Universals in Feser’s The Last Superstitution. A Neo-Aristotelian Alternative to Realism in the Theory of Universals

1. As I noted in the immediately previous post, the “Feser on Faith in The Last Superstition 1: Pure Reason and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ” of January 16, 2015, I foresee that the second post in the series I am devoting to the Edward Feser’s understanding of faith in his The Last Superstitution* will be one comparing and contrasting his understanding of faith with that of Thomas Aquinas; doing so will enable me to set forth and justify a primary difference between the neo-Aristotelianism motivating After Aristotle and the traditional Aristotelianism of Thomism. The comparison and contrast of Feser’s understanding of faith with that of Aquinas turns out to be challenging, however, and, though it will remain the next one in that series, that second post will be some time in the coming.

But the spelling out of and justification for another difference is also called for, the difference between the neo-Aristotelianism motivating After Aristotle and the Aristotelianism of Aristotle himself, of Aquinas, and Feser. In brief the difference is: their Aristotelianism is one affirming a doctrine of realism in the theory of universals, the theory that there exist universals, such as the one humanness or human nature which all and only humans are humans are purported to have and, it is further purported, because of which all and only humans are humans; the neo-Aristotelianism motivating After Aristotle is one denying that doctrine, asserting rather that such universals do not exist. Adopting Feser’s primary review of the “problem of universals” in The Last Superstitution to serve as its point of departure, the present post is devoted, then, to a first statement of the anti-realist thesis and at least the beginning of its defense in and of itself and as appropriately described as neo-Aristotelian.

2. It may well be that the existence of universals seems to be simply evident for Feser, for, in his first mentioning (p. 13) of universals in The Last Superstitution,* Feser points to a question about “the relationship between the universal and the particular” and not to the more fundamental question of their existence:

As we shall see, the radical difference between these worldviews [i.e., that of the contemporary secularism Feser is engaged in a spirited critique of and that of the classical philosophy and religion he is defending] with respect to what at first glance might seem fairly abstruse questions of metaphysics – the relationship between the universal and the particular, form and matter, substance and attributes, the nature of cause and effect, and so forth – in fact have dramatic repercussions for religion, morality and even politics.

The presupposition of their existence seems equally to be at work as he begins (p. 32) his introduction (pp. 40-49) to Plato’s “Theory of Forms” or theory of universals:

What is a “Form”? It is, in the first place, an essence of the sort Socrates was so eager to discover. To know the essence of justice, for example – to know, that is to say, what the nature of justice is, what defines it and distinguishes it from everything that isn’t justice – would for Plato just be to know the Form of Justice.

That is, there are, let us assume, many particular just things, say, just acts.** What Plato’s doctrine and, more generally, the various realisms in the theory of universals hold is that there is, in addition to the just things, some one justice, some one nature or essence, which all and only the many just things have and by the having of which they and they alone are just; because that one justice is that which just things universally have and by which they universally are just, it is accordingly said to be a universal.

The presupposition at work in the two passages just set out is, then, that there is that one nature or essence, justice, which all and only the many just things have and by which they are just. No good argument, indeed, no argument at all, has been presented on its behalf in either of the passages. Such an argument is needed, however, for it is by no means self-evident that there is exists any such universal as justice, over and above the just things. There is indeed the opposed thesis, the thesis of anti-realism in the theory of universals, one which happens to distinguish the neo-Aristotelianism motivating After Aristotle from that of Aristotle and the Aristotelianism of the tradition. This thesis of anti-realism in the theory of universals affirms that there are as many justices as there are just things and that these justices are those natures or essences which all and only just things have and by which they and they alone are just, one such nature or essence per one such just thing.

Parallels to the theses bearing upon just things and justice is, of course, will also bear upon, say, the human beings and human nature and the red things and redness featuring prominently, as you will be able to observe as we proceed, in Feser’s exposition. I’ll spell things out in the case of humans beings and human nature and then assume them obvious in the case of red things and redness.

So, then, Plato, Aristotle, and the Aristotelian tradition would affirm that there is some one human nature or essence which all and only the many human beings have and by which they and they alone are human. It is, however, by no means self-evident that there exists any such universal, any such one human nature or essence, which all and only human beings have and by which they and they alone are human. Rather, there is also the thesis offering itself that there are as many human natures or essences as there are human beings and that these human natures or essences are those natures or essences which all and only human beings have and by which all and only human beings are human beings, one such human nature or essence per one such human being.

