Two notes on controversy, applied to the Nominalist/ realist controversy

-In any controversy, we have to locate the point of agreement, because where there is no agreement, controversy is impossible. The smallest possible point of agreement is an agreement merely on the use of a term, where even the meaning of the term is different on both sides of the controversy. So far as this is the case, there is no real dispute, only an apparent one. Now it is quite possible to have a merely verbal disagreement that is founded on a more profound disagreement, but again, unless we can locate a point of agreement on the meaning of a term or a thing understood there is no real controversy- only two people talking about different things that might, for all we know, be perfectly compatible.


This is important because all too often controversies are only pushed back to the point of difference or contradiction: e.g. “you say A is B and I say A is not B”. When left at this level, arguments might well become simply infinite and pointless, because it is quite possible that the term “A” does not mean the same thing for both. If the subject means something different for both, the “argument” amounts to little more than “You say X is B, but I say Q is not B”. So what!  I was struck by this once in a dispute about the role of a Supreme Authority in the Church. Just to make a point, I said “so we aren’t disagreeing at all, then”. My opponent responded something like “What do you mean? I say the Church needs no Pope, and you say it does!” To which I said “Yes, but what you call ‘the Church’ is what I would call a book club or a devotional circle, and I certainly don’t insist that a book club, as such, requires a Pope.” Now clearly this didn’t resolve the issue, but it did force us toward a trying to find the real disagreement: because it became clear that at the apparent level of the argument there was no argument, just chatter, like “I say A is B, but you say P is Q”. Again, who cares?


-In any controversy, we need to understand the opponent’s position at its best. This does not always mean we have to present the position at its best, although this is frequently the best thing to do.

-In the Nominalist/ realist controversy, we find at least a historical point of agreement: the first person to present one of the sides of the controversy was Plato, and the first person to dispute Plato and offer another side of the controversy was Aristotle. Much later on, at the beginning of the 14th century, another opinion, Nominalism, set itself forth as a third alternative opposed to both of the first two.


So far, the agreement: but notice that the dispute has avoided all of the key terms. This was intentional. All too often, the whole dispute is introduced as “the problem of universals”, and then we say that “Plato thought universals were separate, Aristotle thought they were in the mind, and the Nominalist thinks they are just in the word.” These are the sort of facile and forced alternatives that make philosophical disputes last forever. This way of stating the problem is also dubious at best: Plato and Aristotle spoke of the forms of things, or if you like, Plato spoke of ‘the things in themselves” and Aristotle of forms of things, but it is certainly not obvious that either of these is “a universal” or even if they are, that one needs to say an identical thing about the universal and the form. On the other hand, the Nominalist camp is very much an opinion about “universals” and not forms or the things-in-themselves (in some, it seems very much an opinion about the universality of natures, which makes everything even more complicated). Is there a central point of agreement here? Not obviously. To state only one rather massive difference, “form” primarily belongs to the existential order; universal primarily belongs to the intelligible order. It is primarily things that have forms; but it is primarily words and thoughts that have universality.


The best case for Nominalism is probably as a simplifying tendency applied to the arguments of Aristotle. Aristotle (in the Posterior Analytics) claims that one need not have universal natures in order to have science, but it is only necessary that one be able to predicate something of something else. Well if this is all that is necessary, isn’t all that is necessary for science words?


Again, there was also a tendency among Nominalists to dismiss some scholastic distinctions as mere gibberish. They have a point: to speak of the forms of things means to speak of how a man is a man by his humanity; a cow is a cow by its bovinity or cowness; a thing subsists by its subsistence, etc. We soon feel that all of this involves needless repetition and superfluity.


I have no problem with the first argument, except I only see it is applying to “science” precisely as it is taken as written down. I clearly can’t explain science as intelligible, or as a perfection of intelligence. The second arguments is one that gets made when people don’t start at the beginning, but get a sort of ready-made philosophical training that doesn’t start with what is truly first. If one trains young philosophers by entering a room and saying “there are four causes, matter, form…” don’t be surprised if all of it seems like jibber-jabber after a while. The need for matter and form as the principles of mobile being takes a while to see, and even after we see it, we have to meditate on it a while in order to understand it. These distinctions will always be junked for the sake of simplicity so long as we treat them as though they can be learned right away, or as part of some “system”.


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