Ockham on Reference

William of Ockham (1285-1347) is the most famous so-called “nominalist” in Latin medieval philosophy. He sought to explain our practical and theoretical uses of universals entirely in terms of our relations to existing singular things.

Without losing sight of Plato’s emphasis on the value of pure thought, Aristotle had adopted a broader perspective, starting from the generality of human life. In this context, in contrast to Plato he had emphasized the genuine importance, positive role, and irreducibility of singular beings or things that we encounter in life. “For us” singular beings and things come first, even if they do not come first in the order of the cosmos.

Singular beings and things are more concretely “real” than any generalizations about them. But Aristotle simultaneously upheld the “Platonic” view that knowledge in the strong sense can apply only to generalizations of necessary consequences between things, and not to our experiences of singulars. There can be no necessity in our experience of something purely singular. What I would call the extraordinarily productive tension between Aristotle’s fundamental views of reality (putting singulars first) and of knowledge (putting universals first) created an appearance of paradox that later commentators sought to resolve, often by favoring one side at the expense of the other.

Ockham wanted to explain universals entirely in terms of singulars. In the Cambridge Companion to Ockham, Claude Panaccio summarizes that “Ockham’s project is to explicate all semantical and epistemological features — truth values, for instance — in terms of relations between sign-tokens and singular objects in the world” (p. 58).

Ockham built on the work of many less well-known figures. The Latin world had seen lively inquiries about logic and semantics since the 12th century, when Arabic learning first began to be disseminated across Europe. Within this tradition, there is more than one approach to meaning.

The technical notion of “signification” was a development inspired largely by Augustine’s theory of “signs”. Unlike more recent usages (e.g., in Saussurean linguistics), this kind of signification involves a simple relation of correspondence between a thing taken as a “sign” and some other thing.

Ockham and many of his predecessors held that there is such a thing as natural signification, independent of any language. In this sense, smoke is taken to be a “sign” of a fire. This relation of smoke signifying fire is called “natural”, because in our experience smoke only exists where there is fire, and this has to do with how the world is, rather than with us. This is very different from the conventional imposition of the word “fire” to refer to a fire.

At the same time, this notion of signification also seems to have an irreducible “psychological” component. It has something to do with how the world is, but in a more direct sense, it has to do with something like what the British empiricists later called the association of ideas. Our “natural” association of smoke with fire is not arbitrary. As the empiricists would say, it is grounded in experience. As the Latin scholastics would say, the soul “naturally” tends to associate smoke with fire, and this is as much a truth about the soul — or about the soul existing in the world — as it is a truth about the world.

For Ockham, natural signification applies to concepts, which constitute the core of a sort of “mental language” that is in many ways analogous to spoken or written language, but is more original and does not depend on convention. Concepts on this understanding are subject to all the same kinds of syntactical relationships as individual words in speech.

In this tradition, the meaning of concepts is analyzed by analogy with the role of individual words in speech. This presupposes a view that linguistic meaning overall is founded on the meanings of individual words. The individual concepts of “mental language” that apply to individual real-world things are analogously supposed to have pre-given, natural meanings. Logic and semantics are then a sort of mental hygiene with respect to their proper use.

Ockham offers a rich analysis of connotative terms that modify the concepts corresponding to things.

Again building on the work of many authors in the Latin tradition, he develops the theory of logical “supposition”, which contemporary scholars associate with semantic discussions of reference to real-world objects. This has nothing to do with supposition in the sense of hypothesis; rather, it relates etymologically to a notion of something “standing under” something else.

Notably, Ockham and this whole tradition insist that while individual words independently have signification, only in the context of propositions or assertions expressed by whole sentences do words have the kind of reference associated with supposition. I suspect this is ultimately grounded in Aristotle’s thesis that truth and falsity apply only to whole propositions or assertions; “supposition” is to explain not just meaning, but also truth and falsity. This tradition develops a much more explicit theory of reference than Aristotle did, and the kind of reference it develops is tied to contexts of assertion, or true assertion.

