Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reflections on the Past Debate about Realism and Nominalism

I have been musing on the conversations on realism that occurred in the local blogosphere some months ago.  It seems that some of the mis-alignment of the conversation, at least one my side, was that I was concerned about the implications of acceding only to bare realism to phenomenology and epistemology.  That is, if one only accepts that the external world is mind-independent, then I was concerned about the status of phenomenology and epistemology, especially given the high speculative moves and wish to move way from the anthropocentric.  Among many of my concerns is a common one among those of my philosophical persuasion; we should be very careful about erasing the inquirer from the inquiry and claiming that our conclusions exists antecedently to the inquiry.  This is called the philosophical fallacy.

Among the speculative realists and the others in orbit, my insistence about scholastic realism (realism of universals) was motivated by the following question.  If these theorists do not maintain some kind of scholastic realism, but instead embrace nominalism, then how can any of their inquiries ever pertain to human-independent existence?  The cord between the human and the not-human becomes cut, and as much as we might strive to talk about not-human, we cannot escape our own humanity.   With that said, there is a difference between escaping and thinking beyond the human.  Peirce, Whitehead, and a number of continental thinkers as well, I suspect, do this, but I did not see an explanation of this with some of my interlocutors.  Those who invoked Whitehead have an answer through him, in which case we would and did discuss our own paths.

I leave you with this question that I asked the first time.  I know a number of answers, and thus is it not a leading question, but I do not recall seeing those answers.  Without scholastic realism, how can any nominalist claim anything of the non-human?


  1. Jason,
    My problem with the nominalists is that nominalism really means, metaphysically, an unrestricted immanentism. "Pure" immanentism falls prey to the fallacy of false extremes ("immanent to what?") If somehow immanent "to itself" we've either begged the question or the term has no meaning. Reflection upon immanence requires enough transcendence to suppose its reality or meaning. Epistemologically, immanence is nominalism, I think. Without transcendence of some kind or another we are all correlationists.

    But I'd like to get a clear definition from you about "nominalism." You are getting at a different issue than what I am talking about.

    Epistemologically we are talking about realism as advocating the existence of universals. The defense is that "This is a different kind of realism other than scholastic." So I'd like some definitions here, then.

    1. nominalism
    2. universals
    3. generals
    4. particulars
    5. Scholastic realism
    6. Speculative realism (as distinct from Scholastic realism)

    Leon/after nature

  2. Leon,

    I would disagree with some points of your characterization. But before one should take my disagreement too seriously, you should explain what you mean by "immanentism." Recall that Santayana charged Dewey with that--all are "home vistas"--but he thought that Dewey meant that human experience and the cosmos were identical. There are different definitions of nominalism, so that's a fair question. I give a definition derived from scholastic notions and is closest to Peirce's; he claims to get it from Scotus and his debate with Ockham. I have posted on this before--see that discussion--but I need the practice so here goes.

    Nominalism. The thesis that all things that exist are absolute particulars. Thus, they share no predicates in common except perhaps "existence." Therefore, nothing definitive can be said about anything that exists.

    If we follow Hobbes' nominalism that embraces a corpuscular mechanical metaphysics (Newtonian), which he's really explicit about in the first 100 pages of the Leviathan, the only thing we can do is set up system of naming to describe patterns of natural forces. We adopt one system over another because it leads to greater control over nature, even if we never know why, and the best system we have is the hypothetico-deductive method (Descartes' version). Hence, we can only evaluate something at the system-level because we can only claim to know the consequences of a system of naming, i.e., giving predicates to what *appear* to be similar particulars. Locke piggy-backed right off this but added the slightly more realist caveat that there are "powers" (potentials) in the things itself called tertiary qualities that produce the secondary qualities. So, what is really real are the primary qualities--he went Descartes' rather than Hobbes' route epistemically--and the tertiary qualities. However, we know how this went with Hume and Berkeley. We have no justification for knowing that a given primary quality is really in the thing the moment we reject intellectual intuition that was supposed to grant us that knowledge. Moreover, we must reject the notion that every secondary quality (sensation) has a correlate tertiary quality (power to produce sensation).

    Hopefully a trip through history shows the problem of nominalism. If nominalism is true, then how can human experience have anything to do with nature in a manner that is disclosive of the real? Note that Hobbes' nominalism is also a metaphysical nominalism, while Locke's is not, but the problems still mount.

  3. Continuing….

    Correct me on any of this.

    I have responded to 1, nominalism.

    In response to 2, universals, any predicate that can be said to be in common with more than one existent can be said to be a universal in some way. That is, it is a quality, characteristic, or description that has more than than a singular application to a particular. Or, to be even more technical, the characteristics of the terms intension may be attributed to an extension of more than one thing.

