The debate between the three views is ancient, and extremely complicated. It can also seem at first glance to be very dry, esoteric, and irrelevant to practical life. But nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that virtually every major religious, moral, and political controversy of the last decades — of the last several centuries, in fact — in some ways rests on a disagreement, even if implicit and unnoticed, over the “problem of universals” (as it is known). That includes the dispute between the “New Atheists” and their critics, ignorant though the former (though also often the latter) are of the true roots of this dispute. When Richard Weaver famously made the observation that “Ideas Have Consequences”, he was not making the banal point that what we believe affects the way we act; he was referring to the radical social and moral implications that the abandonment of realism and the adoption of nominalism has had within modern Western
— E. Feser, The Last Superstition
The three views Feser refers to in the quote are realism, conceptualism and nominalism. In this last post I will illustrate how the “implicit and unnoticed” disagreement over the problem of universals gets tangled up in a typically modern debate.
But first, it is useful to summarize the long trek that lead us up to where we are, and get a high-level view of the structure of the argument for realism. One way of framing the problem is to ask what does it mean to say that
- Fido is green.
- Rover is green.
- Socrates is green.
Fido and Rover are concrete particulars, but we are predicating the same thing—the property green—of them. The realist will say that to understand predication, similarity (both Rover and Fido are green while Socrates is not) and abstract reference (the fact that the property green itself has properties and stands in relations to other properties, etc.) we need an appeal to universals, real, abstract entities that are multiply exemplifiable in the various concrete particulars of our common experience.
Enjoining these phenomena to justify the need to posit universals serves two different functions. First, as a springboard for direct arguments in favor of realism. So I have, from explicit enunciation to only brief adumbration, and spread across all posts, made several arguments for realism: the necessary modal status of logical and mathematical truths, the argument from the objectivity of our concepts, the argument from science, etc. Second, if the anti-realist is to make his case, then at the very least he will have to meet the realist challenge.
As I tried to argue in the third post, all the anti-realist responses suffer from fatal flaws. The flaws were illustrated by the phenomena that I took as basic: predication, unity within plurality and abstract reference. But these difficulties trickle down and will plague anti-realist accounts of the laws of logic, mathematical principles, laws of science, etc. Finally, in the fourth post I responded to some of the objections against realism. This is a cumulative case for realism; whether the reader is convinced or not, at least my hope is that the issues at stake are clearer.
In some of the arguments for realism, we already see the central importance of the debate over universals, one of the oldest, still running debates in the history of philosophy. But what about Feser’s contention about its importance for religious, moral and political questions?
I could, as Feser does, and I will, direct you to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. But as a typical illustration, consider the debate about same-sex marriage (SSM for short). How do SSM advocates tend to argue? First note that this is a typically modern debate, with only a few decades long. Since biology, history and anthropology are not on his side, the SSM advocate will tend to emphasize the social, conventional aspects of marriage. By the nature of the case, he must deny the essentialist picture of human nature or that marriage has an objective, essential basis on reality.
If facing a stern Dominican, steeped in the tradition of natural law, when not offering caricature straw man arguments against it, he is forced to reject the essentialist metaphysical picture of human nature on pain of conceding the point to the Dominican. In short, they have to deny that the concept of marriage has any objective basis on reality, and is “just a piece of paper”, a conventional contract between two sovereign wills, and along the way add their own prejudices and insist that marriage, while a convention, can only be between two adult persons and other such ad-hoc strictures.
This prejudice is little more than the Humpty Dumpty position: words mean what we (where “we” is the community of enlightened liberals) say they mean. And what is this but a distant echo of the nominalist position? There are no universals, there are no fixed natures. They are mere “convenient fictions” to borrow an apt expression of a combox poster. And if they are “convenient fictions”, we might as well choose one that accords to our tastes and emotional hang-ups.
I do not intend to argue the merits and demerits of the pro-SSM arguments. Although my position should be clear (they are worthless), that is a discussion for another day. What I am trying to do is point to what the SSM advocate must say to rationally make his case, and what he must say will almost inevitably be anchored in some form of anti-realism, whether he realizes it or not.
Whatever the path that Western civilization follows, and quite apart from all the myriad factors that enter into the SSM debate (political, cultural, social, etc.) that struggle alongside a more philosophical approach, it seems to me that knowing something of the root metaphysical disagreements would have the benefit of clarifying the issues involved. We may not be able to convert each other through rational dialogue as there is more to the pragmatics of belief than just the philosophical dialectic of argument and counter-argument. But as human beings, rational animals as Aristotle put it, rational dialogue can at least clarify the bones of contention. That may not be enough, but is no small thing either; it is one of the things that separates civilized society from barbarity.