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A term deriving from the Latin nomen, meaning name, and used to designate a variety of doctrines and movements in philosophy. (1) In an ontological sense, nominalism is a doctrine according to which only individual things exist. In opposition to Platonic realism, which explains the similarity of individuals by saying that they share a common property or nature, i.e., by assuming the existence of universals that are not individuals, nominalism holds that if individuals similar to one another may be said to share anything, this can be only a spoken or written name or a mental image, i.e., something itself individual. In the strict sense nominalism is opposed also to conceptualism, for it does not accept universals that are not individuals even as objects of thought. (2) In a polemical sense, nominalism is frequently used as an epistemological term roughly synonymous with extreme conventionalism, empiricism, or positivism. This is so because ontological nominalism has often led to a skeptical attitude concerning the objective value of intellectual knowledge. It would be wrong, however, to think that the refusal to accept universal essences must of necessity make the use of words entirely arbitrary. Ontological nominalism as such need not deny that individuals are essentially related; it merely rejects the assumption that related individuals have some namable thing that is not an individual in common. (3) Historically, "nominalism" is a term applied to philosophical and theological movements in early and late scholasticism whose representatives were called nominales. Their doctrines included, among others, ontological nominalism in the broader sense, i.e., not excluding conceptualism.

Greek Origins. Even though the term "nominalism" appears much later, the doctrine can be found already in antiquity. Thus Antisthenes the Cynic is said to have objected to plato: "I see a horse, but I do not see horseness" (Simplicius, In Arist. Categ. 208.30). Aristotle defended an intermediate position between those of the cynics and Plato; in his view, although only individual beings with individualized natures exist in physical reality, the intellect is able to form universal concepts of such natures. This view may be referred to as a realistic conceptualismrealistic, in order to distinguish it from an idealistic conceptualism of the Kantian school.

The Stoics, who are often classified as nominalists, accepted the individuals of the material world but in addition, as an ontological foundation for logic, they postulated a special kind of universal, namely, τ λεκτόν, "what is said," the meaning of sentences or words. The Stoic position, therefore, amounted to an original form of conceptualism. It resembles the position of the nominales of scholasticism, but as yet no line of direct influence has been traced from one school to the other.

Early Scholasticism. The famous scholastic discussion of universals arose in the wake of a renaissance of Aristotelian logic or, more exactly, in connection with an argument concerning logic's place with respect to the other sciences (J. Reiners). The Neoplatonic tradition had assumed that logic was concerned with a special kind of thing, namely, with the categories and predicables. boethius had distinguished between physics as a science of things (res ) and logic and grammar as sciences of words (voces ); he had stated also that the treatise on the categories dealt with words. Then, at the beginning of the 11th century, some writers asserted that predicables too could be considered not only as things but also as names. Toward the end of the century, a controversy arose between those who taught logic in the old way as dealing with things (in re ) and those who, like John the Sophist, the master of Roscelin, taught logic as concerned with words (in voce ). Finally, roscelin of compiÈgne explicitly denied that universals, i.e., the predicables of genus and species, could be things. His arguments, known from his disciple Peter abelard, were mainly negative, showing how Platonic realism leads to incongruous consequences. An important positive argument appealed to the authority of Aristotle, who defines a universal as "that which can be predicated of many" (On Interpretation 17a 39). Assuming that only words (and not things) could be predicated, it concluded that universals had to be words.

Such nominalism, however, did not exclude a realistic conceptualism (B. Geyer). It seems that Roscelin simply did not consider the problem of the concept. Abelard, however, explicitly discussed the universality of products of thought (ficta ) and accepted the objective existence of the meanings (dicta ) of sentences, as did the Stoics. To stress that words are not merely sounds, Abelard in his later writings preferred to say that universals were sermones, i.e., meaningful terms of discourse. He was convinced that there had to be an ontological justification for the use of general names: e.g., although two men do not share some "thing," man (in homine ), they do share the status of being man (in esse hominem ). Roscelin and Abelard continued the tradition of the earlier dialecticians by applying logical analysis to theological matters. Roscelin's incautious teachings elicited from St. anselm of canterbury the first-known polemics against nominalism (De fide trin. 2), and the nominalists' heretical formulations of the mystery of the Holy Trinity were later condemned by the Church (see H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 721739). (see dialectics in the middle ages.)

