preview

Russell, Strawson, and William of Ockham

Satisfactory Essays
Realism and conventionalism generally establish the parameters of debate over universals. Do abstract terms in language refer to abstract things in the world? The realist answers yes, leaving us with an inflated ontology; the conventionalist answers no, leaving us with subjective categories. I want to defend nominalism — in its original medieval sense, as one possibility that aims to preserve objectivity while positing nothing more than concrete individuals in the world. First, I will present paradigmatic statements of realism and conventionalism as developed by Russell and Strawson. Then, I will present the nominalist alternative as developed by William of Ockham.

Realism and conventionalism are commonly taken to be the primary contenders in the debate over universals. Does abstract language refer to abstract things in the world? The realist answers yes, leaving us with an inflated ontology, the conventionalist answers no, leaving us with subjective categories. In this paper I would like to defend a third possibility which aims to preserve objectivity without multiplying objects. It is nominalism, in the original, medieval sense of the word — or more specifically, in the Ockham sense of the word.

Willard Quine once remarked that "the nominalists of old . . . object to admitting abstract entities at all, even in the restrained sense of mind-made entities."(1) This is certainly true of Roscelin, the eleventh-century anti-realist who famously asserted that a universal is nothing but a flapping of the vocal chords. And Quine’s remark is true of Ockham as well, in so far as he asserted that a universal is nothing but a particular thought in the mind. Yet thoughts, even if particular, are not exactly concrete, and they do abstract, according to Ockham, in a way that Roscelin’s flapping vocal cords do not.

I won’t be able to defend Ockham’s nominalism by refuting all of the many versions of the competition one by one. What I propose to do instead is set it up in relation to the celebrated exchange between Bertrand Russell and P. F. Strawson. In this exchange, Russell and Strawson were trying to figure out how a sentence can be meaningful even when the thing the subject of the sentence refers to does not exist. Russell makes what I take to be the classic realist mistake; Strawson, the conventionalist. In what follows I will first explain Ockham’s alternative and then show why I think it compares favorably against these twentieth-century counterparts.
Get Access