Nominalism, General Terms, and Predication

The Monist 61 (3):460-475 (1978)
Platonism, in its most recent and seemingly most cogent form, has rested on (a) the supposed indispensability of descriptive predicate terms in so-called "improved," or "clarified," or "perspicuous" languages; (b) the distinction between subject and predicate terms based on the asymmetry of the predication relation; and (c) the claimed ontological significance of the different categories of terms implied by (a) and (b). Nominalism, in one of its most pervasive recent forms, has involved the denial of the criterion of ontological commitment embedded in (c) by explicitly or implicitly adopting the criterion expressed in Quine's formula "to be is to be the value of a variable." To avoid the obvious charge that nominalists merely ignore abstract entities by the arbitrary ploy of changing the rules, i.e. denying that ontological commitments are made by the inclusion of primitive predicates in schemata of certain kinds by simply employing a different criterion of commitment, some nominalists have sought to argue for their criterion by pointing to the distinction between singular and general terms and the radically different roles such terms play. The distinction between singular and general terms becomes the premise for an argument that purportedly supports Quine's criterion of ontological commitment. This criterion, in turn, provides the basis for the nomin'alist's use of primitive predicates, as general terms, without ontological commitment to abstract entities. In this paper I shall argue that the nominalist's gambit is inadequate in that the distinction between singular and general terms, as employed by a philosopher like Quine, merely provides a way of stating the nominalist's position and does not provide a reason for holding such a position. To put it another way, if we consider the contemporary nominalist to argue from the distinction between singular and general terms to the cogency of nominalism, since the former provides a ground for Quine's criterion of ontological commitment which, in turn, provides the basis for the latter, then the line of thought is question begging. It is so in that the very way the nominalist draws the distinction presupposes a nominalistic view, since a careful statement of that distinction amounts to a restatement of the nominalistic position.
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Cleve James Van (1994). Predication Without Universals? A Fling with Ostrich Nominalism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (3):577 - 590.
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