High Scholasticism. In high scholasticism the nominalist school disappeared. Everyone now taught logic as a science of meaningful words (scientia sermocinalis ), and the new logical theories of the consequentiae and of the suppositions of terms, initiated by Abelard, were in full elaboration. But leading logicians, such as Peter of Spain (Pope john xxi), found the acceptance of universals no longer problematical, and they did not hesitate to say that a universal term in suppositione simplici stood for a universal thing (res universalis ). It was rather among Aristotelian theologians, such as St. thomas aquinas, that Abelard's criticism of Platonic realism continued to be developed.

Late Scholasticism. A new school, whose members again were called nominales, originated in the 14th century with william of ockham at its head. Intending to purify Aristotelian doctrine from Avicennist-Neoplatonist corruptions (see E. A. Moody, Logic, 911), Ockham rejected the doctrine of formal distinctions proposed by John duns scotus, according to which common natures could be distinguished in individual things. For Ockham all distinctions within a thing can be only real distinctions, and all the components distinguished are as individual as the thing itself. Like Abelard, he stressed that universals are only names or terms: two similar individuals do not agree in a common nature but only "in themselves" (conveniunt se ipsisIn 1 sent. 2.4EE). By denying the reality of relations he made the separation between individuals even more radical.

Ockham's Nominalism. But again this type of nominalism did not immediately exclude conceptualism. Ockham recognized not only spoken or written terms but also mental terms or concepts. In his explanations as to how concepts are to be understood, however, he was hesitant: whereas in the beginning he tended to consider them as objective products of thought (ficta ), he later estimated that it might be sufficient to identify them simply with the subjective acts of thinking (intellectiones ) [see Boehner, "The Realistic Conceptualism of William of Ockham"]. Since psychological acts are concrete and individual, the latter interpretation of the concepts amounts, in the terminology explained above, to ontological nominalism in the strict sense.

Ockham defended his ontological viewpoint by revising the logic of the suppositions of terms accordingly. Furthermore, he insisted that science was, properly speaking, of terms and not of things (Philosophical Writings, ed. and tr. P. Boehner [Indianapolis 1964] 11), since one knows propositions and these are made up of singular and universal terms. By this he did not mean to deny that one knows about real things, for in the logic of suppositions he explicitly explained how terms stood for things. His peculiar preoccupation with terms, however, explains why Ockhamist nominalists were also called terminists (terministae ).

The above-mentioned identification of concepts and acts of thinking was in keeping with the famous principle of economy that Ockham often applied in logical analysis: "Plurality is never to be posited without necessity" (numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitateIn 1 sent. 27.2K), or "What can be explained by fewer assumptions is vainly explained by more" (frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per paucioraSumma tot.log. 1.12). This principle, later called "Ockham's razor," can be found already before Ockham, but it characterizes very well the pragmatic aspect of nominalism. Ockham also recognized clearly the connection between ontological assumptions and linguistic formulations. For example, he explained the abstract noun humanity nominalistically by the complex phrase "man insofar as he is man" (Summa tot.log. 1.8). Such reformulations have gained special prominence in the contemporary discussion of nominalism (see below).

But Ockham was more than a logician. His ontological nominalism was intimately connected with his theological view of a free, all-powerful, and all-merciful God. (Distinctive of late scholastic nominalism is the fact that it included members of both the arts and theology faculties.) For Ockham, the affirmation of a real distinction in things implied that God could create one of its components without the other. In view of God's absolute power (potentia absoluta ), the coexistence of individuals was entirely contingent; the actual order of nature and grace, moreover, was necessary only insofar as God in fact directed His power in this way (potentia ordinata ). As a consequence, arguments depending on man's experience of the de facto order could lead only to probable conclusions. For Ockham, God's inner life was entirely beyond the reach of philosophical investigation. Since he admitted only real distinctions, he taught that God's nature could be only of unanalyzable simplicity, rejecting even the existence of exemplary ideas in God's mind. In his view, only theologians could attempt to formulate the mystery of Trinitarian life.

