There is a kind of reasoning that is often heard, where the irreality of some abstraction is inferred from the fact that entities that fall under it are not perfectly homogenous.

(1) A lot of times one will hear this at the beginning of talks about some academic subject. E.g.: "I am invited to talk about Penguins. But there really is no such thing as Penguins. There are Aptenodytes, Eudyptula, etc. ..."

(2) At other times one will hear such argument in political debate, often where the abstraction in question denotes a group whose political agency is disputed. E.g.: "There is no such thing as Islam, there are sunni, shia, ...", "There is no such thing as the French, there are alsacians, brittanians, ..."

(3) Sometimes in more philosophical contexts one might even hear something along the lines of: "Every stone is different, therefore there is no such thing as 'stones'." This form seems to be taking (1) and (2) to their logical conclusion.

While the conclusion of these arguments might be a perfectly valid position regarding the problem of universals, the argument itself seems blatantly fallacious. The concepts of Penguins, Islam, French, stones are partial abstractions and do not imply perfect homogeneity, nor does the fact that they have identifiable subclasses characterized by relevant properties imply that their general abstraction is useless, meaningless, or "fictional", as is sometimes claimed.

i have seen this kind of argument so much that i wonder if there is an established name for it, or if there is some historic philosophical debate in which it featured prominently.

  • Maybe Reification fallacy. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 6 at 10:24
  • That's not quite it i think. The wikipedia page describes different ways in which it has been criticized to in some sense ascribe reality to abstract concepts, but the type of argument i have described is not among them. note that the argument i describe can be and is applied to any names whatsoever, except for proper names. even then it might be applied based on temporal heterogeneity. the term concluded to be "fictitious" does not have to be a hypothetical construct or such. – user3636325 Jun 6 at 11:22
  • You might like to read some Buddhist writings on composite phenomena and impermanence. The mistaken reification of composite phenomena, abstractions or conceptual imputations would be called ignorance. . . – PeterJ Jun 6 at 15:00
  • Your examples are not of reasoning, fallacious or otherwise. They are of a rhetorical turn of phrase used for shock value to call attention to a phenomenon routinely overlooked. The name is hyperbole, exaggeration not meant to be taken literally. The "really" in "there really is no such thing" indicates that the "thing" will be used not in the usual sense, but in a special overprecise one. In which case, what is said is correct, and it intends no conclusion about (non) existence of universals as such. – Conifold Jun 6 at 16:02
  • @Conifold this might be true for many cases of (1)(hence my inclusion of 'really' only here), but at least for the other two forms i have certainly encountered cases where people unmistakably intended to deny the reality of the concept in question. this is made abundantly clear when that concept is called a "fantasy", a "delusion", "fictitious" etc., when its use is condemned even, or judged as "erroneous", which i have all witnessed – user3636325 Jun 6 at 20:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.