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Why Pearce’s Nominalist Critique of the Perverted Faculty Argument Doesn’t Get off the Ground

Move over William of Ockham. Jonathan Pearce has joined your ranks. According to Mr. Pearce dogs, cats, human beings, men, women, homosexuals, heterosexuals, five, six, seven, pencils, chairs, and just about every abstract word I am writing has no common referent in reality. Not only do they have no true referent to the actual things they signify, but the actual things they signify don’t exist!

It’s real funny (you know it!) when an atheist makes a claim very much like that of the famous theistic philosopher Bishop George Berkeley. Berkeley famously (or infamously) claimed that no material things exist. All that we see or experience within what we think is the material realm is really immaterial ideas. Well, Pearce makes very similar claims in his August 2019 essay:

“Things only have meaning to the conceiver, thus don’t ‘exist’ objectively outside the mind of the conceiver, as abstract ideas.”

According to Mr. Pearce’s logic, your wife or friend doesn’t exist objectively outside of your mind. Neither does your favorite German Shepherd exist outside of your mind.

None some may protest what Mr. Pearce means isn’t that they don’t exist outside the mind, but that they don’t exist outside the mind as abstract ideas. Fair. Let’s try to give Mr. Pearce the benefit of the doubt. The idea of German Shepherd doesn’t exist outside the mind as an independent idea existing on its own—apart from some mind that perceives it. Likewise, the idea of your wife doesn’t exist outside of your mind or outside of some mind that perceives that idea. But notice that’s not what Mr. Pearce exactly said. He said “Things only have meaning to the conceiver…”; He didn’t say ideas, or ideas don’t exist outside of some mind perceiving them. Then again this is the whole problem with Pearce’s essay “Hsiao’s Perverted Faculty Argument: Doesn’t Even Get off the Ground”­––he keeps switching between things and ideas as well as between the interior word (concept), the written or spoken word, and what is signified by the concept.

To paraphrase Aristotle and the scholastics who wrote in much more detail on language, epistemology, and semiotics than I am able to explain here: written words are signs of spoken words, which are signs of concepts which are signs of things. So, the black squiggles written on the page for ‘dog’ are signs of the sound we make when we say ‘dog’ which in turn signifies the common conception we all have of ‘dog’ in our intellect. But presumably when we are thinking of ‘dog’ we aren’t just thinking of our concept of dog, but of the reality signified by it outside of our mind. In other words, when we are thinking of dog we don’t normally think, “oh I have a concept! What a great beautiful idea!” No, rather we are thinking of the actual extra-mental reality of dog taken as such, which is the nature as existing in all of its particulars at once.

Pearce takes it that our concepts aren’t really distinct from the things they signify. To be precise, he believes that the things signified by our concepts are our concepts, or that there is no distinction between the sign and what it signifies. According to Pearce’s logic there is no distinction then between the idea of homosexuals and actual homosexuals, or rather actual homosexuals don’t exist in reality, but are merely concepts or ideas in our head, which entails that arguing for human rights for them is merely arguing for the rights for ens rationis or beings of reason, which exist merely in our minds!! In short, Pearce’s position entails a denial of human rights for homosexuals. The truth, however, is that persons with homosexual desires have human rights, namely, the right to life, to be treated justly, etc.

Pearce claims there is nothing objectively that’s a chair. In support of this outrageous claim, he argues

my idea of a chair is different from yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair; for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement).

First, note that on the same argument there’s nothing that’s objectively a human being or a homosexual. Remember Pearce is actually claiming that there are no ideas that we share completely in common.

Second, note how Pearce brings in beings with different ideas to argue that no such ideas exist across individuals in reality. Sorry, but cats don’t really have ideas, if by ideas you mean concepts. They have cognition, but they don’t know universals per se. So, they don’t know chair as such; as for alien’s well it depends upon whether they share the same basic intellectual faculties are us. How can you know in advance an alien’s ideas are radically different from ours, unless you already know in advance how their cognition functions? I’ve never met aliens and presumably Mr. Pearce has neither, so he cannot say in advance that their ideas would be different.

Third, if there is zero commonality with regards to the meaning of the word (whether interior or exterior word) chair, then this would mean that genuine communication between human beings regarding such things is impossible, or at least that we are equivocating every time we speak. No true agreement nor disagreement would be possible. But this is in fact what Pearce holds, “No one is right.” So, let’s be clear. According to Mr. Pearce you cannot objectively say any of the following claims are true or false: “homosexuality is physically good,” “homosexuality is physically bad,” “homosexuality is disordered,” “homosexuality isn’t disordered,” etc. Why? Because on his view every person who utters the spoken or interior word (i.e. the concept) homosexuality doesn’t mean the same thing. So, Pearce cannot objectively say “Hsiao’s PFA is wrong”, because there is no objectivity to wrong or wrongness.

Pearce’s Nominalism is Self-Refuting

In short, Pearce’s nominalism is self-refuting. If what he says is true, then words (whether exterior or interior) have no objective meaning or mind-independent referent in any case whatsoever. But nominalism is such a word. Thus, nominalism has no objective meaning. If it has no objective meaning, then Pearce cannot say it is objectively true. If it’s not objectively true, then why should we believe Pearce?


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