Husserl’s Rejection of Nominalistic Skepticism and Affirmation of Universals
July 6, 2011 24 Comments
It was common in Husserl’s era to encounter not only the skeptical relativism as espoused by the empircists, but also their concomitant nominalism. Husserl viewed nominalism as equally destructive to the project of pure logic as a foundation of the sciences, as he did the skepticism he so vehemently railed against. This is due to the fact that in order for science to operate coherently, it must have a pure, a priori foundation based upon ideal entities. In other words, logic itself, as grounding scientific discourse, must be grounded theoretically in an a prioristic theory of meanings and universals. The purpose of this paper is to present and defend Husserl’s arguments for universals and his critique of nominalism—which appear just as relevant today as did his critique of skeptical relativism.
Nominalism is the theory, arising in the Late Middle Ages, which opposed the ancient/traditional view that universals had some kind of “real” existence (whether mental or ontological). Nominalists posited instead that universals were merely names, arguing that only specific, individual things existed.1 Nominalism as an epistemic theory would achieve the upper hand following upon the Enlightenment and its philosophic notables Locke, Berkeley and Hume. By Husserl’s day (the early 20th century), nominalism was still the predominate view and, in Husserl’s estimation, called for a definitive refutation.
Husserl embarked upon this endeavor in “Investigation II” of his monumental 1901 Logical Investigations, by stating bluntly what the empiricists thought to be entirely untenable: that we are, in fact, conscious of universal objects.2 Husserl’s proof for this derived from linguistic analyses and would be “be self-evident.”3 Husserl begins by writing that when we intend to refer to an object with a meaningful content, or a meaning-fulfillment, the object intended is clearly not a mere collection of disparate qualities, as nominalism would have. For example, when I refer to a horse, I do not intend only the following list of qualities: 4 legs, brownish appearance, solidity, furriness, etc., all of which collected qualities collapse into the referent of the word or syllables, “horse.” As Husserl notes, what is meant is an “Idea,” with a certain content.4 The meaning-conferring act—the referring to a certain horse, sets before us the Species of ‘horse’ as a universal object.
Husserl explains his reasoning by making an important distinction between individual singulars and specific singulars. For example, number is a concept which, as has often been stressed, has 1, 2, 3…as its subordinate singulars. A number is, e.g., the number 2…”5 This distinction between the individual and specific singulars corresponds to the equally important distinction between individual and specific universals, “or, between individual and specific universality.”6 Here, individually universal judgments would be something like, All men are mortal, while specifically universal judgments, would be something like, All propositions of logic are a priori.7
This is of such vast import because these a priori facts “run through the whole of logic… [and] are quite irremovable.”8 Husserl believes these points are proven, as with his arguments against skeptical relativism, through reductio ad absurdam arguments. That is, analyses of the attempted empiricist theories of abstraction of general concepts from particular sensuous experiences or the radical empiricist theories which reject abstract concepts in any sense, will, inevitably, lead to various absurdities, showing that universals must, of necessity, exist.
Husserl believes that realists and nominalists have confused several ideas. Realists have “metaphysically hypostatized the universal” by assuming that “the Species really exists, externally to thought.”9 That is, the error of the realists has been that the Species has an existence beyond the purely ideational realm. Nominalists have erred in “psychologically hypostatizing” the universal by assuming that the universal “really exists in thought.”10 Husserl means by this that the universal, according to the nominalist, is only a collection abstracted ideas. Thirdly, nominalists have constantly erred in attempting to “transform the universal…into what is individual.”11 For Husserl, what is real is merely that which has the mark or temporality.
The nominalist explanation of how the mind forms concepts is basically psychological in its approach. Locke argued that so-called “universals” are merely about a particular kind of abstracted thought; a certain “horse” that happens to come to mind, in which differentiating qualities of several horses seen are removed, forming the idea of some one horse which is mistakenly attributed with the fictitious idea “universality.” In Berkeley’s view, the individual conceives a certain previously sensed horse which acquired representative status. Husserl thinks both of these explanations ultimately skirt the issue and are absurd.
In response, Husserl notes that what picks out similarities in objects is not and cannot be any particular aspect of a specific object. Using ‘Four’ as a devastating example, Husserl argues as follows:
It is accordingly evident that when I say ‘Four’ in the generic sense, as, e.g., the statement ‘Four’ is a prime number relatively to seven,’ I am meaning the Species Four, I have it as object before my logical regard, and am passing judgment upon it, and not on anything individual. I am not judging about any individual group of four things, nor about any constitutive movement, piece or side of such a group, for each part, qua part of what is individual, is itself likewise individual.12
The strength of this argument cannot be overstated. The empiricist can and must hold that the unity found amongst an object over time can only be based on past or present experience of the object in question. However, when an ideal entity such as ‘Four’ is spoken of in the sense of the Species, Husserl’s argument becomes clear: there is no experiential reference for the claim that ‘Four is a prime number,’ since it refers to no object of experience, yet is certainly true. It is rather a Specific and Ideal Unity that is posited.13 Husserl explains, “no geometrical [or mathematical] proposition holds for a drawn figure as a physical object, since the latter is not really rectilinear, nor a geometrical figure at all [nor numerical].”14 Along these same lines, certainly a complex object such as a chiliagon can be spoken of, yet there is no object of abstraction that presents itself “floating” before our mind, as the nominalist must hold.
Husserl goes on to demonstrate that the radical nominalist argment that individuals only and always experience particular objects, which denies even the Lockean doctrine of concepts, devolves into further difficulties. In this view, only individual intuitions exist, which never extend beyond the sphere of what is individual.15 There is, then, on this view, no ideal unity between experiences. Meaning, then, ceases to have continuity from one experience to the next. Nothing could be predicated at all, were this the case. If nothing can be predicated sensibly of any object, then clearly all possibility of meaning and intercommunication between individuals is rendered impossible. Radical nominalism is thereby refuted by its own absurdity.
An experience of a tree, for example, from one minute to the next, from the radical nominalist perspective, would not be the same tree, as each momentary experienced ‘tree’ has its own independent proper greenness, solidity, etc. As Husserl taunts, this yields “complete nonsense.”16 In other words, the nominalist view cannot account for meaning and identity over time, or, by extension, from one mind to the next. These arguments demonstrate the necessity of universal entities as the foundation for meaning and identity over time and beyond individuating experiences.
In conclusion, Husserl proceeds to criticize nominalism along the same lines as he critiqued skeptical relativism: by turning the position in on itself and showing it to be self-destructive, leading to various absurdities. These arguments, Husserl believes, demonstrate that the human mind can conceive of universal entities and render nominalism and impossible theory. Once again, as with skepticism, nominalism is still prevalent in our day and Husserl’s hundred-year-old critique is as vital to academia and the sciences as it was in his era.
Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford University Press:
New York, NY, 1994).
Husserl, Edmund. Logical Investigations, Vol. I (Routledge: London & New York,
McKim, Donald. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Westminster
John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 1996).