Education, Philosophy, Reason, Science, Universities

An old problem, still with us

Tuesday, 30th July 2019

When I have taught medieval philosophy in the past, I’ve had to describe the debate between the realists and the nominalists. It’s central to understanding the European Middle Ages. Basically, the dispute is over universals, things like “Chair” and “Love”. We know there are lots of examples of these things – we see them all the time. But what do we make of these words that describe all of them, all chairs or all examples of love? Do they point to something that really exists, or not?

So realists are those who believe that there are universals that exist, and the words we use point to those real things. There really is a “Chair” that all specific chairs participate in. Nominalists, on the other hand, think that those words are just names (hence the Latin “nominal”, to name), and they don’t really exist.

Well, what’s the big deal, you might think? Well, think about how we can know the world at all. In a world dominated by Aristotelean thought, the only way you could know something was if there was an object of that knowledge. You either knew or you just had an opinion about things. So, looking at a bunch of chairs and generalizing about them, only gave you an opinion, not knowledge. Realists were those people who thought that universals had to exist, because without them we would have no knowledge. Nominalists were those who thought that we could only be committed to the existence of things that we had good evidence for, and arguing that we needed something to exist because we couldn’t have something else without it, wasn’t good enough.

To put it succinctly, realists solved the epistemological problems, but created metaphysical ones, whereas nominalists solved metaphysical problems but created epistemological ones. Hence the debate.

So, why am I thinking about this? Well, because it occurs to me that some of the political and cultural debates we have today are misunderstood. This medieval debate never really died, even though we sometimes think that the scientific revolution and the development of scientific method made it go away. It didn’t.

I recall Margaret Thatcher’s view, also held by many other conservatives, that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” She’s being a nominalist here, arguing that we are only committed to the most bare and basic things. Now, in her mind and those of many others, individuality is as basic and fundamental as you can get. All the other stuff, like society, and with it things like race, gender, sexual orientation, all that stuff comes after, and we shouldn’t be committed to its existence, or be required to make policy with that in mind.

It would be tempting to say that conservatives are nominalists and liberals are realists, in this medieval debate, except that things don’t sort out quite so neatly. After all, the reason that some conservatives reject evolution is that they make a huge metaphysical claim, that God exists and created everything, which cannot be tested or be derived from observations. So in that case, they are the realists.

But maybe it is possible to fine-tune things. Maybe it is not that conservatives are nominalists and liberals are realists, but that both these tendencies exist within the political camps and they describe a fundamental fissure within them. On the right, there are the religious conservatives, which tend to be realists, and the economic ones that tend to be nominalist. On the left, we can imagine realists (e.g., that dialectical materialism is a real thing and accounts for historical change; that categories such as race, gender, sexual orientation are real and not just names for things) and we can imagine nominalists (e.g., some scientists who are oriented towards research and evidence, and are on the left not because of a belief in the existence of any particular thing but because they see the restrictions on knowledge production).

This fine-tuning doesn’t quite seem to capture things either, though. So many exceptions can be imagined in all these areas. So is this medieval debate not in fact relevant anymore at all?

I don’t think we can quite abandon it yet. I’m struck by the fact that in class, my resistance to the positions some students express comes not from political disagreement, but from a wish that they had done the reading, not just what I assigned but the reading relevant to an issue. All the people in culture who are now so convinced that racial differences are value differences, and that whites are better – clearly they’ve ignored the mountains of work done on these issues for decades. Not that reading it is sufficient to change one’s mind, but it might be necessary.

I’m struck by how simplistic many of the critics of higher education are, and along with that, critics of science in general. These are not people who come with a credible competing theory of anything. Even when someone claims a competing theory, it usually consists 90% of criticisms of other theories (I’m looking at you, intelligent design), not the construction of a credible alternative.

I’m amazed by the reductive approaches to gender, race, class, and a host of other things. We know a lot, even if we don’t know everything. The conversation has been going on for a long time. And yet, many of the conservative ideas are just recycled from the past, with little or no updating, just a strongly held feeling and some anecdotes.

So from a practical point of view, I sometimes think of the process of teaching along realist and nominalist lines. If someone tries to present a reductionist view – there’s nothing but individuals in the world, all this talk about gender or race having an influence is irrelevant – they’re trying to solve a metaphysical problem, but at the expense of epistemology. And my response, often, is on the other side – I try to show that you can’t understand the world without understanding peoples’ experience through the lens of race, gender, etc., and yes, that makes the metaphysics of these things more difficult, but at the same time it makes better sense what’s actually happening in the world.

And, I’m also struck by all the writers in the Middle Ages and beyond who tried to find workarounds for this fundamental problem. The scientific method is one of those workarounds (we use both the metaphysical clarity of mathematical and formal models along with the empirical groundedness of observation and testing – but this is not a perfect solution either, and things can fall between the cracks. The problem hasn’t gone away, it’s just been dealt with methodologically). We’re finding workarounds today still. Perhaps the real problem comes with we give up trying to find workarounds or ways of living with this problem, and give in to one side or the other. Maybe that’s when we get authoritarians and fascists on the one side, and technocrats on the other.

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