3. But Feser describes the thesis of realism, i.e., the thesis that universals (p. 41) “exist objectively, apart from the human mind and distinct from any material or physical features of the world,” as seemingly “inescapable” (p. 42).

For now, let us briefly consider why realism, in some form or another, has seemed inescapable even to many thinkers viscerally inclined to reject it; and why the escapes attempted by other philosophers – namely nominalism and conceptualism – have seemed ultimately indefensible, however eagerly (or desperately) some have tried to defend them.

He accordingly offers what he identifies as a (cf. p. 44) “direct argument” for realism in the theory of universals, the “‘one over many’ argument”:

The “one over many” argument: “Triangularity[,]” “redness,” “humanness,” etc., are not reducible to any particular triangle, red thing, or human being, nor even to any collection of triangles, red things, or human beings. For any particular triangle, red thing, or human being, or even the whole collection of these things, could go out of existence, and yet triangularity, redness, and humanness could come to be exemplified once again.

But within that passage there simply is no argument the conclusion of which would be or be equivalent to:

There exists some one triangularity, the universal nature or essence which all and only the many triangular things have and by which they are triangular.

or which would be or be equivalent to:

There exists some one redness, the universal nature or essence which all and only the many red things have and by which they are red.

or which would be or be equivalent to:

There exists some one humanness, the universal nature or essence which all and only the many human beings have and by which they are human beings.

I grant, of course, that if Plato’s triangularity, redness, or humanness existed, then they would not be “reducible to any particular triangle, red thing, or human being, nor even to any collection of triangles, red things, or human beings.” But that is not an argument of which their existences would be the conclusion. Rather, it is a conditional statement, the antecedent alone of which would affirm the existences of universals; the conditional statement itself does not.

And I also grant that if Plato’s triangularity, redness, or humanness existed, then “any particular triangle, red thing, or human being, or even the whole collection of these things, could go out of existence, and yet triangularity, redness, and humanness could come to be exemplified once again.” But that again is not an argument of which their existences would be the conclusion. Rather, it is a conditional statement, the antecedent alone of which would affirm the existences of universals; the conditional statement itself does not.

4. Feser also tells us (p. 44) that, in addition to the direct arguments for realism:

There are also indirect arguments, i.e., arguments to the effect that the alternatives to realism cannot be right.

He continues with one such “indirect argument”:

Consider nominalism, which holds that there are no universals, numbers, or propositions.*** Where we think there are universals, the nominalist says, there are really only general names, words we apply to many things. Hence, for example, there is the general term “red,” which we apply to various objects, but there is no such thing as “redness.” Of course, this raises the question why we apply the term “red” to just the things we do, and it is hard to see how there could be any plausible answer other than “Because they all have redness in common,” which brings us back to affirming the existence of universals after all. The nominalist might seek to avoid this by saying that the reason we label different things “red” is that they resemble each other, without specifying the respect in which they resemble each other. This is implausible on its face – isn’t it just obvious that they resemble each other with respect to their redness? –but there are other problems too:

I’ll take up three of the additional problems to which Feser points below. First, however, I need to note that an alert nominalist could easily avoid the critique just given by stating, in reply to the question of “why we apply the term ‘red’ to just the things we do,” that that is simply “Because they are all red,” and most definitely not “Because they all have redness in common”; Feser’s “Because they all have redness in common” represents, not the conclusion of a proof, but an assumption, that there is some one redness which all and only red things have and by which they and only they are red.

The nominalist could then just as easily add that the red things resemble each other in that they are all red. Feser’s “plausible answer” that it is “Because they all have redness in common,” is but an assertion of the realist thesis, not an argument demonstrating it.

5. The second of Feser’s “indirect arguments” is set forth in the following passage (p. 44-45):

The vicious regress problem: as Bertrand Russell noted, the “resemblance” to which the nominalist appeals is itself a universal.**** A “Stop” sign resembles a fire truck, which is why we call them both “red.” Grass resembles The Incredible Hulk’s skin, which is why we call them both “green.” And so on. What we have, then, are multiple instances of one and the same universal, “resemblance.” Now the nominalist might seek to avoid this consequence by saying that we only call all of these examples cases of “resemblance” because they resemble each other, without specifying the respect in which they resemble each other. But then the problem just crops up again at a higher level. These various cases of resemblance resemble other various cases of resemblance, so that we have a higher-order resemblance which will be a universal. And if the nominalist tries to avoid this universal by once again applying his original strategy, he will be just faced with the same problem once again at yet another level, ad infinitum.

