ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf



136. How the Question of the Universals Arose in Philosophy. -- Although it would be a mistake to identify scholastic philosophy with one long, monotonous conflict on the problem of universal ideas (117), still it is true that this problem was among the first to force itself on the attention of the early medieval philosophers and to monopolize the philosophical speculation of this first period. But the question of the Universals belongs to all philosophies, for it is vital to all philosophy: and it was the making of scholasticism, inasmuch as it led to the discussion of fundamental theories in psychology and metaphysics.

The problem of the Universals is none other than that of the truth, or objective reality, of our intellectual knowledge. While the data of our sense-perceptions are manifold and individual, the object of our intellectual representations is abstract, universal and independent of all individualizing conditions or determinations. The question is, whether such intellectual conceptions are faithful; whether they correspond adequately with the external objects which give rise to them in our minds; whether, therefore, they teach us anything about what exists outside our minds? It is usual to record four distinct answers to this question.{1} It is very necessary to state these accurately; all the more so because historians are not agreed about the meanings they attach to the various titles descriptive of these solutions.

(1) Extreme or Exaggerated Realism. -- The harmony between concept and objective reality is manifest, if the latter exists in the state of universality in which it is thought. There would then be a strict parallelism between thought and reality. Extreme realism, openly advocated by Plato, offers this solution of the problem. It is complete, no doubt; but unfortunately it is also completely opposed to sound common sense. For, is not every being in Nature individual, and are not natural substances independent of one another in their separate existences? So Aristotle taught, on the first page of his Metaphysics and in this he was followed by all the opponents of extreme realism.

But this bald assertion of the substantiality of the individual is far from being the last word on the problem; for it at once raises a question which was evaded by extreme realism and which contains the real difficulty of the problem: How can a universal representation faithfully reflect a world which contains only individuals? Is there not a complete opposition between the attributes of the real thing and those of the thing represented? Three ways of meeting this difficulty have been suggested by philosophers.

(2) The most drastic of these suggestions is Nominalism. At the opposite pole from the extreme realism which fashions the real world after the attributes of the thought-world, we have Nominalism endeavouring to model intellectual thought upon the external thing. It therefore denies the existence of genuinely universal concepts, and refuses to the human mind the power of forming such. But then, what are those concepts or notions that are commonly described as "generals"? The nominalists have been accused of holding "the absurd view that the universal is a mere vibration of the air, a mere sound of the voice, flatus vocis. But is it not most highly improbable that a school of philosophy would have formulated and defended for centuries such an empty, puerile doctrine?"{2} For our own part, we believe, in opposition to what has been the generally received teaching, that Nominalism, in the sense just defined, never existed in the Middle Ages.{3}

(3) Conceptualism admits the existence of universal concepts and their ideal validity, but not their real validity. Our concepts have for their mental term a universal object (ideal objectivity), but we do not know whether they have any foundation outside us; whether, in Nature, the separate individuals possess de facto the essence which we conceive as realized in each of them (real objectivity).

(4) Moderate or Aristotelian Realism also called Thomistic Realism, claims both an ideal and a real validity for the concept. Things "are individual, but we have the power of representing them in the abstract. But when the abstract type is contemplated by the reflecting mind and referred by the latter to the particular things in which it is realized or realizable, it is seen to be equally applicable to each and every one of them. This applicability of the abstract type to the individuals, constitutes its universality."{4}

{1} For a full treatment of the question, see MERCIER, Critériologse générale (5th edit., Paris and Louvain, 1906), pp. 328 sqq.

{2} MERCIER, op. cit., p. 356.

{3} WINDELBAND remarks the same unlikelihood: "Selbst die Behauptung, der Nominalismus sei so weit gegangen, die Universalen für blosse 'flatus vocis' zu erklären, dürfte kaum wortlich zu nebmen sein" (in GRÖBER, Grundriss d. roman. Phil., ii.3, p. 559, n. 1).

{4} MERCIER, op. cit., p. 343.

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