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The Classic Universalist Argument: Russell versus Quine Essay

This paper will seek to summarize and comment upon the classic battle between realists and nominalists, a very old, yet fundamental battle that affect’s one’s entire outlook on the universe and morality. The very simple way to summarize the issue is that realists, following Plato and Augustine, hold that the real world exists in a super-sensible realm of forms, beyond and above space and time, that are typified in particular objects (and relations).

Seeking to avoid this kind of duplication, nominalists such as William of Ockham and John Locke sought to simplify ontology by holding that such super-sensible objects exist only in the mind as a result of abstraction. In contemporary terms, this debate re-developed in the mathematical sciences over the existence of numerical and space/time relations, and the theory of language also plays an important part in the contemporary debates.

This paper uses the work of Russell and Quine largely because of this seminal nature in the 20th century: most other work on this topic in contemporary times derives from these two and cites these two extensively. b. Russell’s Argument Russell was a defender of Plato. Putting it very simply, both hold that universals are such because they have a common nature that particular things partake in (Russell, 2001, 14). These common natures, due to their lack of instantiation, can only be perceived by the mind, not by sense. There is nothing new here, but the means whereby Russell makes his point is new, and deserves to be reconstructed in detail.

There is a relation between universal things and words. Of these latter, there are four types: prepositions and vers standing for relations, and nouns and adjectives standing for static entities. However, the critique of the realist school derives only from an attack on the latter type: nouns as standing in for super-sensible things. But what of relations? (Russell, 16-17). Russell holds that relations, such as resemblance, must be subsisting universals (i. e. not created by the mind in the process of abstraction). This is because the relations themselves exist prior to and independent of our minds.

1. Two objects have something in common, such as the attribute red. There are red houses, cars, etc. 2. These two objects have a relation (that is similarity) to the third term redness. 3. What they have in common, redness, is a concept. This is required to give the statement meaning: “the house is red. ” The concept redness must be a) real, and b) outside of and independent of our abstractive process. Otherwise, it will refer to nothing, and our sentences about red things will be absurd. 4. Hence, redness must be real for communication to make sense.

This is what Quine will aim at. In other words, for particular things to have features, they must share universals, or concepts in common such as redness. Otherwise, they could not have features if only particular things are posited to exist. This is an argument that Plato would not share given Russell’s empiricism. For Russell, the perception of a common idea (such as redness) assumes that there is a real entity, something directly perceived, that creates the perception. One can see this when more than one observer sees the same set of colors over several objects.

It is not merely a private arena of sense, but a universal acceptance of perception, and hence, of the existence of that universal being apart from one’s private consciousness. Putting this differently, if we hold that the proposition made famous by Russell is true, namely that: “Any sentence that we utter must contain nothing but objects about which we are familiar” then universals such as relations must be objects of acquaintance, since speakers make meaningful statements using relations in nearly every utterance. c. Quine’s Argument

Quine takes aim at this approach, though largely from the point of view of language and the necessity of “meaning” rather than “meaningfulness. ” No one really mistakes the concept of x from the particular instantiation of x. Russell’s idea that the perception of x as x does not prove the super-sensible existence of x as an attribute (Quine, 2001, 43-44). The redness that exists among several red things does in no way suggest that there is super-sensible reality of redness. These are two different things referred to in similar ways through the “common sense” use of language.

It is far from an ontological statement. Put in a more philosophical context, Quine is famous for making the all-important distinction between “meaning” and “naming. ” In one sense, the latter is something the realists take very seriously: to name something is to bring it under a universal, to make it a real part of the cosmos and its structure. But Quine opines that this is the mistake: the concept of “naming” is something static, something that is a part of the cosmos. Meaning is another matter entirely. Nothing is lost in terms of meaning if one was a jettison the language of classical realism.

Putting it differently, Occam’s razor would say if the communication of meaning is one’s aim, and the same meaning can be expressed without the complex philosophical baggage of realism, then realism has no reason to exist. In other words, holding that x is an attribute of several observable does not follow from the perception of x over several things. Realists would say that the repetition of the variable x (the attribute) proves that we are speaking of ne concept, one with real existence that makes sense out of our communication on the matter. But what does this mean?

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