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SCOTUS AND OCKHAM: A DIALOGUE ON UNIVERSALS The problem of universals stems from the fundamental paradox that we only encounter "individuals" in the world, yet, when we think about these individuals, our concepts must be of a general or universal character. Although we only experience individual horses, trees, and cats, our thought and discourse about them ineluctably involve universal concepts applying to "horses," "trees," and "cats" in general. Indeed all scientific knowledge rests on the possibility and validity of the human capacity to form general concepts and make general statements about groups ofsimilar entities. When the scientist speaks about the structure of, say, electrons, he is not referring to any particular electron but to electrons in general. More broadly, all human thought and discourse, from the most pedestrian to the most elevated levels, are based on our ability to formulate generalizing or universalizing concepts . However, the relationship of these concepts to the individual things we find in the world constitutes one of the most perplexing problems in the history of philosophy-and well it should- for it involves the ultimate relationship of thought to reality. In the 13th century Duns Scotus addressed this problem ofuniversals and, in his analysis, sought to incorporate the valid insights yet concurrently avoid the pitfalls of exaggerated realism and nominalism . In the following century his fellow Franciscan, William of Ockham , subjected Scotus' views on this issue to a stringent critique. In this paper we will attempt to defend the Scotist position as embodying a more adequate account of our fundamental capacity to conceptualize experience. 84ANTHONY M. MATTEO I. Exaggerated Realism and Nominalism The exaggerated realists of the early Middle Ages attempted to preserve the objectivity ofknowledge by asserting an exact correspondence between thought and extramental reality. This amounts to the claim that the logical and real orders are exactly parallel. Our universal concepts are a direct reflection of the universalia in re. Accordingly , the statements "Plato is a man," and "Aristotle is a man" imply a genuine identity (manhood) in the real world of Plato and Aristotle. Take, for example, the statement ofRemigius ofAuxerre: "Man(hood) is the substantial unity of many men."1 It implies the existence of a substantial identity in the real order between all men to which our universal concept "man" directly corresponds. It suggests that the essence of man is one and, therefore, individual men differ from one another only accidently. It is clear that, if the logic of exaggerated is rigorously pursued, what should eventuate is a brand of monism. In this context Copleston points out: We have the concepts of substance and of being, and, on the principles of ultra-realism, it would follow that all objects to which we apply the term substance are modifications of one substance, and, more comprehensively, that all beings are modifications of one Being. Thus ultra or exaggerated realism, which begins as an attempt to preserve the objectivity of universal concepts, ends up undermining the objective basis or individuality or particularity in the world. Nominalism, on the other hand, is firmly wedded to the empirical insight that only individuals exist. Accordingly, experience teaches that we encounter individual trees and horses but never "treeness" or "horseness" as such. Thus, this theory concludes that universals exist only in the mind as conceptual tools that regulate our intellectual dealings with the world. Although, at first glance, nominalism appears like a benign simplification of an otherwise intractable philosophical conundrum, upon further reflection, we can see that it actually increases our state of in1 As quoted by Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 2, 1 (New York: Image Books, 1959) 162. 2 Copleston 162. Scotus and Ockham: A Dialogue on Universals85 tellectual puzzlement. For if universals are merely mental constructs without a foundation in external reality (fundamentum universalitatis in re), then an abysmal rift exists between thought and reality. Consequently , the objective validity of the conceptual realm is called into serious question. II. Lesser Unity or Common Nature Duns Scotus' position on universals can be seen as an attempt both to extend and refine the "moderate realism" he had inherited. The goal of moderate realism is somehow to ground universal concepts in extra-mental reality without, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-9718
Print ISSN
0080-5459
Pages
pp. 83-96
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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