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J.A.A. Purves

Nominalism

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I have been recently fascinated with trying to understand what "Nominalism" is and how it affects the way that we think (and perhaps many of the assumptions of popular culture).

Wikipedia seems to provide a concice summary of the basics, including a satirical illustration of it from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass -

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

Then, in Everett Ferguson's first volume of Church History, I ran across the following summary (pg. 425):

Every student even in the "Dark Ages" studied the Isagoge ("Introduction" to the logic of Aristotle) written by Porphyry and translated into Latin by Boethius. The crucial passage that raised the question of universals was the following:

"Next concerning genera [classes of objects with common characteristics] and species [manifestations of a larger class] the question indeed whether they have a substantial existence [Realism], or whether they consist in bare intellectual concepts [Conceptualism and later Nominalism] only or whether, if they have a substantial existence, they are corporal or incoporeal, and whether they are separable [extreme Realism] from the sensible properties of the things (or particles of sense), or are only in those properties [Moderate Realism] and subsisting about them, I shall forbear to determine. For a question of this kind is a very deep one and one that requires a longer investigation."

Indeed, the question occupied Scholastics for four centuries. "Realism" (from the Latin res, "thing" or a reality) referred to the real existence of a universal concepts ("Ideas" or "Forms") and so is used differently from the term "realism" as used in later philosophy. "Nominalism" (from the Latin nomen, "name") referred to the position that a class concept was only the name given to the common characteristics of members of the class and had no real existence of itself.

The principle positions that emerged were three:

1. Extreme realism. This position is represented by Anselm and corresponds to Plato's view, which said that universals have real existence apart from and prior to individuals. This position, dominante in early Scholasticism, was expressed by the Latin formula universalia ante rem ("universals are before the individual thing").

2. Moderate realism. This position is represented by Thomas Aquinas and - following Aristotle - said that universals are real, but always exist in actual individuations, existing as form to matter. This position, which became dominant in the thirteenth century, was expressed by the formula universalia in re ("universals are in the individual thing").

3. Nominalism. This position is represented by William Ockham, who said that universals are only inferences drawn from observing individuals. This position, dominante in the fourteenth century, was represented by the formula universalia post rem ("universals are after the individual thing") ...

Then, in my reading of John Henry Newman, Frederick Copleston and Jaroslav Pelikan, I've found their discussions of the early church's debates about the "Logos" to seem closely related to this. Also, Richard M. Weaver and Eric Voegelin make some interesting claims about how "nominalism" is the assumption underlying much of deconstructionist and postmodern thought.

Has anyone read anything helpful on this that they could recommend?

It seems pretty elementary and foundational, but I really have never read or studied it before. I've asked around a little, among friends and at church, but I've only been referred to what, so far, has turned out to be kindergarten level "Christian worldview" invectives against moral relativism (which are not really enthusastic about being thoughtful or about exploring anything with any kind of depth).

So I am now looking for some other intelligent discussions of Nominalism. My basic searches on google or Amazon haven't really produced much that looks promising. Can anyone help?

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I don't have any solid suggestions, but one area you might want to explore is in the field of mathematics; without doing heavy digging in that area, I suspect that the "real-or-nominal" debate has figured heavily in the development of various theories of number (in fact, I seem to recall at least one philosophy professor at my undergrad pointing to the concept of number as the sort of thing that would necessarily be true in all realities--making it "realist" rather than "nominalist").

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