ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

137. How the Question of the Universals was proposed in the Early Middle Ages. -- The classification we have just outlined cannot be applied to the philosophers of this period. And the reason is that the problem of the Universals is very complex. It not merely involves the metaphysics of the individual and of the universal, but also raises important questions in ideology, -- questions about the genesis and validity of knowledge.{1} But the earlier scholastics, unskilled in such delicate matters, did not perceive those various aspects of the problem. It did not grow up spontaneously in the Middle Ages; it was bequeathed in a text of Porphyry's Isagoge, a text that seemed simple and innocent, though somewhat obscure, and one which force of circumstances made the necessary starting-point of the earliest medieval speculations about the Universals 132, I. (3), a.

Porphyry divides the problem into three parts: (1) Do genera and species exist in Nature, or do they consist in mere products of the intellect? (2) (If they are things apart from the mind) are they corporeal or incorporeal things? (3) Do they exist outside the (individual) things of sense, or are they realized in the latter? {2} Historically the first of those questions was discussed prior to the others: the latter could have arisen only in the event of denying an exclusively subjective character to universal realities. Now the first question was whether genera and species are objective realities or not, sive subsistant, sive in nudis intellectibus posita sint? In other words, the sole point in debate was the absolute reality of the Universals: their truth, their relation to the understanding, was not in question. The text from Porphyry, apart from the solutions he elsewhere proposed in works unknown to the early scholastics, is an inadequate statement of the question; for it takes account only of the objective aspect and neglects the psychological standpoint which alone can give the key to the true solution. Moreover, Porphyry, after proposing his triple interrogation, in the Isagoge, refuses to offer an answer, dicere recusabo. Boëthius, in his two commentaries, gives replies that are vague and scarcely consistent.{3} In the second commentary, which is the more important one, he holds that genera and species are both subsistentia and intellecta (1st question), the similarity of things being the basis (subjectum) both of their individuality in Nature and their universality in the Mind; that genera and species are incorporeal not by nature but by abstraction (2nd question); and that they exist both inside and outside the things of sense (3rd question).{4}

This was not sufficiently clear for beginners: though we can see in it the basis of the Aristotelian solution of the problem. The early scholastics faced the problem as proposed by Porphyry: limiting the controversy to genera and species, and its solutions to the alternatives suggested by the first question: Do the objects of our concepts, i.e., genera and species, exist in Nature (subsistentia), or are they mere abstractions (nuda intellecta)? Are they, or are they not, things? Those who replied in the affirmative got the name of reals or realists; the others that of nominals or nominalists. We will show later why we prefer to call the latter simply anti-realists.

{1} See "The Scholastic Synthesis," below.

{2} Mox de generibus et speciebus illud quidem sive subsistant sive in nudis intellectibus posita sint, sive subsistentia corporalia sint an incorporalia, et utrum separata a sensibilibus an in sensibilibus posita et circa haec subsistentia, dicere recusabo.

{3} In the thirteenth century we find Godfrey of St. Victor reproaching Boëthius in these words: "Assidet Boëthius stupens de hac lite -- Audies quid hic et hic afferat perite -- Et quid cui favet non discernit rite -- Nec praesumit solvere litem definite" (quoted by LOEWE, Kampf zwischen Realismus u. Nominalismus im Mittelalter, p. 30).

{4} See MIGNE, Patr. Lat., t. 64, cols. 84, 85.

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