Abelard on Universals

It was the claim of extreme nominalists that the names were just sounds, that we could call one and the

Abelard on Universals

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ays keeps in mind the physical reality they refer to. He also states that they could be significative even without nomination. And this is, in my opinion, a very strong claim (among others mentioned above) against those who would like to call his solution a nominalistic one. Names, and universal names particularly, are not just mere “utterances”, because they signify being and not being of something in the physical world.


It must be noted, however, that although the definition of the universal or of the genus or the species includes only words, nevertheless these nouns are often transferred to their things, as when it is said that species is made up of genus and difference, that is, the thing of the species from the thing of the genus. For when the nature of words is examined with respect of signification, it is a question sometimes of words and sometimes of things, and frequently the names of the latter and the former are transferred reciprocally (188).


It can be seen now that it is neither nominalism no realism, because the words sometimes signify words and sometimes things. In his rather realistic inclination Abelard, who does not like to talk nonsense as well as to hear one, warns us:


For this reason most of all, the ambiguous treatment of logic as well as grammar leads many, who do not distinguish clearly and properly of the imposition of nouns or the abuse of transference, into error by the transference of nouns (188).


He wants us always to make sense or signify either things or words and understand what is that we are doing at the moment.

Now, I think, it is clear that there was a problem of universals at the time, otherwise there would be no alternative questions and attempted solutions about them. It seems that Abelards solution was neither nominalistic, no realistic. He tried to give life of a meaningful concept to the universals, saying that they signify by nomination things truly existent, and some say he succeeded for another 300 years in his conceptualism. There is a reason why Abelard was not a peripatetic (meaning the follower of Aristotle). He could not, being a Christian theologian and the observer of Plato, considering his position with qualification (together with Boethius), but like almost every medieval thinker he was indebted to The Philosopher, which did not prevent him from being a very original thinker with rather synthetic tendencies.



What consequences of Abelards writings on universals could be thought of? The doctrine that names for physical things and for their groups of certain kind, like genera and species, and universals in general, at least some times are real, i.e., constitute a valid knowledge about the physical world as well as at other times the knowledge about the operations of our mind, influenced the further development of natural philosophy and logic in Western tradition. The subtle and multiple-level solution of the problem encouraged a more elaborated and keen approach to the other problems of philosophy as well. The philosophers, like for instance Tomas Aquinas, were greatly impressed by Peter Abelards work and they used his solution in their writings. I believe that later even Immanuel Kant was indebted to Abelard building his arguments about necessity intrinsic to science, which was, in my opinion, the strongest part in proving his Transcendental Aesthetic, namely how are synthetic a priori propositions possible. We can trace Abelards logical ideas in Kants writings on logic.

Who knows how much F. Bacon was in his debt, when he so passionately believed in the new method for acquiring knowledge of the physical world? It is easy to underestimate Abelards importance for the whole development of Western science, if we fail to consider that his doctrine was not a nominalistic one, which I hope I was able to demonstrate in this essay.




There still remains a question: Why some scholars like Weinberg and Broadie called Abelards solution nominalistic? In order to answer this, let us first look at their definitions of the term nominalism and then on some of their explanation of what Abelard wrote on the universals.

Nominalism traditionally understood is a doctrine, which denies the real existence of universals, conceived as supposed referents of general terms like “red” or “table”. . . . In more recent usage, nominalism is often employed as a label for any repudiation of abstract entities, whether universals or particulars…(O.C.P., p.624)


In contrast to that, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy gives us the following on the term realism:

Real is often used with some opposite term in mind, such as ideal or fake. To assert that something is somehow mind-independent is to move in the realist direction… (647)


Abelard thinks that nouns can be real and fake, or empty. When we speak of genera and species “they signify by nomination things truly existent, to wit, the same things as singular nouns, and in no wise are they located in empty opinion”, when we speak of mere words and images “like the following words, chimera and goat-stag which do not give rise to a rational understanding” those are located in empty opinion without the thing.

So, if somebody would focus exclusively on the second kind of words in Abelards solution, it would seem to him that Peter is a nominalist. Which I believe is the case with Weinberg and Broadie. It is possible then to form the concept of universal fakes like unicorns, centaurs… and call them empty species. It would be fine if Abelard did not also emphasize the first kind of words, which in no wise are located in empty opinion. If we focus exclusively on this kind of words we could (with the same right!) call Abelard a realist, and his solution of the problem of the universal a realistic one. But the truth is that there are two and not only one type of words Abelard shows, that is why his solution must be called rather synthetic, and the word is conceptualism. Abelard learned from both of his teachers and not just from one of them, and he was a very attentive student!

J. Weinberg and A. Broadie: some account of the arguments they give for their claim.

Broadie says: “In the dispute about the nature of the universals he [Abelard] was in the nominalist camp, holding that universals are utterances (voces) or mental terms, not things in the real world”.


This is far from precision, as I already showed giving a much more inclusive Abelards quotations about universals. Once more, Abelards universals are mental terms (like all terms), but they are sometimes about real things in the real world.

Broadie: “The universality of the universal derives from the fact that it is predicable of many things. Nevertheless, unless a number of things are in the same state, the one universal term cannot be predicated of them”.


Lets read it as: unless many things are in the same state…we cannot call them by the name signifying that state. It is applicable, for instance, to the state of existing, and Abelard is saying: “we in no wise hold that universal nouns are, when, their things having been destroyed, they are not predicable of many things inasmuch as they are not common to any things, as for example the name of the rose when there are no longer roses, but it would still, nevertheless, be significative by the understanding, although it would lack nomination; otherwise there would not be the proposition: there is no rose”. Here the physical roses do not exist but the meaningful concept of roses, the universal, does, but in the mind only. This is only one of the cases of universals, and even in this case the name roses is not empty. It is not exactly the same to say there is no rose in the vase as there is no unicorn in the room. Because we observe real roses in other times and places in the physical world, but nobody really observes unicorns in reality. Abelard shows the possibility to talk about real things, and then universals describing them have certain reality, he also shows the possibility to predicate unreal things only existing in the mind, in that case they will certainly not have real existence. Still, in both cases they will have the existence as mental concepts. So some concepts could signify real things of physics and others could exist without physical referents. It is just when we talk about the second type of Abelards names we could consider him “in the nominalist camp”. But how in the world could we do that considering his other types?

J. Weinberg says: “His [Abelards] nominalistic solution of the problem of universals requires him to deny that universals are things and to affirm that they are significant words or concepts merely, and he finds a problem in the existence of a significant term which has no normal extradiscursive referent” (79). I can answer that the terms merely and significant present a contradiction. If a word is merely a word it is empty. If the word signifies something it has certain physical reality, and not merely a word. Therefore the above attempt to identify Abelards solution, in my opinion, lacks discretion and presents a logical problem. About the normal referent I can say that Abelard shows different cases (which I already exposed above) in which there sometimes are physical referents and at other times there are no physical referents. Hence, it is better to say that Abelards solution is neither nominalistic no

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