Nominalism and Essentialism are the Scylla and Charybdis that Pragmatism Must Navigate Its Middle Way Between

Cf: Peirce List Discussion

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.

I shared the above thoughts in a post to the Peirce List.  Responding to comments by Aaron Massecar, I elaborated as follows —

  • 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.
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3 Responses to Nominalism and Essentialism are the Scylla and Charybdis that Pragmatism Must Navigate Its Middle Way Between

  1. Poor Richard says:

    Jon, I gather that there are various flavors of essentialism some having correlates with which I wouldn’t agree, but isn’t there something to it? Taking the tiger example, we can progressively remove attributes until at some point we have something that is no longer a tiger. A tiger tail is not a tiger, but a three-legged tiger without a tail is still a tiger. We can take away or leave different combinations of parts with similar results, establishing that no individual part is either necessary or sufficient to establish a tiger. We must say that it is greater than the sum of the parts. Is that greatness a product of functional relations, such as the way a tiger pants or moves? Not necessarily if a dead and half rotten tiger is still a tiger. I’m not an expert on essentialism, and I don’t believe in Platonic forms, but if not some kind of essence, what are we matching sets of tiger bits with in order to decide if the combination is sufficient to be a tiger or not?

    • Jon Awbrey says:

      The caution here is levied against two forms of reductionism, not true antitheses. Each course suffers from a common fault — it emasculates our conception past the point of salvaging the phenomenon.

      It might be better in some contexts to describe essentialism as absolutism or monadicism, as it’s really a bias toward monadic or non-relative predicates, but each of those terms has its own problems.

      People with social science backgrounds might understand it on the model of Fundamental Attribution Bias, the tendency to ascribe to individual actors effects that are demonstrably due to relational or situational factors.

  2. Pingback: Zeroth Law Of Semiotics • Comment 5 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

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