How Many Things Are There? Ways of Counting in Medieval Metaphysics

by guest contributor Aline Medeiros Ramos

When I see two brown dogs, how many things are really there? Are there two particular dogs alongside each other, or is there only one kind of thing (dog, or “dogness”)? Or are there two things and one kind of thing? In other words: what is the ontological status of universals such as “dog-ness,” “brownness” or animality, and what is the ontological status of kinds, such as “dog” used more broadly to refer to all individual dogs? Do they exist as real entities external to us, or only as terms or concepts within our minds?

In the late Middle Ages, two opposing views on this kind of question divided philosophers. Realists (reales) argued that particulars (each individual dog) and universals (dog, dog-ness, brownness, animality) both existed as real beings outside the mind. Nominalists (nominales), on the other hand, argued that only particulars (each particular brown dog) had real existence, and that so-called universals were just words we used in our language to convey thoughts and ideas. Nominalists believed universals were mere nomina—names.

Nominalism might seem like the more obvious view on the issue: each beagle, poodle, human being, desk chair, kitchen table, pencil, or pen exists in reality, whereas universals (dog, animality, “furniture-ness,” “stationery-ness,” whiteness, blackness) have no real existence, and exist only in our minds, as terms or ideas. This was the view held by philosophers like Peter Abelard (1079-1142), William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347) and John Buridan (c. 1295- c. 1361).

With that in mind, why did medieval philosophers like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) want to postulate that universals exist in reality? There are obviously no (perceptible) animalities, dog-nesses, brownnesses or furniture-nesses around us. But one of the motivations behind realism was that even at a very inchoate stage of intellectual development, we are readily capable of grouping things together, grasping them as being particular manifestations of some more all-encompassing universal. When I say that all animals are mortal, I seem to be attributing mortality to each individual animal that has ever existed and that will ever exist not in virtue of their being the individuals they are, but rather because of this universal “animality” which inheres in each one. So, the realist will argue, things seem to have an inherent feature with some kind of existence outside our minds, which we grasp and which allows us, among other things, to recognize things that we are only now seeing for the first time. This indicates that these universals must exist in reality, independently of us, and not be just mere terms or features of language.

This medieval variation on the so-called “Problem of Universals,” which dates back to Plato, originated in differing interpretations of Aristotle’s Categories, and was especially important in the realm of theology. The denial of universals had heretical implications, especially in Christology and Trinitarian theology. One’s opinion on whether the human and divine natures of Christ both had real, extra-mental existence could result in a heresy accusation: Nestorianism, which posited this, was still considered unacceptable in the eyes of the Catholic Church in the fourteenth century. Similar concerns applied to the nature of each one of the parts of the trinity, as well as the question of whether God and his attributes—such as perfection and wisdom—are one and the same, or if they are really distinct and separate.

This dispute between realism and nominalism (or between the “antiqui” and “moderni,” referring to the “old way”—via antiqua—of Aquinas and Scotus against the “modern way”—via moderna—of Ockham and Buridan) played an important role in the late-medieval academic scene, influencing how aspiring philosophers and theologians pursued their studies. Much like the analytic-continental divide in philosophy today, the two medieval viae also had geographical divisions. Some universities had rules concerning their teaching: Ockham’s works, for instance, were first banned from the University of Paris between 1339 and 1360, and again in 1474, this time because of an official order from Louis XI, in which he oddly listed Aquinas’ and Scotus’ names next to Ockham’s and those of other “renovating doctors” such as Averroes and Bonaventure. Students and teachers protested, and the edict was not taken too seriously, completely disregarded by the beginning of the sixteenth century (L. Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages, 355-360). While these were not always hospitable times for nominalists in the university milieu in Paris, nominalism was the rule at Oxford, where Ockham’s legacy prevailed. In Heidelberg, on the other hand, both viae were usually taught, under the condition that neither was criticized (R. Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes 1274-1671, 83-88).

This quarrel may have lost momentum as a major philosophical theme in the sixteenth century, but the question regarding the nature of universals persists; it has simply acquired a new form. Realism with regard to universals has its contemporary supporters in philosophers such as David Armstrong (1926-2014). And variations of nominalism are still very popular in contemporary analytic philosophy. W. V. O. Quine (1908-2000) is well known for his rejection of universals in metaphysics (although he came to revise his views on the subject throughout his life), as are Ruth Barcan Marcus (1921-2012) and David Lewis (1941-2001). It is no coincidence that these three philosophers have been highly influential in the field of philosophy of language. In metaphysics, this nominalist approach to treating universals as mere terms has paved the way for questions regarding our access to objects and how these objects relate to our language—understood as both the multitude of vernacular languages that have existed throughout history and as a possible, overarching mental language common to all human beings at all times (C. Panaccio, Les Mots, les Concepts et les Choses: la sémantique de Guillaume d’Occam et le nominalisme d’aujourd’hui).

Aline Medeiros Ramos is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is also specializing in manuscript studies at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, in Toronto. Her research focuses on late-medieval philosophy and virtue epistemology, especially John Buridan’s account of epistemic virtues.

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