Realism and Nominalism
18 FEBRUARY 1998
REALISM AND NOMINALISM
In this assignment, you will learn to define and discuss the following terms:
Realism, Nominalism, syllogism, major premise, minor premise, universal.
You should have considered the following questions:
Why did the Greeks and Romans prefer truth arrived at through the use of
reason to that acquired through experience?
What is a syllogism and how does it work?
It is not an easy matter to say what Western Europe in the Middle Ages did,
developed, or created that made it evolve in a manner so different from that of
the other civilization of the Old World and eventually to dominate the world
politically, economically, and even culturally. Many people have advanced their
own ideas. Some said that it was Christianity, and that their faith gave
Europeans a higher moral and ethical sense than other peoples. The German
attempt, during the Second World War, to kill all of the Jews in Europe
suggested that this idea was somewhat lacking. Others held that God had chosen
the Europeans to civilize the other peoples of the world and that this heavy
task was the White Man's Burden. The treatment of their colonial peoples
by the European powers was long recognized, at least by a few, as representing
something less that a "civilizing influence." When I was young, it was commonly
held that the scientific and technical genius of the White race was the basis of
its success, but then the Japanese, Indians, and others began to demonstrate
that they were just as adept at science and technology as Whites when given the
So one may choose what one wishes and ask if it made a real difference. One
might select military technology, representative government, the idea of the
integrity of the individual, the frontier experience, the suffering that
medieval society endured, or any of a number of other things. I would choose
two, one a basic concept of philosophy and the other a new economic
organization. This lesson will consider the basic concept of philosophy,
Realism versus Nominalism In order to understand the issues
involved, one must approach the matter carefully, understanding the essential
There are various means of deciding what is true. Not all give the same
answer. Therefore, a society must put more faith in one approach than another.
The order in which various approaches are accepted determines the pattern of
thought of the society.
The Ancient or Rationalist Period
The ancients preferred reason and logic above observation and experience,
because the senses can easily be deceived, and because they lacked the equipment
to enhance the senses, make precise observations, and record the data. They also
noted that, although one can deduce various laws governing triangles, spheres,
circles, and the like, such things do not exists in nature and so are outside of
human experience. That is, there can be no triangle in nature found with exactly
180 interior degrees, any more than one can find a precisely straight line.
In their use of reason, they preferred demonstrative logic, the
demonstration of derivations from known principles. The basic operation in
demonstrative logic is the syllogism. The syllogism consists of
a. The major premise: Socrates is a man, which simply states
that Socrates belongs to a category of object which we call "man." The medieval
philosophers called such categories universals, which is a term
that you should remember
b. The minor premise: all men are mortal. All categories are
defined by their characteristics, some of which are essential and some of
which are accidental. The accidental characteristics of the category of "man"
include such things as height, IQ, skin color, number of arms and legs, and so
forth. Essential characteristics might be such things as bipedal, mammal, and
rational. The minor premise simply specifies one of the essential
characteristics of the category "man."
c. The conclusion: Socrates is mortal. The major premise is
based upon the observation that "Socrates" displays the necessary essential
characteristics to place him in the category of "man." If so, then Socrates has
all of the essential characteristics of the category.
There is a problem with this. If no perfect example of a member of a
universal exists in the world of experience, how can people be able to judge
what things fits into a universal and what do not? In short, how do people learn
about universals if not through experience? Plato said that universals have a
real existence independent of human beings and that the individual soul
"experiences" these universals, of "forms" in the special realm in which the
soul resides before birth. The individual is then born with a "memory" of these
forms. In short, Plato argued that people are born with innate patterns of
thought. Although Aristotle tried to demonstrate that the concepts of the
universals could be derived from experience, Platonism continued to dominate the
Greek and Roman worlds. But the rationalist system could not explain the fall of
Rome or the mysteries of the Christian faith and was supplanted by philosophies
The Early Middle Ages
Saint Augustine of Hippo in the City of God indicated the
limits of human experience and of human imagination. The only enduring principle
was the will of god and the only way of knowing this was faith and revealed
wisdom. He was not really concerned with the nature of universals or the bases
of reason. He stated that reason is better than experience only because even
animals can experience.
Augustine's preference for faith over reasons and experience led to a
rejection of attempting to discover the nature of the universe. The basic
message of scripture, the primary authority, was that human minds cannot
comprehend god's plan. Consider the Book of Job. When Job asked
God why both the evil and the just must suffer, God answered him with the blast
of Where were you when I created the whale?
The knowledge revealed by God -- the inspired words of the scriptures, the
fathers of the church, the decrees of church councils, and some papal edicts--
collectively formed the canon. Nothing could be true if it conflicted with this
base of wisdom. Only the word of God could be trusted.
