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Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Ancient Problem of Universals is Irresolvable

While the problem of universals become a major issue in the Middle Ages, the controversy on this subject has been raging since the Ancient times—it stems form the conflict between three positions: realism, nominalism, and conceptualism. In the late Middle Ages, the realists saw themselves as Platonic-Realists, but in the twentieth century, they started using the label of Aristotelians. Philosophy has benefitted from the rise of nominalism in the Middle Ages—the nominalist ideas of Roscellinus, Abelard, and Ockham played an important role in pushing philosophy towards scholasticism, which in turn has led to modern thought. The conceptualism school came of age in the early Modern period when it was accepted by most major philosophers: Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Kant, for instance, defines his position as transcendental idealism, which considers the universals as ideas in man’s mind. Each of the three positions, realism, nominalism, and conceptualism, has spawned sub-schools which have contributed to the development of philosophical thought. Each side considers itself as the fount of reason, logic, and science and brands the other sides as irrational, illogical, and unscientific. I am biased towards the realist school (Platonic-Realism or Aristotelianism), but the truth is that problem of the universals is irresolvable. There is simply no way of proving or disproving the existence of entities which are indifferent to language and are beyond the limits of constructivist capacities of the human senses and mind. In Hindu philosophy, the universals have been debated since the Vedic age (between 600 BC and 1500 BC)—the Vedas and the Upanishads contain several verses on why we consider some objects as certain kind of objects. The six Hindu schools of philosophy—Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedanta—have arguments on various realist, conceptualist, and nominalist positions.

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