issues. His treatment there is at a much more basic level than the current conversation. One reason I originally started reading Levi's blog is because his research is very similar to mine even if very differently motivated.

  7. Then I have to say I am not following you at all, nor do I understand what precipitated any of this or who it is that holds the positions you are arguing against. If its not about Bryant's position, and its not about OOO at all, then why even mention them as adjacent to the positions you are articulating? Why not just frame it is a more general statement of areas you are exploring?


  8. Adam,

    Let me be clearer. I am writing all this as "more general statements," and have been very clearly separating these conversations from the prior ones, but then you ask me to connect it back to OOO positions. You are not the first. Let me explain what I am doing.

    It is very different to articulate various general categories of metaphysical positions from asserting those positions of someone. I try to be very, very careful about such assertions, because too often they are spoken either from ignorance or the willfulness of a person in a position of power. Neither are productive or kind. I mention Levi because that was the originating context, and thus readers can follow those threads, e.g., like a citation. For an example of this technique, ever read Broad's Mind and World? I disagree with a lot of the thinking, but I love it still because he clearly explains every move in his taxonomy of metaphysical positions and allows the reader to be instructed even if one does not agree.

    The reason I refuse to attribute anything specific to Levi is because that category, nominalism, is so varied that I would be guessing unless I made it a point to become a scholar of his work, which is not worth my time as I am not a scholar of the particular subfields of continental required to make such a gambit should I even want to. This generalizes for OOO. However, I have written enough to explain why I hold the positions that I do, and therefore I ward off internal critiques. I thereby force my interlocutor to make an external critique, which is often more difficult. I also give prima facie reasons to believe there might be an internal contradiction in holding a speculative realist position while maintaining nominalism.

    One should be very careful of one's commitments and counter-arguments, which allow one to critique whole categories of positions at once, i.e., multiple thinkers rather than just one at a time, although one must be wary of fallacious application of such generalizations. I write these to help cut through the layers of any particular thinker and come to their core, because positions are far less unique than most anyone wants to admit, and thus advance preparation is useful for understanding and criticism. (I apologize for the pedantic tone, but I intend to explain my mindset.)

    Please note that part of my connection to OOO is that their various thinkers hold process positions and discuss process philosophy, except they often do so as appropriators from outside American philosophy as the mother tradition, and thus have different interpretations and aims. It's jarring.

  9. p.s. I also do realist phenomenology, which many think is impossible. That's because they've long since given up on the reality of universals, relations, and continuity.

  10. Ah, I forgot to discuss another definition of nominalism--the idea that only particulars exist, and that there are no universals. One can be a realist about the external world, but be a nominalist of this sort.

    In this view there are only generals (generated laws from particular instances) that are often construed as not being real. I only did this implicitly through discussing Hobbes, because he's the example of that; I should have said it more explicitly. But then we have no repetition (of identity in the sense of self-similarity rather than self-sameness), except as an unverifiable inductive or abductive hypothesis. This is opposed to the reality of universals.

  11. Adam,

    I ran back across this post and thought that in hindsight that I can be more plain when you state that Bryant has granted many of these qualifications.

    Transcendental argumentation cannot be claimed to be human-independent if one is an epistemic nominalist. And since Levi Bryant was arguing for the human-independence of his work, he enters into a contradiction. He then denies to scholastic realists (Peirce, Dewey, Whitehead, etc.) their own solution to this problem.


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