A thought inspired by Sunday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nazir 34
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An idea or a collection?
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
When we say something like “children deserve special consideration,” what exactly are we referring to when we use the term “children”? Is it simply a reference to a particular group of human beings who happen to have been born less than a certain number of years ago, or is it an indication of some special ontological reality of the world that we call “childhood”? Could we replace the word “children” with a list of individuals such as “this one, that one, and that one too” to achieve the same meaning? While the word “children” might be used as a shorthand for the two billion individuals who meet the age criteria, it is more than just a simple list. It refers to a broader category of individuals who share common characteristics, experiences, and needs.
At first glance, the question of what we mean when we use terms such as “children” may appear obscure. However, the answer we arrive at can have a significant impact on how we view the world and our belief systems. Understanding the nature of the terms we use and the concepts they represent is essential for developing a coherent and consistent worldview. For instance, if we believe that the term “child” refers to a special reality that exists independently of individual instances, we may hold certain beliefs about the nature of childhood and the needs of children. On the other hand, if we see the term as a mere label that we apply to a group of similar individuals, our beliefs about children and childhood may be different. In this sense, the question of what we mean by terms such as “children” is not just an academic exercise but has real-world implications.
Philosophers draw a distinction between Universals and Particulars. Universals refer to concepts or properties that can be instantiated by multiple individual instances, whereas particulars refer to individual, concrete instances of those concepts or properties. For example, the word “chair” refers to a universal – a concept that is defined by a particular shape and use. Individual chairs are particulars, which share the common characteristic of being instances of the universal “chair.” Similarly, other examples of universals include redness, triangle, and apple. These concepts can be instantiated by multiple particular instances – for example, the redness of a rose, the triangle shape of a road sign, or the apple on a table.
Another distinction is between Nominalism and Realism. Nominalism is the position that universals, such as redness or chairness, are not real things that exist independently of individual objects. Instead, according to nominalists, universals are simply names or labels that we give to groups of similar objects or experiences. In other words, universals are mental constructs that do not exist outside of our minds.
Realism, on the other hand, is the position that universals are real things that exist independently of individual objects. According to realists, universals have an objective reality that is not dependent on human thought or language. Realists often argue that universals are instantiated in individual objects or experiences, but they exist independently of those individual instances. (Please don’t confuse this meaning of Realism with other uses in Philosophy.)
To give an example, suppose we have two apples, both of which are red. According to a nominalist, the concept of “redness” is simply a label or name that we apply to these two objects because they share certain similarities in color. However, according to a realist, the quality of “redness” is a real and objective feature that exists independently of our labeling or perception of it.
What about the word ‘children’? Nominalists might view this word as a mere abbreviation for a list of individual children, while realists would see it as representing a distinct and meaningful category. According to realism, the universal concept of ‘child’ is a real entity, and so is the class of children as a group. In contrast, nominalists would argue that the term ‘child’ is simply a label we use to refer to a collection of similar individuals, without any underlying reality beyond our mental construct.
What about the word ‘family’? What meaning do ‘my family’ or ‘my people’ have to me? Now, this distinction may make a real difference. I might believe that the closer someone is to me, the more obligations I have to them and the more I should prioritize their needs over others. Conversely, the further removed someone is, the less obligation I have, but I still have some responsibility for everybody. On the other hand, I might think that such words do not simply identify a list of people, but rather an abstract entity with its own meaning for me. This might entail rules that I apply to my group that I do not apply to other groups, and I might feel no obligation to such other groups.
The way we view the world and structure our concepts influences the beliefs we hold about how we should behave.