[Article] The Philosophical Implications of Sense Realism

A Response to Daniel Wagner

James D. Capehart, Ph.D.
Sacred Heart Apostolic School
Rolling Prairie, IN

[response to daniel wagner, “the logical terms of sense realism”]

pdf_iconDownload Issue Version PDF

In his essay “The Logical Terms of Sense Realism: A Thomistic-Aristotelian and Phenomenological Defense” Daniel Wagner addresses the problem of universals and specifically the problem of the Nominalist solution to it in both a refreshingly new and yet traditional fashion. It is “new” in that it foregoes the genetic account of human knowing—at least for the time being—in making the case for realism. It is “traditional” in tying it into Aristotle’s logical account of how we form our notions of secondary substance—genus, species, and difference—and how we predicate these notions of secondary substance of primary substances—i.e., individuals. Furthermore, in confronting Nominalism by means of examining how we think and speak about individuals, Wagner takes a common ground approach for the starting point of this debate. No matter what form of Nominalism is invoked, a given Nominalist philosopher is thinking and predicating about things even when he denies the reality of universals as corresponding to real essences existing within things. Bracketing this phenomenon of how we encounter in sensation, think about, and name things not only as individuals but as kinds of things provides a framework for discussion which I believe the Nominalist must accept at least implicitly because he makes use of it in science and in everyday life. With this in mind, Wagner proceeds to provide a most profitable treatment of Aristotle’s account of predication and definition first in the Topics, then in the Categories, followed by a reductio ad absurdum argument for realism, all founded upon a Thomistic/Aristotelian/Avicennian account of form. In the following commentary, I will proceed in two phases: first, I will provide a general summary of Wagner’s key points; second, I will suggest two areas for further development, one which can map this treatment more explicitly onto St. Thomas’ position as found in De Ente et Essentia and another which will connect and emphasize the anthropological and moral philosophical implications of Wagner’s—I believe successful—defense of moderate realism.

In his introduction Wagner makes the case that the genetic “defense” for a doctrine of realism should be delayed for after a presentation of the logical account for realism. As he explains, “It is a methodological error to think that the genetic account comes first in the realist approach to knowledge because, objectively speaking, human beings are already regularly engaged in thinking and speaking acts characteristic of a realist attitude using concepts as though they signify what things in the world really are.”[2] Thus, while a given nominalist might reject a given realist’s genetic account for the process of human knowing—honestly, is that not precisely the problem?—he still makes use of concepts, predicating them of things. The nominalist may say that all that is common between things of a given genus or species is their name—hence “nominalism” for nomen, nominis, name—but Wagner is seeking to examine the logical foundations of that process which even the nominalist uses, precisely because he is human. While the focus of the essay is on human language and thought, it will establish anthropological, natural, metaphysical, and ethical foundations for a thoroughly realist philosophy.

Proceeding into the body of the essay, Wagner begins with a treatment of predication in Topics. This is helpful for the reader who is not as familiar with the textual Aristotle for its presentation of the predicables—definition, property, genus, difference, and accident—and their relation to the categories—“what it is”/”definition,” quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, possession, action, and passion.[3] If a categorical term tells what something is or tells the kind of thing it is, like a genus, species, property, or difference, then that categorical term is regarded to be definitive of the subject. If it is non-definitive, but merely states what the subject happens to have but might not have, the term is just an accident. Thus, as Wagner explains, for Aristotle, “…knowledge pursued in rational discourse is a matter of determining how various categorical predicates are connected to the subject of inquiry, either as definitive (genus, species, difference), or as accidental (accident).”[4] Aristotle’s logic is firmly rooted in a realism of coming to know what is constitutive of the essences of things, of what is merely accidental of them, and predicating in either case accurately.

Wagner then proceeds to a detailed explication of predication in the Categories. As has been hinted at already, both works according to Wagner should be treated not only as logical but as simultaneously logical and ontological. This becomes especially clear through Wagner’s presentation of equivocal and univocal predication in the Categories. Terms are equivocal when while the term itself is common the “‘account of the being [i.e., the definition] in accord with the name is different.’”[5] Thus, for a term to be used equivocally, the actual definitional account of what is referred to in the world differs in each usage despite the commonality in pronunciation of a given term—like the “bat” that hits a ball or the “bat” that flies around at night. However, in a case of univocal predication, “a term and the content of the definition attached to it are applied identically to a set of individual existing beings.”[6] In other words, univocal predication occurs when the same term as well as the same definitional account is applied to a set of singular, particular things. “Apple” can only be said univocally of two or more things, if by that term one means that the things share a common account of what it means to be an “apple.” But does not science and real life depend upon the ability to predicate “apple” of things which share in that meaning, “honey bee” of buzzing things of that same meaning, or “peanuts” of shelled legumes of that same meaning?[7]

