How To Place Epicurus In Relation To "Nominalism"?

  • I was recently reading the Wikipedia entry on "nominalism" and found it fairly direct and understandable. Here is the opening:


    In metaphysics, nominalism is a philosophical view which denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, but affirms the existence of general or abstract terms and predicates.[1] There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things (e.g., strength, humanity). The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time.[2]

    Most nominalists have held that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only post res, that is, subsequent to particular things.[3] However, some versions of nominalism hold that some particulars are abstract entities (e.g., numbers), while others are concrete entities – entities that do exist in space and time (e.g., pillars, snakes, bananas).

    Nominalism is primarily a position on the problem of universals, which dates back at least to Plato, and is opposed to realist philosophies, such as Platonic realism, which assert that universals do exist over and above particulars. However, the name "nominalism" emerged from debates in medieval philosophy with Roscellinus. The term 'nominalism' stems from the Latin nomen, "name". John Stuart Mill summarised nominalism in the apothegm "there is nothing general except names".[4]

    This is a subject we've touched on in several earlier Lucretius Today podcasts, but not explored too deeply there or in the forum that I can recall. The article does not mention Epicurus or take a position on how Epicurean philosophy may relate to nominalism, and I think that would be worth exploring. We quite often see discussions of The Problem of Universals (link to the same article), and we can be sure that Epicurus rejected Plato's views of ideal forms, and probably Aristotle's views of "essences" as well. But does that mean that Epicurus held, in John Stuart Mill's terms, that "there is nothing general except names?"

    I think there are several passages that would bear on this including the following from Lucretius Book One (Bailey translation). I should note that this is a passage where I think the translation of eventum as "accidents" would be much better as "events," but that's another argument. Here , the issue is the question of eternal properties vs. transient qualities, and how those can be viewed through the analogy of the Trojan War:

    There is also the question of whether it is possible to "know" something, and what that would mean. We have several passages on that:


    Diogenes Laertius 121: "...he will give definite teaching and not profess doubt...."


    Diogenes of Oinoanda: Fragment 5 - Now Aristotle and those who hold the same Peripatetic views as Aristotle say that nothing is scientifically knowable, because things are continually in flux and, on account of the rapidity of the flux, evade our apprehension. We on the other hand acknowledge their flux, but not its being so rapid that the nature of each thing [is] at no time apprehensible by sense-perception. And indeed [in no way would the upholders of] the view under discussion have been able to say (and this is just what they do [maintain] that [at one time] this is [white] and this black, while [at another time] neither this is [white nor] that black, [if] they had not had [previous] knowledge of the nature of both white and black.

    This post is going to end up being mostly to pose the question, because this is a very deep subject that I don't think has an easy answer. So for now I will post this and come back when I have time or others add to the thread.

  • Right and I think that is exactly what was intended, without the "luck" connotation that is present in English.

    Ha if you get us further off track we'll just split this part out :)

  • But hold your place on that thought because I think it has important implications. It's probably not entirely irrelevant to the main topic also.

    Speaking of the main topic, any thoughts on the extent to which it is proper to label Epicurus a nominalist? Just as with accidents vs events I think there are subtleties he would both agree and disagree with.

    I think the first hesitation anyone ought to have in thinking the answer is clear is that Epicurus usually finds a way to take a position that is foreign to us today to the point that we have to go looking for what it might be.

    Part of what was on my mind about this is the saying in the letter to Menoeceus about all good and evil comes to us from sensation. The level of sensation I'd what really matters to us in life, and although it is not the same question, I do think Epicurus would oppose reductionism or any hint that "nothing matters to us because everything is just matter and void.".

    Like I say it's not the same question, but I think Epicurus would think it very important to have a theory that connects the senses and knowledge - including a theory of abstractions.

    (Note: I was about to attribute the reference above to PD2, but in quoting it I see interestingly that that phrase is not there.)

  • Didn't he consider all sensations to be movements of atoms? And his descriptions of vision, dreams and knowledge of the gods are as images formed of groups of atoms. Both of these would seem to me to make him a nominalist.

