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Wittgenstein on nominalism


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Wittgenstein on nominalism
Date: 11 November 2004 11:57

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 30 October, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question:

'...So it may look as if what we were doing were Nominalism.' - What is so wrong with being a Nominalist? In what way is the doctrine of 'meaning is use' meant to improve on the traditional Nominalist response to the problem of universals?

Here's the full quote: 'We are not analysing a phenomenon (e.g. thought) but a concept (e.g. that of thinking), and therefore the use of a word. So it may look as if what we were doing were Nominalism. Nominalists make the mistake of interpreting all words as names, and so of not really describing their use, but only, so to speak, giving a paper draft on such a description' (L. Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations, I/§383).

I like the approach you have taken, looking at the historical context and the heated, indeed deadly debate over Nominalism.

As a student, I remember puzzling over the phrase, 'giving a paper draft on such a description' for hours. What did Wittgenstein mean? What is it to give a paper draft on a description? or, for that matter, a paper draft on anything?

Let's start by asking, what is the attraction of Nominalism? You say, ''One can see why Nominalism would have a certain appeal... we seem to name our thoughts... Having a word for something implies a mastery of it. The idea that every word is the mane of something suggests that knowledge is finite...'.

The idea that all human knowledge relates back to sense experience, or 'empiricism' arose as a powerful opposing force to rationalism, or the idea that knowledge depends on a priori principles, 'implanted in our minds by God' as Descartes believed.

By contrast with - or, perhaps, behind - this epistemological concern, however, there is an ontological question about the 'being' of concepts. Plato's theory of Forms or 'ideas' raises this question in the most vivid way. For example, we make judgements about what is 'just' or 'unjust'; how can we do this if we don't know what Justice is? Plato argues that the Form of Justice exists as a metaphysical entity in its own right, apart from the world of phenomena. In order to explain how this extra-worldly entity connects to human consciousness, Plato had recourse to an extravagant myth (perhaps he really believed it) that the soul, before it existed in a material body, lived amongst the immaterial Forms, and is able subsequently, with the aid of dialectic, to 'recollect' this knowledge'.

In unit 5, I suggest that Plato is, in a sense, a 'nominalist' because his model for meaning is based on the relation between a name and its bearer. The medieval nominalists were not prepared to accept the extravagant ontology of Platonic Forms. However, having 'bought' the idea that meaning is explained as a relation between name and bearer, the only alternative referent for a name like 'justice' seemed to be individual acts of justice themselves.

Note that it is primarily things in the external world, rather than experiences in our minds which the medieval nominalists focused on. The empiricist-rationalist dispute really only gets going from Descartes onwards.

In the quoted remark, Wittgenstein is talking about analysing 'thought'. The simple name and object model of meaning suggests that we look for the 'object' that the word 'thought' refers to. But this confuses the analysis of a concept with the investigation of a phenomenon. A repeated cry from Wittgenstein is that contemporary researchers in psychology failed to understand that the questions they were addressing are logical, concerning the analysis of mental concepts, rather than empirical.

You say that, ''Meaning is use' places concepts out in the world rather than only in the mind or in a Platonic realm.' Certainly, this means that meanings are public not private. It does not follow, however, that all there is to a concept is the sum total of occasions of its use in human communication. Human language does not float in the air. It is anchored in a something extra-linguistic, what Wittgenstein refers to as 'forms of life'.

This is a notion which had enormous importance for him, yet if you read through the Investigations and other later works, there is very little explanation of what 'forms of life' are or how we identify them. It is as if in gesturing towards forms of life we are indicating the ultimate bedrock of meaning, which cannot be explained or analysed further because it is presupposed by any attempt at linguistic analysis.

Contemporary philosophers of language are not averse to 'field studies', although there is much heated debate on the significance and role of empirical research. Chomsky's work, for example, has sharply divided the community between those who follow Quine and Davidson in holding that the key to natural language is its pure, logical structure as exhibited in first-order predicate calculus, and those who follow Chomsky in holding that our language has a specifically human grammar which could not be unravelled by alien intelligences whose brains were 'wired' differently from ours.

All the best,