Friday, December 02, 2011

Hegel and Nominalism

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel articulates a powerful argument against nominalism, the belief that universals do not exist. For Hegel, any claim that individual things really exist, while universals do not, undermines itself.

If the nominalist intends to explain his theory to another, he might point to a rose, and say that what really exists is "that thing" which we "call" a rose. We call other things roses as well. But the universal, the "roseness" by virtue of which we call a rose a rose, does not belong to that object (indicating the rose before him). There is no such thing as "rose" or "the red," there are only things in the world to which we apply these names. Put another way, universals are not real, only discrete things are real (e.g., things we call roses, rocks, atoms, etc., but which are actually pure singulars). When Aristotle talks about a human nature shared between individual human beings, the nominalist will say, he is wrongly imposing a mental idea he has upon individual things. The common nature of roses really exists only in the mind, in reality we have only singular objects.

But Hegel notices something strange about such a proof. If we deny the rose has a shared nature, we cannot say that it is really either red or green (only that we call it that) that it is of a certain length (for length too is a universal), and so on. All characteristics (green, long, etc.) are universals, for these can be predicated just as well of other things. If the universals (red, green, long, prickly) do not really exist but are only imposed by the mind upon the thing, what is indicated as really existing is an object that is "pure being." The nominalist cannot say "that rose is what really is", for in such a case he would be saying that an instantiation of a universal is what really exists. Nor can he say "that green thing is what really is, we just call it a rose." He can only say "that thing is what really is."

But in asserting that the thing is what really exists in itself, the nominalist asserts the most abstract universal of all: the Thing or the object. For all that is, is a thing or an object; thing or object is the broadest class of universal.
What we say is: 'This', i.e., the universal This; or, 'it is', i.e., Being in general. Of course, we do not envisage the universal This or Being in general, but we utter the universal; in other words, we do not strictly say what ... we mean to say. But language, as we see, is the more truthful; in it, we directly refute what we mean to say, and since the universal is the true [content] of sense-certainty and language expresses this true [content] alone, it is just not possible for us ever to say, or express in words, a [particular thing] that we mean.
The more strenuously the nominalist tries to assert that what really exists are singular beings, the more strenuously the nominalist actually asserts that what really exists is the abstract universal Thing or pure being. Even when the nominalist says "this is", the nominalist asserts the existence of a universal, for this can be predicated of a rose, a rock, or a house. Language undermines the nominalist's claim; the nominalist asserts the opposite of what he means.

One might suppose this is no problem for the nominalist, for of course language deals in universals, and so of course language imposes these universals on what really is. But in this case, the nominalist cannot provide an argument, for whatever he intends to say, he in fact expresses the opposite.

14 comments:

KyCobb said...

Martin,

I'm curious as to what you would say universals are. Did the length of one inch exist before man invented the measurement? What about when the universe was only a few planck lengths in circumference? Did colors exist before there was light? What about before there were any eyes that could see color?

Thomas said...

Hegel defines a universal as a “simple thing of this kind which is through negation, which is neither This nor That, a not-this, and is with equal indifference This as well as that ….” For example, "now" is in a sense neither day nor night but may be either day or night.

A "test" (that Aristotle contrived) for whether something is a universal is whether it can be predicated of multiple things: I call both James and John a "man", but I don't call them a "human nature." The former is a universal, the latter, technically, is not.

Your question about the ontological status of universals is a complicated one (for one thing, there are different types of universals). In general, Aristotle says that the color blue, for example, exists potentially before there are blue things, and exists actually when blue things exist. Without the potential existence of blue there could (by definition) be no actual existence of blue.

But Hegel's point is a larger one: it is only through universals that things exist at all. It does not make sense to say that universals don't really exist, that only singular things do, and that universals are mental constructs or whatever, because "thing" is an abstract universal.

Singring said...

'The more strenuously the nominalist tries to assert that what really exists are singular beings, the more strenuously the nominalist actually asserts that what really exists is the abstract universal Thing or pure being. Even when the nominalist says "this is", the nominalist asserts the existence of a universal, for this can be predicated of a rose, a rock, or a house.'

Just because a nominalist uses language (such as saying 'this is') does not mean he is unaware of some of the inaccuracy inherent in using that language. He simply accpets that this use of language is - currently - the best way of communicating and accepts that it is strictly not accurate because 'thingness' is not a universal.

I see no problem whatsoever for a nominalist here, just like I see no problem whatsoever for a physicist who - out of sheer convenience - calculates the trajectory of a ball being thrown using Newton's laws of notion and not Einstein's general relativity simply because it is more convenient, thereby accepting a minute inaccuracy in his calculation.