    As for knowledge, as I recall there was a discussion a while back debating what the Epicurean theory of memory was. Didn't memory, too, involve accessing images (composed of atoms) in some way?

    So as far as I can tell he went to great lengths to explain everything in terms of atoms and void, which I interpret as nominalism. However I'm not familiar with the finer points of nominalism so I could easily be missing something!

  • he went to great lengths to explain everything in terms of atoms and void, which I interpret as nominalism.

    Yes that is the question. But I don't think it necessarily follows from the observation that nothing is eternal except matte and void to the statement that "there is nothing general except names" without drilling down very precisely into what is meant by "general."

    Epicureans and Stoics on Universals

    Yes that sounds like it's exactly on point - thank you! reading now!

    From the opening:


    But the Stoics discuss genera and species, claiming that they are conceptsand Epicurus re-fers to natural kinds, of which we have preconceptions. Both schools elaborate their views in reaction to the Platonic claim about the exist-ence of the Ideas: the Stoics say that the Ideas are concepts and the Epicurean view of the world as constituted by a constant flow of atoms shows that there is no place for such kinds of items. The criticism of the Ideas produces very different theories of what counts as a generic item for Stoics and Epicureans. However, one crucial point of contact between the two accounts is that, for both, universal or generic fea-tures of reality are nothing other than the result of a mental capacity to recognize them. Thus, generic features characterize certain workings of the mind, and are not themselves items in reality independent of the mind. It is the Stoics who push this capacity of recognition to a state of having concepts in the mind which are utterly mind-dependent. Thus, it is the Stoics who set up a positive theory of universals as concepts, whilst the Epicureans contribute towards a conceptualist view of uni-versals through their systematic elimination of the Ideas from ontol-ogy and epistemology.

    How much should we bet that this discussion will or won't take us back into the deeper issues of "preconceptions" and "instinct"? ;)

  • I have to inject here that i find this article very clearly and attractively written (at least so far). This is a good reminder that we need to go back and check "Against Colotes" and perhaps add this article to a basic reading list, as it very directly addresses Epicurus against Plato and other very basic issues. Thank you again Don!


    But the way Plutarch confronts the Epicureans serves, in effect, to bring to light all the better the view of ontology, in two basic steps, which characterizes Epicureanism in direct reaction against Platonic ontology. The Epicureans thus sustain (i) that the void exists (against Parmenides), and (ii) that it exists unqualifiedly, on a par with the existence of body (against Plato). In this way, the Epicurean whole, τὸ πᾶν, reaches saturation. It is therefore a rather different whole from the Parmenidean whole, which is one and immobile21. In acknowledging the existence of void, the Epicureans, like their Atomist forerunners, acknowledge the existence of what is in motion, given that the existence of void is inferred from the realization that there is motion22. Thus the Epicurean whole is continuously in motion, and it is in this way that it is eternal and infinite, in exact opposition to the Parmenidean whole.

  • I think this section ought to begin to point us to once and for all tune in on the role of memory as an important part of Epicurean theory;


    As for memory, it plays a central role for what a person thinks, as it is repeatedly mentioned by Epicurus, whether in reference to remembering the main tenets of Epicurean doctrine49, or remembering the προλήψεις or preconceptions a person naturally has in order to subsequently have the right beliefs and keep away from confusion and error50. Thus, for Epicurus, sense-perception alone does not provide knowledge of reality but rather the fundamental information in order to reach knowledge. For, crucially, the form of reasoning Epicurus has in mind is based on sense-data (Her. 32), as is the notion of memory he is interested in. It is a deviation from sense-data which brings on error and false beliefs51

  • This is very close to what I was looking for and why I think Epicurus would object to a too-superficial labeling of being a "nominalist." What an on-point article!


