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Philosophical Review

Was Spinoza a Nominalist?

Author(s): James K. Feibleman
Source: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1951), pp. 386-389
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review
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Accessed: 18-11-2015 20:37 UTC

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paper, "Spinoza and the Status of Universals,"

in the October, 1950, issue of this REVIEW is an excellent piece
and ought to be carefully considered. This is certainly philosophical
discourse in the grand manner, and any disputant must approach it
with humility. Nevertheless it will need examination, for it does not
exactly prove what it sets out to prove.
Has not Mr. Haserot fallen into his own "disjunctive trap" in
assuming that if he can prove Spinoza no nominalist, then he has
proved him a realist? What if there are three positions, realism and
idealism as well as nominalism, and not merely two? Realists and
idealists differ with respect to the degree of reality they accredit to
universals. It is not necessary to be a nominalist to take the view that
there is as much difference between idealism and realism as there is
between nominalism and realism, in other words, that considering universals alone real or superior in reality to actual individual things is as
much distinct from the equal reality of universals and actual things as
the latter is from considering actual individual things as alone real or
superior in reality. If it be asserted that the difference is irrelevant,
because in either case the universals are real, which is all that is
claimed, I reply that even this has not been shown. What Mr. Haserot
has done is to set forth the position of nominalism in some of its details
and then to argue that Spinoza would have accepted none of them.
The argument runs as follows. Here are some of the things nominalists
believe. Spinoza did not believe these things. Therefore he was no
nominalist. Was Spinoza as consistent as all that? Is any philosopher?
Granted the ideal of consistency, we are not entitled to use it as a
standard; for little thinkers are apt to show much more consistency
than big ones. Perhaps the less you have on your mind, the more highly you are able to organize it. Those who discover important axioms do
not always do so on grounds of consistency. The argument stated
above has the weight of supporting evidence rather than of a conclusive argument. A conclusive argument of this form would require him
to show all of the details of nominalism, and then to demonstrate why
Spinoza could not have accepted any of them. This might have been a
more difficult if not impossible task, for who can say exhaustively

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what -nominalism involves? Instead, Mr. Haserot has argued that

Spinoza was not a nominalist of certain familiar sorts, which is a much
more modest conclusion.
Even here, however, it might be argued, there is evidence that Spinoza was a nominalist of certain other sorts. If, as Mr. Haserot contends, universals for Spinoza are not dependent on the mind, he spends
a great deal of his time and language on the mind. Spinoza seems to
have been greatly occupied with three topics: God, man, and the relations between them. In addition to the topic of God, the five parts
of the Ethics purportedly treat of the mind, the affects, the strength
of the affects, and the power of the intellect. Are these the headings
proper to an exposition of the independence of universals from the
mind? Mr. Haserot's contention that in Spinoza ontology precedes
epistemology and that "the Ethics becomes an ontology based on logical presuppositions"' must face the fact that the axioms of the Ethics
are shot through with the terminology of mentalism. Of the seven
axioms, only the first and third avoid this terminology. The others are
stated in terms of conceptions, knowledge, and understanding. If ontology precedes epistemology, at least it does so in the language of epistemology.
Mr. Haserot argues that a rationalist is not a nominalist and that
Spinoza was a rationalist and not a nominalist "whatever language
Spinoza used (and he was not obliged to use the language of Plato). "2
Is Mr. Haserot suggesting that terminology is irrelevant to ideas? Just
the opposite seems to me to be true. For once you have accepted a
terminology you have committed yourself to a certain philosophy. And
the terminology of Spinoza is that of subjective rationalism. He employed the language and to some extent the ideas current in his time,
as Wolfson has been at such pains to show, the language of subjectivism and of rationalism.
The incompatibility that Mr. Haserot professes to find between
nominalism and rationalism is only between nominalism and certain
kinds of rationalism. Subjective rationalism, for instance, could be
perfectly consistent with nominalism. I could believe that the sole
reality of physical particulars was confined to certain physical particulars called human beings and that in human beings the real was further
confined to the reasoning powers of their minds. Was this not what
some of the later Greeks actually did believe?
If I may invoke authority before proceeding to a more rational argu1"Spinoza and the Status of Universals," Philos. Rev., LIX
-2Ibid.,P. 476.




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ment, Peirce, a self-confessed realist, asserted that Spinoza was a

nominalist.3 Spinoza, Peirce claimed, denied the reality of firstness,
i.e., quality. No realist could confine his ontological categories to reaction and representation.
Here we find another neat argument. Nominalists do not affirm
universals. Spinoza affirms universals. Therefore Spinoza was no
nominalist. Not, that is, if we can first show that the man was consistent. But was he? It seems to me that there is some ground (other
than what Mr. Haserot has treated) for asserting that so far as
Spinoza is concerned, the issue of realism versus nominalism is at
least unclear. Spinoza's attributes, thought and extension, are after
all, like Descartes' res cog'tans and res extensa, mere terminological
disguises for mind and matter. Now, mind and matter are epistemological categories, and we cannot call realist anyone who assigns these
an ontological status, nor can we, as Mr. Haserot claims on other
grounds, admit the clear case that Spinoza puts ontology before epistemology and derives the latter from the former. Mind and matter
belong to existence and not to essence. Mind in Spinoza is chiefly
thought, and matter is substance.4 If these are the universals selected
for belief, then the proposition that a man who believes in universals
is no nominalist is less simple than we had supposed.
We have already discussed the function of thought in Spinoza's
philosophy in this connection; now let us turn to extension. Extension,
like substance, is a category of existence and not of essence.5 Thought
and extension as ontological categories are definitely nominalistic.
Thought takes place in bodies and bodies are extended, both instances
of physical particulars; and the superior, or sole, reality of physical
particulars is the definition of nominalism. The category of substance
plays an enormous role. This would seem to place Spinoza closer to
Aristotle than to Plato. A substance philosophy must tend to be a
nominalistic philosophy. Plato dealt in relations rather than in substances.
This seems to be a good place to point out also that the real for
idealists is (exhausted by) the rational. But no realist could accept
that position; the realist would rather say that the rational is part of
the real, which is an altogether different statement. Idealists would
confine the real to the rational; realists on the other hand might admit
the reality also of qualities, as Peirce indicated, without falling into
the error of nominalism.
"CollectedPapers, 5.8I.
'Ethics, Pt. I, Prop. XV.

I Ibid., Prop. VII.


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In their search for consistency, rationalists of the idealistic stripe

tend to be too exclusive and to forget the importance of the demand for
completeness: one might achieve consistency by the stringent procedure of omitting a very great deal. It is another thing to find consistency once you are sure everything is in. Philosophers have tended
to be too partisan in their considerations. Surely the nominalists seem
to men like Mr. Haserot and myself to have put forth the wrong philosophy, but to me at least they have called attention to the urgency of
some of the elements which the rationalists have overlooked or rejected. The three traditions of realism, nominalism, and idealism have
had long histories. They are opposed to each other, it is true; but the
resolution of such opposition might be effected more easily by assimilation than by open conflict.
There are, then, three views that could be taken of Spinoza's philosophy with respect to the issue between realism and nominalism (for
this purpose setting aside idealism as a third position and one which is
as opposed to realism and nominalism as they are to each other).
These are that he was a realist, that he was a nominalist, and that he
was not clearly either. The last view is the one that I claim emerges
from the conflicting evidence of his writings. The over-all conviction is
that he was realistically bent but that he struggled helplessly and in the
end hopelessly in the toils of nominalistic presuppositions which were
handed to him unconsciously by the implicit dominant ontology of the
cultural date and place at which he lived and thought.
Tulane University


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