NOMINALISM

In philosophy, position taken in the dispute over universals—words that can be applied to individual
things having something in common—that flourished especially in late medieval times. Nominalism
denied the real being of universals on the ground that the use of a general word (e.g., “humanity”) does
not imply the existence of a general thing named by it. The nominalist position did not necessarily deny,
however, that there must be some similarity between the particular things to which the general word is
applied. Thoroughgoing nominalists would withhold this concession, as Roscelin, a medieval nominalist,
is said to have done. But unless such similarity is granted, the application of general words to particulars
is made to appear entirely arbitrary. Such stricter forms of nominalism as existed in the Middle Ages can
perhaps be viewed as reactions against Platonic realism, on which some enthusiasts, such as Guillaume
de Champeaux, based the opinion that universals had real being. The realist position invited a defensive
alliance between empiricism and nominalism; the most notable medieval example of such a synthesis
was the work of William of Ockham.

In the Middle Ages, when Platonic and Aristotelian realisms were associated with orthodox religious
belief, nominalism could be interpreted as heresy. But religious implications aside, nominalism does
indeed reject Platonic realism as a requirement for thinking and speaking in general terms; and though it
seems to deny also Aristotelian realism, such moderate nominalists as the 17th-century philosopher
Thomas Hobbes affirm that some similarity exists between particulars and the general word applied to
them—otherwise thought and speech would be impossible. By explaining thought and speech through
the use of symbols, such as mental images or linguistic terms, nominalism seems to imply some form of
conceptualism that involves more than the mere correct use of symbols and thus is not clearly
distinguishable from conceptualism.

In modern logic a nominalistic concern is reflected in the form that is given to the universal quantifier.
Instead of saying “man is mortal,” or even “all men are mortal,” the modern logician circumvents the
universal by saying “for any x, if x is a man it is mortal.” Neo-positivism, in repudiating metaphysics, has
often been explicitly nominalistic, insisting that there exist only “the facts” of observation and
experiment. In the mid-20th century, Nelson Goodman, a philosopher of science and of language, and
Willard Van Orman Quine, a logician, have championed a modern nominalism that specifically rejects
classes—Goodman for their being “no individuals” and Quine for their being “abstract entities.”