Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


It is a point which has frequently been made by Bertrand Russell that the for. tunes of metaphysics in modern times have been largely determined by the omission to consider any other but substantival and adjectival universals[902]. The failure to recognise that there also might be other kinds of universals led to the conclusion that all propositions can be regarded as attributing a property to a single thing. In particular, propositions expressing relations ‘xRy’ were reduced to subject-predicate propositions ‘φ x’, where ‘φ’ is a name for the complex or relational property of ‘having R to y’. This view had far-reaching consequences and lent support to monistic metaphysics. Since every object stands in some relations to outside things, nothing can be adequately described unless it is considered as a part of a whole and in its manifold relations to every other object. Moreover, nothing except the whole of reality is self-contained. Finally, no proposition is true unless it is entailed by propositions about reality as a whole. Some metaphysical views, which ascribe to reality otherwise unjustifiable fundamental characteristics, result from an incorrect logical analysis of language and an inadequate theory of universals.

There is another approach to the connection between theories of universals and metaphysics. In a sense, the question ‘What are universals?’ is not factual. For if it is assumed that whatever exists, exists somewhere and somewhen, universals have no real existence. We cannot answer the question about universals by pointing to something or by indicating it with a demonstrative phrase. It does not follow therefrom that the problem of universals not being factual must be purely linguistic and that once its metaphysical, i.e. its non-factual super. structure is exposed, it is actually reducible to a controversy over language. For the fact that a controversial problem can be stated in semantical terms does not entail that this problem is simply linguistic. We can make use of all kinds of general words and analyse the rules of their usage without seemingly leaving the realm of language, but we cannot make a reasoned choice among them, to advocate some and proscribe others, unless the ontological commitment, which we are ready to undertake, is explicitly stated. A theory of universals makes explicit this kind of commitment, and it should be evaluated by its ability to live up to its self-imposed standards. This is not a purely, or even mainly, linguistic problem, nor by any means an easy task to accomplish. For instance, everybody acquainted with the so-called nominalist programme is familiar with the magnitude of its difficulties. On the other hand, the answer to the question: ‘What are universals?’ undertaken without prior ontological restrictions on one’s freedom of action might provide some useful linguistic and psychological clarifications, but would ultimately fail to face the issue. For sooner or later, to use Quine’s simile, we are compelled to take the attitude of the parents who tell the Cinderella story, though they do not feel committed to admitting a fairy godmother into the circle of their acquaintances.

From this viewpoint the connection between some definite metaphysical views and some definite theory of universals should be examined by inquiring into the ontological commitments of the adopted discourse and conceptual framework, specified in the respective theory of universals and metaphysical beliefs, which claim the discovery of what is truly real and independent of the use of language. Marxist-Leninists often say that to inquire into the ontological commitments of language implies the conviction that the ontological state of affairs is not ‘objective’ and that it can be arbitrarily changed by a suitable choice of language. This conviction neither is nor should be assumed. For it is evident that what is real cannot be affected or be dependent in any manner upon linguistic stipulations, but the use of a definite language does involve ontological implications.

These implications are not absolute and the mere verbal references to entities which are excluded by accepted ontological beliefs do not necessarily involve an irresolvable conflict between language and ontology. For our language would become extremely cumbersome if its uses were always restricted to fit exactly the ontological scheme. The conflict between this scheme and the linguistic expressions becomes real, however, when no appropriate and recognised devices are available to show that an ontologically objectionable reference is an avoidable abbreviation. This method of avoiding conflicts between language and ontology was made known in Poland by Kotarbiński in the early ‘twenties. The question to be considered now can be stated as follows: is the Marxist-Leninist doctrine of universals consistent with materialist metaphysics or is it committed to an ontology that is incompatible with the latter? It will be useful to precede the examination of this problem by some general observations regarding the significance attached by Marxist-Leninist thinkers to the traditional problems of universals.

The distinction of two basic philosophic traditions, those of materialism and idealism, fundamental to Marxist-Leninist thinking, is supposed also to play a distinct and important role in adjudicating between various alternatives in the controversy over universals. The attitude taken in the all-pervasive dispute as to whether matter or thought is primary, co-determines the cleavage among the different points of view on universals. On the other hand, the problem of universals is said to be abstract and barren, unless it is related to and reflects the fundamental differences of philosophic outlooks[903].

