Friday, December 9, 2011

who's afraid of realism? (part 3): realism and nominalism

John Duns Scotus (1265-1308)
The realist-nominalist conversation has forced me to go back and look at some of the work on John Duns Scotus that I did within our Medieval philosophy seminars, during graduate school at SIUC.  Scotesian realism seems to defeat nominalism, but only by accommodating it.  Scotus was a nominalist (for some) only by "a hair."  In Mayorga's book on Peirce she has a chapter or two about this.   While current speculative appropriations of Scotus are not thoroughly "classical," the conversation is fitting as Scotus can be a resource for clarifying what nominalism means philosophically. 

This is from Peter King's article on Scotus that Jed gave us: 

In his Oxford writings, Scotus typically asserts that within one and the same thing (res) there are formally distinct realities (realitates), entities (entitates) or formalities ( formalitates), as he variously terms them, corresponding to our discrete concepts of it.3 Scotus calls this distinction between such entities ‘real’ in the sense that it does not arise solely from the mind but exists in the thing (ex parte rei ) prior to the action of any intellect whatever, human or divine. At the same time, he says that these formally distinct entities are really identical, since they can never actually exist apart but only as united within the same individual. Scotus argues that genera and their differences, species and their individual differences, and certain kinds of relations and their foundations, are in each case formally distinct. 

I think the point in question is whether there is an essence in the thing distinct from the thing.  If I remember correctly Scotus states that generality is not even a distinct thing, but is found in the particulars that instantiate it.  Still, there is a difference between the particular and the instantiated general.  So, there is no form "white" but "whiteness" is the general instantiated by objects with that power.  "Whiteness" is not the *product* of the object, the object does not trump the general even though the general depends on it for instantiation.  It is a matter of contracting the general that is dormant within the object.  I would add that it is impossible for eternal objects (per the reference to Whitehead) to be created products of any finite particular.

Jason's response is as follows: 

I am continuing the discussion of realism and nominalism.  Here I make the distinction between genera (genus-species relationships), generals (e.g., Lockean abstractive processes), and universals.  I also explain the importance difference between a realist and nominalist on several key points of metaphysics and phenomenology.

Leon and I were discussing the basics of Duns Scotus, etc., and my own appropriations of the terms that adds some Aquinas.  Below is an edited portion of our discussion.

The terms are “real distinction,” “formal distinction,” and a third term I do not know off the top of my head.  We often just say a “mere distinction" or "merely formal."

Universals and genera are of the second kind.  I forgot what the perfections are, which are special cases of this ontological problem.  Note that genera and generals are distinct, whereas the latter refer to principles arrived at via an inductive process, e.g., Locke’s “abstraction” or logical induction.  The former refer to genus-species relationships, e.g., categorical logic.

Correct, generality (generals) is neither a real nor formal distinction.  Hence, a nominalist often thinks that generality is all we have—not universality or genera of being.

As for essence vs. thing, you are right.  If we are Hobbes-style nominalists and think that all things are (corpuscular) particularities, then we deny essences.  Recall that essences are a kind of universal, while quality is another kind of universal.  Also, "essentiality" is not the category of uniquity (uniqueness); the latter is "quiddity."  As I wrote in my post, nominalism gives up on substantial or essential identity—identity is a best a function of something.  It does not necessarily give up on absolute particularity.

As for whiteness, it is a universal and a general, but not in the same way for both.  Insomuch as whiteness has reality, it is a universal.  Insomuch as we experience or know whiteness, it is a general; we infer from experience that this encounter is of the category of whiteness.  Now, if we are not realists about universals, then we know merely the generality “whiteness.”  The problem here is that we no longer experience the real thing, but merely a generated appearance.  If one is a nominalist, one does not think that there is anything “under” this generation.

In my Peirce-Deweyan position, for instance, we add to the idea that whiteness is a universal and general.  We talk about the generation of the phenomenal quality, so we are talking about a generated quality.  However, since we think that generation is a real process, then the generated quality maintains a real, non-arbitrary relation to the thing experienced.  (Note that the “thing experienced” is not an entity or object, but I’m keeping it simple for now.)  A nominalist, on the other hand, can merely say that the phenomenal quality was generated, full stop.