The Place of Abelardus in the Discussion of Universals and Knowledge Relation

The Place of Abelardus in the Discussion of Universals and Knowledge Relation

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

In the twelfth century, when Abelard lived, there were many philosophers who focused on the problem of universals. Roscelinus (1050-1123), one of Abelard’s teachers and later convicted of heresy by Anselmus, was the pioneer of nominalists (nominalists).

We do not have a single one of his works that we know indirectly that he wrote. As Ioannes Salisburiensis later told us, Roscelinus said that universals do not really exist; but he thought they were spoken words. For Roscelinus, who thought that sounds were identical with the universal, the only things that really existed were individual ones. Universals were simple words; they were Flatus vocis, that is, something that flew out of a person’s mouth while trying to say something.

Abelardus basically thought that everything was particular. In fact, this was the starting point of his metaphysics. As it is known, this is an understanding put forward by Aristotle in Categories and Porphyrios in Isagoge. As discussed above, the universal, which becomes evident through the questions asked by Porphyrios in Isagoge, has a substantial structure (like human); sometimes the universal has emerged as a feature or accident (such as whiteness) in these discussions. If we start from Abelard’s approach which is evident in Aristotle readings, we understand that universals are not things. In Logica Ingredientibus, Abelardus argues that universals are voces (Marenbon, 2007: 27-28).

While doing this, he follows Roscelinus. However, he thinks that universals are not just words, they also have meanings. Therefore, it would not be correct to simply call Abelardus a vocalist, that is, someone who thinks that universals consist only of sounds. According to him, universals are not voces; but sermones are names that have a function like a sign. That’s exactly why every name has an object it points to, and no one can make judgments by arbitrarily associating these names with objects. For example, no one says, “Man is a car.” cannot use the expression. Although this sentence seems grammatically correct, it contains a content that will distort the meaning of the words (Marenbon, 2007: 63-64). Due to this close connection between the name and the object, it is natural for the sound to include an abstract understanding, and therefore it is called nomen or sermo (name). The name is thus the expression of a thought-provoking reality: nomen est vox significativa. (Wulf, 1951: 197).

According to Abelardus, we can talk about a dual distinction in nature. The first of these is the senses, and the other is the power of understanding and abstraction. According to the classical understanding, the senses use the body and their objects are audible physical objects. The mind, on the other hand, fulfills its most basic task, the power of abstraction, and it does not need the body in any way. According to Abelardus, there are two types of understanding formed by the mind. One of them is vague and general, does not indicate any particular existence: like “man”. Other kinds of understandings point to a particular particular and are named with proper names: such as “Socrates” (Maurer, 1982: 65).

Universal words produce a thought in the mind as well as a mental image. These mental images are complex and general insights. For example, the word “human” is a general concept that is common to all humans and does not indicate a particularity in any way. Abelardus says that these common understandings are what universal words point to (Marenbon, 2007: 488). As many philosophers would later adopt, Abelardus argues that general concepts are constructed through abstraction. According to him, abstraction is focusing only on that feature, ignoring all the features of anything except a certain feature. For example, ignoring all the features of an apple such as its roundness, softness and flavor, and thinking only about its redness means abstracting a feature in that apple. If we think in this way, it will be possible to argue that even individual existences are shaped in a certain way through abstraction.

As a result, Abelard tries to summarize his universal teaching by answering Porphyrios’ questions as follows:

– Are there genera and species? According to Abelardus, universals exist only in our minds as concepts. However, they signify real things. In fact, universals refer to the same individuals represented by particular insights, albeit in a complex and ambiguous way.

– Are universals corporeal or immaterial? Universals are corporeal and sensible as long as they remain words; but they are also immaterial because of their ability to signify many similar individuals.

– Do universals exist in sensible things or outside of them? Anselmus’ answer to this question is as follows: Universals signify the forms of sensible things.