Thomas said...

Singring,

Don't you think it takes quite a bit of credulity to believe in an idea that cannot actually be argued for?

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Every nominalist I have ever met is a human being, an organism that is by nature a rational animal. But I am told by the nominalist--or what seems to be a nominalist--that my knowledge of this universal judgment is not knowledge at all, that it is a mere construction of language and nothing more. In that case, I have never met a nominalist and thus have no reason to entertain nominalism as a legitimate position, for there is literally no rational animal that believes it.

As my friend Hadley Arkes is fond of saying: we live in an age in which we clamor for human rights, even though we deny that there any humans pe se; and in the same way, we stand for women's rights, though we claim that gender is a social construction and thus there are no women.

KyCobb said...

When you say a universal is "real" what do you mean? I have evidence an individual rose exists because I can see it, touch it, smell it and even taste it. But what does it mean to say "roseness" is real if, as it appears you are arguing, "roseness" exists somewhere other than in human minds or in individual roses. Also if "roseness" is real, does it change? Biological units are necessarily fuzzy, because the plants we identify as roses evolved from other plants which were not roses, and one cannot identify a particular point in time when a population of not-roses became a population of roses. Rather a population of plants which did not share many of the attributes we identify as belonging to roses gradually acquired more and more of those attributes until at some point they were more rose than not. Do botanists determine what the universal roseness is, and can they change it if they alter the definition of what attributes make a plant a rose?

Singring said...

Thomas:

'Don't you think it takes quite a bit of credulity to believe in an idea that cannot actually be argued for?'

I wonder where you get the idea that nominalism can't be argued for? What was Hegel adressing if not arguments for nominalism?

As I stated above, nominalism is perfectly tenable as long as one acknowledges the inherent limitations of language and therefore knows how to evaluate arguments based on semantics likethe one Hegel advances.

But ultimately, this is a purely metaphysical argument anyway and therefore is about as productive as people debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Francis:

'Every nominalist I have ever met is a human being, an organism that is by nature a rational animal.'

How do you know what the 'nature' of humans is?

'In that case, I have never met a nominalist and thus have no reason to entertain nominalism as a legitimate position, for there is literally no rational animal that believes it. '

Francis, please explain how your being unable to make *universal* judgements based on some externalized set of 'universals' makes it impossible for you to make specific or general (but not universal) judgements based on empirical data and evidence using language that has conceptual meaining for humans, but is not linke to any such 'universals'? For example, what prevents me from saying that - based on teh evidence available - humans usually are rational in the sense that we use this word as a label for a set of similar physical objects?

Seamus said...

Singring:

If you don't know "what the 'nature' of humans is," then how can you know that there's anything about humans that makes them the kind of things that shouldn't be enslaved or tortured?

Singring said...

Seamus:

'If you don't know "what the 'nature' of humans is," then how can you know that there's anything about humans that makes them the kind of things that shouldn't be enslaved or tortured?'

So instead of answering the question and telling me how you (or Francis or anyone) knows what the 'nature of humans' is, you ask me a question in return. That is unfortunate because it still leaves me none the wiser about this fount of knowledge you two seem to have access to that I do not.

Now, in response to your question:

1.) Even if we assume that there is a 'nature' to humans, how does it follow that slavery or torture are not permitted? After all, Joe Smith on the corner could simply say that he believes the 'nature' of humans is to be enslaved and tortured.

How would you counter his idea of what the 'nature' of humans is, Seamus? See, this is precisely why it is so important you give me a very good and well-supported argument for how you know your idea of the 'nature' of humans (that presumably disallows slavery and torture) is correct whereas Joe Smith's is mistaken.

Unforrtunately, since neither you or Francis have done so, I am left with teh awful impression that anyone can just come up with their own idea of what the 'nature' of humans is and act accordingly - which would make you just as morally relativistic (or even more so, I would argue) than the lieks of me who can't see any metaphyscial 'nature' to things at all.

2.) As to my own convictions regarding slavery or torture - I operate as a utilitarian. I can empirically verify that humans suffer and experience suffering myself. I am sure you would agree that suffering is not really desireable, so of course I want to prevent myself having to suffer and - because I feel empathy for other humnas and recognize that if they suffer, this might also negatively impact my own well-being - I would like to see suffering be minimized. This therefore becomes my maxim for taking actions: do they minimize the amount of suffering in the world?

Clearly, slavery and torture in most cases do not minimize suffering. There may be some very specific and unlikely scenarios in which turture, for example, would be permissible in a utilitarian moral system - that's why it is not absolute.

