Mr. Kalb referred, in his post on Weaver, to nominalism and its impact on Western intellectual history and the Western worldview. In this connection, I ran across the transcription of a lecture by Tillich—in a series of lectures on the history of Christian thought—that included a layman’s introduction to nominalism and its historic impact. Because of its length, I opened this forum rather than post it in comments.

“Let me say a little more about what nominalism means. We discussed it in the big survey of the Middle Ages, but we did not discuss it in a detailed way. This fight between nominalism and realism is the destiny of the Middle Ages and largely the destiny of our own time. In our own time it is repeated, partly at least, as a discussion or a fight between idealism and realism, whereby “realism” today is what “nominalism” is in the Middle Ages, and “idealism” today is what “realism” was in the Middle Ages. So here again you must be very cautious about the words. When I speak of medieval realism, I usually add the adjective “mystical” realism. Now if you hear this word, you are immediately terrified, of course, and don’t think of the modern, sound realism of empiricists and other good people! – they all are based on nominalism in the Middle Ages. What is this nominalism? Ockham criticized the mystical realism of the Middle Ages which thinks the universals are real, in saying that the universals, if existing independently, are special things. If they exist otherwise, they simply reduplicate the things. If they exist in the mind only, they are not real things. Therefore realism is nonsense. Realism which thinks that the universals are real, has no meaning because realism cannot say what kind of reality the universals have. What kin d of reality has “treehood”? Ockham says it is only in the mind, therefore it has no reality at all, it is something which is meant, but it is not a reality. The realists of that time said: No, the universal, “treehood”, which directs every tree in a special direction, is a power of being in itself. It is not a thing – no realist ever said that – but it is a power of being. The nominalists said there are only individual things and nothing else. It is against the principle of economy in thinking, not to augment the principles. If you can explain something like the universals in the simplest term, that they are meant by the mind, then you should not establish a heaven of ideas as Plato did.

Now this criticism was rooted in the development towards individuals. This development became more and more the real power in the late medieval life. It was a change from the Greek mood and the medieval mood – the Greek feeling towards the world which starts with the negation of all individual things; the medieval which subordinated the individual to the collective. So it was not simply a logical play in which the nominalists won for the time being, but it was a change of the attitude towards reality in the whole society. You will find that nominalism and realism are discussed in books on the history of logic, and rightly so, but that does not give you the impression of what that means. This discussion was a discussion between two attitudes towards life. Today we discuss it in terms of collectivism and individualism. Of course the collectivism of the Middle Ages was only partly totalitarian; it was basically mystical. But this mystical collectivism – which is the Church as the body of Christ and as the mystical body, generally speaking – is something else from our present-day collectivism. But it is collectivism. And for this collectivism the realists fought; the nominalists dissolved it. And in the moment in which the success was on the side of the nominalists, the Middle Ages actually dissolved.

Then if this is the case if there are only individual things, what are the universals, according to Ockham? The universals are identical with the act of knowing, and as far as they are this they are natural, they rise in our minds, they must be used, otherwise we could not speak. He called them the universalia naturalia .

Beyond them are the words which are the symbols for these natural universals which we have in our mind. They are the conventional universals. Words can be changed; they are by convention. The word is universal because it can be said of different things. Therefore these people also were called “terminists” because they said the universals are merely “terms.” They were also called “conceptualists” because they said the universals are mere “concepts” but have no real power of being in themselves. The significance of a universal concept is that it indicates the similarity of different things – that’s all it can do,

Now all this comes down to the point that only individual things have reality. Not man as man, but Paul and Peter and John have reality. Not treehood, but this tree here, on the corner of 116th and Riverside Drive, has reality, and the others on the other corners, too. We discover some similarity between them. Therefore we call them trees. But there is no such thing as treehood.—Now that is nominalistic thinking.

Now this was also applied to God. God is called by Ockham ens singularissimum , the most single being. I. e. , God has become an individual Himself. As such, He is separated from the other individuals, He looks at them and they look at Him. God is not in the center of everything any more, as He was in the Augustinian kind of thought, but He has been removed from this center into a special place distant from the things, just as man. I. e. , God Himself has become an individual. The individual things have become independent. The substantial presence of God in all of them doesn’t mean anything any more, because that presupposes some kind of mystical realism. Therefore God has to know the things, so to speak, empirically, from outside. He is in our situation. As man approaches the world empirically, because he is not the center any more, he doesn’t know anything immediately, he can only know empirically – so God knows everything empirically, but empirically not as before, by being in the center. God Himself has ceased to be the center in which all reality is united. He is no more center. The whole thing is a pluralistic philosophy in which there are many individual beings, of which God is one, although the most important one. In this way the unity of the things in God has come to an end. Their individual separation has the consequence that they cannot participate in each other immediately because each of them participates in a universal. The one tree does not participate in the other as it did before, when mystical realism gave them the universal treehood as the space in which they participated in each other. Community, as we had it in the Augustinian: type of thinking, is replaced by social relations, by society. We live today in the consequence of this nominalistic thinking, in a society in which we are related to each other in terms of cooperation and competition, but neither the one nor the other word means something of the type of participation. Community is a matter of participation. Society is a matter of common interests, of being separated from each other and working together with each other or against each other.