Ockhamist School. The followers of Ockham formed a new school, the via moderna, in opposition to the old schools of scotism and thomism, the via antiqua. In England the first Ockhamists were robert holcot and adam wodham. In Paris the extremism of the first admirers of Ockham led in 1339 to a decree of the arts faculty prohibiting the teaching of the new doctrine (Chartularium universitatis Parisiensis 2:485). Apparently some participants in the scholastic art of disputation had made exaggerated use of Ockham's method of logical analysis, calling some propositions of accepted authorities, and even those of Scripture, "false according to their formulation" (falsae de virtue sermonis ) or "simply false" (simpliciter falsae ). The opponents of the nominalists blamed Ockham's doctrine that science was of terms and not of things for these exaggerations; thenceforth they were quick to stress that they were interested primarily in things and not in terms (nos imus ad res, de terminis non curamus see Ehrle, 322).

Yet more dangerous were early accusations of heresy. Two thinkers whose doctrines were related to Ockhamism, nicholas of autrecourt and john of mirecourt, were condemned by Pope Clement VI (see Enchiridion symbolorum, 102849). But the theological writings of Ockham himself were never condemned by the Church, and later nominalist theologians were careful not to overstep the bounds of orthodoxy.

Growth of Ockhamism. ockhamism soon attracted leading personalties such as john buridan, nicholas of oresme, albert of saxony, and marsilius of inghen. Although these men did not accept all of Ockham's theses, they did help the nominalist school to gain respectability. It spread to old universities, but especially to newly founded centers of learning throughout Europe. Only a few places, such as Cologne and Louvain, remained devoted exclusively to the via antiqua. Unfortunately, the rivalry between antiqui and moderni meant endless quarreling. Thus in Paris in 1474 the realists succeeded in curbing a strong nominalist party with the help of royal power, although in 1481 the prohibitions were abolished.

In the 14th and 15th centuries the leaders of the conciliar movement, peter of ailly and Jean gerson, belonged to the via moderna. (Ockham himself had already suggested the establishment of a general council to counterbalance papal power.) The nominalist school has thus been characterized as "the late medieval ecumenical movement" (H. Oberman). Its theologians intended to heal the divisions in the Church by returning to the golden age of St. bernard of clairvaux and peter lombard. The quarrels of the antiqui about metaphysical distinctions seemed to them "to thin out the food" of true biblical revelation, and apologetical proofs based on purely philosophical reasons (remoto Christo ) were regarded as of little use (Ockham's criticism had made their conclusions already doubtful). The influential theologian and faithful interpreter of Ockham in the late 15th century was Gabriel biel.

Reformation and Modern Science. There has been much debate over the relationship between the nominalist school and the Reformation. Protestants used to stress Martin luther's break with the "corrupted" Catholic tradition of the late Middle Ages, whereas Catholic authors, accustomed to see in Thomism the recommended doctrine of the Church, considered the Reformation to be a consequence of the "decadent" scholasticism of the nominalists. Both views seem to be mistaken. Luther had been strongly influenced by the theology of Biel, but in his doctrine of justification he rejected the nominalist semi-pelagianism, according to which man can do his very best by his natural power and so put himself in the proper disposition for the infusion of grace. It may also be mentioned that other Reformers, such as John wyclif, John hus, and John calvin, were of Scotist origin and that Huldrych zwingli had a Thomist background, while Johann eck, a foremost defender of the Catholic position, belonged to the nominalist school. During the late Middle Ages, nominalism, Scotism, and Thomism were all equally accepted schools of Catholic thought. It is true that, after the Council of Trent, the nominalist semi-Pelagianism came to be antiquated and can no longer be considered compatible with Catholic belief. But, on the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Biel's teachings about Scripture and tradition and his Mariology were forerunners of the Tridentine formulations (see Oberman, 423428).