It might be argued that idealism (in the Marxist-Leninist sense) is closely associated with realism, Platonic or Aristotelian, and that materialism is compatible only with nominalism. In its original form, Lenin observed, idealism consisted in recognising the existence of abstract entities, independent of minds, and this has remained the central and distinctive doctrine of all idealism, whether ancient or modern. Plato, Kant, or Hegel, each of them in his own way, held that the real is universal[904].

The logic of materialism, which found in Hobbes its modern embodiment, strives in the opposite direction. The universal is nowhere and ‘nowhen’ and to say this is to assert that the universal does not exist. ‘An incorporeal substance’, Marx commented upon Hobbes’ nominalism, ‘is just as much nonsense as an incorporeal body. Body, being, substance, are one and the same real idea’. It is a ‘contradiction to say, on the one hand, that all ideas have their origin in the world of senses and to maintain, on the other hand, that a word is more than a word, that besides the beings represented, which are always individual, there exist also general beings’ [905]. This was also the view that Engels took, though it appears that he adopted it with an important distinction. Like Marx, Engels maintained that ‘qualities do not exist but only things with qualities’ and that ‘words like matter and motion are nothing but abbreviations . . . . . they are creations of thought and not sensuous objects’. But he also asserted in a manner reminiscent of Aristotle rather than of Hobbes or contemporary nominalism, that ‘things always have certain qualities (properties of corporeality at least) in common’ or that by means of general words, such as ‘matter’ or ‘motion’ we ‘comprehend many different sensuously perceptible things according to their common properties’ [906]. This is not nominalism unless the concept of common property, that occurs time and again in Engels’ work, is explicated by means of the so-called Resemblance or Similarity theory. This is, however, an inadvisable, and in fact, unjustifiable course to take in view of the incompatibility of the Humean viewpoint on the one hand, the Marxian and the Marxist-Leninist viewpoints on the other in the theory of knowledge, and of the intellectual kinship between the latter standpoint and Aristotelian essentialism.

Historians of philosophical thought who represent the Marxian tradition and who have considered the controversy over universals in a larger context, that is, within the ‘materialist-progressive’ and the ‘idealist-retrogressive’ outlooks, have come to the conclusion that neither of these outlooks is uniquely associated either with nominalism or with realism. Marx did not conceal his admiration for Bacon and his dislike for Hobbes. Bacon’s materialism, he said, might have been as full of inconsistencies as theology, but in his aphoristic doctrine ‘matter smiles at man with poetical sensuous brightness’. Materialism systematised by Hobbes ‘became hostile to humanity’ by its rigid and ascetic logic of which nominalism was both an offspring and a driving force[907]. It cannot be denied that the nominalism of Hobbes, Spinoza, Helvetius, Feuerbach, and of all pre-Marxian materialist thinkers constituted an integral part of the materialist conceptual framework, favourable to the development of materialist thought. But nominalism in Paris and at Oxford in the fourteenth century had no connection with materialism. It testified to the rise of interest in natural objects and occurrences, it paved the way for methodological empiricism and was one of the ancestors of the idealist trend which found its protagonists in Berkeley and Hume, in the nineteenth century positivism and contemporary neo-positivism. Nominalism has nourished the development both of the materialist and idealist philosophy. It was nominalism that made available the tools for the liquidation of the concept of matter as a fictitious entity and for the establishment of the individualistic bourgeois society[908].

On the other hand, it could not be said that Platonic realism always provided an unequivocally retrogressive philosophic inspiration. It was the Platonic heritage that prompted John Scotus Eriugena towards pantheism and the abolition of the sharp distinction between God and the created world, characteristic of the Christian world picture. The far-reaching consequences of this idea were drawn only some three centuries later, when from Eriugena’s premiss that God has no separate existence David of Dinant arrived at the conclusion that God must be the substance of all bodies and thus established materialist monism. Similarly, Platonic realism provided Averroes with arguments for his teachings on the mortality of the soul; this teaching contributed to the destruction of the faith in God’s final judgment and proved to be a powerful weapon against theology, theocracy, and all the evils of organised religion. Non-nominalist doctrines of medieval thought should not be regarded as invariably retrogressive or antimaterialist[909].

