McMaster Philosophy Speaker Series Presents:
Peirce’s Plan for Defeating Nominalism
Nominalism is traditionally characterized as a view about the ontological status of universals, the central commitment being that generals, like “humanity,” are merely signs (subjective representations or thought-objects) that have no mind-independent reality. This view is not wrong, but it distorts our understanding of nominalism’s central tendency. In this presentation, I follow Charles S. Peirce (and others) in disentangling nominalism from the problem of universals, arguing that the nominalist’s method of logical analysis, and the standpoint they take concerning the meaning of reality, is what occasions their view about the status of universals—a method and standpoint that equally questions the status of relations. Ockham is my primary foil. In keeping with Peirce, Calvin Normore, and Barry Allen, I show that Ockham’s analysis of propositions reaches bedrock in absolute categorematic terms that purport to stand for existing particulars—these terms being the primary units of Ockham’s logical atomism. This analysis ultimately constrains Ockham’s ontology, as the meaning of reality is exhausted by the existing particulars that these terms stand for. One consequence of this analysis is that relations are relegated to propositional contexts where they serve the syntactical function of relating categorematic terms to one another. Crucially, relations have no external reality apart from propositional contexts. After outlining the central features of Ockham’s analysis, I turn to Peirce’s plan for defeating nominalism. By drawing on Peirce’s doctrine of continuity, I demonstrate how he utilizes two interweaving methods of abstraction to analyze the proposition into a continuous relation. Continuous relations are shown to precede the subjects being related, which makes relations themselves out to be the most elementary units of logic. I conclude by suggesting that Peirce’s continuous relations offer a strong argument against another nominalist, F. H. Bradley, by rejecting his famous “regress argument” against relations.