Resemblance Nominalism: A Solution to the Problem of Universals by Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra
Resemblance Nominalism: A Solution to the Problem of Universals by Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra

It has been some time since I read a technical work of analytic philosophy, I had to recall my set theory concepts in order to wade through the set theoretic notations which infest some of the pages. As a metaphysical minimalist, I thought it would be interesting to read through this book because it gives a rigorous account of universals from a nominalist point of view by employing a concept of particular theological interest to me, the concept of resemblances.

But first on the book itself. It is basically a highly technical work of analytic philosophy. It is concerned with answering a very ancient and old philosophical question: How is it that so many different particular things can share a common property? There are red sunrises, red roses and red houses, what makes all of them red?

The solution proposed in this work is basically an extremely minimalist one. Whereas the universalist would have said that all of them, in some sense, possessed a universal called “redness”, the resemblance nominalist simply says that what makes different red things red is that they resemble all other red things, and that there is no additional entities called “redness” or universals or whatever. There just are red particular things, and they resemble, that is all.

Of course Rodriguez’s theory is much more complicated and precise than that. However, in order to spare you the frightening use of complex set theoretic notations, I shall simply do a convenient hand waving, as well as a massive oversimplification, and say that his theory explains what makes something red, as opposed to green, consists simply in it resembling all other particular red things and not green things. Thus his theory has one basic primitive fact which cannot be further reduced, that some particular things resembles other particular things, and from this network of resemblances, a particular being red simply is it resembling all other particular red things. What makes something green would simply be it resembling a distinct set of particulars, all the particular green things, etc.

Rodriguez’s main focus in this book is to explicate this theory in precise formulas as well as to refine this theory to solve various technical problems which his theory faces. We need not really concern ourselves with these highly technical details, unless you want to wade through pages and pages of set theoretic notations. Thus his focus is mainly upon the narrow metaphysical question of accounting for our application of properties to particulars by simply using resembling particulars alone.

My focus however would be upon the more “macro” implications or applications which his theory leads which I think would be more interesting than the precise details of his theory, especially in relation to analytic theology. There was a work on analytic theology I read a very long time ago, Robert Adam’s Finite and Infinite Goods, which is, ironically perhaps, an exposition of the idea of God as a sort of platonic form of the Good. However, what makes his theory of particular interest in this present discussion about resemblance nominalism is the way he defines “finite excellences” or good,

…there is something to be said for the hypothesis that being excellent in the way that a finite thing can be consists in resembling God in a way that could serve God as a reason for loving the thing.

Thus, like the Platonists, he postulates an ultimate Form of the Good which makes all particular good things good, and this Form of the Good he simply identifies with God. However, in an odd nominalistic twist, he argues that the relationship between the particular goods with the Infinite Good is that of “resemblance”, that partially what makes particular finite things good good is that they resemble the Infinite Good or God.

But this resemblance relationship is but half the story. Adams introduces a “voluntaristic” twist in that the finite goods are good partially by objectively resembling God, yet this resemblance, by itself, is not a sufficient to make it good, it must resemble in a way which God accepts as a reason to love it. Thus, the definition of “good” runs through God’s subjectivity as well. What makes a finite good good is that it resembles God in such a way which God accepts as a reason to love it.

Turning ourselves back to resemblance nominalism, Rodriguez in his discussion on various versions of resemblance nominalism postulated two versions. The first is called the Aristocratic version, whereby in order for a red thing to be red, it is sufficient to resemble the “paradigm” cases of red things. As long as a particular thing resembles such particular paradigm cases, that is enough for it to be red. Then there is another version, the “egalitarian” version, whereby there is no specially privilege particular red things and that something is red because it resembles all the red things without exception.

Let us use this insight for discussing Adams’ conception of finite goods. In a sense, Adams’ theory is inclined towards the “Aristocratic” version, whereby particular good things are good by resembling the paradigm case, in this context, God.

But suppose you have a slightly more apophatic conception of God. Then you would think that God is not a particular good thing on the same plane as all other good things. He is “beyond Good and Evil” and is therefore not a particular good thing, no matter how exalted and ideal, among other good things.

So what we will be left with is a set of particular resembling good things, the egalitarian version, and what makes all these good things good is that they all resemble all other good things. However, we can have the voluntaristic half of the equation to employ. Let us, following Milton, accept that all being or creation was not sprung out, ex nihilo, or out of nothing, but flows out of the substance of God’s infinite life and being. Then following the scholastic, we can simply identify being with goodness, and all material things are, in some sense, good, by virtue of having flowed out of God’s life.

However, what makes something good, in the eyes of God, is him imposing his will upon all these plurality and masses of many finite goods, all resembling each other in various ways, and charting a destiny, a course, a path, drawing, reconciling and drawing all these finite goods together and organising all of them into an ever growing whole. Thus, “goodness” here would be defined in terms of those resembling good thing which God hath willed for us to love. Thus, we have a sort of account here of evil, which is finite goods which fall out of God’s will, and will simply wither and be exhausted, while only those finite goods caught up in God’s will will never perish and be integrated and drawn in together with all other finite goods unto everlasting life.

In this conception, there everlasting life doesn’t really consist of a “beatific vision” of directly beholding God. Remember, ex hypothesi, God is not a particular good thing among other good things, but ‘beyond good and evil”, he merely supplies and creates the finite good things, but he is not among them. Thus, everlasting life consists of experiencing more and more of these finite good things ever flowing out of God’s infinite life and riches.

However, we may not actually need to abandon aristocratic nominalism just yet. We could give our theory an “incarnational” twist, and postulate that among the set of all particular good things, there is a “paradigm” good, not God the Father himself, but the Word, the Son of God, which contains within himself the fullness of the meaning of all other particular finite good things. And then we can postulate that all finite good things are good because they both resemble this divine Word, or the “first born of all creation”, and in such as way which conforms to God’s will for them in the Word. Thus, the Word is the focus of God’s reconciling work of drawing and integrating all finite good things unto himself through Christ, herein all finite good things find their meaning and fulfilment in him by resembling him and fulfilling God’s will in him.

I think this is enough theological speculation for now. But apart from the intrinsic metaphysical merits of resemblance nominalism itself, as well as the impressive rigorous set theoretic devices and formulas for this theory, it also provides the theoretical tools whereby one can explicate a specifically “Scotist” theological vision. Salvation doesn’t consists of an immediate vision of the Infinite good to the obliteration of all other particular finite goods, but salvation is a perpetual journey of experiencing and loving all the particular finite creaturely goods which God sends to us, reconciling, drawing and integrating them into an organic growing whole as the elect continues their everlasting journey into the infinite riches of God’s life. Resemblance nominalism does full justice to the particularities of our creaturely and finite goods which we enjoy here, while we intuitively sense a “resembling” connection between all of them, because they all come from God, but it is the will of God, in the divine Word, which draws the plurality and flux of resembling networks between the finite goods into a organised whole, and invites us into this growing everlasting growing good.

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