    In response to 3, generals, there is rarely a distinction made between generals and universals. I made a distinction awhile back and referenced to Locke’s idea of a process of “abstraction.” Dewey calls this “idealization,” and it was the central focus of my critique of Dewey in my dissertation. That is, what is the process of inquiry by which universals are predicated of a particular? Or, to phrase it from the viewpoint of my dissertation, … by which an immediate object of experience becomes meaningful? Predication makes a particular meaningful, and thus without a realism of universals, meaning can occur only at a systemic level and arguably not even then. (That bigger argument is best left for later.) Let me say this again, because perhaps this is what is getting lost in the conversation.

    Meaning is potentially arbitrary if one adopts epistemic nominalism.

    One response to this is to adopt the pragmatic maxim in a nominalist fashion, which is what I believe Levi Bryant and almost everyone who reads the pragmatists do. They see it as a way to save nominalism from nihilism, because we can use abduction to determine which system of naming is best. However, those appropriations misread Peirce, James, and Dewey, and anyone who takes those readings cannot be said to be a scholar of their work (as opposed to an appropriator, which is fine). Actually, by “misread,” I should just say that they haven’t read enough and I might remind readers that Dewey wrote over 52 books in addition to hundreds of articles, etc. Even Dewey scholars sometimes fall to this.

    Getting back to the subject at hand, even if we adopt the pragmatic maxim in a nominalist way, we cannot claim to know anything beyond a vaguely Humean position wherein we know what the habits of nature are but not why. The contemporary correlate to this position is Richard Rorty, who did precisely what I just spoke of, though he did it intentionally and not by accident. In which case it is not a “misreading,” but a “disagreement.”

    Finally, getting even farther back to my distinction between generals and universals, I used “general” to denote the phenomenological correlate to the logical universal. That is, a general is a “universal” arrived at via a process of idealization or abstraction, which is a fallible process. Universals, in formal logic, are not fallible; they are either real or are not real and they might obtain to an existence or not. All the laws of rationality and thought apply to them, but not to “generals” given my distinction.

    In response to 4, particulars, I just mean particular existences. I can elaborate more later.

    In response to 5, scholastic realism, which I’ve already covered, I just mean the position that insists of the reality of universals. That said, they can be real but non-existence, or only real when they are existent, etc. There are a lot of positions and I take Peirce’s that distinguishes between real and existent.

    In response to 6, I leave that to the scholars, i.e., you. I have already discussed how much of a fool one can make of oneself by claiming more than one actually knows. I have, of course, read a lot of SR, but that doesn’t mean anything other than I should be able to understand you without wholly misreading you.

  4. I will attempt a very experimental response to your question. It is experimental in two ways. One, I will attempt to use a vocabulary that minimizes a pragmatic vocabulary. This is a good thing, as it allows the ideas to grow beyond their original, parochial articulation. It is a bad thing for me, because I admit that I have less than full mastery of either a Peircean or scholastic vocabulary in which to communicate these points. Regardless, I will once again attempt to explain why I made the general vs. universal distinction.

    Recall that a “universal” is what may be said in common, or predicated of, particulars. A “general” is, in some sense, the existential instantiation of a logical universal. A “general” is instantiated as a “habit.” The general exists insomuch as the habit exists, whereas the habit functions to instantiate a universal (understood as the ideal limit of a general, cf Peirce on truth). Please note that I am creatively redefining “general.”

    If the body of habits/habitual body of a person is in some sense the totality of generals that may be predicated of a particular event or experience, then the there is an informative analogy between the body of habits and Kant’s categories of the understanding. That is, if we comprehend an experience only insomuch as we predicate a general of the event, then an event is meaningful to the extent that we have habits for attribution. If the event has a inter-subjectively established (conventional) meaning, then we must have the shared habits. However, contra Kant, we do not mysteriously synthesize the manifold under unity as performed by the imagination, but rather idealize the particular as an occasion for some general. We come to experience this as an instance of something familiar.

    If we go the Kantian route and suppose that the universals are in the mind, then man is the measure of all things.  If we suppose that the universals are in nature, and understand generals of the human understanding to be approximations of the universalities of nature, then we need no longer think that humanity and nature are severed.  Rather, the question becomes showing how generals may become adequated to nature ... e.g., by scientific inquiry in a manner akin to Peirce. Many will reject the latter route, because they maintain the vaguely Kantian solution to the problem of universals: they are in the mind but not in nature. To be a “scholastic realist” or “realist about universals” is to reject the Kantian route.