The idea that reference to real-world things should be approached at the level of propositions rather than individual words or concepts has much to recommend it. But for Ockham and the tradition he continued, supposition is still fundamentally governed by signification, and signification begins with individual words or concepts. Individual words or concepts are thought to have pre-given meanings, and Ockham attempts to give this a theoretical grounding with his notion of “mental language”.

As Ockham suggests, there is a way in which notions of syntactic relations apply to pure concepts. But I take this to be an abstraction from actual usage in spoken or written language, and I don’t believe in any pre-given meanings.

Ockham’s general strong privileging of individual things over universals has a deep relation to his voluntarist and fideist theology, which owes much to his fellow Franciscan Duns Scotus. In logic, Scotus is considered a defender of “realism” about universals as opposed to nominalism, but in his theology he developed a strong notion of individuation, tied to a very radical notion of divine omnipotence that refused to subordinate it in any way, even to divine goodness (see Aquinas and Scotus on Power; Being and Representation). Essentially, from this point of view, every single thing that happens is a miracle coming directly from God, and all observed regularity in the world pertains only to a sort of divine “habit” that could be contravened at any moment.

Aquinas aimed at a sort of diplomatic compromise between this extreme theistic view that makes everything solely dependent on God, and Aristotle’s unequivocal assertion of the reality of “secondary” causes. Scotus and Ockham applied high levels of logical sophistication in defense of the extreme view.

Ockham also denied the reality of mathematical objects. Together with his extreme view on divine power, this makes very unlikely the view promoted by some scholars that Ockham in particular represented the strand of medieval thought that most helped promote the emergence of modern science. Ockham’s undeniable logical acumen was dedicated to downplaying rather than elaborating the practical importance of order in nature.

It does seem, though, that views like Ockham’s contributed to the shaping of British empiricist philosophy. Here is another chapter in the complex history of notions of reference and representation. Ockham’s very strong notion of reference as directly grounded in singular real-world objects — combined with that of the natural signification or pre-given meaning of concepts in “mental language” — helped lay the ground for what modern empiricism would treat as common sense.

For most of the 20th century, the mainstream of analytic philosophy seemed to be inseparable from a strongly empiricist direction. But Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Brandom, and others have initiated a new questioning of the assumptions of empiricism from within contemporary analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is no longer nearly so opposed to the history of philosophy or to continental philosophy as it was once assumed to be. It is in this context that we can begin to look at a sort of Foucaultian or de Libera-esque “archaeology” of empiricism, in which Ockham certainly deserves an important place.

Wisdom and Responsibility

Among other works, the great early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote his own Cartesian Meditations, an expanded version of lectures delivered in Paris in 1929. Husserl developed his own version of phenomenology, very different from Hegel’s, and his own version of transcendental subjectivity, very different from Kant’s. Throughout his career, he was concerned to criticize naive notions of objectivity. While disagreeing with a few of his fundamental principles, I enormously admire his nuanced development and intellectual honesty.

Husserl writes that “The aim of [Descartes’] Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation” (Cartesian Meditations, p. 1). I think of philosophy as concerned with generalized, coherent interpretation of life and the world as an ongoing, never-finished project, rather than a completed rational “science”. But Husserl, with all his scruples about premature claims of objectivity, is famously provisional in most of his actual developments. As long as the ultimate “science” remains an aim and is not claimed as a present possession, we have not fallen into dogmatism. I think Husserl overall actually does better than Kant at avoiding overstated claims of “scientific” accomplishment.

According to Husserl, Descartes “gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself” (p. 2). I tend to worry more about illegitimate claims on behalf of a sovereign Subject than about premature claims to know about real objects, but both concerns are valid. “Philosophy — wisdom (sagesse) — is the philosopher’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step” (ibid).

