Abelard on Universals

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Abelard on Universals By Alexander Koudlai In this essay I shall attempt to show that in the XII century there was a problem of relation of names to things and classes of things, or the problem of Universals. I shall also argue that Peter Abelard in his examination of the problem was neither a nominalist (contrary to J. R. Weinberg’s claim in his Short History of Medieval Philosophy, p.79), no a realist in the full meaning of the terms, but rather synthesized both positions showing the limitations of each of them, and presented his solution named conceptualism. I shall try to support my own impression that (contrary to the opinion expressed by D.E.L. in the Britanica I, p. 26) he was not exactly a peripatetic but also was influenced by Plato and in that was also inclined to

a synthesis with qualifications. And finally I shall go in some more details of the paradox of why some scholars like Weinberg called Abelard’s solution nominalistic. I It is not just Weinberg who call’s Abelard’s solution a nominalistic. Professor A. Broadie also thinks that “in the dispute about the nature of the universals Abelard was in the nominalistic camp” (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 1). For this reason, arguing against this, I would emphasize that: 1. Abelard was well known as a knight in his debates. He was born a son of a knight in Brittany (a relative of the Duke), and this heredity showed in the manner of his philosophic and theological studies and confrontations with his professors, 2. He studied philosophy mostly under two very different

specialists: Roscelin of Compiegne (a nominalist) and Guillaume de Champeaux (a realist), and disagreed with each of them rather aggressively. Peter was always a very independent and original thinker and interlocutor. He always looked for a more inclusive and logically superior solution than those immediately available. I understand that this biographical information does not present a demonstrative proof, but rather a background with which Weinberg’s and Broadie’s pictures just do not blend well, and upon which I would try to draw a picture more plausible, i.e., that there was a third position between realistic and nominalistic, namely, conceptualism, which could be defined as a synthesis of realism (thesis) and nominalism (antithesis), and which was precisely what Peter

Abelard attempted to establish. II It was the claim of extreme nominalists that the names were just sounds, that we could call one and the same thing quite opposite names, and it would not change anything in its essence. It very well can be so, but in the naming things we also do something to ourselves, to our understanding of the physical nature of the things. Is there really man or woman, masterpiece, junk, good guy, bad guy, traitor, falsifier, guilty, innocent? Or all those words are just “utterances”? Is there some reality behind the word mother, or John can be your mother if the court rules so? Abelard understood that there is some medium between things and names which is not the name and not the thing it signifies, and still to keep the language meaningful we must use

certain words which point to that medium in order to form meaningful concepts in our minds. Without this physics would not be possible as well as any science and language itself. That is because of that medium it is possible to translate from one language to another. Without this there would be no dictionaries, and to understand Greek or Latin would be impossible. If you call a nominalist a genius, he will be pleased, and if you call him a fool he will likely to get offended. But why, if it is true what he is teaching? Words do signify something about physical world! The words we use to describe physical objects are symbols of meaningful concepts which we form about those things in our minds. They are mental in nature, but they necessarily belong to those particulars. For Abelard