Tuesday, December 31, 2019

nomenclature & its miscontents

Hmm. I haven't thought about it until now, but Beyond Easy is fast approaching its tenth year.

I don't want to dwell on this—but this time of year, we're all of us prone to retrospection, evaluating where we've been and what we've done since the last time we had to toss out another obsolesced calendar. Now that we're on the verge of 2020, it's hard not to extend the survey range from now back to when the sight of the "1" in the third column of the CE year was a disconcerting novelty. Updating this blog—sometimes regularly, sometimes sporadically—has been one of the few constants in what's been a decidedly tumultuous decade for me.

Almost twenty years ago(!!) I made a webcomic that a lot of people were reading, if only for a few minutes. If the counter was to be trusted, 8 Easy Bits was getting something like 700–900 daily views for a while. Nothing internet-breaking, but I wasn't pixelling in total oblivion. Now I don't do comics anymore. It's out of my system.

Then maybe fifteen years ago(!) I started writing exhaustive essays about video games. I'm still shocked by the reach those had, and how many emails I still get about them. I've given those up, too—for the most part.

Now I'm mostly writing fiction (I've got a new short story appearing in a forthcoming issue of The Southwest Review) and putting down a few thoughts here once a month or so. Let's not talk about what the page views look like on a given day.

This is to say I have no illusions of prestige. If I was ever Relevant, I hit my expiration date. Ten years ago, this would have bothered me. But at this point I'm just happy to be making the stuff I want to make and following my interests wheresoever they take me with what time is available to me.

In other words, this blog isn't going anywhere anytime soon. I don't care if blogging is passé, or if the only regular reader I have at this point is my mother, checking up on what I'm doing because I don't call often enough. (Incidentally: hi mom.) Organizing and setting down my thoughts is a valuable exercise, and the public (however unnoticed) nature of the format enforces a rigor that I'd probably fail to observe if I were just jotting down fragmentary thoughts in a journal.

Now that we've established that Relevance is not my motive concern, I'd like to rattle off some thoughts on a topic that's become most fascinating to me over the last few months: the strain of medieval philosophy called nominalism.

Still with me?

Oh well.

Rene Magritte, Le Masque Vide (1928)

Between the end of the Classical period and the overtures to the Renaissance, thinkers from Syria to Scotland to Iberia to Persia wrestled with the problem of universals: what is the ontological status of an abstraction? Of geometrical figures? Of species and genera, organic and otherwise? Historians of philosophy call those who maintained that universals exist in some mode or other realists; their gainsayers were the nominalists.

Plato, antiquity's radical realist par excellence, espoused a metaphysical framework in which material things gambol about as mere shadow-puppets, imperfectly reflecting eternal archetypes from the numinous realm of unchanging and true reality. Aristotle rejected his teacher's theory of forms, but somewhat ambiguously taught that real universals are immanent in particulars. Given the incomparable reach and clout of Platonism and Aristotelianism throughout first millennium CE (especially after their absorption into the world-pictures of Christian and Muslim scholars), we can understand why the realist position went largely unchallenged.

In the middle ages, when philosophy and theology constituted a unified discipline, there was much talk in both Muslim civilization and Christendom about the relation of universal concepts to the mind of God. In the cosmology of tenth-century Arabic philosopher al-Farabi, the "active intellect" emanating from the First Cause permits human beings to apprehend universals and engage their inborn but latent rational faculties. The eleventh-century polymath Avicenna/Ibn Sina's subtle (read: difficult) reasoning regarding quiddities or essences identifies both particularity and universality as mental products—though he ascribes quiddity to the cosmic intelligences (after Al-Farabi), and controversially ventured that God is only capable of "thinking" in universals. Meanwhile in the West, Anselm (in the eleventh century) and Bonaventure (in the thirteenth century) designate universals as "exemplars in the mind of God," the templates for creation—intangible, but as real in the divine consciousness as the blueprints in a human architect's hand.

The first recorded proponent of an anti-realist stance in the Western tradition was the eleventh-century French monk Roscelin. None of his writings remain; we know what we know of him from the extant works of his peers, who recount his dismissal of universals as "mere words" (which landed him in hot water with the Church). What Roscelin means, in other words, is that the semblance of  universal forms in the world is a consequence of our using one a word to refer to an indefinite number of things: after all, we can't very well refer to every possible cat we might ever see out on the street by an individualized name and expect anyone to understand us when we mention the animal we saw perched on a fence. For the purposes of communication, we group them all together under the one word—and in doing so, we create a habit of thought in which all cats become, speciously, somewhat fungible.

In the twelfth century, Roscelin's student Abelard took a leavened "conceptualist" position, claiming that universals have no ontic reality, except as constructs in the mind. This represented a disavowal of his teacher's anti-realism, but Abelard was at the same time contravening the Platonic extreme realism that suffused Western thought before the Aristotelian corpus became available.

Nominalism's champion, William of Ockham, arrived on the scene in the fourteenth century. I'll spare you from having to read my synopsis of his arguments, but you might want to watch this luculent twenty-minute video on Ockham and his contribution.