The literal meaning of the Greek philosophia is “love of wisdom”. Some kind of wisdom, rather theoretical knowledge, was the main goal of ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, all the way to the neoplatonists. An emphasis on wisdom as distinct from knowledge puts a “practical”, ultimately ethical dimension above all particular inquiries, whereas Latin scholastics focused on more technical debates about the truth of propositions, and early modern philosophy was permeated with ideals of pure science. I think it was really more the Kantian primacy of practical reason than the Cartesian cogito that initiated a partial turn back to the ethical concerns of the ancients. Some writers have suggested that claims for the revolutionary character of the cogito are more shaped by Kant’s interpretation and by the perception of Descartes as a precursor to Kant than by Descartes’ original.

Commentators have noted that ethical concerns are basically absent from Descartes’ Meditations. Kant and Husserl each in their own way reinfused broadly ethical concerns into Descartes’ preoccupations with the foundations of knowledge.

Husserl appeals to “the spirit that characterizes radicalness of philosophical self-responsibility” (p. 6). “Must not the demand for a philosophy aiming at the ultimate conceivable freedom from prejudice, shaping itself with actual autonomy according to ultimate evidences it has itself produced, and therefore absolutely self-responsible — must not this demand, instead of being excessive, be part of the fundamental sense of genuine philosophy?” (ibid).

This Husserlian appeal to autonomy, like Kant’s, ultimately still has to answer to the critiques of Hegel and Brandom (see In Itself, For Itself; Autonomy, Normativity; Self-Legislation?). Nonetheless, it is a high point in the development of the human spirit.

The Ladder Metaphor

Hegel’s figure of a “ladder”, adopted by H.S. Harris in the title of his commentary on the Phenomenology, stands in contrast to the notion of a metaphorically life-risking intuitive leap of faith or salto mortale that had been popularized by the fideistic proto-existentialist German literary figure F. H. Jacobi. Harris has not said it yet and I don’t recall whether he will, but it seems clear to me that the ladder is a metaphor for dialectic.

He emphasizes that for Hegel, except in his very early period, “knowledge is actual only as system” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 63) and “Only a community of knowers can constitute the presence of the Spirit to itself as science” (p. 64).

What will turn out to be essential to Hegel’s notions of “system” and “Science” is neither a foundationalist construction nor some kind of closure, but the much more modest idea that (as Brandom might say) meaning has its basis in mutual recognition and shareable inferential articulation.

Harris’ abstract of paragraph 26 reads in part, “The element of Wissen [knowledge] is self-cognition in otherness. This conceptual soil is the substance of spirit. So Science presupposes that we self-consciously exist in this element; but we have a good right to ask for the ladder by which to get into heaven where it is” (ibid).

He comments that “from 1797 onwards, Hegel was explicating the religious experience of ‘love’…. [H]e expounded religion philosophically because he regarded the intuitive leap to the awareness of living, moving, and having one’s being in God as the sin qua non of all speculative insight…. It was through long meditation upon Greek religion, and upon the experience of the religious founders Moses and Jesus, that Hegel’s concept of philosophic science was shaped. But from about the middle of 1803 onwards, he had begun to believe that the leap could be replaced by a ladder of explanatory discourse” (p. 65). For the mature Hegel, religion gives an accessible imaginative representation to what philosophy develops in thought.

In the course of this exposition, Harris notes that “The ‘antithesis’ between consciousness and its objects arises from the concern with controlling or being controlled; no matter how much ‘self-control’ we have, or how much control we are consequently able to exercise over our environment, what we desire and what we fear controls us. ‘Science’ transcends this relationship; it inverts control into freedom. When Jesus claimed identity with ‘the Father’…, he was not claiming to control anything. He was not even claiming to control his own thinking…. Rather, he was adopting a noncontrolling attitude towards experience; and in so doing he ceased to be controlled by it in any practical sense” (ibid).

Instrumentalism?