Generally speaking, in no period of history can nominalism or realism be taken as an unambiguous criterion for differentiating materialist and idealist thought from each other. If the controversy over universals reflects the divergent tendencies of materialism and idealism, the reflection is neither clear nor unequivocal. In the course of time this conclusion led to the questioning of the relevance ascribed to the principle that the cleavage of the materialist and idealist traditions determines uniquely and in every respect the historical progress of philosophic thought. Before that happened it supported the belief that no historically established point of view regarding universals could be reconciled with the principles of Marxism-Leninism[910].

This conclusion puts the modern problem of universals in somewhat antiquated settings. For it not only ignores the fact that at present the old problem of universals is most hotly debated in a new field, namely, in the disputes on the foundations of logic and mathematics, but also refuses to recognise that some important contributions to the problem, as it had been discussed in the Middle Ages, have been made in modern times from the seventeenth century onwards. The modern version of the problem of universals, in particular as it emerged in the debate on the foundations of logic, had been discussed in Poland in the interwar period and it was taken up again in some publications which appeared after the war. Marxist-Leninist writers ignored this development and showed no desire to become acquainted with it[911].

In their opinion the problem of universals in the present-day non-Marxist philosophy has not moved beyond the stage at which it had been left in the Middle Ages: it continues to debate the question whether universals exist independently of the mind, are mind-made entities or not even names of such entities. Since the fundamental issue of the problem of universals formulated in that manner had been solved a long time ago – no universals exist in the sense of Platonic realism – there is nothing of interest left for discussion. The presentday nominalists keep on producing arguments against Platonic entities and are unable to see the problem in any other but the scholastic form.

Marxist-Leninist thinkers are inclined to adopt a somewhat supercilious attitude to the problem of universals and to regard it as unworthy of serious attention. Once it was topical, since its realist solution buttressed a system of theology, of Christian ethics and metaphysics, while the nominalist trend provided a weapon against feudal medieval society and paved the way for empirical thinking oppressed by dogmas and speculative rationalism. At present the problem of universals is an unreal one, for it is concerned with an invention of religiously minded scholars. Nobody in his senses would to-day assert that abstract entities are real. In its scholastic formulation ‘Are there universals?’, the problem is so remote from the contemporary philosophic discussions that only a historian can take a genuine interest in it[912].

An account of the reasons for the rejection of all classic doctrines on universals may throw some light on what the Marxist-Leninist views on this matter are. E. A. Moody criticised Porphyry’s account of Aristotle’s teaching about universals for its failure to realise that the problem of universals is not only a metaphysical or an ontological problem, but also a logical one. The same applies to what Marxist-Leninists have to say on the problem of universals. They discuss it as if it were, above all, a metaphysical problem with implications for theology, sociology and the theory of knowledge. The logical questions are practically ignored. If mentioned at all, they were never examined in a competent manner.

In the opinion of Marxist-Leninist thinkers, the falsehood of Platonic realism is a matter of course, which does not need any justification. This applies equally to logicism, essentially the same doctrine, of which once Bertrand Russell and, at present, Alonzo Church are the most eminent supporters. Logicism, as defined by Quine, puts no restrictions on the use of bound variables and, consequently, accepts the existence or subsistence of some postulated or inferred abstract entities. Perhaps the main argument for this view is the fact that without the hypothesis of abstract entities logic and mathematics would become intolerably complex if not impossible. On their side, Marxist-Leninists argue that Platonic realism would destroy the material unity and homogeneity of the Universe. Therefore, a dialectic materialist must decisively reject it[913].

It might appear that for this reason nominalism should be the doctrine acceptable to materialist philosophy. There are grounds to believe that this was Marx’s opinion. In Poland it has been represented by Kotarbiński. Kotarbiński believed that semantical raism, a particular sort of nominalism, supported by ontological reism (the world is the sum total of concrete particulars), is the only consistently materialist semantics. An aggregate of particulars and universals of some sort or another could not be an uniformly material world. It is not enough, Kotarbiński argued, to agree with the negative content of nominalism, that is, with its refutation of metaphysical realism. If a Marxist-Leninist rejects what nominalism asserts, namely, that only particulars exist, he initiates a platonising reaction and returns to Hegel’s original position by again turning upside down the revision of the Hegelian standpoint accomplished by Marx[914].