Thus, Wagner shows that univocal predication is the foundation of sense realism and is really the key to the problem at hand. In fact, through his detailed textual account of Aristotle, Wagner explains that root of realism is in the univocal predication of secondary ousia—genus and species—of primary ousia—individually existing particulars. Primary ousia has ontological priority over those terms which are predicated of it, as secondary ousia and the other nine categories are either said of primary beings as subjects—as in the case of predicating secondary ousia of an individual—or are in them as in subjects—as in the case of the predication of accidents of an individual.[8] This ontological priority asserts itself by the fact that universals—i.e., concepts—are formed in the intellect based upon an encounter with a set of individuals through sensation. As Wagner clarifies, “Since universals are formed in the intellect by a collection of what is common to a set of individual primary beings given first to sensation, it follows that the non-existence of an essential feature in the primary beings will result in its non-existence as a secondary being, i.e., as genus or species.”[9] Thus, as rooted in really existing individuals, the concepts we form of them are true only to the degree that they express what the individuals really have or what they really are essentially, and deny what they really lack. Secondary being then is expressive of real, essential commonalities of things of like kind and because of this is truly said univocally of the individuals of which they are predicated.[10]

After making his case for the logical foundations of realism within Aristotle’s logic, Wagner proceeds to present a short history of the Problem of Universals and Nominalism as it developed in the Middle Ages and came to its “perfection” in Ockham’s Nominalism. This is followed by a reductio ad absurdum argument against said Nominalism in the fashion of Aristotle’s defense of the Principle of Contradiction in the Metaphysics.[11] For the Nominalist, there can be no univocal predication of terms and their definitions to particular beings, as they argue that there is no shared, common nature within particulars to ground such predication. Nevertheless, such assertions entail truth claims about how secondary ousia relates to particulars, but also entails that some sense of common definitional account of particulars is necessary not only for science but for ordinary, everyday life.  How could one be expected to “buy an apple” or “take out the trash” if someone didn’t know the meaning of “apple” or “trash” but also of the human actions “buy” and “take out?” Thus, predication of a definition to an individual presupposes an identity between the meaning of the definition and the individual. It also entails a relation between primary beings of like kind as having a shared essence. The nominalist must make use of this framework of these relations even in the midst of attempting to deny them, but also in the attempt at any kind of meaningful philosophy, science, and human life.[12]

This brings me to mention a minor point of development and also, I think, a major one. Wagner has presented this as an Aristotelian/Avicennian/Thomistic/Phenomenological defense of realism. This was a large task to draw from all four traditions in one essay, even if Thomas and Avicenna are themselves from within the Aristotelian tradition. Still, Wagner concludes his treatment with a very brief explanation of the principle at root for this identity between secondary ousia and primary ousia, viz. form. In short, the Avicennian/Thomistic account of the modes of existence of essence or form within the mind as known and within material things themselves are presented as a kind of metaphysical grounding for the epistemological/logical account that he has given. Without in any way suggesting Wagner’s essay to be incomplete in what it was attempting and I think successfully did, any follow up essay would do well to tie in this previous account to a more developed treatment of St. Thomas’ own explicit doctrine on the problem of universals as presented in De Ente et Essentia, III.[13] Wagner had already indicated that the more genetic account of the problem of universals should come after his logically rooted treatment, so Thomas’ more detailed explanation for how form exists in singulars and in the mind would map on quite profitably either in an extended version of this essay or as a follow up.

Regarding the point of major development, I have alluded to it already when I noted that the ability to “buy an apple” or “take out the trash” entailed not only a universal meaning to be applicable to “apples” and “trash” but also to “buy” and “take out.” While Nominalism can easily be shown to have laid waste to perennial natural philosophy and metaphysics, it has also contributed to the rejection of an objective ethics rooted in knowing what human beings are, what actions are in accord with that nature and bring about flourishing, and what actions do violence to that nature and thwart flourishing. Nominalism taken in its fullness would not only reject the intrinsic commonality of essences within things of like kind but also of a common essentiality to human actions of like kind. The specification of human actions as intrinsically evil in kind according to a knowable formal object of the act becomes unintelligible with such an epistemological, metaphysical, and physical worldview. Consequently, Wagner’s defense of realism through our modes of thought and speech has significant implications for philosophical anthropology and ethics as a counter to Ethical Nominalism. In short, to make a case for an objective ethics depends upon knowing what human beings are and what is the human good—that is, having a definitional account of what human beings are and what constitutes the good for them as this type of being. Also, such an ethics entails that human actions have common natures which can be known and specified as good or evil in kind. Wagner’s essay establishes a launching point, then, for what I think can be extremely valuable further philosophical discussion and development. But neither of these points should be regarded as deficiencies within the essay itself, as every good essay should succeed in a specifically stated purpose and should point toward the next avenues for discussion. Wagner’s treatment of the logical terms of Aristotle’s sense realism has done just that.

[response to daniel wagner, “the logical terms of sense realism”]

pdf_iconDownload Issue Version PDF

[1] Correspondence to editors@realityjournal.org.

[2] Wagner, “The Logical terms of Sense Realism: A Thomistic-Aristotelian and Phenomenological Defense,” 3.

[3] Cf. Wagner, 6-7.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 7, quoting Categories, 1 (1a1-3).

[6] Wagner, 8.

[7] N.B. Farmers, Entomologists, and people with severe allergies sure do hope so.

[8] Cf. Wagner, 14-15.

[9] Wagner, 15.

[10] Cf. Wagner, 19.

[11] Cf. Wagner, 19-22.

[12] Cf. Wagner, 22-23.

[13] However, this text is cited, as well as is its Avicennian counterpart, in Note 81.


3 thoughts on “[Article] The Philosophical Implications of Sense Realism

Comments are closed.