In the last post I gave positive mention to an “instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation”. I think an instrumental view of science is the natural one from an engineering point of view, which the philosophy of science ought to take very seriously. I actually work as an engineer in my day job, and have a bit of engineering education. Though these days I privately think of myself mainly as a moral philosopher, I truly enjoy engineering for its practical orientation. Engineers learn that the real world doesn’t always conform to theoretical simplifications, and they have to make what are actually value judgments all the time.

Curiously, it seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with technology and all the stereotypes about nutty scientists, engineering as a discipline doesn’t have nearly as much social prestige as science. For the reasons just mentioned, I think engineering deserves the higher status, as the actually more comprehensive concern. Modern science is first and foremost a tool used in engineering. But in our culture’s mythology of science, there is a popular prejudice that engineers — unlike real scientists — just make rote applications of formulae developed by scientists. Meanwhile science students — if I may be forgiven a broad-brush picture — all too often seem to get the message that the latest Science is Truth, and everything else is irrelevant. This can unfortunately make them arrogant and dogmatic in later life. I think engineers on the whole are more attuned to the provisional status of assumptions.

On the historiographical side, I think the over-propagandized scientific revolution was actually more of an engineering revolution. The design of experiments can be considered a kind of engineering, as can the development and use of therapeutic techniques in medicine. The very practical, experiment-oriented work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in its broad parameters at least is a much better model for science in the modern sense than the new mechanist/voluntarist dualist world view promoted by Descartes, or even the empiricism of Locke. In terms of the long time-scale of human development, engineering long predates science, and I think that generally speaking, historical causality flows that way, with engineering driving science rather than following it.

These varied considerations seem to me to jointly favor an “instrumentalist” view in the philosophy of science. This is another example of the mediated or “long detour” type of approach to knowledge that seems most sound to me.

In analytic philosophy in recent decades, there has been a big debate about realism versus anti-realism. Implicitly, this mainly applies to the philosophy of science, but in many circles there are still prejudices that theory of knowledge comes first in philosophy, and that science is the most important kind of knowledge. This can make it seem as if realist or anti-realist positions in the philosophy of science must be applied across the board at a sort of ontological level, but I want to argue against that.

I think that ethical reason and interpretation come before the theory of knowledge in the overall order of explanation relevant to human life, and that normative practical judgment actually grounds what we think of as exact knowledge. From an ethical standpoint, it is vitally important to recognize there is a “push-back” of reality we need to respect and take into account, so I want to argue for a kind of realism. The true home for a respect for realism, I want to say, should be ethics and not the philosophy of science. We can meet all the ethical needs related to concern for objectivity in a way that is entirely compatible with an instrumentalist and “anti-realist” philosophy of science. Meanwhile, a more modest view of science — as a valuable tool rather than a source of ultimate truth — can help heal the false rift between science and values that permeates our culture. Further, if science is a tool and we also say that higher forms of faith are expressed not in propositions but in action and attitude (as I would respectfully suggest), then in the world of what should be, there is no possibility of conflict from either side. (See also Kinds of Reason.)

Demonstrative “Science”?

The “historiographical” notes on the history of philosophy I offer here from time to time are a sort of compromise. For much of my life, I’ve been very concerned with the fine grain of such history, and with casting a broad net encompassing many historical figures. Here, I made a strategic decision to focus instead on a mere handful of philosophers I consider most important.

Discussion of actualization in Hegel led to actualization in Aristotle, which led me to indulge my fascination with the Aristotelian commentary tradition. To the extent that it is possible to generalize about the historic readings discussed in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin commentaries, my own view of Aristotle is quite different on a number of key points, having more in common with some modern readings. Nonetheless, I am enormously impressed by the levels of sophistication shown by very many writers in this tradition.

I just mentioned al-Farabi again. As previously noted, al-Farabi (10th century CE) played a great historic role in the formulation of Arabic (and consequently, Hebrew and Latin) views of Aristotle. The Syrian Christians who did the majority of the translating of Aristotle to Arabic from Syriac had access to most of Aristotle’s works, but publicly only taught from the logical treatises. It was al-Farabi who initiated public teaching of the full range of Aristotelian philosophy in the Islamic world. He flourished during the so-called Islamic golden age, a time of tremendous interest in ancient learning not only by aristocrats but by many literate skilled crafts people. The political climate of the Islamic world at the time was much more embracing of secular learning than it came to be between the 13th and 19th centuries CE.

