As we saw in Porphyry’s quotation in Universalia, he abstained from the fight for the truth about universals. But by referring to the problem only with respect to genera and species, I think that he might have created another problem, a bias in the study of universals that crossed the whole of the Middle Ages and onwards up to our times to befuddle our ignorant minds on the topic — my ignorant mind, at least.
Boethius, in his commentary of Porphyry’s Isagoge, was brave enough to tackle the problem in a way that could have advanced Aristotle’s influence in the history of thought and eased the path to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. But it didn’t (not for a long while, at least), for Plato won this first contest.
Boethius realized that we can form ideas in our minds that, although not corresponding exactly to what reality is, they can nevertheless be true or false. When they are false, it is because we have composed facts of reality in arbitrary ways, like when we join a man and a horse to form a centaur. When they are true, it is because we have abstracted, i.e., selected only one portion of reality through our conceptual faculty. This happens when we form the idea of a line after we, say, look at the horizon by the sea. The idea is true even though there are no lines per se floating about us.
So, according to Boethius, genera and species are kinds of abstractions that are true: they do exist in the things themselves in a way that we can isolate them in thought, but they don’t exist as things per se in the sensible world or even in Plato’s world of Forms.
Of course, there is much more into this controversy, but my point here is simply to try to grasp its importance. Because, seriously, do we really think it is so important to understand if “man” as a class of individuals actually exists as something real in the world itself? Do we really care if a dolphin carries with it some sort of “mammalness” that is common to a whale or even a man? Well, a biologist would say that of course it is important that man and dolphins both suckle their young on milk, but we are talking about philosophy, aren’t we?
I think the way the problem was posed in its inception may have biased the discussion up to now. And, to be honest, the manner it is normally worded today makes it sound as useful as discussing the sex of the angels. That’s why I can’t quite explain even to myself the reason I care about it, and that’s why I stand no chance whatsoever of convincing my wife about its importance.
Yet, Mr. Copleston is here to help.
In Volume II of his paramount collection “A History of Philosophy”, Frederick Copleston, S.J., a Jesuit priest, historian and philosopher with as matter-of-factly a prose as one can get, hinted me on this “genera/species” misunderstanding right before putting me back on the right track.
“Perhaps one of the factors which may give the impression that the mediaevals were discussing a comparatively unimportant question is this, that they practically confined their attention to genera and species in the category of substance. Not that the problem, even in this restricted form, is unimportant, but if the problem is raised in regard to the other categories as well, its implications in regard to at least the greater part of human knowledge becomes more evident. It becomes clear that the problem is ultimately the epistemological problem of the relation of thought to reality.”
Wow! That now seems serious enough even for my wife. Thank you, Mr. Copleston. Let me now try to understand what you are really saying.
Whenever I look at reality, I see particular entities, I see individuals. But when I think of one of them, even if I manage to picture an exact copy of it in my mind, there is also a host of generic concepts attached to the image. I sit on the driver’s seat and I think of my car. Suppose I visualize it perfectly. As I do so, I can’t avoid the fact that I know it to be an old-fashioned (not to say “old”) 2008 black Ford Fiesta. These are all generic concepts insofar as they apply to countless other particulars that share the same properties. Is there a “black” riding the roads? Is there a “Fiesta”? Or a “Ford”? If these universal concepts — these universals — can not be seen in reality (in “extramental” reality, as Copleston says), and all that we actually do see in reality is individual things, what the hell is the relation between the two? Is there any at all?
“If the fact that subsistent objects are individual and concepts general means that universal concepts have no foundation in extramental reality, if the universality of concepts means that they are mere ideas, then a rift between thought and objects is created and our knowledge, so far as it is expressed in universal concepts and judgements, is of doubtful validity at the very least.”
Science describes reality exclusively with universal concepts. Any measure, for instance, is based on universals. Ethics prescribes (or tries to prescribe) universal conducts for us to follow. The injunction “Do not initiate force against men” deals strictly with universal concepts, although it is meant to be applied to every particular situation. If the universals science and ethics deal with are mere arbitrary contrivances of our minds, with no foundation in extramental reality, then how to trust them?
But, forget for a moment these “boring” subjects of science and ethics. When you meet someone on the streets and you tell them your name, you are in effect talking like one of those warriors in the “Iliad” who present their whole lineage before the fight. When you say your name, you are acknowledging a lineage going back thousands of years to when your ancestors migrated to your homeland, a lineage going back millions of years to your ape-like precursors on the tree-tops, a lineage going back billions of years to the first being that could call himself a living being!
When you say your name, you are counting on an infinite number of universals to be understood. Don’t you think you should know what they are?