Friday, 6 May 2011

William of Ockham

How does William of Ockham develop his Conceptual Nominalism?

            First it is important to be sure of what conceptual nominalism is before I set about to show how it is developed. Conceptual nominalism states that there are no universals in the sense that the term ‘universal’ is usually meant; there are only particulars. Universals, according to conceptual nominalism, do exist, but only insofar as they are concepts. Applied, this means that all single malt scotch does not share the same light [amber colour], rather that all their colouring meets the concept of light [amber].

            It seems that Plato started with forms to explain the same observed things that Aristotle explained with universals. With William of Ockham, I cannot tell, if he is making an attempt to rescue the theory of universals, or do away with it. William seems to be doing to Aristotle in his works, what Aristotle did to Plato in his works. In his mind, I think that William was at the very least trying to save Aristotle from the Scholasticists. At any rate, William changes the popular meaning of ‘universal’ that means a ‘shared and separate substance that is reality,’ to ‘concept’ which means a ‘shared name and idea signifying reality across particulars.’

            All this being said, I’ll now make an attempt to show how exactly William of Ockham developed his conceptual nominalism. William, as necessity would have it, distinguishes between natural signs and conventional signs. Conventional signs are words and natural signs are concepts. To further individuate these and give them greater context, William introduces terms. For William of Ockham, there are two kinds of terms; the terms which point at things are called by him terms of first intention, and the terms which point to other terms are called by him terms of second intention. The reason these terms are so termed is that terms of first intention predicate terms of second intention. Beyond these, there are six metaphysical terms that signify things that are signified by words of the first and second intention.

            The six metaphysical terms bring us to the ‘one over the many’ argument implicit in William’s work. These terms are: one, good, something, true, being, thing. They are peculiar in that they are predicated of each other. This corresponds to the ‘one over the many’ argument in the following way. Duns Scotus and his predecessors stated that the universals were concomitant and necessary to the particular things which possessed them. This created a serious problem, because if God were to theoretically destroy a single universal then all the particulars which possessed them would radically cease to exist. Duns Scotus attempted to remedy this glaring fault in the theory of universals by propounding haecceity as the remedy. Haecceity was, according to Duns Scotus, the property in each individual thing that makes it particular and individual. William of Ockham, however, answered back with the already age old ‘law of economy’ which we now in his honor call ‘Ockham’s razor,’ which in it’s essence states,” Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.” William was accusing the ‘Subtle Doctor’ of breaking this very law by innovating haecceity.  That is to say, William was asserting that haecceity doesn’t exist and is unnecessary, because universals do not exist, at least in such a way as that which would predicate or necessitate haecceity.

            William offered another solution to the problem of particulars and universals by positing that Duns Scotus was quite simply incorrect about what a universal is. If universals are only mental constructs, that is, if they are only concepts, then, you could destroy the concept in any given number of minds, you could destroy universals in their entirety and the things which they signify would still exist. The reason for this, to explicate the obvious, is that understanding is of things, not of concepts created by the mind. The terms are not what is understood, it is what they signify that is understood. Things are understood by terms. So, to William of Ockham, a universal was merely a sign of many things, a concept with a name.

            It is finally necessary to truly explicate William against universals. He points out in his Summa Logicae Part 1 what should, perhaps, be evident to all of us, namely that particulars are of two kinds: those which are one and yet signify the many, and those which are one and signify nothing beyond themselves. Conversely, universals are not only capable of signifying the many, but also of being predicated themselves of the many. And so it is reasonable to conclude that there are, therefore, no universals. Ergo, there could be no universals, because there could be no particulars. Universals exist because things that possess them exist. The universal [white] exists because things, that is to say ‘particulars,’ which are white exist. However, if particulars merely be the sum of universals, then, of necessity, particulars do not exist. For as he points out in the first part of his work, that while a population constitutes a single universal, it does not constitute a particular. Therefore, a population of universals does not constitute a particular.

            So, in the main, William of Ockham, the Franciscan Schoolman, very excellently wades through the scholasticism of the period and with great clarity declares that universals do not exist outside of the mind. He stands out as a conceptual nominalist. And for all the pillow biting and fist pounding of the scholastics, they cannot seem to refute him. Indeed, from my examination, I find no great scholasticists after him. He brings a great era of philosophy to an end, and we might say even paves the way for scientific and inductive reasoning, as opposed to theological and deductive reasoning.  

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." ~Aristotle~

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