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I wonder how this would be best explained to the public without prior knowledge (such myself).

We have on one side the contradiction between e.g. the general or abstract “(being) yellow” vs “yellow things”. Most people would have difficulties recognizing the issue in everyday terms, contrary to other classical debates with obvious relation to our time (e.g. the motion of the Sun and the Earth).

Leaving aside religious aspects we do see sometimes, let me try to explain what comes to mind and how I would explain the contrapositions:

Consider unemployment and its caus(es): one stated simple cause might be that poverty in general is responsible, and a counter-position is that every person has the ability to find employment and prosperity. Here we have an abstract concept (within a causal relationship) opposed to properties in all individuals (considered in the example).

Would you accept that as a description of the nominalist-universalist controversy?

I note that some would accept a little of both which is perhaps not a position you see in this controversy.

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    I do not agree : causal explanations involve in any case some sort of "universal", because they are based on laws: we may have the "economic law" that poverty causes unemployment, but also the concept of "individual ability" must be grounded on some sort of theory regardinh human person and attitudes. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 9 '16 at 9:18
  • I realize I invoke some general ,i.e. universal, logic in that I have a causal scenario. But could you not accept my proposition on a lower, secondary level. The two models are different ways to implement the main logic, in the same manner as a law, generally worded, can be implemented in different ways. You seem to add some extra material yourself, on a lower level. – Mikael Jensen Sep 9 '16 at 11:33
  • You are confronting two notions : abstract vs particular (or concrete). It is debatable that "poverty" is "more abstract" than human ability... in some cases, poverty is very very concret. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 9 '16 at 11:44
  • I don't understand your example. Is there contrariety or contradiction between the two assertions: "∀*x* : poverty ⇒ unemployment." and "∀*x* : x has the ability to find employment and prosperity."? How does this illustrate nominalism vs. universalism (do you mean realism?)? – Geremia Sep 9 '16 at 23:55
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Mr. Jensen, the problem of universals is usually a heavily obfuscated issue. So, pardon me if my post gets too long because it, since the problem of universals cannot be encountered, without clearing up a few more issues.

We have on one side the contradiction between e.g. the general or abstract “(being) yellow” vs “yellow things”. Most people would have difficulties recognizing the issue in everyday terms, contrary to other classical debates with obvious relation to our time (e.g. the motion of the Sun and the Earth).

First and foremost we must define what it means for something to be abstract in the sense in which philosophers talk of.

1) Non-spatio temporal, i.e. not in space-time. 2) Causally inefficacious. 3) Non-spatio temporal & causally inefficacous. 4) Incomplete objects.

A murderer is led to the place of execution. For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome . . . .

This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.

This last one is owed to, and is with the help of Hegel. A man is a lot of things. A husband, a father, a corporate owner, and a murderer. He is not just a murderer simpliciter. To reduce the man to either one of these things, is known as 'abstraction.' For the man is not just a murderer, but a concrete particular which instantiates all those qualities.

Now, the problem of universals can be approached in many ways. But this is the heart of it. Consider two atoms, they have the same spin and charge. When two things agree in attribute, we naturally ask the next question. How can something which is numerically one, run through numerically distinct entities?

Philosophers use the term "numerically" in contrast with "qualitatively." I was given 5 bottles of coca-cola for the party. It won't make a difference if I use the first bottle, or the fourth one. With regard to the quality of it being a cola, at least, there's no problem, since the first bottle and all the other ones are qualitatively identical. By saying that they are the 'same' I mean to say that they are qualitatively the same. If I say that I want a different one, I'm saying I want a numerically different one. However, it won't make any difference whatsoever, with regard to the property of 'being cola.'

If two things are identical in all their respects, then it follows that they are the same (I am not defending the Principle of Constituent identity or Leibniz's Identity of indiscernibles). If two things are qualitatively identical, then it doesn't follow that they the two things are the same. The problem of universals, then, is to account for the pre-analytic datum of how two things agree with each other in attribute. It is in accounting how a numerically one entity runs through numerically distinct particulars.

