Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter IV.
Exaggerated Realism, Nominalism, and Conceptualism.


  1. Exaggerated realism.
  2. Nominalism. (a) Nominalists assert that universality is only in the word, but do not deny real likenesses between things. (b) Refutation of nominalism. (c) Specimens of nominalists in England.
  3. 3. Conceptualism. (a) How conceptualists improve upon nominalists. (b) Refutation of conceptualism.

1. THE error, which is often confounded with the realism defended in the last chapter, is the doctrine of exaggerated realism. Any theory which asserts a formal universality a parte rei, which supposes, for example, that there is some concrete nature physically common to all men, and only accidentally individuated in each, must be rejected as wanting even in intelligibility. Such cases as that of substance permanent under its varying activities and passivities, are in vain quoted as examples of universality a parte rei: while Cousin's assertion, that space is a real universal, shows him to have entertained crooked notions either about space or about universals. No pretended instance can stand testing: and if some mediaeval philosophers thought otherwise, we give them up and say, they were mistaken; but it hardly becomes certain modern critics to make merry at the expense of the middle ages, when they themselves are in favour of monism, a single underlying reality, of which all that we experience, and we ourselves, are but the phenomena.

2. (a) In extreme opposition to the exaggerated realist is the nominalist, who, if thorough-going, places universality in the name only. Not that nominalists deny a real likeness between things, for that is too obvious to be gainsaid; and Mill finds fault with Hamilton, whom he supposes to hold that such likeness is denied. Hobbes, a notorious nominalist, says clearly enough, that "one universal name is imposed on many things for the similitude in some quality or other accident." Indeed, the perception of similarities and dissimilarities is made by some nominalists to be the very basis of all knowledge.

(b) The state of the case is, then, that while admitting real similitudes and our knowledge of them, nominalists have so far ignored these in their account of universals as to declare, that the universality is only in the word, and neither in the things nor in the concepts. That it is not formally in the thing we admit; that there is no foundation in the thing we deny, for there is the real likeness, affording to a mind which has the power of abstraction and reflexion, a groundwork for the formation of universal concepts. Next we affirm that the universal formally, or as such, is in the concept, or in the arrangement of concepts already described, as respectively direct and reflex universals. If it were not there, it could never be in the word; or if it were in the word, and not in the concept, it would never enter into knowledge. Besides, it is absurd to suppose a word, as such, to be universal: for the spoken sound and the written character are conventional signs, and always in themselves singular, no matter how often repeated. Each repetition is individual: only the mind can universalize a sign, and its power so to do is evident from our previous explanation of the process.

(c) These facts are so obvious that it becomes necessary to give evidence that there are professed nominalists who, whatever their consistency, do promulgate the doctrine here refuted. "The universal," says Hobbes,{1} "is neither something existing in nature nor an idea, nor a phantasm, but always a name." Berkeley{2} sets out from nominalistic principles: "As it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so it is impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it." He disavows the power of abstraction, without which thoughts cannot be universalized: "Whether others have this wonderful faculty of abstracting ideas, they best can tell;" as for himself he can variously compound individual parts, but cannot rise above the individual. Mixing up sensitive imagination, which of course cannot duly perform the office of abstraction, with thought proper, be says: "For myself I find, indeed, that I have a faculty of imagining, or representing to myself the ideas of those particular things I have perceived, and of variously compounding and dividing them. I can imagine a man with two heads, or the upper parts of man joined to the body of a horse. I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself, abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But, then, whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape or colour. The idea of man that I frame to myself, must be either of a white, or a black, or a tawny, a straight or a crooked, a tall or a low or a middle-sized man. I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea of man, motion," &c. All this talk is an utter ignoring of the power of reflective thought to pick out what it chooses, to fix upon a definition, and to deal with that as with a mentally isolated part. Hume continues the tradition taken up from Berkeley, whose doctrine on universals he pronounces{3} "one of the greatest and most valuable discoveries made of late years" -- a discovery which he himself seeks to "put beyond all doubt." He frames the theory thus: "All general ideas are nothing but particular ones, annexed to a certain term, which gives them a more extensive signification, and makes them recall, upon occasion, other individuals which are similar to them. A particular idea becomes general by being annexed to a general term, that is, a term which, from a customary conjunction, has a relation to many other particular ideas, and generally recalls them in the imagination. Abstract ideas are, therefore, in themselves individual, however they may become general in their representation. The image in our mind is only that of a particular object, though the application of it in our reasoning is the same as if it was universal." This is inadequate and wrong de more. Mill,{4} of course, follows in the wake of Hume, and we have already heard him declare: "General concepts we have properly speaking none: we have only complex ideas of objects in the concrete;" and by exclusive attention to parts of an associated whole, "we can carry on a meditation relating to the parts only, as if we were able to conceive them separately from the rest." This power of separate conception, so far as we approach to it, he attributes to the association of the separated characters with a word, instead of to the mind's power of abstraction, or praecisio objectiva.

