Abelard and Universals
During a recent exchange of comments to one of my columns, I was reminded of a point I've intended to document for a long time. That point has to do with the concept of universals and a much neglected twelfth century philosopher,
Peter Abelard. Peter Abelard demolished the concept of Aristotelian, "forms," but rescued the nature of concepts from what would become in, lesser minds, "nominalism," of which most commentators falsely accuse Abelard.
I'll begin by quoting some of the original comment, with some remarks about that:
"... knowledge of nature is not coterminous with science. Science can only reveal what is quantifiable about nature, but there is much more to nature than its quantifiable properties."
With regard to the physical aspects of "nature," science is the only discipline by which understanding of it is possible. By definition, the objective study of the physical is science. Since life, consciousness, and the human mind (rationality and volition) are not "physical," understanding of those aspects of nature require other disciplines, such as philosophy. The mistake that assumes "just everything" is amenable to science, is not the fault of science, but of philosophy.
But science does not deal exclusively with the "quantifiable" aspects of physical nature. In bio-chemistry, for example, there are many principles which are not quantitative, but qualitative, and much of science in the fields of chemistry and physiology and medicine have to do with complex relationships which are not at all measurable.
"... over the past half-millennium, the modernists have stripped formal and final causes from ontology so completely that most people are baffled by them and ... all modern attempts to explain nature comprehensively--that is, beyond its physical properties--smuggle in these two concepts under aliases.
For example, Objectivists do this by rejecting the extremes of Platonic forms and the pure nominalism that posits all genera as semantic fictions and adopting a moderate realism without acknowledging such to explain how universals exist as instantiations in individuals."
But this is exactly what Rand does not do (although I think her definition of "concepts," which for her included only universals, was not quite correct). She totally rejected the Aristotelian meaning of concepts, and by universals she means the identification of those things which have the same essential attributes. In the Objectivist view, no attributes exist apart from the entities they are the attributes of. A thing's attributes do not make it what it is, they are what it is; they are its identity. Things of the same kind are the same kind because they have the same "essential" or "necessary" attributes; that is, those attributes without which it would not be that kind. There is nothing "outside" of a thing that determines those attributes.
"Aristotle agreed with Plato that there is more to an entity than its physicality. Every entity has a form that constitutes its essence, enables its purpose (its final cause), explains its properties, and determines its effects on other properties."
This is the very mistake that Rand identified, and long before Rand, Peter Abelard identified. In fact, if you know what an entity's properties are, it is those properties that determine how it will relate to all other things and how it will behave. There is nothing else to know.
I want to clear up one other possible misunderstanding:
"One example of which I especially liked was your statement that it is not an entity's properties that determine its nature, but an entity's nature that determines its properties."
I'm not sure if the writer meant that as a direct quote of something I said, (it could be), or a paraphrase, but as it stands it is a bit ambiguous. I'd like to restate it this way to eliminate that ambiguity:
"It is not an entity's properties that determine its nature, its nature is its properties. The converse is also true, a things properties are its nature."
"So I have not seen a clear Objectivist rejection of the form and telos of entities ..."
As for, "telos," except for man-made things, there is no "telos." As for the rejection of, "form," I do not think Rand ever made a formal refutation of the concept, but Abelard did, and it his refutation I'll use as the basis of my own.
Abelard and Realism
[All quotes are from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy linked above.]
The concept expressed in the quoted comments above, such as, "Aristotle agreed with Plato that there is more to an entity than its physicality. Every entity has a form that constitutes its essence, enables its purpose (its final cause), explains its properties, and determines its effects on other properties," is called philosophical realism. Realism in philosophy is not what is usually meant by realism, and in fact implies the everyday world we regard as the "real" one is not real, but only a representation or "instantiation" of the, "really real," (or ideal, hence also "idealism"), which are the "forms" that determine what the things of the every day world are. It is that view that Abelard (and Rand and I) totally reject.
[Abelard's views are called nominalism in the following, but it will be clear that attribution is incorrect.]
"Abelard's metaphysics is the first great example of nominalism in the Western tradition. While his view that universals are mere words (nomina) justifies the label, nominalism--or, better, irrealism--is the hallmark of Abelard's entire metaphysics. He is an irrealist not only about universals, but also about propositions, events, times other than the present, natural kinds, relations, wholes, absolute space, hylomorphic composites, and the like. Instead, Abelard holds that the concrete individual, in all its richness and variety, is more than enough to populate the world."
The significance of this cannot be overstated. What Abelard really says is exactly what Rand said, there are only existents, and existence consist entirely of those existents, and nothing else.
There are many
definitions of nomanilism, and some might be stretched to fit Abelard's views, but those aspects of what is called nominalism that deny abstract concepts or any metaphysical basis for universals cannot be ascribed to Abelard's views at all.
"Individuals have natures, and in virtue of their natures they belong to determinate natural kinds. But an individual's nature is not something really shared with or common to other individuals; Abelard's refutation of realism has shown that this is impossible. Instead, Abelard takes a natural kind to be a well-defined collection of things that have the same features, broadly speaking, that make them what they are. Why a given thing has some features rather than others is explained by how it got that way--the natural processes that created it result in its having the features it does, namely being the kind of thing it is; similar processes lead to similar results."
A universal for Abelard, is, "a natural kind ... of things that have the same features, broadly speaking, that make them what they are." Those "same features," of things, "that make them what they are," is remarkably similar to Rand's view of universals [Paraphrased]:
"A universal is a mental integration of two or more existents possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular differentiating characteristics omitted."
[The original: A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.]
... and my own view:
"A universal concept identifies all members of a class or category of things that have the same necessary qualities."
elsewhere defined "necessary qualities" as "those qualities of an existent it must have to be the kind of existent it is, and without which it would not be that kind of existent."