Well, the alert nominalist would be ready to say that a stop sign and a fire truck indeed resemble each other, in that they are both red, though the redness by which the one is red is not identical with the redness by which the other is red. Our alert nominalist would also be ready to say that a patch of grass and a patch of The Incredible Hulk’s skin resemble each other, in that they are both green, though the greenness by which the one is green is not identical with the greenness by which the other is green.

Our alert nominalist would then continue by granting that the one case of resemblance does indeed resemble the other, in that they are both cases of one thing resembling another because they are similar in their colors. But our alert nominalist would still easily avoid Feser’s critique by stating, in reply to the question of “why we apply the term ‘resemblance’ to just the resemblances we do,” that that is “Because they are all resemblances.” The alert nominalist could then just as easily add that the resemblances resemble each other in that they are all resemblances.

The thesis that it is “Because they all have resemblance in common,” is but an assertion of the realist thesis, not an argument demonstrating it.

6. I’ll look at three more passages in which Feser presents what he considers to be indirect arguments for realism, “i.e., arguments to the effect that the alternatives to realism cannot be right.” One is directed against nominalism (p. 45):

The “words are universals too” problem: The nominalist claims that there are no universals like “redness,” just general terms like “red.” Yet this claim seems obviously self-contradictory, since the term “red” is itself a universal. You utter the word “red,” I utter the word “red,” Socrates utters the word “red,” and they are all obviously particular utterances of the same one word, which exists over and above our various utterances of it. (As philosophers usually put it, each utterance is a different token of the same word type.) Indeed, this is the only reason the nominalist proposal has any plausibility at all (if it has any plausibility at all, that is): that the same one word applies to many things might seem sufficient to capture (if you don’t think too carefully about it, anyway) our intuitive sense that there is something in common between them. But, again, if it is the same one word, then since there are different utterances of it, we have just the sort of “one over many” situation the nominalist wants to avoid.

Here I am happy to say that I agree with Feser’s critique of nominalism as self-undermining. The nominalist thesis that that there are universals, though only in the form of “general terms like ‘red’,” i.e., universal names (nomina), remains a thesis affirming there to be universals.

Yet that critique of nominalism, though devastating for nominalism, poses no difficulty at all for the complete anti-realist, for the complete anti-realist poses the same objection as the realist to the nominalist position. The complete anti-realist will then, however, go on to point out that when, say, I utter, not the, but a word, “red,” you utter, not the, but a word, “red,” and Socrates utters, not the, but a word, “red,” it is not at all obvious that they are “particular utterances of the same one word.” They are utterances of words that pertinently resemble each other. The assumption that they are “particular utterances of the same one word” is just that, an assumption, and not the conclusion of a demonstrative argument.

7. The continuation of the passage just quoted, which I will take as a second passage presenting a second “argument,” presents Feser’s reply to that reply:

To evade this result, the nominalist might say that when you, me [sic], and Socrates each say “red,” we are not in fact uttering the same word at all, but only words that resemble each other. That would, of course, be just plain stupid on its face, and pathetically desperate. Into the bargain, it would entail that communication is impossible, since we would never be using the same words (indeed, you would never be using the same word more than once even when talking to yourself, but only words that resemble each other) – in which case, why is the nominalist talking to us? And the appeal to “resemblance” would open the door up again to the vicious regress problem.

Well, the description of a position as “stupid” is not an argument purporting to show, much less a demonstration actually showing, that it is false and neither is the description of it as “pathetically desperate.” So I’ll pass on to the set of arguments that one can discern in the passage. Let’s try the following as a more logically perspicuous statement of it.

If we (you, I, and Socrates) use but words that resemble each other, then it is impossible for us to communicate.

We (you, I, and Socrates) use but pertinently similar words.

Therefore, it is impossible for us to communicate.

But, we actually do communicate.

Therefore, it is possible for us to communicate.

Therefore, it is not impossible for us to communicate.

Therefore, we (you, I, and Socrates) do not use but words that resemble each other.

