Nominalism versus Conceptualism
By: Yalda Mahmoudi, April 5th 2005, Canada

It is often stated that forming a “conception of reality” is something dependent upon language. If one is to have a view about reality, he much has access to an inter-subjective standard provided by a social- linguistic world (Putnam (1978,1980 and 1990). For different meaning of ‘metaphysical realism’, see E. Agazzi’s contribution to this volume (ch.3)). It is only in learning a language that one gains the ability to respond conceptually to the world, because only than can a person have responses assessed by social norms. Our conception of reality depends upon factors that are not totally described by science. That is to say, we would accept the fact that there can be no complete mechanical account of how we come to have such a conception of the real. 

Before exploring what nominalism and conceptualism is, it is better to explain what universals and particulars are. A universal is an entity that is possible such that it has two or more instances. A particular is an entity that is not a universal. An instance of a universal exemplifies that universals. We believe that instantiation is primitive and unanalysable. If there are insatiable universals, then it appears that any attempt to analyze instantiation must be done so in terms of the instantiation of one or more other universals. Therefore, it seems that any attempted analysis of instantiation would suffer from the fatal flaw of vicious circularity.

We assume that, possibly, there are abstract universals, abstract particulars, and or concrete particulars. An example of an abstract universal is a Platonic property such as squarness. Squarness in this sense is an entity that exists independently of any square entity. Moreover squarness of this sort is a necessary being. And is eternal, having no beginning or end. It is not perceptible, being out side of space. However, as we hold that all entities are in time. We believe that Platonic abstract entities are in time. 

On an Aristotelian conception of universals, universals have contingent existence, and every universal depends for its existence upon its having one or more instances. According to some versions of Aristotelianism, if two square entities exist at a given time, then there are two places such that squarness is wholly located at each of those places at that time. If there are no square entities than squarness does not exist. All universals are abstract entities and that no abstract entity can have spatial or temporal parts. 

Platonic realists believe that universals are intrinsically immutable, eternal, mind independent, and non-spatial. On the other hand, Aristotelian realists believe that universals, though intrinsically immutable and mind-independent, are not necessarily existent, and on some versions, hold that at least some universals are spatial and not eternal. The opponent of the realist about universals argues that only concreta exist. Such an opponent can allow for the existence of entities such as substances, times, places, events, but cannot accept the existence of abstracta such as universals, properties or relations, and sets. This position is known as nominalism. 

Nominalists believe that only particulars exist. Others believe that whether or not particulars exist, universals certainly do exist, and these are unusually describes as realists. Nominalists believe that they do for various reasons, not only purely metaphysical reasons but also ones, which are partly epistemological in character. Some hold, for instance, that it is ontologically extravagant to conceive the existence of universals in addition to that of particulars, or that universals are metaphysically repugnant in some way. Some maintain that universals, if they existed, would have such a nature that we could have no knowledge of them, so that nothing that we do know can give us reason to believe in their existence. Some consider that universals are mistakenly invoked by realists to explain semantic feature of language, which can be quite adequately explained in other ways. On the opposing side of the debate, some realists contend that these semantic features can indeed only be explained by invoking universals. Some believe that universals much be involved to explain out psychological capacity to recognize, classify, and group together various particulars. And some urge that universals must be invoked to explain the ontological status of laws of nature, which they conceive to involve relationships between universals. 

The key idea from the realist point of view is that predicate typically donated a property, the latter being conceived as a universal. For example the predicate “is a chair” supposedly denoted the property of being a chair and the predicate is “red” supposedly denoted the property of being red or redness. But, redness is not a predicate at all, but a noun or name, and as such, one might naturally suppose an expression which refers to some really existing entity. Which means; instead of saying “the chair is red” we can say “redness characterizes this chair”, these two sentences appear to be the same logically. But, the realist may ay that, since “redness characterizes this chair” clearly makes reference to a universal (namely, redness), it follows that the logically equivalent sentence “this chair is red” likewise implies the existence of that same universal, which it can apparently do only in virtue of the act that the predicate, “is red”, denotes that universal.