One unfortunate aspect of al-Farabi’s reading was a very strong privileging of a notion of demonstrative “science” over Aristotle’s own predominant use of dialectic in philosophical development. This was based on a reading of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics as propounding a model of “science” as a deductive enterprise expected to result in certain knowledge, which is still dominant today, but which I (following a number of modern interpreters) think involves a misreading of the basic aims of Aristotelian demonstration.

The idea that Aristotle was fundamentally concerned to develop “sciences” yielding certain knowledge gave a more dogmatic cast to his whole work, which has been a contributing factor in common negative stereotypes of Aristotle. Many modern commentators who still accept this reading of Posterior Analytics have been puzzled by the huge gap between this and Aristotle’s actual practice throughout his works, which in fact is mainly dialectical. I think a careful reading of the Topics (on dialectic) and Posterior Analytics (on demonstration) with consultation of the Greek text on the originals of some key phrases yields a view that is far more consistent with Aristotle’s actual practice.

Demonstration is a pedagogical way of showing very clear reasons for certain kinds of conclusions. It works by assuming some premises are true, whereas dialectic makes no such assumption. Thus the only necessity that results from demonstration is the “hypothetical” one that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is also true. But the more important point in regard to the classic syllogistic form is that the common “middle term” that allows the major and minor premises to be both formally and materially composed together illuminates why we ought to consider it appropriate to assume the conclusion is true if we believe the premises are true.

Dialectic, as I have said, is cumulative, exploratory discursive reasoning about meanings in the absence of initial certainty. This is how Aristotle mainly approaches things. Dialectic implicitly relies on the same logical form of syllogistic argument explicitly used in demonstration, but Aristotle distinguishes dialectic and demonstration by whether premises are treated as hypotheses to be evaluated, or as hypothetically assumed “truths” to be interpreted.

It is also important to note that in the Latin scholastic tradition, the dogmatic trend resulting from wide acceptance of claims about demonstrative science was significantly mitigated by a strong counter-trend of evenhandedly analyzing arguments pro and con, which effectively revived a form of dialectic. (See also Foundations?; Fortunes of Aristotle; Scholastic Dialectic.)

Modern Science

My main concern here is with a sort of meta-ethical discourse, and my critical remarks on topics like modern univocal causality should be taken in that context. Though I have deep appreciation for the cultural accomplishments of antiquity and even the middle ages, I am not any kind of Luddite. I am interested in science; admire higher mathematics; work with high technology; and use univocal causality in an instrumental way on a daily basis.

Renaissance

Renaissance Aristotelianism has finally at least become a subject of specialized scholarship. Decades ago, John Herman Randall Jr. put forth the thesis that modern science actually originated from Italian Renaissance secular Aristotelianism, especially in the University of Padua. Consensus seems to be that Randall overstated his case, but he put it in very strong terms. A weaker version of that seems a lot more plausible to me than what are still more common attempts to associate modern science with Renaissance Platonism. Renaissance Platonism was interesting, but not remotely scientific or mathematical. People like Ficino and Pico and Bruno were actually more interested in magic.

Even theological Aristotelianisms always preserved a fair amount of naturalistic content. Unlike most medieval and Renaissance universities, the Italian ones were dominated by the faculties of medicine and law rather than the faculty of theology. Italian scholasticism therefore developed in a more secular context. Secular masters of arts played an important role across Europe, and theologians too addressed many philosophical concerns in a sophisticated way, so the distinction is relative. But especially strong currents of largely naturalistic scholasticism developed in Italy.

It is also a little known fact that more commentaries on Aristotle were produced in the 16th century than in all previous history. There is a good high-level overview in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (See also Languages, Books, Curricula.)