Also prevalent is a theory to the effect that modern empirical science was a direct result of Ockham's philosophy. It is true that from his doctrine of the contingency of the world order it follows that the only adequate ground for asserting a causal relation between two phenomena is the empirical observation of regular sequence. But Ockham himself had shown no particular interest in empirical science; and although many 14th-century physicists, such as J. Buridan and N. Oresme, were associated with the via moderna, it must be stressed that in their physical theories they did not follow Ockham but rather continued the work of their realist predecessors (see Weisheipl).

Modern Empiricism. At Oxford the Ockhamist tradition of grammatical and logical analysis survived until far into the 17th century. T. Hobbes's logic clearly goes back to the nominalist version of the logic of terms, and, continuing up to the "ordinary language" school of philosophy of the 20th century, one finds a steady series of warnings not to be misled by the use of abstract nouns.

What characterized modern philosophy, however, was not linguistic analysis but epistemology. Here the empiricist postulate to justify all knowledge by reduction to sense experience necessarily led to a strict ontological nominalism. J. locke still accepted general ideas, but G. berkeley and D. hume made it clear that if an idea was a picture formed by sensation or by the imagination, then it could be the picture only of something individual. There is, for example, no such thing as a picture of a triangle in general that is "neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once" (cf. Berkeley, Principles, Introd. 13; Hume, Treatise 1.1.7). The use of general names was explained psychologically by saying that a general name evoked, through habitual association, a whole chain of similar individuals. Among positivists and psychologist logicians, such views were frequently discussed throughout the 19th century, e.g., by J. S. mill. They were later subjected to a thoroughgoing criticism by E. husserl.

Contemporary Discussion. With the rise of mathematical logic, psychological questions were pushed into the background. But the problem of universals reappeared in the 20th century in a new form, consequent on the development of set theory by G. Cantor. In this theory, sets or classes are Platonic universals and are not to be confused with wholes, i.e., with "heaps" or concrete collections of individuals. A sphere, for example, is identical with the whole made up of its two halves or with the whole made up of its quarters, but in set theory the sphere, the set that has the two halves as elements, and the set made up of the quarters are three different entities. With a finite number of atomic individuals, one is able to compose only a finite number of different "heaps"; in set theory, however, the number of sets, sets of sets, etc., that can be formed from these same individuals is infinite. At first the Platonic assumption of higher and higher infinites of sets was generally accepted, and set theory became the basis of all mathematics; numbers were defined as particular sets of sets of individuals. But about 1900 various antinomies were discovered when unrestrained Platonism led to contradictions (see antinomy). Up to the present no single way of repairing the Platonic edifice has satisfied all logicians, and some (S. Leśniewski, T. Kotarbiński, N. Goodman, W. V. O. Quine, J. H. Woodger, and R. M. Martin) have come to doubt the meaningfulness of the very notion of set. In other words, nominalism has been again resuscitated.

Yet simply to deny the existence of Platonic entities is no longer sufficient. It has become clear that a limitation of ontological assumptions implies that some logical languages are no longer meaningful. The nominalist has therefore the task of formulating everything in a suitable nominalistic language. This encounters great difficulties, and most logicians accept a limited form of Platonism. Logical positivists, such as R. Carnap, try to escape into their conventionalism: although unable to do without a Platonic language, they continue to claim that metaphysical questions are meaningless and that the issue is simply a matter of linguistic convention.

See Also: logical positivism.