We don’t know .each other except by the signs, the words, which enable us to communicate and to have a common activity. Now this, of course, was another anticipation of the life of the technical society in which we are existing, which developed first of all in those countries in which nominalism was predominant, as in England and in this country The attitude of the relationship between man and man, between man and things, is nominalistic, in this country in the traditions of American philosophy, as it is largely in England and in some Western European countries. The substantial unity which was preserved by realistic thinking has disappeared.

Now this means that we have knowledge of the others not by participation but only by sense perception – seeing, hearing, testing: it’s always a form of sense relationship. This refers to all our reality, but it doesn’t mean that there is a world of essences, in which our mind a priori participates. We deal with our sensual intuitions and the reflections of it in our mind. This of course produces positivism: we have to look at what is positively given to us. From this many things follow: Irrational metaphysics is impossible. For example, it is impossible to establish a rational psychology which proves the immortality of the soul, its pre- or post-existence, its omnipresence in the whole body. All this is, if it is affirmed, a matter of faith but not a matter of philosophical analysis. In the same way, all sides of rational theology are impossible. God does not appear to our sense apperception. Therefore since we have no direct immediate relationship to it as we have in Augustinian thinking, He remains unapproachable. We cannot have direct knowledge of God. We can have only indirect reflection, but reflections, discourse, never leads to certainty but only probability, of a lower or higher degree. And this probability never can be elevated to certainty, and even its probability is doubtful. It is quite possible that there is not one cause of the world, but different causes. The most perfect being – -which is the definition of God – is not necessarily an infinite being. A doctrine like the Trinity which is based on mystical realism —the three personae participate in the one Divinity – is obviously improbable. They all, therefore, are matters of irrational belief. Science must go its way and faith must guarantee all that is scientifically irrational and absurd.

Now if this is the case, then you see immediately that authority is now the most important thing. Faith is the subjection to authority, and this authority is even more an authority of the Bible, in Ockham, than it is an authority of the Church. Ockham not only dissolved the realistic unity in thought, but also in practice. He fought with the German king, who was not emperor any more at that time, against the Pope. He fought for one Pope against the other. He produced autonomous economics as well as autonomous national politics. He was doubtful in all realms of life for the establishment of independent realms.

Now all this means that he was a most radical dissolver of the medieval unity. What we call “nominalism” and “realism” is a most realistic problem – in our sense of the word “realistic” – namely, a problem of the end of the Middle Ages, because of the loss of its unity; and nominalism has produced this unity. Our present ordinary attitude towards reality is thoroughly nominalistic, and especially in those countries where in the Middle Ages nominalism already was decisive.”

7 thoughts on “Nominalism”

  1. A query
    Could it be that Mr. Bush’s adventure in Iraq, and his stated desire to implant democracy, is doomed to failure, because Arab Muslims are not nominalists, and in fact are actively hostile to nominalism?

    And, further, that the so-called “reform” of Islam cannot occur (at least not on any basis satisfactory to the Westerners calling for the reform) until Muslims become nominalists?

    • Rawls
      And of course Rawls is a thorough nominalist.

      Not having read enough Rawls to know, I don’t know if he ever acknowledged this presupposition.

      • Avoiding the label
        “And of course Rawls is a thorough nominalist.

        Not having read enough Rawls to know, I don’t know if he ever acknowledged this presupposition.”

        Nominalism is like nihilism – everyone predicates it of their enemies and denies it of themselves.

    • It’s certainly true that
      It’s certainly true that discussions of Islam among inclusivist Western liberals rely on extreme nominalism, the view that Islam can be made to be anything whatever and to say otherwise is simple bigotry.

      As to Rawls, I suppose the later Rawls (of Political Liberalism) would have said that his philosophy prescinds from nominalism vs. realism, along with every other issue anyone rational might conceivably argue about. That’s why we’re all required to accept it.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • But if one prescinds from
        But if one prescinds from any issue subject to rational disagreement, then all those issues and the disagreements about them are treated as independent phenomena, essentially equal (or equally meaningless), none holding precedence over another, and with no essential relation to anything else, other than that none will hold sway over the political order.

        This seems like nominalism to me. In fact, it looks like the final victory of nominalism, a political order of independent phenomena centered in nothing, except the common agreement that there is no center. To claim a center is considered a threat to the political order.

        • The claim of course is that
          The claim of course is that politics is a limited undertaking that facilitates other perhaps more important aspects of life and does not prejudge them. Political principles make no assertions about how the world really is, and in other aspects of life we are free to make such assertions. Our assertions may even, for all Rawls cares, be true.

          I don’t think the claim makes any sense either. A comprehensive view about how things really are necessarily has comprehensive practical and therefore political implications. Possibly though the Rawlsian view should be considered an attempt to dodge the issue of nominalism (among other issues) rather than an example of nominalism itself.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. Nominalism
    Real and realism seem to be words that are not understandable beyond their everyday meaning, which philosophers do not use. Consider that the English language allows one to use the words real and unreal. It seems silly to discuss real cats and unreal cats. Perhaps the words are extinct artifacts of Western philosophy that we try to use as we use the word evolution. Evolutionary theory says natural selection has produced species adapted to their environment, but we cannot produce the evidentiary support.

Comments are closed.