From the 9th Century to the 12th Century: The Platonic Streak

Analysis

Within the little stock, Platonic and Neo-Platonic influences predominated both directly and, through the mediation of St. Augustine’s philosophy, indirectly. But Platonic influence will inevitably bring to the fore the problem of Platonic ideas, the problem of the nature of general concepts (universalia). Accordingly, the first and most famous of all scholastic discussions in pure philosophy was about this problem; and until the end of the fifteenth century it kept on flaring up again and again. We shall not wonder at this or accept it as proof positive of the sterility of scholastic thought. For it should be clear that this problem represents but a particular form of positing the general problem of pure philosophy. To say that the scholastics never ceased to discuss it therefore means no more than that, while interested in a great many other things, they never ceased to be interested in pure philosophy. On the whole, it may be averred that the ‘realistic’ view—the view according to which only ideas or concepts, as such, have real existence, and which is therefore the exact opposite of what we should call a realistic view—prevailed more or less until the fourteenth century when the battle turned in favor of the opposite, the ‘nominalist,’ view…

…This controversy was purely epistemological in nature and has no bearing whatever upon the practice of economic or any other analysis. But it had to be mentioned because, in our own time, the Realism and Nominalism of the scholastic doctors have been linked with two other concepts, Universalism and Individualism, which are held by some writers to be relevant to analytic practice. These writers went so far as to represent Universalism and Individualism as two fundamentally different views of social processes, the conflict between which runs through the whole history of sociological and economic analysis and is indeed the essential fact behind all the other clashes of opinion that occurred throughout the ages. Whatever argument it may be possible to adduce for this doctrine from the standpoint of economic thought or, conceivably, also from the standpoint of a philosophical interpretation of analytic procedures, there is nothing in it that concerns these analytic procedures themselves: the rest of the book will establish this point. Just now we are interested merely in showing that Universalism and Individualism have nothing to do with scholastic Realism and Nominalism. Universalism as opposed to Individualism means that ‘social collectives,’ such as society, nation, church, and the like, are conceptually prior to their individual members; that the former are the really relevant entities with which the social sciences have to deal; that the latter are but the products of the former; hence that analysis must work from the collectives and not from individual behavior. If, then, we choose to call these collectives sociological universals, then the doctrine in question may indeed be said to oppose universals to individuals. But scholastic Realism opposed universals to individuals in quite a different sense. If I were to adopt scholastic Realism, then my idea of, say, society would claim logical precedence over any individual empirical society that I observe but not over individual men; the idea of these men would be another universal in the scholastic sense, claiming logical precedence over the empirical individuals. Manifestly, this would imply nothing about either the relation between the two scholastic universals or the relation between any empirical society (a universal in the sense of universalist doctrine) and the empirical individuals comprising it.

1. Schumpeter, Joseph A. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford UP, 1954. Print. 84-86.

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2 responses to “From the 9th Century to the 12th Century: The Platonic Streak

  1. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Irrepressible Thought

  2. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Gedanken zur Geschichte

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