Since this is such a complex issue, this issue cannot be reduced to any other issues and must be tackled head-on with as much clarity as needed, so trying to reframe the debate which doesn't capture the essence of what's said above will always miss the mark.

Realists believe that this datum can only be accounted by positing entities known as 'universals,' whereas Nominalists either deny such attribute-agreement obtaining and thus see now need to account for any such anomaly. Simply said, you need a theory of properties to solve the problem, and a realist is one who posits that universals obtain in the world, and the nominalist is one who says that they don't obtain in the world, but only in the mind, or some other sort.

  • Thank you. I came across this writing an essay about materialism (or physicalism), based on some earlier notes (goneri.nuc.berkeley.edu/pages2009/slides/… explanations on Wikipedia and elsewhere are completely unreadable for laymen such as myself, leading you to assume it is for experts only. However, his state of affairs seems to be in contrast with the importance attached to the issue through all times: antiquity, the middle age up to the present. Quite different from the problem of the motion of the Sun and the Earth. – Mikael Jensen Sep 14 '16 at 13:12
  • Hello Mr. Jensen, I'm unable to access the link. Could you try to relink it or something? And is the term state of affairs, being used as a technical metaphysic term? If so, I have a pretty good idea of what's going on when you mention it, other than that, I have no clue. I'd have to see the stuff for myself. If you can make it possible for me to do that, I'd be grateful. – Dennis Sep 14 '16 at 13:20
  • You are certainly wellcome (but I don´t think it has much to do with Universalism. I wrote it to comments on some views presented by McAllison who was later appointed head on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission) – Mikael Jensen Sep 14 '16 at 13:27
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C. S. Peirce* defines nominalism vs. realism (which I think you mean by "universalist") very well (CP 1.27 fn):

It must not be imagined that any notable realist of the thirteenth or fourteenth century took the ground that any “universal” was what we in English should call a “thing,” as it seems that, in an earlier age, some realists and some nominalists, too, had done; though perhaps it is not quite certain that they did so, their writings being lost. Their very definition of a “universal” admits that it is of the same generic nature as a word, namely, is: “Quod natum optum est praedicari de pluribus.” Neither was it their doctrine that any “universal” itself is real. They might, indeed, some of them, think so; but their realism did not consist in that opinion, but in holding that what the word signifies, in contradistinction to what it can be truly said of, is real. Anybody may happen to opine that “the” is a real English word; but that will not constitute him a realist. But if he thinks that, whether the word “hard” itself be real or not, the property, the character, the predicate, hardness, is not invented by men, as the word is, but is really and truly in the hard things and is one in them all, as a description of habit, disposition, or behavior, then he is a realist.

*(He called, in CP 1.15, almost all philosophers since Descartes nominalists)

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Consider unemployment and its caus(es): one stated simple cause might be that poverty in general is responsible, and a counter-position is that every person has the ability to find employment and prosperity. Here we have an abstract concept (within a causal relationship) opposed to properties in all individuals (considered in the example).

Would you accept that as a description of the nominalist-universalist controversy?

The nominalist/realist divide is about the relation between categories and individual instances of categories. The realist supposes that there is a "catness" that informs the individual existence of individual cats; the nominalist argues that "catness" is a mental construct build upon the existence of cats. In fewer words, for realists, "catness" comes, logically, if not chronologically, before individual cats; for nominalists, cats come, both logically and chronologically, before "catness".

So, the disjunctive you propose seems to be unrelated to the nominalist/realist debate (and more an instance of the determinism/free will, or the holist/reductionist debates).

  • Thanks. I made a comment above to another answer. I find it strange that such an illusive issue could be taken so seriously in history as it has been. – Mikael Jensen Sep 14 '16 at 13:16
  • @Henrique, Thank you. As a physicist, and after having read the posts, I believe that the contradiction seems to be similar to the difference between a quantity (such as length) and a unit (such as 1 meter or a 1 foot) or a result of any measurement (such as 3 meter). – Mikael Jensen Nov 24 '16 at 9:28

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