Bibliography: a. carlini, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:927931. j. auer, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 7:102023. j. klein, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 4:150508. b. mates, Stoic Logic (Berkeley, Calif. 1953). g. m. a. grube, "Antisthenes Was No Logician," American Philological Association, Transactions and Proceedings 81 (1950) 1627. p. vignaux, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 11.1: 717784; Nominalisme au XIV e Siècle (Montreal 1948). j. reiners, Der Nominalismus in der Frühscholastik (Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters 8.5 (Münster 1910). e. a. moody, The Logic of William of Ockham (New York 1936); "Ockham, Buridan and Nicholas of Autrecourt: The Parisian Statutes of 1339 and 1340," Franciscan Studies 7 (1947) 113146. p. boehner, "The Realistic Conceptualism of William of Ockham," Traditio 4 (1946) 307335. e. hochstetter, "Nominalismus?" Franciscan Studies 9 (1949) 370403. f. ehrle, Der Sentenzen Kommentar Peters von Candia des Pisaner Papstes Alexanders V: Ein Beitrag zur Scheidung der Schulen in der Scholastik des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts und zur Geschichte des Wegestreites (Franziskanische Studien Beiheft 9; Munster 1925). g. ritter, Studien zur Spätscholastik, 3 v. (Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Heidelberg, Philos.-Hist. Klasse, v. 12.4, 13.7, 17.5; 192127). h. a. obermann, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge, Mass. 1963). j. a. weisheipl, The Development of Physical Theory in the Middle Ages (New York 1960). r. i. aaron, The Theory of Universals (Oxford 1952). e. c. luschei, The Logical Systems of Leśniewski (Amsterdam 1962). w. v. o. quine, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Mass. 1953). n. goodman, The Structure of Appearance (Cambridge, Mass. 1951); "A World of Individuals" in The Problem of Universals: A Symposium (pa. Notre Dame, Ind. 1956). r. carnap, Meaning and Necessity: A Study in Semantics and Modal Logic (2d ed. Chicago 1956). t. kotarbiŃski, "Sur l'attitude réiste (ou concrètiste)," Synthèse 7 (194849) 262273. e. husserl, Logische Untersuchungen (2d ed. Halle 191321).

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NOMINALISM . The philosophical view of nominalists is based on the conviction that in human discourse only names (nomina ), nouns, or words are "universal," not things, common natures, or ideas, as claimed by the realists. The problem of universals, first raised in logic, concerned the status of terms that are predicable of many subject-terms. The problem raised other questions that had to be answered in psychology or epistemology, with serious ramifications in theology. The logical problem of universals was heatedly debated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in response to Abelard; the larger problem was debated even more heatedly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in response to Ockham and his followers.

In the early Middle Ages logicians encountered the problem of universals in teaching Aristotle's Categories and Porphyry's Isagoge (Introduction). In the Categories Aristotle listed ten classes of terms that are predicable of subject-terms in discourse (substance and the nine accidental characteristics). Porphyry grouped these into five types of univocal predicability called "universals" (uni-versus-alia ), namely, genus, species, difference, property, and accident. Concerning their status Porphyry raised three questions: namely, whether they exist substantially or only in the mind; if the former, whether they are corporeal or incorporeal; and, third, whether they exist separately from objects of sense or only in them. Porphyry gave no answer but implied a Platonic solution. Boethius (c. 475c. 525), in his commentary, further asks whether these universals are "things," as the Platonists hold, or only "names" as Aristotle seems to hold.

Early teachers such as John Scottus Eriugena (fl. 847877), Anselm (c. 10331109), and William of Champeaux (c. 10701121), largely influenced by the Platonic realism of the early church fathers, maintained that predicable terms immediately reflect common natures in creatures and mediately reflect ideas in the mind of God. The earliest opponent of such realism was the French teacher Roscelin (fl. 10801125), who taught Peter Abelard (10791142). Arguing that things as such exist only as individuals and cannot be predicated universally, Roscelin attributed universality solely to vocal utterances. Modifying the extreme view of Roscelin, Abelard held that in predication it is simply names that are predicated of subject-terms, and the main function of names is to signify whatever is agreed upon by men. The meaning of the term rose being agreed upon, the name of the rose and its signification remain even when there are no more roses. Signification, for Abelard, exists only in the mind, not in individual things existing outside the mind. Abelard, however, did not raise the more serious questions of psychology or epistemology, since he did not know the rest of Aristotle's philosophy.

