Russell, it is sometimes forgotten, was a Platonic realist, and he offered a very powerful, very simple, argument for Platonic realism. In a short little article, just a handful of pages long, called The World of Universals, he suggests that Universals (by which I mean here platonic forms or ideas) are often ignored, and if anyone thinks about them at all they are likely philosophy students. However:
Even among philosophers, we may say, broadly, that only those universals which are named by adjectives or substantives have been much or often recognized, while those named by verbs and prepositions have been usually overlooked.
Russell says that we can’t demonstrate that the kinds of universals we call ‘qualities’, such as all those represented by adjectives, exist. However, what we can do, Russell suggests, is demonstrate that the kinds of universals represented by prepositions must exist as universals. How does he do this? Well, suppose that you reflect on the colour ‘white’; one might describe what is going on in two ways, either you are appealing to some innate idea, ‘whiteness’ and it is only because you already have that idea/universal in your mind that you are able to recognize it when you see it, or the opposite occurs as described by empiricists like Hume and Berkeley.
When we want to think of whiteness, they said, we form an image of some particular white thing, and reason concerning this particular, taking care not to deduce anything concerning it which we cannot see to be equally true of any other white thing.
So, perhaps Hume and Berkeley, and the empiricists who have followed suit with them, have presented us with a plausible alternative account of how it is we come to form the idea of ‘whiteness’ in our minds. There seems, then, to be no way in which to demonstrate that adjectives, or the universals represented by them, must exist independent of the human mind.
However, it is when we start to realize that in order even for the former account of how we come to form the idea of a universal in our minds to work, we already have to be able to pick out a relation of resemblance between various things which are thus related, that we start to see the necessity of admitting that universals exist. The former account requires that in cases of adjectives like ‘white/whiteness’ we already have to be able to pick out a relation of resemblance between various things which are white before we can form the abstract idea (the adjective) of whiteness. In other words, in order to pick this thing and that thing out as having something in common, anything in common, we have already to be aware that we are presupposing a preposition; namely the relation of resemblance. You would not be able to classify things together as ‘white things’ or ‘big things’ or ‘black things’ or what-have-you, unless you were already innately aware of the preposition: ‘is-similar-to‘ or ‘resembles‘. Thus, when I pick out a thing in the world and notice that it is white, by which I would mean that it bears this curious resemblance to this other set of things which, when I am confronted with them under normal conditions, I experience something like ‘being appeared to whitely,’ I am already thereby picking out and presupposing a relation (in particular a relation of resemblance). However, in that case, argues Russell, the resemblance itself, a preposition, must be a true universal. Resemblance at least, if nothing else is, is surely a universal.
Russell points out:
Berkeley and Hume failed to perceive this refutation of their rejection of ‘abstract ideas’, because, like their adversaries, they only thought of qualities, and altogether ignored relations as universals. We have therefore here another respect in which the rationalists appear to have been in the right as against the empiricists…
Thus, if Russell is right, then universals exist.
However, universals surely do not ‘exist’ in quite the same sense as particulars exist. For instance they do not exist in time or in space, nor are they corruptible or generatable. They seem to be, for lack of better words, ‘necessary beings’ (the irony of Russell believing in such things ought to strike anyone familiar with his reasons for being an agnostic). Russell argues that he cannot very well go around calling these prepositions and adjectives platonic forms which exist in the same way which we normatively talk about things existing (as in time and space), and thus he thinks that to say that they exist is to equivocate. Instead, he suggests, that they do not exist so much as subsist, which is simply something like existing without existing in time or space. The closeness of his view to the Thomistic view of God is worth exploiting.
First, to admit that universals ‘exist’ is not necessarily to equivocate, even though the predication here cannot be univocal either. However, it could be analogous, and in this case to say a preposition exists is just to predicate existence analogously, which is precisely what Thomists say they are doing when issuing statements such as “God exists”. A more appropriate way to speak, however, may just be to say that God subsists, since he isn’t, strictly (univocally) speaking a being.
Moreover, Russell’s admission that universals exist/subsist (the rationalists were, yet again, right) is practically to concede one’s whole metaphysic to the Thomist. In fact, the only difference between Thomism and Russell’s view on this point seems to be that Thomism is more parsimonious. Instead of saying, as Russell must, that this infinite set of universals exists, it would be more parsimonious to adopt a form of middle platonism according to which universals are ideas in the mind of God. Thus, there is, strictly speaking, only one single thing that subsists, a necessary being, and it has these ideas which are necessary for the existence of a world. We might even imagine that God’s having or entertaining of these universals or ‘ideas’ is itself part of how God ‘sustains’ the world, keeping it in existence at every moment.
In any case, the point here is just to tease out the ironies:
- Russell, one of the progeny of positivism, admits that the rationalists were right numerous times, and here as well, as over against the empiricists
- Russell believes in necessary beings which subsist, which is not relevantly dissimilar to the Thomistic theistic view, and in fact, if one accepts Russell’s arguments for the existence of prepositions, then it seems they ought to be a Theist.
- Moreover, if the former point holds, then perhaps we ought to re-examine whether Theology and Epistemology are not complimentary and related – perhaps we ought to have recourse to a Medieval Epistemology which presumes that prepositions and adjectives subsist precisely because of God.