the Medieval Problem of Universal: what was it all about?

I understand the respective positions of Nominalism, Realism and Conceptualism. I guess I’m asking a meta-philosophical question here. In terms of the above positions, what exactly is at stake? Why was hammering out this issue so important? What would be (have been?) the repercussions of one position winning out over the other?

Well I understand none of those positions. However, I have a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which is good at setting historical context. Recommended.

Page 427-28: Russell describes Scholasticism’s characteristics, a field which began in the early 1100s: “Fourth, the question of universals is brought to the fore by the discovery that Aristotle and Plato do not agree about it; it would be a mistake to suppose, however, that universals are the main concern of philosophers of this period.”

I’m too stoned on migraine medicine to give a good reply; perhaps that can wait until tomorrow (unless someone beats me to it). But the realism vs. nominalism debate is a very important one about whether to countenance the existence of abstract (non-physical) entities such as universals. It was in part disgust with the ontological extravagance of philosophy leading up to 1900 (and its inability to explain what, exactly, these abstract objects were without appealing to some sort of Platonic realm) that led to such radically nominalist philosophies as positivism. So that part of the debate can be understood as part of a deeper debate in ontology.

I have the sense that a good deal pre- 20th century ontology suffered from the absence of scientific knowledge and empirical observation. That is, some of the debates are pretty much obsolete now or have to be drastically reshaped if they are to possess more than historical interest.

Obvious point? Sure. Facile? Of course. But I thought I might provide the opportunity for future posters to discuss the problem of Universals in the context of a) Medieval thought, b) Enlightenment and 19th century thought and c) contemporary philosophy.

Along the way, the problem of Universals might even be defined. Anybody?

Undermining my first point, I was rather surprised to learn that physicist Roger Penrose seemed to imply the existence of a Platonic realm in The Road to Reality. He invoked it when discussing whether mathematical laws are discovered or invented.

Well, certainly the advance of science has resulted in a much more naturalistic world-view among Western intellectuals, especially philosophers. That’s why there are very few realists left about universals. Most philosophers are either nominalists (they deny there is any such thing as a universal) or a conceptualist (if I am correct in thinking that **zeno ** is using this term to denote those philosophers who regard universals as a linguistic artifact).

And screw Penrose. He thinks that because he is good at one thing he can simply jump into philosophy and make contributions though he has no training and little knowledge of what other philosophers before him have said. It is a common error among smart people to think that if they know a bunch about X, they are qualified to comment on Y. E.O. Wilson is another repeat offender.

Does Penrose presume to speak with authority about the existence of Universals? What I’ve read (or rather, what I vaguely recall having read) struck me as explicitly non-authoritative and speculative.


Non-authoritative and speculative it was.

I probably have not done justice to Penrose. He never mentioned the Problem of Universals. He was not trying to outline a philosophy and he indicated the matter was puzzling. But since he denied that mathematics was an invention, he had to address the followup question, if mathematics isn’t invented by humans, what the heck is it? If it’s discovered, it implies it has an existence independent of the human mind. Yet it isn’t matter, energy or a form of consciousness. Perhaps, “Platonic Mathematical World” should be interpreted as a label more than a characterization.

Penrose may or may not be seriously mistaken here. But I would caution my fellow posters not depend upon my presentation of his argument. Still, I had previously thought that Platonic ideals were at best metaphors, at worst idealistic nonsense: now I’m not so sure.

I was wondering if the controversy might have any theological ramifications.

I thought the basic “universal” problem was which came first: The “universal” on which all real examples are based, or the particular examples which were then classified to define a “universal”? Plato agreed with the former, Aristotle with the latter. The ancient world concluded that the two frameworks are answering different questions: Plato’s framework explained how universal qualities come into the world via examples, Aristotle’s framework explained how the human mind acquires knowledge of universals.

The Medieval scholastics (on cues from Augustine and Boethius) took a more sophisticated approach which revived the apparent contradiction between Plato and Aristotle (N.B.: Though some scholastics were categorized at the time as “nominalists” and “conceptualists”, these terms are somewhat different than their modern definitions). Their reasons were driven in part by theology; unlike Plato, they took the universals to be ideas that existed in the mind of God, so they definitely had to exist in a real sense. The problem is, once you start scratching around at what a “real” universal might look like, you get contradictions. A simple example: Many universal ideas are instantiated in the real world in irreconcilable ways; the universal idea of “human”, for example, is instantiated in the real world in two sexes, men and women. It seems essential that a human being have only one sex, but the universal idea of “human” must be both man and woman, something that is apparently contradictory.

The scholastic resolution of these problems resulted in something called Moderate or Thomistic Realism (because Thomas Aquinas gave the most lucid account). It essentially depends on an exact definition of “abstraction”, which Aquinas saw as an important intermediate step between knowing a particular instance (i.e. by sensory input) and knowing the universal (i.e. by intellectual reflection). While ingenious, the solution is pretty much irrelevant these days. Most modern philosophers ditch the idea of actual universals because of the problems inherent in the concept and the success of empirical scientific investigation over the “pure” deductive pursuits of the Scholastics. Today, most fall into the conceptualist or nominalist camps described above.