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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realistic but rather synthetic with qualifications, which I already did in this essay.

But what if the following questions still come to our mind?

1. How is it that Broadie (and others) et al still adopt that reading? 2. Are they just being silly, or

3. are they stressing other texts, or are they not convinced that my reading of Abelards texts is correct?

Personally, I respect scholarship in general, and first would consult specialists on any topic of their expertise and only then would try my own reasoning wanting it to be informed and inclusive. However, the problem with so-called specialists often arises: not all philosophers concentrate on certain problematic phenomena, and, having had focusing on particular areas of the history of thought and doing a really good job there, sometimes they treat other areas without proper discretion. If it were not so, we would not have to think for ourselves at all but just to memorize what some specialist have said. We would not even have to read the originals. It is after reading the Abelards original writings with particular interest and sympathy I was surprised to read those statements of Broadie and Weinberg, which seemed to me contradicting my understanding of Abelard. I have to say that it is not that everything they wrote on Abelard was not helpful, on the contrary, I liked reading them, especially Weinberg.

Now, about the questions themselves. It seems to me that there is a temptation (1) to call Abelard a nominalist, because nominalism is one of the foundations of his solution. As I already said, probably those writers thought it was good enough to use the term for this reason. We also often call the snow white when it is white only partially, like today. I do not know if we should be called silly for this (2), but I do think that the snow right after the snow-storm would be called white more properly then today. And compare to that the latter should be more properly called dirty-white or something like that. About other texts Weinberg stresses, I just went through those again (in S.H.M.P.) with this particular question in mind, noticed the exposition of Abelards critical attitude to both, realistic Guillaume de Champeaux and nominalistic Roscelin of Compiegne, (and also others), nevertheless I could not find any relative argument which could present a contradiction to my reading of Abelard on this matter. There could be appearances of justification of that claim but I just cant see anything really strong. That is why I will show only a couple of examples:

“The universal is that which in naturally apt to be predicated of many” (p.82). This rather supports the realistic element of the Abelards doctrine. If, what ever it is, a universal is naturally apt to be predicated of particulars, it has certain physical reality and cannot be empty. But then the critique of a certain doctrine follows, and Abelard, finds a flaw in that particular doctrine of collection of particulars. This critique still is not directed against the realism of universal itself but against the notion of universal as a collection-term for the particulars, which does not support the Weinbergs claim we are investigating.

What than about the following?

“While the motivation of this theory (Adelard of Baths) is clearly the attempt to locate universality in individual things, it fails in the attempt to predicate a thing of a thing” (p. 83).


This also criticizes not a reality of a universal in general, but rather a particular doctrine designed for such purpose. And so in all other cases shown by Weinberg, as far as I can judge. So, after another examination of the texts, I cannot see anything to compromise my position. I do not think that they are stressing other texts (3), relative to the essence of my claim. About whether they are convinced that my reading of Abelards texts is correct, I cannot actually say unless I ask Weinberg and Broadie and they choose to respond to my critique.

Still, if the reader can see something I keep missing, I would be obliged if he brought it to my attention, and until then I remain satisfied with my conclusion which consists of the following:

The Abelards solution of the problem of universals is neither a realistic no a nominalistic one, or, in other words, it is in the same degree nominalistic as it is realistic; it includes elements of both as well as a critique of both taken separately in their application to the totality of the question. Neither one by itself can deal with all cases Abelard has exposed, because it is the meaning of the words in their relationship with the classes of particulars which determines their real or only nominal usage appropriate in each case, and that is determined sometimes by the mind only and sometimes by the nature of those particulars as well. The proper usage of logic here requires great attention and care in the construction of a meaningful concept. That is why it is better to call Abelards solution conceptualism, and the word here signifies a combination or synthesis of realism and nominalism.




  1. Hyman and Walsh, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1973.
  2. J. R. Weinberg, Short History of Medieval Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1991.
  3. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by T. Honderich, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  4. Britannica,v. I , Chicago 1997.

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