3. (a) Conceptualists allow that the universal is in the idea, but deny its objective reality. They can gainsay the real likenesses between things no more than can the nominalists; but they do not perceive that herein is a foundation for all the objective reality which we want. Where they improve on the nominalists is in admitting the possibility of a universal idea; a result which comes from their having a better theory of mental action. This improvement is strongly to be accentuated, and shows the large step from nominalism to conceptualism. Mental action, according to the nominalists of this country, is tied down to sensations, and to mechanical or chemical associations of ideas. Instead of a voluntary power of abstraction, they assert a "law of obliviscence," a loss to consciousness of one part of a complex aggregate, through an excessive attention to another part. As in the matter of human will they allow only a conflict and final preponderance between concurring attractions or repulsions, while we assert an intellectual power to consider the pros and the cons of separate courses, and a power of free choice supervening: so in the matter of general ideas they ignore, while we and conceptualists insist upon, the spontaneous activity of the mind in taking up, or leaving alone, elements in an aggregate conception, according to the purpose in view. Thus conceptualists are enabled to abstract from individualizing differences and to universalize what they so acquire. In spite of their better premisses conceptualists arrive at a false conclusion: but it is something that they excel the nominalists by admitting universality in ideas, while their mistake seems often a mere oversight rather than a rooted error.

(b) Conceptualism is wrong in that it pushes a truth too far: it sees that there is no formal universality a parte rei, and thereupon it sweepingly denies the objectivity of universal ideas. A distinction is needed. The universal ideas in what they represent are objectively real; but not in their abstract mode of representation, which, however, is not predicated of objects. When of any individual it is predicated that he is a man, the predicate is, we will suppose, strictly applicable: but no individual is man in the abstract. As, however, the individuality is not pointed out by the universal term, so neither, on the other hand, is the individuality denied: it is simply omitted. The case is made all the clearer by the reality of the physical sciences. When we are told that the best scientific generalizations are not real, we reply that this is going too far. Supposing them properly made, they are real, in the sense in which, against conceptualism, moderate realism is true. Any one who has appropriated to himself the correct doctrine of universals, has got the means of exactly determining how far a legitimately generalized law is a real law. The laws of motion, for instance, represent a part of the reality of nature, even though they be not, perhaps, three distinct laws, but only a threefold enunciation of results, due to one common principle and even though their enunciation by us be incomplete as a statement of the whole case. Perhaps there is some simple law of action at work in nature, which law, if comprehended, would give us all that we know under our three laws of motion and a good deal more besides. Still, as partial solutions of a complex problem, the three laws are really true: for they sum up experienced facts, and they do not necessarily involve anything not in the experience. Even if we make our simple starting-points what are really not primal elements but resultants from compound forces, still, as we never declare our ultimates to be absolutely ultimate, but only ultimate for us, we keep on safe ground. So some suppose that the law of attraction, as formulated by us, may be not elementary but a resultant; be it so, and it remains a real law -- a law of derivatives, if not of primitives. A being who could ascertain the attraction of a large spherical planet only as something proceeding as if from the centre, not as really due to every single particle, would be right as far as he went. In such a way do we maintain the reality of generalized laws in physics. A scientific man, in his own interest, should be slow to clutch at a theory either of nominalism or of conceptualism; whereas he may be quite happy if he can intellectually justify to himself moderate realism.

{1} His doctrine may be found, De Corpore, c. ii.; Leviathan, Part I. c. iv.

{2} Principles of Human Knowledge, Introduction, § 15, 16.

{3} Treatise on Human Nature, Bk. I. Part I. sec. vii.

{4} Examination, c. xvii. p. 321.

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