... and the only real difference between Abelard, Rand, and myself about the nature of universals is semantic.
This view of universals is based on the metaphysical fact that a thing's nature (what it is) is described by whatever its attributes are, and things with the same necessary qualities ("features that make them what they are," - Abelard, or "distinguishing characteristics" - Rand) are the same kinds of things. What makes them the same kinds of things are their metaphysical attributes. The universal concept for those kinds of things is the mental identification of that metaphysical similarity.
my epistemology, this definition of universals applies only to "intrinsic" universals. Extrinsic universals which identify classes or categories of things in terms of their function, origin, relationships, location, for example, may or may not have metaphysical similarities.]
From Abelard's Logic
Abelard is recognized, for his time, as "the greatest logician since Antiquity." The following is from his theory of language, which is closely related to his logic.
[The word "real" in the following refers to "real" in the philosophical sense
"Abelard argues that sentences (propositiones) must signify more than just the understandings of the constituent name and verb. First, a sentence such as "Socrates runs" deals with Socrates and with running, not with anyone's understandings. We talk about the world, not merely someone's understanding of the world. Second, sentences like "If something is human, it is an animal" are false if taken to be about understandings, for someone could entertain the concept human without entertaining the concept animal, and so the antecedent would obtain without the consequent. Third, understandings are evanescent particulars, mere mental tokenings of concepts. But at least some consequential sentences are necessary, and necessity can't be grounded on things that are transitory, and so not on understandings. Sentences must therefore signify something else in addition to understandings, something that can do what mere understandings cannot. Abelard describes this as signifying what the sentence says, calling what is said by the sentence its dictum (plural dicta).
"To the modern philosophical ear, Abelard's dicta might sound like propositions, abstract entities that are the timeless bearers of truth and falsity. But Abelard will have nothing to do with any such entities. He declares repeatedly and emphatically that despite being more than and different from the sentences that express them, dicta have no ontological standing whatsoever. In the short space of a single paragraph he says that they are "no real things at all" and twice calls them "absolutely nothing." They underwrite sentences, but they aren't real things. For although a sentence says something, there is not some thing that it says. The semantic job of sentences is to say something, which is not to be confused with naming or denoting some thing. It is instead a matter of proposing how things are, provided this is not given a realist reading. Likewise, the truth of true sentences is not a property inhering in some timeless entity, but no more than the assertion of what the sentence says--that is, Abelard adopts a deflationary account of truth. A sentence is true if things stand in the way it says, and things make sentences true or false in virtue of the way they are--and nothing further is required. The sentence "Socrates runs" is true because Socrates runs, which is all that can be said or needs to be said."
If philosophers like Hume, even Locke, Kant, Russel, and those who followed had understood Abelard, there never would have been those corruptions of philosophy foisted on the world called logical positivism and linguistic analysis, which spawned what today is called post-modernism, relativism, critical theory, and multi-culturalism.
All of these are variations of the absurd assertion that truth can be established by means analyzing language, the meaning of words, the intention of the logical forms. Abelard demolishes the entire edifice of post-modern bunk by demonstrating that truth has nothing to do with what one understands words or sentences to mean, but only if what they identify or say is a fact. Words do not mean their definitions, they mean whatever it is in reality they identify.
"Socrates runs," means nothing unless there actually is a Socrates, and he actually runs.
He also demolishes the so called "a priori vs. a posteriori" dichotomy (also, synthetic vs. analytic, necessary vs. contingent, and empirical vs. nonempirical).
He says, "... sentences like 'If something is human, it is an animal,' are false if taken to be about understandings," (that is, the definition of a word). The truth of the sentence is not determined by the definition of the words, but on that which they actually identify, that is "humans" and their actual nature.
According to the mind destroying philosophers of Kant's ilk, "a priori" knowledge is knowledge one has without evidence, and "a posteriori" knowledge is knowledge that requires some kind of evidence without which it cannot be known. That sophism argues that a sentence like, "all bachelors are unmarried," is known to be true and requires no evidence so is "a priori" knowledge; but, a sentence like, "it is raining," cannot be known without looking to see if it is raining, the evidence, so is "a posteriori" knowledge
Abelard flatly rejects that kind of sophism. In his language, the sentence, "all bachelors are unmarried," is meaningless or untrue, if it is only one's understanding of the definition of the words that is intended. Such a sentence can only have meaning, and therefore be true, if "bachelors" are actual men who really marry or do not marry, but have not married. Both the agents (men) and the action (marrying) must be actual things and events, that is, perceivable metaphysical facts. It is those facts that make the sentence true, not the definition of the words.
The division of knowledge into a priori and a posteriori reduces epistemology to a hopeless chaos of immediate observable concretes (it is cold) and disconnected abstracts (a word means its definition) which cannot possibly be integrated. If all we know is either "just known" without evidence, and therefore has no connection with the world we perceive, or can only be known by perceiving it, but cannot be known in any absolute sense (it is raining now, but if I want to know if it is raining an hour from now, I have to look again), what we know with certainty has nothing to do with anything actual, and what we know of the actual, has no certainty. This is an accurate description of the state of the mind of all those who have succumbed to today's post modern education, a horror for which Abelard provided the philosophical antidote nearly 900 years ago.
[Note: For the sake of those very few who might know that what Abelard means by "understanding" is not identical to my reference to the "definition" of a word, I am fully aware of that difference. Abelard of course is referring to that same "realism" or "idealism" that makes the "understanding" of a word itself an ontological reality, or an existent, or an instantiation of the "ideal" meaning. There is no such thing. In the same way, a "definition" of a word has no independent existence, and is only a way of verbally identifying what a word means. A word cannot mean its definition, because its definition is not a thing and is as much nothing as an idealist's, "forms."]
—Reginald Firehammer (02/11/10)