Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bare Particulars, Trinity and Incarnation I

I was blessed thirty years ago to be a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Iowa.  It was in the 1980s, a time where the influence of the "Iowa School" was rapidly waning.  The "Iowa School" of philosophy was associated inter alia with the work of Herbert Feigl, Gustav Bergmann, Wilfred Sellers and Everett Hall.  These men deeply understood logical positivism and further grasped that ontological questions could not be disassociated from it.  While none were teaching at Iowa in the 1980s, excellent philosophers like Panayot Butchvarov remained who were profoundly interested in questions of contemporary metaphysics.   

Of all of the Iowa philosophers, Gustav Bergmann was perhaps the most interesting.  Born in Vienna in 1906 with a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Vienna, Bergmann was briefly a member of the famous "Vienna Circle" before moving to Berlin in 1931 to work with Einstein on certain aspects of mathematical physics.

Bergmann later migrated to America in the late 1930s and was invited to the University of Iowa to work with the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin.  While Bergmann and Lewin parted company fairly quickly, Bergmann made connections at Iowa and was appointed a lecturer in the early 1940s, finally progressing to full professor by 1950.    Bergmann stayed in Iowa City beyond his retirement in 1974.  I remember seeing him occasionally in the philosophy department in the early 1980s when I was there, often reading an Italian novel.  Unfortunately, he developed Alzheimer’s and succumbed to the disease in 1987.  

Bergmann was committed to logical positivism early on, and retained a general orientation towards logical empiricism throughout his life.[1]  He was also an unregenerate realist who held that metaphysics was not only possible, but necessary if one was going to give a coherent account of the ontological structure grounding the semantic conditions of ideal language.  Starting with the syntax of the language of formal logic, Bergmann attempted to make explicit the logical structure of that language by pointing to the metaphysical constitution of the objects and states of affairs referred to by that language.[2] 

The Iowa School has always been interested in the metaphysics of universal and particulars, believing that careful analysis of a logically perspicuous language could bear metaphysical fruit.   And Bergmann’s vineyard was indeed lush!   A committed realist who granted ontological status to various kinds of abstract objects, Bergmann advocated that the common sense particulars of which we are directly acquainted, e.g., this ball and that spot, are actually not metaphysically simple, but rather are constituted by metaphysically more basic bare particulars exemplifying various universals.  Bergmann thus argued for a “complex ontology” while eschewing a “functional ontology” (Frege).[3]   There is much wisdom to be gleaned in reading Bergmann, though such reading is mostly out of favor today.[4]

In this essay I want to review Bergmann’s notion of a bare particular with an eye towards its theological appropriation.   Is there any way that this notion can be helpful in understanding the ontological grounds for Trinitarian and Christological discourse?  

Bergmann’s Realism: A Critique of Brentano and Meinong gives a description of what he means by a ‘bare particular’. 

A bare particular is a mere individuator.  Structurally that is its only job.   It does nothing else.   In this respect it is like Aristotle’s matter, or, perhaps more closely, like Thomas’ material signata.   Only, it is a thing.[5]
Bergmann claims that two red spots can “exemplify” the same universals (e.g., redness, spot-shapeness), and are yet different spots because they are constituted by different bare particulars.  Like Aristotelian primary substances, bare particulars can neither be “said of” any other thing nor be “present in” something else.  Furthermore, while bare particulars are predicated, they cannot be predicated of any other thing.  Bare particulars, unlike properties, are thus the ultimate subjects of predication.  While ‘white’ can be “said of” particular white properties or can be “present in” particulars as such, it can also be predicated: this particular white property had by this particular can itself be said to be white.[6]  This is not possible with a bare particular.  In phrases like ‘x is a bare particular’, the “is” must be one of identity and not attribution.  

Bill Vallicella has written quite cogently about the metaphysical situation regarding bare particulars.[7]  Such particulars, while possessing properties, have no natures, that is, they have nothing by virtue of which the particular is the particular that it is.  Bergmann countenanced that an external relation of exemplification obtains between bare particulars and the universals that are “exemplified” in them.   For instance, bare particular a can exemplify whiteness and felininity (catness), in that whiteness and felininity are both “here.”   The relation of exemplification is external because there is nothing about whiteness or felininity that necessitates there exemplification at a.   Conversely, there is nothing about being a that requires whiteness and felininity to be so exemplified. Since every bare particular is externally related to the properties that are exemplified at that particular, the properties had by the bare particular or merely accidental to it.   While this particular exemplifies white and felininity, it is possible for it to have exemplified black and canininity (dogness). 

The fact that bare particulars are not Aristotelian substances is easily grasped.  Aristotelian substances have a “layer” of properties without which the particular could not be the particular it is.  One might say that the individual is internally related to its nature for Aristotle.[8]  As Vallicella points out, on an Aristotelian understanding, the particular Fido is no longer free to take on any property whatsoever.  The dog Fido cannot, as it were, take on the property of felininity and still be the dog Fido.  In other words, the particular Fido is a canine in each and every possible world in which Fido exists.  