Marxist-Leninist thinkers did not deny the merits of nominalism in so far as it has helped to refute Platonic realism. But they regard the negative side of nominalism, i.e. its criticism of other theories of universals, as its only valuable contribution to philosophy. They say that nominalism has won an undisputed victory over its medieval opponents and having achieved this purpose can be dismissed to oblivion. This opinion is right with respect to methodological nominalism in the natural sciences but is not corroborated by the present position in the dispute over universals. Nominalism in logic and mathematics is hard pressed by its opponents and numerically overwhelmed by supporters of realism and conceptualism. It is also threatened, as it were, at home by an increasing amount of penetrating criticism against its very foundation, the Resemblance or Similarity theory, with which it cannot dispense[915].

Having prematurely buried the opponents of nominalism, Marxist-Leninists seem to have a somewhat simplified and not entirely accurate idea of what the positive doctrine of contemporary nominalism actually is. For they are inclined to look at it as if it were a theory of how words can be used without any reference to non-linguistic occurrences. They assume that a nominalist must be a linguistic philosopher and a confirmed agnostic in ontology. They ignore the fact that nominalism as much as any other point of view on universals is committed to some ontological beliefs. They regard nominalism as an adversary of materialism, identified with dialectical materialism, and as a doctrine as objectionable as and more dangerous than Platonic realism[916].

There are several reasons, some tacitly admitted, some openly stated, which prompt Marxist-Leninist philosophers to take this attitude. The tacit reason is that no dialectical materialist could possibly be a nominalist, for the world, as he sees it, is an essentially stratified world, composed of ontological entities of different levels, irreducible to each other. Matter contains emergent characteristics, its constituents may form integrated systems of interaction which bring a new set of laws into operation. Therefore, statements about the whole, the systems of interactions, are not logically deducible from the statements about the parts of this whole, that is, about individuals. Consequently, speaking generally, biology is not reducible to physics and chemistry, and sociology is not reducible to biology. Marxist-Leninists assume that the irreducibility is not really an empirical problem to be decided by experiment and research, nor a logical question, since it involves something more than the impossibility of constructing appropriate theoretical systems. It results from the ontological or metaphysical characteristics of the Universe. Nominalism could not do justice to this fact, since it presupposes ‘atomism’ of some sort or another and has to reject non-additive wholes. The world of the nominalist, at least the world of Leśniewski and Kotarbiński, is ontologically uniform; it contains no other entities whatsoever except individuals of a certain sort. This might be described as an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Marxist-Leninists share Whitehead’s conviction that the scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible ‘brute matter’ is a false conception, born out of an intolerant use of ‘formal abstraction’. Nature is a process in which nothing endures. ‘Mechanistic materialism’ refuses to recognise that the world is in a permanent change and evolution, and nominalism is the logical and semantical doctrine of ‘mechanistic materialism’.

Furthermore, nominalism is unable to account for the universal interconnections of things and phenomena and being unable to account for them disrupts their universal interdependence. It sees only individuals and fails to notice that the singular and the general are internally bound together in the individual. In each particular thing the supposed polar opposites, the universal and the singular, are indissolubly merged and this fact testified to the truth discovered by Hegel and recognised by Lenin, ‘the singular is the general. . . . consequently, the opposites. . . . are identical’ (we shall return to this statement later). If this were not the case, as nominalism asserts, our conceptual thinking would have no objective foundation in the external world and concepts would have no referents to reflect. To deny, as nominalism does, that conceptual thinking has an objective reference, reduces it to a shallow and one-sided empiricism, which, in Engels’ words, ‘as far as possible forbids itself thought’ and ‘precisely for that reason not only thinks incorrectly but also is incapable of faithfully pursuing the facts or even of reporting them faithfully, and which, therefore, becomes transformed into the opposite of true empiricism’ [917].

