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William Ockham and Trope Nominalism

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 55, 1998
pp. 105-120 | 10.1353/frc.1998.0027

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William Ockham and Trope Nominalism Can we take a medieval metaphysician out of his scholastic robes and force him into a metaphysical apparatus as seemingly foreign to him as a tuxedo might be? I believe that the terminological and conceptual differences that appear to prevent this can be overcome in many cases, and that one case most amenable to this project is the medieval problem of universals. After all, the problem for the medieval is, at base, the same as it is for contemporary philosophers, as for Plato: How do we account, ontologically, for many tokens of the same type? If one object has the property ? and another, distinct object has the "same" property x, how to explain the apparent "sameness" of the property x? Is ? one property or two? I will argue that William Ockham's ontology, when considered in light of some contemporary philosophical thought, is remarkably fresh and vital, able seriously to be considered as a tenable position, so long as we are clear about what Ockham is saying. This clarity is no easy task, since so much of what Ockham said is rooted in an Aristotelian metaphysics most philosophers have, rightly or wrongly, abandoned. Our discussion will be an ontologically basic one; we will get clear on what Ockham believes there is, and how he believes there can be many tokens of the same type. A more detailed consideration of his logic of terms is precluded by the elementary nature of the discussion.1 The discussion will be divided into two sections. First, I believe it will be helpful to set forth two positions familiar to the contemporary philosopher. D.M. Armstrong has catalogued nominalism as it is understood today in Nominalism and Realism2, and in his more recent Universals: An Opinionated Introduction*, and I will use these as our anchor to contemporary thought. Concept Nominalism is a species of nominalism that can easily be mistaken for the 1I would like to thank Ruth Garrett Millikan, A. S. McGrade, and Andrew Beedle for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. 2D. M. Armstrong, Nominalism and Realism: Universals and Scientific Realism Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978). 3D. M. Armstrong, Universals: An Opinionated Introduction (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1989). 105 Franciscan Studies, 55 (1998) 106STEPHEN LAHEY Ockhamist position, given the importance of concepts in his metaphysics, and so I will quickly outline the bare bones of this position, sufficient to show later on that it is not Ockham's. I will then discuss Armstrong's characterization of Trope Nominalism, a position he portrays as relatively innovative in his 1989 work. I think that Ockham's ontological program is something very like this Trope Nominalism, and in the second half of the discussion, I will argue this. That Ockham's position is innovative, not avowedly realist, yet not radically nominalist in the contemporary sense, is not news. Marilyn Adams recognizes this. "Since Ockham identifies Universals primarily with naturally significant names or concepts, it is perhaps less misleading to say that he was a conceptualist rather than a nominalist about Universals."4 But the tendency to identify "conceptualism" with Concept Nominalism, and hence with what will prove to be an untenable position, is dangerously tempting, and so first we must look at what is involved in Concept Nominalism. I CONCEPT AND TROPE NOMINALISM All nominalists agree that the only things there are, are particular objects. Extramental Universals are for the realists. The nominalist question is, "What is it that allows us to use universal terms to describe these objects?" For the Concept Nominalist, it is only that a particular object fall under a concept, while for a Tropist, as we will see later, more is involved. "X has the property F if ? falls under the concept of F" means that (what makes) a certain object's (possession of the property) "being white" (simply is determined by the fact that) the concept 'white' applies to the object. But if the concept 'white' did not exist, would the object not still be white? If so, the object's whiteness is constituted by something more than the object's relation to the concept 'white', and we are dealing with something...