Logicians after Abelard distinguished between the meaning (significatio ) of names and their intended use (suppositio ) in sentences. Three kinds of supposition were noted: "simple," as in the simple meaning of a name; "material," as in the sounds or letters with which it is composed; and "personal," as in the proper subject possessing the attribute. In the thirteenth century wider issues were also discussed, such as the psychology of knowledge and the epistemological foundations of all knowledge. Moderate realists explained universal concepts in terms of "abstraction" by the human intellect from sense knowledge directly perceiving existing individuals.

Early in the fourteenth century William of Ockham (c. 12851349) rejected every shade of universality in things outside the mind, even fundamentally and potentially: "All those whom I have seen agree that there is really in the individual a nature that is in some way universal, at least potentially and incompletely" (Sentences 1.2.7). Ockham's unique nominalism rests on three crucial positions. First, in logic he substituted a new meaning for "simple" supposition: namely, when a term used stands for a mental intuition (intentio animae ), but without that meaning, that is, without signifying something mental. As a consequence "personal" supposition became the concrete individual indicated by the name (Sum of Logic 1.64). Second, in psychology Ockham eliminated all distinctions between the soul and its faculties, among the faculties themselves, and between intellectual and sense knowledge. For Ockham, the intellect directly perceives the concrete individual by "intuitive" knowledge. Third, as for existing realities, only "absolute things" (res absolutae ) can exist, namely, individual substances (matter or form) and sensible qualities: "Apart from absolute things, viz. substances and qualities, nothing can be imagined [to exist] either actually or potentially" (ibid., 1.49). Thus the other Aristotelian categories, such as quantity, relation, and the like, were reduced to mental intuitions (intentiones animae ) that referred to individual "absolute things" variously perceived.

Ockham's nominalism eliminated much of what was traditionally considered "real" in philosophy and theology. Thus the name "motion" in any variation did not refer to a reality other than the body itself in motion; it signified a body (personal supposition) considered as being in one place after another without interruption (in simple supposition). Since "without interruption" is a negation, it cannot exist outside the mind in order to be distinct from the body in motion. Similarly, "grace" signifies a sinner acceptable to God as pleasing to him, not a reality in man distinct from the sinner. This simplification of names appealed to many philosophers and theologians after Ockham.

Many of the leading theologians in the fifteenth centuryGabriel Biel, Pierre d'Ailly, and Peter of Candia (the antipope Alexander V), for examplewere nominalists. Moreover, most universities of Europe in the sixteenth century considered nominalism a mark of Catholic orthodoxy.

See Also

William of Ockham.


Carré, Meyrick H. Realists and Nominalists. Oxford, 1946.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1967.

Reiners, Joseph. Der Nominalismus in der Frühscholastik. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, vol. 8, no. 5. Münster, 1910.

Vignaux, Paul. "Nominalisme." In Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 11. Paris, 1931.

Vignaux, Paul. Nominalisme au quatorzième siècle. Montreal, 1948.

New Sources

Dupré, Louis. Passage to Modernity: An Essay on the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven, 1993.

Langer, Ulrich. Divine and Poetic Freedom in the Renaissance: Nominalist Theology and Literature in France and Italy. Princeton, N.J., 1990.

Tooley, Michael, ed. The Nature of Properties: Nominalism, Realism, and Trope Theory. New York, 1999.

James A. Weisheipl (1987)

Revised Bibliography


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nominalism Philosophical theory, opposed to realism, that denies the reality of universal concepts. Whereas realists claim that there are universal concepts, such as roundness or dog, that are referred to by the use of these terms, nominalists argue that such generalized concepts cannot be known, and that the terms refer only to specific qualities common to particular circles or dogs that have been encountered up to now. Nominalism was much discussed by philosophers of the Middle Ages.


views updated Jun 11 2018

nominalism in philosophy, the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality. Only particular objects exist, and properties, numbers, and sets are merely features of the way of considering the things that exist. Important in medieval scholastic thought, nominalism is associated particularly with William of Occam (see Occam's razor).