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In metaphysics, nominalism is a philosophical view which denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, but affirms the existence of general or abstract terms and predicates.[1] There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things (e.g., strength, humanity). The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time.[2]

Most nominalists have held that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only post res, that is, subsequent to particular things.[3] However, some versions of nominalism hold that some particulars are abstract entities (e.g., numbers), while others are concrete entities – entities that do exist in space and time (e.g., pillars, snakes, bananas).

Nominalism is primarily a position on the problem of universals, which dates back at least to Plato, and is opposed to realist philosophies, such as Platonic realism, which assert that universals do exist over and above particulars. However, the name "nominalism" emerged from debates in medieval philosophy with Roscellinus.

The term 'nominalism' stems from the Latin nomen, "name". John Stuart Mill summarised nominalism in the apothegm "there is nothing general except names".[4]

In philosophy of law, nominalism finds its application in what is called constitutional nominalism.[5]

The first philosophers to explicitly describe nominalist arguments were the Stoics, especially Chrysippus.[9][10]

Medieval philosophy

In medieval philosophy, the French philosopher and theologian Roscellinus (c. 1050 – c. 1125) was an early, prominent proponent of nominalism. Nominalist ideas can be found in the work of Peter Abelar

...We customarily hypothesize a single form in connection with each of the many things to which we apply the same name. ... For example, there are many beds and tables. ... But there are only two forms of such furniture, one of the bed and one of the table. (Republic 596a-b, trans. Grube)

What about someone who believes in beautiful things, but doesn't believe in the beautiful itself…? Don't you think he is living in a dream rather than a wakened state? (Republic 476c)

The Plato

The Platonic universals corresponding to the names "bed" and "beautiful" were the Form of the Bed and the Form of the Beautiful, or the Bed Itself and the Beautiful Itself. Platonic Forms were the first universals posited as such in philosophy.[6]

Our term "u

Our term "universal" is due to the English translation of Aristotle's technical term katholou which he coined specially for the purpose of discussing the problem of universals.[7] Katholou is a contraction of the phrase kata holou, meaning "on the whole".[8]

Aristotle famously rejected certain aspects of Plato's Theory of Forms, but he clearly rejected nominalism as well:

...'Man', and indeed every general predicate, signifies not an individual, but some quality, or quantity or relation, or something of that sort. (Sophistical Refutations xxii, 178b37, trans. Pickard-Cambridge)

The first philosophers to explicitly describe nominalist arguments were the Stoics, especially Chrysippus.[9][10]

In medieval philosophy, the French philosopher and theologian Roscellinus (c. 1050 – c. 1125) was an early, prominent proponent of nominalism. Nominalist ideas can be found in the work of Peter Abelard and reached their flowering in William of Ockham, who was the most influential and thorough nominalist. Abelard's and Ockham's version of nominalism is sometimes called conceptualism, which presents itself as a middle way between nominalism and realism, asserting that there is something in common among like individuals, but that it is a concept in the mind, rather than a real entity existing independently of the mind. Ockham argued that only individuals existed and that universals were only mental ways of referring to sets of individuals. "I maintain", he wrote, "that a universal is not something real that exists in a subject... but that it has a being only as a thought-object in the mind [objectivum in anima]". As a general rule, Ockham argued against assuming any entities that were not necessary for explanations. Accordingly, he wrote, there is no reason to believe that there is an entity called "humanity" that resides inside, say, Socrates, and nothing further is explained by making this claim. This is in accord with the analytical method that has since come to be called Ockham's razor, the principle that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible. Critics argue that conceptualist approaches answer only the psychological question of universals. If the same concept is correctly and non-arbitrarily applied to two individuals, there must be some resemblance or shared property between the two individuals that justifies their falling under the same concept and that is just the metaphysical problem that universals were brought in to address, the starting-point of the whole problem (MacLeod & Rubenstein, 2006, §3d). If resemblances between individuals are asserted, conceptualism becomes moderate realism; if they are denied, it collapses into nominalism.[11]

Modern and contemporary philosophy

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