I. In the slow and laborious task of intellectual reconstruction that had to be undertaken after centuries during which Europe had been ravaged by barbarian hordes, the remains of ancient learning natural lawly acquired paramount importance. Most of these remains were, however, not available before the twelfth century and much of the rest was beyond the scholars of the time or was available only in bad translations. 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. But Abelard’s (1079–1142) compromise seems to have enjoyed a great, though varying, amount of popularity throughout: the ideas or universals exist independently of any individuals corresponding to them in the mind of God (universalia are ante res, in this sense); but they are embodied in individual things (universalia are therefore also in rebus); and the human mind gets a glimpse of them only by observation and abstraction (in which sense they are post res).
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.