    This rapid overview is relevant to our present purposes in bringing forward one main point: namely that, in acknowledging certain ‘mental capacities’ (in the main, a form of reasoning and memory) in addition to sense-perception, the objects of knowledge do not shift to an intelligible realm52, but rather, on the contrary, are all the more tied down to what is observed53. For it is possible, according to Epicurus, to recognize in the observable reality, with the help of memory and λογισμός, certain regularities which are the basis for knowledge – without these being immanent or separate universals. Thus, the distinction made by Aristotle in the first chapter of the Metaphysics, namely between experience on the one hand which yields knowledge of certain particulars (Met., A 1, 981a9), and art, or science, which is of universals and of which particular individuals are instances (Met., A 1, 981a10-12 and a16) – and which a person can have also without experience, given that an art can be taught (Met., A 1, 981b9) – is resolved, on the Epicurean account, into one unique path towards knowledge. For experience is the art or science which is able to yield knowledge of regular and generic features of reality, exhibited by the individual beings which compose it, without this knowledge being limited to a specific knowledge of this or that individual. It is possible to have knowledge on the basis of experience, without there being universals and thus without knowledge being of universals.

  • OMG THIS is a memorable paragraph, and what a line! "A rose is a rose, that is, a whole, not a juxtaposition of properties."


    The formulae in Her. 69 all point towards considerations about body which go beyond the actual perceiving of distinct properties, the ἐπαισθήματα mentioned by Diogenes Laertius (D.L. X, 32)58: the distinct perceptions which cannot refute one another, and attest the truth, or trustworthiness of all perceptions. Rather, on the basis of the different ἐπαισθήματα (e.g. red colour perceived through sight, sweet perfume perceived through smell, velvety texture perceived through touch etc.), a perceiver has what Epicurus calls an ἔννοια, a conception, say, of a rose (Her. 69). And indeed, a rose is a rose, i.e. a whole, not a juxtaposition of properties. Thus Epicurus insists, with the repeated use of ὅλον and ἀθρόον especially in the discussion of the status of properties, that a body is really a whole or a whole is really a body, repeating twice in less than ten lines, that what is referred to as the ὅλον is «by us, called body» (Her. 70, 5 and 71, 4-5). Thus it is our mind, our way of thinking, which enables us to grasp the body as the whole it really is; for an ἔννοια, elsewhere referred to as an «ἐπίνοια» (Her. 45, also D.L. X, 32), corresponds to the further stage after sense-perception, in which reasoning and memory have a prominent role in forming a mental presentation of reality. The passage from percep-tions, («irrational and without memory») to the conceptions a person has, is described in the following manner: as always proceeding from sense-data with the addition of the mind’s arrangement of the data, through direct experience (περίπτωσις), or by analogy (ἀναλογία), by resemblance (ὁμοιότης), or by composition (σύνθεσις) and eventually also with some form of reasoning (τι καὶ τοῦ λογισμοῦ, in D.L. X, 32).

  • Here's the Conclusion paragraph, which I don't think does justice to the depth of the work. it's written as if the Stoics were an and advance in a proper direction from the Epicurean viewpoint. As you would expect, I think that the reverse is true - the Stoics went on a rabbit hunt that totally threw away the trail that Epicurus had pointed out. I would say that the reason that Epicurus did not "propose a positive theory of universals as concepts" is that Epicurus would have held this to be error. the mind alone does not make a rose a rose.

    I think the details of the article are excellent in pointing to what Epicurus actually proposed it is that makes a rose a rose. To repeat a comment from earlier in the thread, Epicurus' way of looking at things may be foreign to us but that doesn't make it wrong. And the current world may be so caught up in Platonism and rationalism that "concepts" and 'conceptualism" are the be-all end-all of all analysis, but that doesn't make it correct, and that doesn't make Epicurus wrong. Had Epicurus in fact "proposed a positive theory of universals as concepts" - if in fact he had been a "nominalist" in that sense - he would have been violating his own premises, and I think Epicurus would reject that direction out of hand. A rose is a rose whether we assign it that name or not. The tree that falls in the forest when no one is around does make a sound. And I am also firmly convinced that we do not determine whether the cat is dead or alive by looking at it. All of these seem to me to be related issues that deserve much clarification.