Each inference taken, I grant, represents a valid argument. But the first premise is not self-evident and stands, then, in need of an argument showing it to be true. None is provided.

The comparable reasoning bearing on communication with oneself resembles the reasoning bearing on communication between and among you, me, and Socrates in being valid, but having a first premise the truth of which is not evident.

8. Feser introduces the remaining argument to be examined, one directed against conceptualism but which can also be directed, mutatis mutandis, against nominalism, as follows (pp. 45-46):

In general, it is notoriously difficult to defend nominalism in a way that doesn’t surreptitiously bring in through the back door a commitment to universals or other abstract objects, in which case the view is self-undermining. For reasons such as these, conceptualism hopes to avoid realism not by denying that universals exist, but rather by denying only that they exist outside the mind. It is an attempt at a middle way between realism and nominalism. But it too faces what are widely regarded as insuperable difficulties.

He spells out the difficulties he thinks he sees (p. 46):

The argument from the objectivity of concepts and knowledge: When you and I entertain any concept – the concept of a dog, say, or of redness, or of conceptualism itself for that matter – we are each entertaining one and the same concept; it is not that you are entertaining your private concept of red and I am entertaining mine, with nothing in common between them. Similarly, when we each consider various propositions and truths, we are considering the same propositions and truths. So, for example, when you think about the Pythagorean Theorem and I think about the Pythagorean Theorem, we are each thinking about one and the same truth; it is not that you are thinking about your own personal Pythagorean Theorem and I am thinking about mine (whatever that would mean). So, concepts (and thus universals) do not exist only in the mind, subjectively, but independently of the mind, objectively.

Once again, we find ourselves dealing with an assumption, rather than the conclusion of an argument: the assumption that the concept that I have in my mind and the concept that you have in your mind when we are discussing, say, Clifford the Red Dog are one and the same concept is but an assumption. So too with the other concepts brought forth and so too with propositions, theorems, and theories. And, harking back to nominalism,  so too with their linguistic counterparts.

(I will not, in this post at least, address, the concluding statement, “So, concepts (and thus universals) do not exist only in the mind, subjectively, but independently of the mind, objectively,” as it is the conclusion of an argument bearing upon a question other than that of the existence of universals.)

9. In the first passage from The Last Superstition quoted in this post, we saw Feser giving expression to a belief that “the relationship between the universal and the particular” is one of the seemingly “abstruse questions of metaphysics” which “in fact have dramatic repercussions for religion, morality and even politics.”

He later (p. 42) offers a more complete statement of his concerns:

Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that virtually every major religious, moral, and political controversy of the last several decades – of the last several centuries, in fact – in some way rests on a disagreement, even if implicit and unnoticed over the “problem of universals” (as it is known). That includes the dispute between the “New Atheists” and their critics, ignorant though the former (though also often the latter) are of the true roots of this dispute.

I am hardly in a position to address here all of the concerns that Feser has, so I will content myself with noting that nothing in the neo-Aristotelian anti-realist theory of universals introduced in the foregoing contradicts the substance of the Aristotelian doctrine Feser spells out in the following passage (p. 58):

Those features that are essential to a thing comprise what Aristotelians call its substantial form – the form that makes a thing the kind of substance or thing that it is, its essence. Being round is part of the substantial form or essence of a ball; being blue is not. Being a rational animal is (according to Aristotelians) the essence or substantial form of a human being; having black or white skin is not part of this essence; since someone can be a rational animal , and thus a human being, whatever his skin color. As with actualities, forms come in a kind of hierarchy. There is the substantial form or essence of a thing (e.g. being a rational animal in the case of human beings); there are various properties of a thing that are not part of its essence per se but which necessarily flow from its essence (e.g. having the capacity for humor, which follows from being a rational animal); and there are a thing’s “accidental” features, those which it may have or lack, gain or lose, without affecting its essence (e.g. being bald, in the case of a human being).

Until next time.

Richard

*Edward Feser, The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008)

** Of course there are just things other than just acts: there are also just persons, just laws, and just societies. A full theory of just things qua just will need to reflect that reality.

***I anticipate that that which Feser has to say about numbers and propositions will provide material for yet more future posts.

**** As Feser indicates in a note (p. 175), Russell identifies resemblance as a universal in Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Prometheus Books, 1988, Chapter 9).

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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