Earlier this summer, Ayşe Mermutlu posted a notice of Nathan Houser’s review of Paul Forster’s Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism to the Facebook page of the Charles S. Peirce Society and a brief discussion ensued.
My initial comment was this —
- Nominalism and Essentialism are the Scylla and Charybdis that Pragmatism must navigate its middle way between.
On being asked what I meant by “essentialism”, I explained it as follows —
- This is idea that all phenomena are explained by absolute (monadic, non-relative, or ontological) essences inhering in objects, as opposed to any notion that some phenomena can be explained only in terms of relations among objects. For instance, in semiotics, essentialism leads to the idea that signhood is a permanent essence inhering in something, as a matter of its ontology, as opposed to a role that something performs within the setting of a sign relation.
On further interrogation, I added this —
- If nominalism is the doctrine that generals are only names and only individuals have objective existence, then essentialism is the doctrine that all names (logical terms) refer to properties of individuals. So a term like “father” is only a relative term relative to the perspective of a non-omniscient being who cannot see what individuals are destined to be fathers and what not.
I think it fair to say that most of the Peirce crew is handy enough when it comes to steering clear of nominalism’s rock-monster, but not so well-drilled in navigating safely by essentialism’s whirly places. At any rate, I keep seeing a drift in that direction pulling the good ship Pragmatism into the eddy of a most likely futile sea battle, and I thought it incumbent on the duty of my watch to report what I see.
- That was more of summary response to a particular tendency in the reception of Peirce, as I have watched it over several decades, but most surprisingly in the last 10 years. There have been elements of recent discussions that brought the question back to mind, but I have a feeling it would be preferable to tackle the issue head on, from scratch.
- It is not so much a problem with essences, per se, as with their placement in the world of objects. The concept of an essence is flexible enough that even relations of arbitrary arities can be said to have essences, but that is being flexible to the point of vacuity. What really matters is the arity, definition, and extension of the relation in question. Saying that a phenomenon exhibits “thirdness” is only the first step in describing it. What matters next, and for the remainder of the inquiry into it, is discovering what triadic relation describes it best.