The nominalist on the other hand, may argue that the sentence “this chair is red” makes reference to and implies the existence of only one entity, which is a particular, this chair. Then they may draw on the assumed fact that “redness characterizes this chair” is logically equivalent to “this chair is red” to argue that the former sentence likewise implies the existence of only one entity, which is a particular. 
Abaelard believes that universals terms refer to reality, they do not refer to nothing at all as nominalists believe it does. Yet in a certain sense universals exist only for thought. For they embrace abstract not concrete views of things. According to Abaelard a universal term does not point to any kind of sensible object, for this is the function of perception. And the objects of perception are the only kind of objects, which possess genuine reality for human thought. Yet because universals are elicited from perceive objects they may be described as being in them, while they can termed non-sensible in so far as they are due to the activity of the mind.

Abaelard concludes by pointing to the confusion between words and the things to which they refer. When the significance of terms is under discussion the argument is apt to move from words to objects and from objects to words. This ambiguity in logic as well as in grammar leads to many errors. They fail to grasp that it is the function of terms to be applied to things in various ways, and they suppose that they are treating of things when they are treating of logical terms.

Abaelard is conceptualist, he denies that they are any universals like nominalists do but he differs from them by admitting that general notions of concepts provide the content of thinking, concepts, however are constructions of our minds. They are arbitrarily framed according to our purposes by process of abstraction from particular impressions, such impressions being our sole genuine contact with the external world. Partial aspects of separate perceived items are selected and grouped into unities, man, red, happiness, and the other features in the complex perceived individual being ignored. The abstract entities are fixed by language and exist for our minds as independent objects of thought. We argue about them as though they correspond to real facts. On this view universals are derived entirely from the mind.

This position certainly corresponds with much that Abaelard argues. His interest in the process of abstraction instead of in the metaphysical problem has conceptualist note. It presumes that things are known in perception prior to universalizing them. Relations as well as general ideas appear to be arbitrary. He speaks of conceiving a common likeness and of imposing general terms on things in virtue of this conception. But he also admits that the process of abstraction does not necessarily falsify our knowledge of the object. Universals are grounded in the nature of thins.

The search for essential characters became the clue to knowledge of reality. The criteria by which we judge what is real in distinction from what is unreal are objectivity, permanence, and coherence. When we reflect on the common-sense world of perception and practical life, we find on all hands variation, indefiniteness and confusion. The scene, which our naïve opinion takes as real, is inextricably bound up with our eyes and ears and senses of touch, and varies with changes in them. The rock feels hot to the one hand, lukewarm to the other. Our impressions are corrected by consideration, which refer beyond any collection or system of impressions. The further we push the search for consistency and objectivity the more we discover universal relations underlying and connecting the mass of facts with which experience is confronted. The ideal of reason is a system of universal interconnecting all the divisions of reality. The unities which underlie the changes and the singular aspects of things, beds, or men, or acts of bravery, are not constructions of our minds. They have a being which is independent of our knowledge of them. Plato applied this principle to a field, which in other ways strikingly fulfilled the characteristics of reality. This is the realm of pure mathematics. 

It was implied that the universal essence of anything, a stone or a man, can only be defined in one way, it is assumed that everything possesses a fixed and definite essence. Reality is composed of a system of unalterable and ultimate entities to which are attached numerous qualities of varying degrees of relevance. Philosophical definitions are not relative. An entity, flower or hear or humanity, cannot be defined in one way at one time and in another way at another time; for this would be to deny it any essential qualities. An entity cannot be one thing at one time and another thing at the next moment. If things were in state of continual flux knowledge would be impossible. If we are to hold to the distinction between reality and appearance, and between truth and error, we are driven to assure that everything has a determinate essence, and that there is one and only one final definition of it, and the method is ruled by the theory.

The first problem is whether universals have being indepently of our minds. The chrematistic of the general notion or universal is that it is common to many things at once. By the process of abstraction the mind attains ideas which though they do not refer to real object are not therefore false. The mind received from the senses a confused mass of impressions. It has the power of uniting what is given in perception as distinct and separating what it finds united. This is apprehends the notion of a line in separation from the notion a body. Similarly it contemplates genera and other universals apart from the sensible objects in which they actually inhere. The activity of thought consist in nothing the common characteristics in a number of different individuals and in comprehending these similar feature in them.

Hume’s view is different of Abaelard’s, Hume’s official view is that ideas are always just mental images and the meanings of words are ideas, ideas again being identifies with mental images. The meanings of words are not mental images; the capacity to form mental images is neither a logically necessary nor a logically sufficient condition of understanding the meaning of a term; and to have acquired the concept of something is neither the same this as, nor even a guarantee of, having learnt the summon up mental images of whatever it may be. Hume believes that all ideas originate from impressions.


Research: Culture, History & Theory


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