Of the historical figures who were influenced by Ockham's thinking, the most consequential by far was sixteenth-century religious revolutionary Martin Luther, who applied his teacher's eponymous razor in shaving off the excesses of Catholic liturgy. We might give the silver medal to the seventeenth-century political philosopher and renaissance man Thomas Hobbes, whose ontological views were explicitly nominalistic. In the preliminaries to Leviathan (1651), he offers a digest of the nominalist doctrine:
Of Names, some are Proper, and singular to one onely thing; as Peter, John, This Man, This Tree: and some are Common to many things; as Man, Horse, Tree; every of which though but one Name, is nevertheless the name of divers particular things; in respect of all which together, it is called an Universall; there being nothing in the world Universall but Names; for the things named, are every one of them Individual and Singular.
Hence the term "nominalism:" universals are simply sets of unique entities to which we assign a common name. There's nothing magical or transcendent about that.

Let's hover over this for a few minutes.

What is a cat?

A cat is a smallish, agile, fuzzy, round-headed, pointy-eared, whiskered, fanged, meowing, predatory, aloof, four-legged animal with padded feet, retractable claws, and a swishing tail.

"Cat" is the word which the anglophone community uses in reference to any member in a recognized set of smallish, agile, fuzzy, round-headed, pointy-eared, whiskered, fanged, meowing, predatory, aloof, four-legged animal with padded feet, retractable claws, and swishing tails.

How is this set delineated? When a small child points to a tabby and says "cat," we affirm her; when she points to a dog or an opossum and says "cat," we say no and correct her. In this way, a group trains its members to respond appropriately to the utterance "please feed the cat" or to a sign in a store window that says "sale 50% off cat food."

Where the realist and nominalist would have differed with regard to the correspondence of "cat" with cats was in the arrangement of cart and the horse. The realist would argue that the denomination is not shaped and upheld through the mere utility of practice: "cat" identifies the members of a class united by virtue of an essential cat-ness of which they all partake. To the nominalist, any intimations of an archetypal "cat" are an intellectual subsidence come about through the weight and wear of our habitual application of a general term to an indefinite number of unique (but not dissimilar) particulars.

The realist worldview emphasizes similarity to the extent of establishing an indirect relation of identity between the members of a class; the nominalist avouches that Cat A ≠ Cat B ≠ Cat C and that's that.

Moreover, the nominalist would take exception to the conceptualist's claim that the mind can grasp universals. When you think of "cat" (the nominalist would point out), your visual adumbration of a smallish, agile, fuzzy, round-headed, pointy-eared, whiskered, fanged, meowing, predatory, aloof, four-legged animal with padded feet, retractable claws, and a swishing tail will be of some particular cat with particular features, and not the undifferentiated essence of "cat."

What about geometrical figures? Well: when you think of "triangle," is the figure you glimpse isosceles, obtuse, or right-angled? Does it have a color? How thickly are the lines drawn? Again—you're not conceptually uplinking to a realm of abstract entities behind the veil of reality; you're envisioning a particular triangle. What of the fact that the same relations between angles and side lengths are observed between any two 30-60-90 triangles? Congruence ≠ identity.

Of course, the nominalists were making their pronouncements before the invention of the microscope and the ensuing investigations into organic chemistry and atomic physics. Would the findings of modern science have made a difference to their reasoning process?

Does it mean anything that all cats possess a characteristic genome? Sure, the nominalist might answer: it means we can ascribe the resemblance of Cat A to Cat B and Cat C to a material variable. A strand of DNA isn't an abstraction: it's a material object.

What about particles? If every hydrogen atom is functionally identical as far as we can tell, can't we effectively call "hydrogen" an archetype? Well: since no two pairings of a proton and an electron can occupy precisely the same point in spacetime (as far as I know), and since we abstract away much of an H2O molecule's identity by ignoring where it is and what events it participates in (a mole of dihydrogen monoxide on Earth ≠ a mole of dihydrogen monoxide on Europa), we can't say that atoms, contrary to their apparent uniformity when considered in isolation, are not also a (mind-hemorrhagingly massive) set of particular entities.

What about the fundamental forces in physics? If our nominalist is really sticking to his guns, he might say that every circumstance into which a gravitational or electromagnetic interaction enters is, once again, a particular occurrence. (Two experimental trials in physics that arrive at the same result are not identical events: they are still only similar.) A relationship ceases to exist when the objects that instantiate it disappear: there will be no such thing as "motherhood" when all life in the universe ceases. Ubiquitous though gravity is, it is a description of a causally efficacious relation between two or more particular existents—not a thing in itself.

Rene Magritte, Le Masque Vide (1928)

Nominalism, much like your correspondent, can't mount much of an argument for its relevance to the twenty-first century. A few cursory google searches (the most spurious sort of anecdotal evidence there is) suggests that most people with something to say about nominalism that goes beyond the matter-of-fact account of a stratum in the fossil record of ideas are Catholic partisans. Either they've got a theological bone to pick with Martin Luther and Protestantism, or they're denouncing William of Ockham for unwittingly laying an early cornerstone in the edifice of scientific materialism. The rest of us are so far removed from Platonic realism, Aristotelian teleology, and Scholastic hierarchies of being as to assume as a given the ontic nonexistence of universals (except perhaps as mental constructs).

