A little note on the problem of Universals…

In thinking about the problem of universals I try to make it concrete by aligning it with the experience of perception, for example, focusing on the perception of a single object and thinking about it from both perspectives. The general problem I have with Nominalism is that it asserts the existence of particulars only, and as a result, ironically, is unable to describe them since what we normally see as ‘particular’ objects cannot be what the Nominalist claims is the single object. Nominalism ends up in an infinite regression of representation because the particular ‘object’ it says exists is never experienced but inferred, all the while the ‘object’ is imagined to be the very ‘object’ we normally experience.

That is, the nominalists’ says we form concepts after grouping familiar perceptions ignoring the fact that to see a single object ( as opposed to it being merely present) requires concepts. Concepts fix and separate the mass of perceptions for us. There is no conceptual-less perception from which we generalize to concepts. Concepts enable us to see ‘particular’ objects. Take away the concept of the ‘object’ and you’re left with perceptions without definiteness or boundaries. It cannot be the actual object that forced us to think about it’s properties for it has been stripped of all elements constitutive of it – at least, as experienced. I qualify with “as experienced” because the nominalist may well want to quarrel that because concepts are constitutive ‘in’ the perception of objects does not mean the object as such is constituted by concepts.

In other words, the nominalist may take a sort of Kantian position. But this is a disaster. Certainly, not the result the nomanilist wanted. After all, nominalists generally take themselves to be empiricists, vindicating and affirming that the particular objects we see are what exists and hence have no need for abstractions and ‘spooky’ universals in addition to the normal, everyday objects we see. There is no need for a bloated ontology, full of reified abstractions. Except, of course, the “particular” as just argued becomes the spooky “thing-in-itself” the most notorious abstraction that continues to baffle and impede generations of philosophers. The issue is simple: the “particular” is just as much an abstraction as the “universal” is. In attempting to describe the “particular” the nominalist is always forced to distinguish between the object that is perceived and what they want to say solely exists. The former is what they want to affirm “exists” as such but by asserting the existence of only particulars, they cannot – because the object as such is concept-laden.

The realist, on the other hand, commits the same mistake in recognition of the latter argument by hypostasizing concepts, denying the reality of perceptions. That is, in realizing that the particular to be recognized as such, must involve a concept, begins to talk only of the concept only. This is the Platonism that us moderns react in horror against ( whether it represents Plato’s actual view is something I’m not so sure about). Where is horse-ness? Wolf-ness? Humanity? The so-called “universal” then seems to hover mystically as another thing “behind” objects. One forgets that what the argument has shown is not that one aspect is superior to the other but that each form a single unit. Thus, what has occurred is the separation of a whole, a single unit, into concept and object, and a claiming of reality of a single one. Perceptions and concepts constitute the object. The notion of an “Object” or “Thing” insofar as we’re thinking of anything concrete presupposes concepts. It should not be “concept and object” but “Object: concept/percept.”

The difficulty with all this, in my view, is the difficulty of thought in general. The difficulty of thought is in recognizing the reality of thinking – the idea that our thinking is itself constitutive of our world. Concepts are not merely thoughts or categories about t things but essential to the thing themselves – there is no thing without a ‘concept.’ We find ourselves in a double bind when we try to think the object onto itself – i.e apart from thought altogether. Of course, the correlationist alarm is off the Richter scale at the moment but such is my viewpoint. If this line of thinking is legitimate then the intriguing question is ontological: what would it mean for an object to be irreducibly a mental/physical hybrid? In what sense could thought, indeed, be about t things but also constitutive of things?

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