Nominalism, which Marxist-Leninist thinkers criticise, includes views which clearly have been held only rarely, have not been shared by all nominalists, and have certainly not been supported by contemporary nominalism in Poland. For modern nominalism does not say that universals are flatus vocis, mere verbal utterances, or that things which are called by one name have only just this in common that they are called by the same name. The first of these views is ascribed to Roscelin and the second is sometimes discovered in the nominalism of Hobbes[918]. This extreme version of nominalism has found no adherents in contemporary philosophy.

There is also considerable simplification in the supposition that nominalism does not recognise any objective basis for applying the same word to a group of particulars. If this were true, the use of words, other than proper names, would be so arbitrary that language would cease to be a means of communication. Nominalism does not support a doctrine which flouts the fact that people do manage to exchange thoughts with each other.

It is true that a nominalist denies that a general word is a proper name for what is called ‘common property’ or, more generally, ‘common character’, for unlike an Aristotelian realist he does not believe that things have common, i.e. identical characters. But he does not deny that things can be grouped together or classified according to their similarity or resemblance. The nominalist asserts that similarities are empirically given and that he does not need the universal of similarity in order to be able to recognise a resemblance when he observes it. When a predicate ‘φ’ is ascribed to two or more objects, we do not say the same thing but similar things about them; this also applies to the sentences, in which the predicate ‘φ’ occurs. Consequently, he is not committed to the view that similarity is a ‘true universal’, which cannot be dispensed with – this is Bertrand Russell’s opinion – or that things have a common property, something that being the same is simultaneously here and there. According to his logic, the Identity theory is self-contradictory.

A nominalist would insist that no property can belong to two different individuals and that every property is a particular property of one and only one individual. The fact that properties are as much particular as individuals is not incompatible with their being similar as a matter of fact or with their being described by means of general words. For general words and general sentences are an indirect manner of speaking about individuals, as will become clear later.

The objective basis for the use of general words is not immutable. Concepts, that is, the meaning of general words are not necessarily imposed by the given manifold of experience. They are devices to be evaluated according to their utility, open to change and adjustment if they prove their unsuitability or break down under the strain of the use to which they are put. It should be conceded, therefore, that for the nominalist language does contain a conventionalist element as its essential characteristic that cannot be overlooked in any language, irrespective of what particular philosophic purpose this language is to serve.

This is an outline of the doctrine of nominalism as it has been formulated by Leśniewski and Kotarbiński. The objection that it fails to recognise some objective basis for the use of general words and for distinguishing them from proper names does not apply in this case. Marxist-Leninist criticism flogged a dead horse.

Its implicitly and explicitly stated arguments against nominalism are neither unambiguous nor logically unobjectionable; they deal with elusive and equivocal generalities as well as shirk detailed analysis of specific: expressions. The ontological frame of reference which underlies the criticism of nominalism remains undisclosed. But there is little doubt that it should be looked for in the presuppositions on which the truth of the laws of dialectics is based. It is the conceptual scheme of dialectics that justifies the rejection of nominalism, since this scheme cannot dispense with some abstract entities to whose admittance nominalism raises objections. If the laws of dialectics or the Marxian political economy were translated into the reistic language, stated one of the critics of nominalism, the essence of dialectics would disappear[919].

Although dialectical materialism considers conceptualism as a doctrine superior to its nominalist or Platonist rivals, it also repudiates conceptualism in the form given to it by Locke. For Locke is regarded as the primary source of what Marxist-Leninists call ‘contemplative empiricism’, the ancestor of the trend which radically divorces appearance from essence and theoretical thinking from practice. This trend has found in the philosophy of Berkeley and Hume, in positivism, neo-positivism, and linguistic philosophy its more extreme formulation[920].

The view expressed by a leading Polish Marxist-Leninist that dialectical materialism stands closest to an ‘objectively interpreted conceptualism’, has not been generally accepted[921]. Those objecting to this view take the attitude that the materialist doctrine of universals is something entirely novel and should not even be partially identified with any historically known point of view or presented as a perfected formulation of any of them[922]. To enhance the novelty of the Marxist-Leninist approach the use of the traditional expression ‘the problem of universals’ has been often discontinued and replaced by the cumbrous phrase ‘the problem of the relation of the particular and the general’. The disagreement on this matter between Marxist-Leninist thinkers reflects their difference of opinion regarding the part which the Hegelian philosophy should be allowed to play in Marxist-Leninist philosophy.