Much more recently, the post-structuralists of the twentieth century paid a great deal of attention to the way in which "mere words" shape up our experiences, and found that words aren't so mere after all. Whereas the medieval nominalists were content to simply declare what terms didn't mean, the deconstructionists were far more thoroughgoing in expatiating upon the functions of semiotic relations in social, literary, and scientific contexts.

Nominalism was a corrective: an arrow towards terra firma from the rarefied complacency of Scholastic rationalism. If we give credence to Ockham's detractors, we could liken it to a disinfecting balm that worked too well, eliminating bacteria but retarding the healing process. After helping to sweep away the metaphysics of medieval theism, its lingering aftereffects stymied the development of a substitute. The road from nominalism to positivism is a direct one, and with teleology and the transcendent shoved aside, there's not much left to consider but the mechanistic roiling of brute matter and, well, language and politics.

In time, the master narrative of the medieval synthesis was supplanted by a bundle of coexisting (and often overlapping) "grand narratives" that lacked the absolute compass of the union of medieval theism and Greek philosophy, but purported to comprehensively account for the patterns traced by all entities and events within their respective purviews. Marxism was the grand sociological narrative. Psychoanalysis was the grand narrative of the individual. Darwin's theory of evolution and its implications were the grand narrative of life on Earth. And so on.

Despite the best efforts of postmodern skepticism, we haven't rid ourselves of grand narratives. We probably cannot. The ideas of figures like Derrida and Foucault, popularly regarded, haven't extirpated grand narratives, but rather invested them with paranoia and intimations of conspiracy. Reading and listening to the acolytes of postmodernist theory (many of whom, no doubt, misunderstand what their teachers were ultimately driving at), I sometimes glimpse the ghosts of Plato's forms, operating through the fabric of society like spooks projecting their limbs through bed sheets. The callow Tumblr refugee's account of phenomena like "heteronormativity" or "white supremacy" are ghost stories about a coterie of incubi possessing and wielding people as instruments in an occult contest for dominance. I'm no less guilty of this myself: when I talk about "the atomization of the individual and the denudation of all social relationships but the transactional under capitalism," I speak of "capitalism" not as though it were an intricate manifold of social relations enacted by and through the day-to-day weltering of seven billion human beings, but as some baleful deity, a latter-day Prince of the Power of the Air. My language fudges "description" with "cause."

This is precisely the tendency that nominalism recognizes and seeks to ameliorate: unduly granting primacy to concepts over things.

A nominalist lens may be useful insofar as it reminds us that our abstractions are extrapolated from sets of concrete sui generis entities, and we ought not to be unduly confident in assuming that they are grouped by virtue of a formal essence, rather than by attributes identified and collocated for practical purposes. The recent JK Rowling controversy exemplifies the ease with which we typically forget that "male" and "female" do not describe real archetypes, but rather the conceptual division of all individual lifeforms (human and otherwise) into one of two mutually exclusive classes based on an interpretation of empirical data. (Not surprisingly, people on both sides of the quarrel accuse their opponents of a fallacious essentialism.)

But the most valuable application of the nominalist tincture might not be in helping to dispel the specters of facile thinking, but in reminding us that everything that exists, exists uniquely.

Perhaps in Ockham's time, no reminders would have been needed—but ours is the age of global commerce, industrial production, multinational brands, and mass distribution. Every bag of Lay's potato chips in every vending machine looks exactly the same of every other bag of Lay's in every other vending machine. Every iPhone of a given version is indistinguishable from every other iPhone of that line. Our experiences at the fuel pump are conducive to the operational wisdom that every gallon of gasoline is the same gallon of gasoline: it comes from nowhere and from nothing. It's illimitable. It's a constant.

When something is (or seems) ubiquitous, we tend not to examine it—as per the old "fish don't know they're in water" chestnut. When, for instance, every two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola on every supermarket or convenience store shelf appears identical, we fall into the habit of taking them as givens. It's Coke. There's always Coke. Everywhere and at all times, there is Coke. We give its provenance no thought: as far as we're concerned, the bottles are spontaneously generated in the places they're sold. The template becomes more real to us than the articles themselves.

A nominalistic outlook—one in which we bear in mind that no two objects are ever identical—disposes us to consider the ways that eight thousand bottles of Coca-Cola, all of which are the same size, mass, shape, color, etc., must somehow differ from each other. We're prompted to think about where they came from and how they were made—and a part of the world that has been made obscure to us becomes susceptible to demystification. Hyperreality (√† la Baudrillard's "the very definition of the real has become: that which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction") is only "true" if we've been habituated to getting high on our own supply.

Nominalism, out of fashion (and nonconstructive) though it may be, admonishes us not to miss the trees for our idea of "forest."


  1. Surprised that you mentioned Semiotics yet had not a word for Saussure's theory of the Sign which follows allow the lines of nominalism only from a linguistic point, that is, more closely related to the "word" as an arbitrary societal reinterpretation of concept.