This is not the case with the bare particular a, for apparently, a can take on properties like canininity or felininity at will as it skirts through possible worlds.  The capability a posseses to do this is necessary if a is properly to individuate, for a bare particular simply is that which individuates two qualitatively identical objects.   This red spot and that red spot are individuated by the fact that this red spot is this one and that red spot is that one.   A bare particular always exemplifies some property or other, but does so only contingently. Any properties exemplified at a are simply primitively exemplified at a.  There is no deeper ground in a, no nature, that determines the expression of any particular properties at a.   Vallicella terms this feature “promiscuous combinability”: each bare particular can “hook up” with any universal, in that it is logically possible for any universal to be exemplified at any bare particular. 

Bergmann is a constituent ontologist holding that bare particulars are ingredient in each ordinary particular, that is, an ordinary particular is constituted by a bare particular exemplifying properties.   One could argue that a bare particular having constituent parts violates the nature of that particular’s particularity, and advance instead a non-constituent ontology for particulars.   On this view, there would be no deeper constitution of an ordinary particular. The particular is numerically distinct from other particulars, although that by which it is numerically distinct is not specified.  This seems the tactic of Nicholas Wolterstoff, who rejects Bergmann’s constituent analysis claiming that ordinary particulars are, in fact, simple.[9] 

At this point we might distinguish Bergmann’s “bare particular” from the notions of “thin particular” and “thick particular.”   David Armstrong seems – unjustly in my view -- to think his “thin particular” is different than Bergmann’s “bare particular.” But his distinction between thick and thin particulars is useful.   While a thin particular is a particular considered in isolation from the properties it instantiates, a thick particular is that thin particular considered in combination with the properties it instantiates.[10]  Armstrong declares, “the thin particular remains the particular with its attributes abstracted away.  The thick particular is again a state of affairs: the thin particular’s having the (particular) attributes that it has.  Armstrong’s thin particular, like Bergmann’s bare particular, is committed to a constituent analysis of ordinary particulars. 

I assume for the remainder of this article that the notion of a “bare particular” or “think particular” is ultimately philosophical defensible, though I know that much work is needed in making that defense.  As a theologian, my purpose is not to do the philosopher’s deep work at this time, but rather to move to a different question entirely.   What do the doctrines of the Trinity and two natures of Christ look like when assuming that notion of bare particularity?  How do “bare” or “thin” particulars relate to the tradition’s understanding of hypostasis and persona?  Finally, how might this discussion connect with Scotus’ notion of haeccity?   I will take up these questions in the next post.         


[1] Defining “logical empiricism” is not easy.  Richard Creath writes, "What held the group together was a common concern for scientific methodology and the important role that science could play in reshaping society. Within that scientific methodology the logical empiricists wanted to find a natural and important role for logic and mathematics and to find an understanding of philosophy according to which it was part of the scientific enterprise.”  See Creath, Richard, "Logical Empiricism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .[2] For an overview of the life and philosophy of Bergmann, see William Heald, “From Positivism to Realism: The Philosophy of Gustav Bergmann, 1992,
[3] His constituent ontology analyzes seeming particulars into bare particulars exemplifying universals.   A function ontology eschews “in” as the primary metaphysical relationship, substituting instead a coordinating function, e.g., the function of {green, oval, spatio-temporal location} as argument delivers “this spot” as a value.

[4] Bergmann does place fairly heavy demands upon his reader.   Those interested in his work should study the following:  Philosophische Analyse / Philosophical Analysis: Ontology and Analysis:  Essays and Recollections about Gustav Bergmann, eds., Addis, Jesson and Tegtmeier (Muenchen: Walter de Gruyter, 2013); Philosophische Analyse / Philosophical Analysis: Fostering the Ontological Turn: Gustav Bergmann (1906-1987), eds. Egidi and Bonino, (Muenchen: Walter de Gruyter, 2013); and Philosophsche Analyse / Philosophical Analysis: Gustav Bergmann: Phenomenological Realism and Dialectical Ontology, eds., Langlet and Monnoyer, (Muenchen: Walter de Gruyter, 2013).
[5]Gustav Bergmann, Realism: A Critique of Brentano and Meinong (Madison, WS: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), 25.
[6] All of this goes back, of course, to Aristotle in his Categories.   Aristotle famously said that only particular substances are neither “said of” nor “present in” something else.

[7] See
[8] a is internally related to b if and only if the being of a is in part determined by the being of b, e.g., I am internally related genetically to my father.  a is externally related to b if and only if the being of a is not affected by the relationship a has to b, e.g., my father is externally related genetically to me.
[9] See Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Bergmann’s Constituent Ontology,” Nous 4:2 (May 1970), 116ff. 
[10] See David Armstrong, “Universals as Attributes,” 65-93, Michael Loux, Metaphysics: Contemporary Readings (New York: Routledge, 2001), 79:  “The thin particular is a, taken apart from its properties (substratum).   It is linked to its properties by instantiation, but it is not identical to them. . . .  However, this is not the only way a particular can be thought of.   It can also be thought of as involving its properties.  . . This is the thick particular.  But the thick particular, because it enfolds both thin particulars and properties, held together by instantiation, can be nothing but a state of affairs.”   Armstrong seems to think that Bergmann’s “bare particular” does not instantiate properties, a view that Bergmann explicitly denies.