As magnificent a subject as philosophy is, grappling as it does with the ultimate concerns of human existence, and thus surpassing in nobility any other human pursuit, it is also miserable in that nothing goes uncontested, and nothing ever gets established to the satisfaction of all competent practitioners. (This is true of other disciplines as well, but in philosophy it is true in excelsis.) Suppose I say, as I have in various places:
That things have properties and stand in relations I take to be a plain Moorean fact beyond the reach of reasonable controversy. After all, my cat is black and he is sleeping next to my blue coffee cup. ‘Black’ picks out a property, an extralinguistic feature of my cat.
Is that obvious? Not to some. Not to the ornery and recalcitrant critter known as the ostrich nominalist. My cat, Max Black, is black. That, surely, is a Moorean fact. Now consider the following biconditional and consider whether it too is a Moorean fact:
1. Max is black iff Max has the property of being black.
As I see it, there are three main ways of construing a biconditional such as (1):
A. Ostrich Nominalism. The right-hand side (RHS) says exactly what the left-hand side (LHS) says, but in a verbose and high-falutin' and dispensable way. Thus the use of 'property' on the RHS does not commit one ontologically to properties beyond predicates. (By definition, predicates are linguistic items while properties are extralinguistic and extramental.) Predication is primitive and in need of no philosophical explanation. On this approach, (1) is trivially true. One needn't posit properties, and in consequence one needn't worry about the nature of property-possession. (Is Max related to his blackness, or does Max have his blackness quasi-mereologically by having it as an ontological constituent of him?)
B. Ostrich Realism. The RHS commits one ontologically to properties, but in no sense does the RHS serve to ground or explain the LHS. On this approach, (1) is false if there are no properties. For the ostrich realist, (1) is true, indeed necessarily true, but it is not the case that the LHS is true because the RHS is true. Such notions as metahysical grounding and philosophical explanation are foreign to the ostrich realist, but not in virtue of his being a realist, but in virtue of his being an ostrich.
C. Non-Ostrich Realism. On this approach, the RHS both commits one to properties, but also proffers a metaphysical ground of the truth of the LHS: the LHS is true because (ontologically or metaphysically speaking) the concrete particular Max has the property of being black, and not vice versa.
Note 1: Explanation is asymmetrical; biconditionality is symmetrical.
Note 2: Properties needn't be universals. They might be (abstract) particulars (unrepeatables) such as the tropes of D. C. Williams and Keith Campbell. Properties must, however, be extralinguistic and extramental, by definition.
Note 3: Property-possession needn't be understood in terms of instantiation or exemplification or Fregean 'falling-under'; it might be construed quasi-mereologically as constituency: a thing has a property by having it as a proper ontological part.
Against Ostrich Nominalism
On (A) there are neither properties, nor do properties enter into any explanation of predication. Predication is primitive and in need of no explanation. In virtue of what does 'black' correctly apply to Max? In virtue of nothing. It just applies to him and does so correctly. Max is black, but there is no feature of reality that explains why 'black' is true of Max, or why 'Max is black' is true. It is just true! There is nothing in reality that serves as the ontological ground of this contingent truth. Nothing 'makes' it true. There are no truth-makers and no need for any.
I find ostrich nominalism preposterous. 'Black' is true of Max, 'white' is not, but there is no feature of reality, nothing in or at or about Max that explains why the one predicate is true of him and the other is not!? This is not really an argument but more an expression of incomprehension or incredulity, an autobiographical comment, if you will. I may just be petering out, pace Professor van Inwagen.
Can I do better than peter? 'Black' is a predicate of English. Schwarz is a predicate of German. If there are no properties, then Max is black relative to English, schwarz relative to German, noir relative to French, and no one color. But this is absurd. Max is not three different colors, but one color, the color we use 'black' to pick out, and the Germans use schwarz to pick out. When Karl, Pierre, and I look at Max we see the same color. So there is one color we both see -- which would not be the case if there were no properties beyond predicates. It is not as if I see the color black while Karl sees the color schwarz. We see the same color. And we see it at the cat. This is not a visio intellectualis whereby we peer into some Platonic topos ouranos. Therefore, there is something in, at, or about the cat, something extralinguistic, that grounds the correctness of the application of the predicate to the cat.
A related argument. I say, 'Max is black.' Karl says, Max ist schwarz. 'Is' and ist are token-distinct and type-distinct words of different languages. If there is nothing in reality (no relation whether of instantiation or of constituency, non-relational tie, Bergmannian nexus, etc.) that the copula picks out, then it is only relative to German that Max ist schwarz, and only relative to English that Max is black. But this is absurd. There are not two different facts here but one. Max is the same color for Karl and me, and his being black is the same fact for Karl and me.
Finally, 'Max is black' is true. Is it true ex vi terminorum? Of course not. It is contingently true. Is it just contingently true? Of course not. It is true because of the way extralinguistic reality is arranged. It is modally contingent, but also contingent upon the way the world is. There's this cat that exists whether or not any language exists, and it is black whether or not any language exists.
Therefore, I say that for a predicate to be contingently true of an individual, (i) there must be individuals independently of language; (ii) there must be properties independently of language; and there must be facts or truth-making states of affairs independently of language. Otherwise, you end up with (i) total linguistic idealism, which is absurd; or (ii) linguistic idealism about properties which is absurd; or (iii) a chaos, a world of disconnected particulars and properties.
The above is a shoot-from-the hip, bloggity-blog exposition of ideas that can be put more rigorously, but it seems to to me to show that ostrich nominalism and ostrich realism for that matter are untenable -- and this despite the fact that a positive theory invoking facts has its own very serious problems.
Metaphilosophical Coda: If a theory has insurmountable problems, these problems are not removed by the fact that every other theory has problems. For it might be that no theory is tenable,while the problem itself is genuine.