Abelard on Universals

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Abelard on Universals

By Alexander Koudlai



In this essay I shall attempt to show that in the XII century there was a problem of relation of names to things and classes of things, or the problem of Universals. I shall also argue that Peter Abelard in his examination of the problem was neither a nominalist (contrary to J. R. Weinbergs claim in his Short History of Medieval Philosophy, p.79), no a realist in the full meaning of the terms, but rather synthesized both positions showing the limitations of each of them, and presented his solution named conceptualism. I shall try to support my own impression that (contrary to the opinion expressed by D.E.L. in the Britanica I, p. 26) he was not exactly a peripatetic but also was influenced by Plato and in that was also inclined to a synthesis with qualifications. And finally I shall go in some more details of the paradox of why some scholars like Weinberg called Abelards solution nominalistic.



It is not just Weinberg who calls Abelards solution a nominalistic. Professor A. Broadie also thinks that “in the dispute about the nature of the universals Abelard was in the nominalistic camp” (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 1). For this reason, arguing against this, I would emphasize that: 1. Abelard was well known as a knight in his debates. He was born a son of a knight in Brittany (a relative of the Duke), and this heredity showed in the manner of his philosophic and theological studies and confrontations with his professors, 2. He studied philosophy mostly under two very different specialists: Roscelin of Compiegne (a nominalist) and Guillaume de Champeaux (a realist), and disagreed with each of them rather aggressively. Peter was always a very independent and original thinker and interlocutor. He always looked for a more inclusive and logically superior solution than those immediately available. I understand that this biographical information does not present a demonstrative proof, but rather a background with which Weinbergs and Broadies pictures just do not blend well, and upon which I would try to draw a picture more plausible, i.e., that there was a third position between realistic and nominalistic, namely, conceptualism, which could be defined as a synthesis of realism (thesis) and nominalism (antithesis), and which was precisely what Peter Abelard attempted to establish.


It was the claim of extreme nominalists that the names were just sounds, that we could call one and the same thing quite opposite names, and it would not change anything in its essence. It very well can be so, but in the naming things we also do something to ourselves, to our understanding of the physical nature of the things. Is there really man or woman, masterpiece, junk, good guy, bad guy, traitor, falsifier, guilty, innocent? Or all those words are just “utterances”? Is there some reality behind the word mother, or John can be your mother if the court rules so? Abelard understood that there is some medium between things and names which is not the name and not the thing it signifies, and still to keep the language meaningful we must use certain words which point to that medium in order to form meaningful concepts in our minds. Without this physics would not be possible as well as any science and language itself. That is because of that medium it is possible to translate from one language to another. Without this there would be no dictionaries, and to understand Greek or Latin would be impossible. If you call a nominalist a genius, he will be pleased, and if you call him a fool he will likely to get offended. But why, if it is true what he is teaching? Words do signify something about physical world! The words we use to describe physical objects are symbols of meaningful concepts which we form about those things in our minds. They are mental in nature, but they necessarily belong to those particulars. For Abelard this was easy to see and demonstrate. But what about the names which do not point to particulars? There were three questions, which Peter Abelard and Porphyry before him asked: (1) whether genera and species subsist or are placed only in understanding; (2) if they subsist, whether they are corporeal or incorporeal; (3) whether they are separated from sensibles or are placed in sensibles. Also there was the forth question added by Abelard, whether genera and species must refer to something or whether, if their normal referents are destroyed, these universals could consist of mere meaning of the concept.



The next quotation from Abelard will shed more light on the nature of the problem of how to understand universals, because there were different opinions about that, and also expose Abelards perception of Plato-Aristotle controversy and whether it was really a controversy:

Boethius likewise [Porphyry], when he says that the thought collected from the likeness of many things is genus or species*, seems to have understood the same common conception. Some insist that Plato was of this opinion too, namely that he called those common ideas which he places in nous, genera and species. Boethius records that he dissented from Aristotle when he says that Plato wanted genera and species and the others not only to be understood universals, but also to be and to subsist without bodies, as if to say that he understood as universals those common conceptions which he set up separated from bodies in nous, not perhaps taking the universal as the common predication, as Aristotle does, but rather as common likeness of many things. For that latter conception seems in no wise to be predicated of many as a noun is which is adapted singly to many.

That he says Plato thinks universals subsist without sensibles, can be resolved in another manner so that there is no disagreement in the opinions of the philosophers. For what Aristotle says to the effect that universals always subsist in sensibles, he said only in regard to actuality, because obviously the nature which is animal which is designated by universal name and which according to this is called universal by a certain transference, is never found in actuality except in a sensible thing, but Plato thinks that it so subsists in itself naturally that it would retain its being when not subjected to sense, and according to this the natural being is called by the universal name. That, consequently, which Aristotle denies with respect to actuality, Plato, the investigator of physics, assigns to natural aptitude, and thus there is no disagreement between them (H&W,183).



It likely follows from this that Abelard (in his search of the proper definition for universals and examining the opinions of Porphyry, Boethius, and more importantly Aristotle and Plato) is trying to see the possibility of truth in each position, if it is presented in accordance to the meaning of each philosopher - truth does not contradict truth. But even so, he investigates the problem further reviewing a more recent (nominalistic) position, which he modifies, because by itself it does not look reasonable enough to him:


Moreover, now that authorities have been advanced who seem to build up by universal words common concepts which are to be called forms, reason too seems to assent. For what else is it to conceive forms by nouns than to signify by nouns? But certainly since we make forms diverse from understanding, there arises now besides thing and understanding a third thing which is the signification of nouns. Although authority does not hold this, it is nevertheless not contrary to reason.

Let us then set forth what we promised above to define, namely, whatever the community of universal words is considered to be because of a common cause of imposition or because of a common conception or because of both . There is nothing to prevent that it be because of both, but the common cause which is taken in accordance of nature of things seems to have greater force (183).


*It feels that I have to apologize to the reader for my underlining of certain words and phrases. It may be useless and disturbing for him providing that his knowledge of Abelard is flawless, but it is important for the clarity of my own understanding of the text, and also can help the reader to understand what particularly is important to me. (A. K. )


The nature of things, and not the words only, is something that has to be of greater

importance for Abelard in definition of universals. If we concentrate on this we could call him rather a realist. But let us wait a bit with that. Looking at how we form the conceptions of universals, Abelard likes the notion of abstraction, and this abstraction for him is not a nominalistic one:


Likewise we must define . . . that the conceptions of universals are formed by abstraction, and we must indicate how we may speak of them alone, naked and pure but not empty (183).


Here I would like to remind the reader the Aristotelian doctrine of intellect-matter. According to it, there are two types of intellect: potential and active; we have knowledge of something when we abstract the portion