    And they deserve clarification and discussion early in the process of studying Epicurus! This is something that needs to be hammered out in preparation for elementary school lessons - otherwise we spend a lifetime never really grasping where Epicurus was going.


    .4. Conclusion

    The comparison between the Stoic and the Epicurean criticism of Platonic ontology shows the difference between elimination and con-version of the Ideas into an ontological system which, on both accounts, denies the existence of supra-sensible items. The different forms their reactions take on, marks the difference between the Stoic view about bodies as existing and incorporeals as subsisting, and the Epicurean view that body and void alone exist. However, both accounts meet in rejecting the Ideas from reality, considering generic items to be de-pendent, to varying degrees, on the workings of the mind. With the theory of preconceptions, the Epicureans move towards a basic form of conceptualisation of reality, but it is the Stoics, with their concern with genera and species who propose a positive theory of universals as concepts.

  • Some reflections on the link between Epicurus and nominalism:

    “When [Epicurus] says ‘unreasonably’ this is more than mere derision; it is a fundamental doctrine. Since the only real existences are atoms and void, it follows that no abstractions exist; ‘justice is nothing by itself’; form cannot exist apart from subnstance, quality apart from thing, virtue apart from action. This results in a sort of nominalism; virtue becomes an empty name, corresponding to no reality” (De Witt, Epicurus and His Philosophy 247)

    “But against Plato, the Epicureans think that universal ideas or concepts refer to a class of similar objects or concrete particular things, but the universal ideas are neither independent of these concrete particular, nor are they in things. They are merely verbal marks to enabel us to think about the class of particular things. Hence, Epicureans foreshadowed medieval nominalism and also modern empiricism.” (Masih, A Critical History of Western Philosophy 127)

    “We saw William Euvrie propose Epicurus as the ultimate founder of the nominalist movement—a connection he seems to have picked up from a contemporary arts master at Paris, Johannes de Nova Domo. Pedro Fonseca still sees a link between nominalism and Epicuranism in the later sixteenth century.” (Pasnau, Metaphysicsal Themes 1274-1671, 90)

    “The reference to Epicurus as the spiritual father of nominalism was often repeated in the writings of late medieval realists. Besides Johannes de Nova Domo, the most important defender of this doxographical claim was Heymericus de Campo.” (Friedman and Nielsen, The Medieval Heritage in Early Modern Metaphysics and Modal Theory, 1400-1700)

  • THANKS Nate as always for great work! I had forgotten that DeWitt had made such a remark, and all the rest is new to me, including some good names to research.

    I need to reread the thread to see where we left off last year, but my general impression is that this remains an important and underappreciated issue. I am convinced the Epicurean view does not lead to nihilism ("nothing is real but atoms and void") but to a full appreciation of the dividing line between what is truly real for us and what is really just abstract fantasy and imaginings.

    I suspect most people have only a foggy understanding of what is involved, and as soon as the issue is raised they drop it like a hit potato because they are disconcerted by the whole discussion. But when you are comfortable with a world without supernatural control and with only this one life to live, a quick and ready understanding of what is real and what is not real is essential.

    Instead of seeing "what is truth?" as an indictment of Pontius Pilate, those blinded by religion need to think about the depth of the question and realize that they need to answer it.

    This is a really core point of Epicurean philosophy.

  • To me, the notion of (substantive) universals always conjures some Platonic notion of, say, “redness” as some essence/substance that imbues those things that we see as red – as opposed to some generalization about things that we just see as "red". And as opposed to the fact that experiencing things as "being red" in color simply enables us to generalize to the idea of redness (really a certain wavelength range in the color spectrum, to which we apply the word “red”).

    If, as Nate points out, “the only real existences are atoms and void [i.e., the universe is strictly physical in nature], it follows that no abstractions exist” – then, to the extent that they are (and I think they are) abstractions, universals such as “redness” are not themselves any kind of existent.

    I wonder if this generalizing aptitude is related to Epicurean prolepsis? If I say I saw a red rose, you have (based on your own memoried experience) an immediate, general grasp of what I mean – without actually seeing the particular rose?