But by and large, slavery and torture are wrong according to my moral system, the reasoning for which I can support with empirical evidence and that is based on empirical evidence about suffering.

You are of course free to disagree with my starting premise that suffering should be minimized - do you?

If you do and you want to base your morality on a different premise - e.g. that of there being a 'nature' to humans that demands we treat them in a certain kind of way - then fine, but don't expect me to just accept that premise on the face of it.

Give me a good reason to accept it and, more importantly, tell me how you even came up with the idea of this 'nature' in the first place and what this 'nature' is and what it entails.

Since you have so far not been able to address even this initial question, I highly doubt your argument as to its supposed objective validity will bear any weight at all.

Concocting some arbitrary 'nature' that humans supposedly have and basing your morality on that idea is just as arbitrary and relative as my choice of minimizing human suffering as a starting point for morality.

Thomas said...

KyCobb,

The sort of perceptual verification works on the level of universals; that is, when you perceive, you perceive universals. You see that the rose is red, you smell that the rose is sweet, you feel the dimensions of the rose and its texture, and so on. There are no properties of the rose that are not universal. So if you are certain of the rose because of its perceptual properties, you certainty lies in universals. There is no perception of absolutely singular properties.

Now there are different sorts of universals. Some develop through historical processes (such as animal forms), others are not affected by such processes (such as equality or redness). Aristotle already knew this: he distinguished between forms that were bound to material (such as animal forms) and so in principle at least were mutable and forms which are independent of material.

Bruce Graeme said...

According to Aristotle individual things are "primary substance (ousia)," but they are actual only because of their Form. However, a universal (a common quality) is a predicate, and as such depends on the individual. From which it follows that no universal is a "primary substance" ("no universal is a this").

According to the Dutch philosopher Paul van Schilfgaarde, who wrote several books on Aristotle, Form as ousia, and form as cause are to be distinguished.

Bruce Graeme said...

The view which denies that forms are universal is book VII part 13:

"For it seems impossible that any universal term should be the name of a substance. For firstly the substance of each thing is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else; but the universal is common, since that is called universal which is such as to belong to more than one thing. Of which individual then will this be the substance? Either of all or of none; but it cannot be the substance of all. And if it is to be the substance of one, this one will be the others also; for things whose substance is one and whose essence is one are themselves also one." Aristotle then poceeds, claiming that substance in not predicable of a subject, concluding: "If, then, we view the matter from these standpoints, it is plain that no universal attribute is a substance, and this is plain also from the fact that no common predicate indicates a ‘this’, but rather a ‘such’."

http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/metaphysics-by-aristotle-book-vii/13/

I think that Paul van Schilfgaarde was the first to have interpreted him in this way. Cf. "De zielkunde van Aristoteles" (1938).

Some specialists in the field, argue that the VII 13 claim is limited to universals that are predicated of particulars while forms (substances) are predicated of matter, in which case subtance can be universal after all.

This argument has been criticized by Lynne Spellman in his book "Substance and Separation in Aristotle" (2002).

Bruce Graeme said...

According to Paul van Schilfgaarde, matter and Form, while they are the constituents of reality, the formal, efficient, and final causes, they are three different 'aspects' of Form itself, as Jonathan Lear puts it:

"Although Aristotle can talk about the three causes which coincide, he can also talk about the 'primary' cause. he is not then picking out one of four causes for special honor: he is citing the one item, form, which can be considered either as the form it is, or as the efficient cause or as the final cause." ("Aristotle: The Desire to Understand", 1988, 27)

Cf. Jiyuan Yu, "The Structure of Being in Aristotle’s Metaphysics", (2003, 66)

Bruce Graeme said...

According to the Dutch philosopher Paul van Schilfgaarde, who wrote several books on Aristotle, matter and Form, while they are the constituents of reality, the formal, efficient, and final causes, are three different 'aspects' of Form itself.

Also according to him, Form as ousia, and formal cause [which he defines as 'form in a narrower sense'(!)] are to be distinguished. Maybe he was the first to have interpreted Aristotle in this way [his first book on this issue is "De zielkunde van Aristoteles" (1938)].

But now I'm reading a book (Gregory T. Doolan, "Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes"), in which it is stated that: "exemplarism is an analogous notion. In one sense, it occurs when a natural agent causes an effect that shares the same species as itself. This sort of form is an exemplar only in an improper, extended sense (!), precisely because the natural agent does not itself determine its intended end." And he refers to Timotheus Sparks, "De divisione causae exemplaris apud S. Thomam" (1936)

So, I wouldn't be surprised at all that Paul van Schilfgaarde might have read this book as well, and have been influenced by it.