Friday, April 13, 2012

Realism vs. Nominalism

There has been quite a back-and-forth between Matt of Footnotes to Plato and Levi of Larval Subjects.

Speaking just to principles, Matt is arguing a variant of a scholastic realist position per Whitehead, while Levi is arguing a nominalist position that he attributes to Deleuze.  The former argues for the reality of universal (generals); i.e., the basic categories of metaphysical description are not merely convenient fictions of the mind, but are real distinctions (per Scotus).  One motivation for this is to explain why nature appears to have patterns, i.e., laws of nature, even if we may only know them fallibly.  Levi's position, in contrast, rejects these as unknowable.  This kind of move is fundamental to object-oriented philosophy's notion of withdrawal, though that is not to say that it is shared by all such philosophies.

Matt is doing a great job of articulating the position and reasons, but Levi refuses to acknowledge that this is a reasonable fundamental disagreement.  Some months back I tried to argue this with Levi, and I have given up.  Part of the problem is that as hard as Matt tries, the position is position is mischaracterized as it was in Levi's latest post.  I will use Aristotelian terminology rather than Whiteheadian to explain the mischaracterization.

It is not that forms impose something upon matter from without, which appears to give forms some kind of agency.  Rather, forms are within the thing, where a "form" is a description of the law-like possibilities of nature.  The thing realizes the form within itself through its own powers; the "form" merely describes an immanent possibility.  If a person affirms nominalism, then the person denies either that there are law-like possibilities of nature or that they are knowable.  Levi claimed the latter view some months ago.  Matt is trying to explain something that Levi thinks is in principle unexplainable.

Contra Levi, I insist that if nature is law-like, and all evidence points to "yes," then explanation is both possible and a worthwhile pursuit.  That is, there is no need to accept a Humean or Kantian position on the regularity or purposiveness of nature; it is neither a "habit" (Hume) nor a necessary fiction (or antimony) of human understanding (Kant).  There is no reason to accept Kant's submerged Cartesian dualism and sever human knowing from nature.

If nominalism is the case, then Levi's own position is nothing more than fiction by his own account.  Any principle or rule is a mere human imposition on reality for nominalism.  He has invoked pragmatism per the pragmatic maxim to defend his account, which is ironic as the classical pragmatists were scholastic realists.  The maxim allows one to decide on competing abductive hypotheses based on the consequences of adopting either position given abductive criteria.  Levi would have us believe than onticology provides the best consequences, since as a nominalist he can claim neither reality nor truth for it.  This is not the intended use of the pragmatic maxim, which is intended to compensate for human fallibility and not provide a meta-theoretic justification for nominalism.

Why do I bring all this up?  Nominalism vs. realism is the root of the disagreement, and further discussion is intractable without discussing that.

See one of my previous and detailed posts on this:

I just added the following comment, which I took to be obvious at the time, but perhaps is not:
"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."

This is also happening in Matt's case; I am trying to show the general structures underlying each form of argumentation without delving into the special terminology of each.


  1. I'm suprised nominalism vs. realism is still a debate.

  2. Surprised in what way? Many contemporary philosophers in America are nominalists, and very, very few are scholastic realists. Some years ago a very large survey was performed, and the results were shocking. American philosophers are very homogeneous and predominately hold traditional analytic views.

    I can understand why someone would accept epistemic nominalism (some argument about the limits of human understanding), but what I cannot understand is why someone who accepts it still wants to do a substantive metaphysics. In that case, it becomes almost entirely instrumental to ethical and political concerns rather than truth, adequacy, explanation, etc., because for a nominalist metaphysics in principle cannot be a response to those issues.

    A counter to that philosophical move is that it is in extreme danger of confusing an aesthetic with truth. This point might seem obscure; let me know if I need to explain. I blame Nietzsche.

  3. See Matt's Latest:

  4. Here's my response to Matt on the above blog post, which better expresses the context of my post here and the conclusion that I am attempting to impart.

    Matt, this is good work. Let me highlight what I take to be the crucial point of your post.

    "Qualities like redness, and quantities like the number 17, cannot be explained by reference to materiality, since materialism itself would be meaningless without reference to quality ... which for Whitehead, unlike Kant, are not categories of the human mind."

    Levi Bryant, and those following in his wake, cannot explain the reality of meaning. Materialism as so far described cannot do that, and it resorts to epistemic nominalism by Levi's admission. He invokes transcendental argumentation, but if qualities are not real (if scholastic realism is not true), then no transcendental argument will do the explanatory job, Bhaskarian or not.

    The pragmatists and Whitehead insist that meaning and human conscious experience is real, i.e., not human-centered, whereas Levi's and other's arguments assume a Lockean perspective on human experience that the afore-said do not share. Human experience is a natural phenomenon--nature is the agent first--and the human is second. Since there is not separation of the natural and human, this does not denigrate the human.

    Matt's talk about eternal objects is part of a Whiteheadian explanation of how qualities can be real, i.e., immanent to the thing like in Aristotle but not Plato, yet still contingent unlike Aristotle. Form on this view should not be understood as a "cause," as Aristotle articulated it, but as a "habit" as derivative of Peirce. Nature has regularities, i.e., laws, qualities, etc. because it has habits, but habits are neither eternal nor inviolate.


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