Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ockham's nominalism

At this stage, I should discuss Peter Lupu’s objections (mostly in the extended comment on Vallicella’s blog here) to the nominalist program.

I should first explain what I think the nominalist program is. I am taking my lead from a principle that William of Ockham neatly formulates in his Summa Logicae book I, chapter 51, where he accuses 'the moderns' of two errors, and says that the root of the second error is “to multiply entities according to the multiplicity of terms and to suppose that every term has something real (quid rei) corresponding to it”. He says grumpily that this is erroneous and leads far away from the truth. ('Radix est multiplicare entia secundum multitudinem terminorum, et quod quilibet terminus habet quid rei; quod tamen abusivum est et a veritate maxime abducens'). See also an early definition of nominalism here.

What does he mean? Well he says that it is an error. He implies it is a common one, by attributing to the moderns and by the fact he mentions it all. Thus he implies that there exist terms which do not have something real corresponding to them.

If Ockham is correct, the relevant distinction to draw is between queer and straight terms. Straight terms have something real corresponding to them, queer terms don’t. Furthermore, there must at least be some temptation to imagine that queer terms refer to or denote something, otherwise there would be little point in making it.

Which brings me to the main point raised by Peter Lupu, who asks “What are ‘queer-entities’ and how do we determine whether a given entity is “queer” or “straight”? There are two parts to his question. In answer to the first, there are no such things as queer entities, if Ockham is right. There are only ‘queer terms’. These, by definition, are terms that don’t refer to or denote anything, and so by implication there are no ‘queer entities’.

This is what makes any debate with realists difficult. Realists, namely those who think that queer terms refer, will persist in using the queer terms as if they did refer, and so will ask what kinds of thing are referred to, what is their ‘ontological status’ and so on. Ockhamists will naturally refuse to use these terms as if they referred, and refer the names of the terms instead, typically by using real or scare quotes.

There is a similar difficulty in the debate between those who believe in ‘paranormal phenomena’ and those who don’t. Believers talk about ‘the phenomena’ (without scare quotes) as though there were such things as alien abductions, electronic voice phenomena, telepathic radiation and so on. But to use such talk is to presume the existence of such things, as though the only real debate were about their precise nature and properties. Non-believers will rightly refuse to use such terms, and will instead talk about the reports of such things, or of the supposed evidence for them. Reports and evidential phenomena are real enough. The question is whether there exist any things of which they are reports, or evidence.

That deals with Peter's first question. What are queer entities? We can't say, because there are no such things, just as we can't say what kind of things ghosts are. But we can say what 'queer terms' are. These are terms that are categorical, but which (a) have no reference or denotation and (b) appear, or are believed by many, typically on grounds of reason alone, to have a reference or denotation.

Peter’s second point, on how we determine whether given entity is “queer” or “straight”, I will leave for the next post, although clearly the first point applies here also. If the nominalist is right, we cannot ask this question of anything, just as we cannot ask whether a UFO came from Alpha centauri or Betelgeuse. We can only ask whether a given term is queer or straight. More to follow.

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4 Comments:

Blogger awatkins69 said...

Hello Edward Ockham. If I understand right, Ockham's Razor then is really just a linguistic principle, rather than metaphysical one? I.e. we should not assume that terms which signify only concepts also signify entities?

Do you know where Ockham says this: "Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate"?

1:04 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

Hello awatkins69!

>>If I understand right, Ockham's Razor then is really just a linguistic principle, rather than metaphysical one?

Yes, correct, although Ockham would have probably thought of himself as a metaphysician as well.

>>I.e. we should not assume that terms which signify only concepts also signify entities?

Correct, but Ockham distinguishes different kinds of signification to explain this. He needs to evade the objection that ‘the moon’ does not signify my idea of the moon, for only the expression ‘my idea of the moon’ signifies that. So he distinguishes between different kinds of ‘supposition’ or ‘denotation’.

If you are interested, Paul Vincent Spade has a translation of the relevant parts of Ockham’s Summa here

http://pvspade.com/Logic

>> Do you know where Ockham says this: "Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate"?

He never says exactly that, although he expresses very similar thoughts. For the last word on this, see here

http://www.logicmuseum.com/authors/other/mythofockham.htm

8:50 am  
Blogger awatkins69 said...

Thank you for the links. I'm somewhat familiar with medieval theories of supposition. So if we take a queer-term and put it into a proposition, the proposition is necessarily false if the term is given personal supposition, correct?

So in "Gerald is looking for a gold mine in Surrey" the proposition is false when the term "gold mine in Surrey" is given personal supposition? And your solution to the problem that you've been discussing is to say "Gerald is looking for a gold mine which he thinks is in Surrey." In this sentence, what kind of supposition does the term "a gold mine which he thinks is in Surrey" have? Thanks and best.

9:49 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>> So if we take a queer-term and put it into a proposition

There is an ambiguity about ‘term’ here. It can mean a name of a particular type like ‘triangularity’, or anything ending in ‘ity’ or ‘ness’. Or it can mean a place in a proposition – literally a ‘term’ is one of the two boundaries of a proposition. Queer terms can be of either type.

>> So in "Gerald is looking for a gold mine in Surrey" the proposition is false when the term "gold mine in Surrey" is given personal supposition?

No. Ockham would probably say (see Summa I.72 where he discusses the case of ‘I promise you a horse’ ‘I promise you £20’) that it has common personal confused supposition. Confused supposition is where you can’t ‘descend to singulars’. I.e. you can’t substitute some proper name to yield a true proposition, such as ‘I promise you Dobbin’ or ‘I promise you this £20 note now on the table before us’). Elsewhere, he invokes the notion of simple supposition.

>>And your solution to the problem that you've been discussing is to say "Gerald is looking for a gold mine which he thinks is in Surrey." In this sentence, what kind of supposition does the term "a gold mine which he thinks is in Surrey" have?

Any answer to that would anticipate anything I have yet to say! I shall be posting on this subject for a few days to come. Thanks for visiting and please come back! Very good questions.

Edward

12:59 pm  

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