The Break-up of Augustinian Thought
This pattern of belief lasted for almost six hundred years, but began to
crumble when Western scholars obtained translations of Aristotle's works on
logic and began to apply the principles of logic to the field of
theology. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) wrote a book
called sic et non (yes and no), in which he demonstrated
that the canon was full of contradictions. If the canon cannot be relied upon,
then we must rely upon reason. The senses can be fooled, so experience is
fallible and must always be tested against reason.
The High Middle Ages
The translation of all of Aristotle's manual of logic into Latin stimulated
the application of logic to all matters in all fields. A long discussion ensued
as to the proper use of logic. Some held that logic should be followed wherever
it led one, while others countered that logic cannot be accepted as true if it
weakened or contradicted the faith.
Interestingly enough, some people attacked the logicians by attacking
Aristotle. By showing that Aristotle's observations of nature were wrong, they
inferred that his logic might also be wrong. In this process of investigating
natural phenomena, they laid the basis for modern science.
The real debate, however, was over the nature of the universal. The Realists
said that it was real thing, independent of human will, and the Nominalists said
that the universal was merely a name ("nomen") that people gave to a category of
experience. In modern terms, we would argue about whether universals are
objectively real or only social constructs.
This is not a silly matter. Here are a couple of examples to think about.
Who or what defines what constitutes a "human being"? L. Frank Baum posed
this question in The Wizard of Oz, with the Tin Woodsman. The Woodsman
had cut off all his limbs, as well as his head and body, in a series of
accidents, and they had been replaced with artificial limbs. At what point did
he stop being human? The Woodsman says that it was when he lost his "heart,"
his capacity to feel human emotions. The Wizard tells him, however, that the
capacity to feel human emotions does not lie in the heart, or in any other
single part of the body. Do we make up a list of requirements that qualifies a
living thing as a human being, or are human beings human no matter what we say
2 + 2 = 4 Are the laws of mathematics merely social constructs? Can we
change them if we want?
Or, to make it more specific, the value of pi is accepted as 3.141159+. If
we had a vote, and everyone agreed to make it 3.0, what would the value of pi
If the Realists are right, then categories of truth, such as beauty and
justice, are independent of human will and we cannot shape our world, only
discover it. Nobody has a right to their own opinion, because everything is like
mathematics. Your opinion is either right or wrong. If the Nominalists are
right, then people can decide what is just and what is not, and there are no
such things as eternal principles. But that means that, again, you don't have a
right to your own opinion. What counts as being right is what most people
believe is right, and you need to learn what most people accept so that you can
live and work in a world that is a social construct. But, if that is true, the
majority rules absolutely and the minority has only those rights that the
majority think it right to give them. And so on, and so forth...
The Break-up of the Realist-Nominalist Debate
The traditional categories of the Realists could not absorb the flood of new
information that came with the era of discovery in the period 1500-1900. To what
category does the duckbilled platypus belong? It has scales, so it's a fish, but
it has feathers, so it's a bird, but it gives birth to its young alive and has
hair, so it's a mammal.
The Nominalists were confronted with things of which there was no previous
experience on which to base the construction of the necessary new categories,
while the Realists needed more information to determine whether these things
represented newly-discovered categories and, if so, what the essential
characteristics of those categories were. The debate was largely abandoned and
Europeans began the long task of collecting, describing, and measuring things.
So what's the point of all of this? As we shall see later, the observation
and measurements of that era led to the discovery that much of the world about
us follows physical laws that operate independently of our wishes. The question
arose whether other things, things commonly considered to be acts of human will
- - such as buying and selling, falling in love, being successful in one's work,
going to war or staying at peace, loving your neighbor or killing him -- might
not also be governed by unchangeable physical laws operating independently of
human will. You might well ask why this should be considered such a big deal.
Didn't Lao-tzu say the same thing in the Tao te-ching a couple of thousand years
earlier? Yes, that is true, but Lao also said that, since one cannot change
those laws that run the universe and the people in it, one might as well relax
and go with the flow of nature. The problem with that approach is that it is
difficult to know what the laws of nature are or in what direction they are
What the Realist and Nominalist controversy of Western Europe accomplished
was this: the Realists accepted the idea that the universe, or much of it, was
governed by laws the nature of which one could discover by the use of reason,
while the Nominalists constantly tested those laws to see whether or not they
were actually laws or simply hypotheses. Both agreed that, if one could discover
the nature of the natural forces of the universe, one could use those forces to
one's advantage. Rather than simply going with the flow as Lao-tzu advised,
Europeans intended to try to swim with the current, if you'll pardon the
To tell the truth, I have searched the web and come up only with a scattering
of presentations for philosophy classes that I believe that you would find even
more confusing that today's essay. So there will be no required or recommended
assignments for today. Instead, I would like you to think about the material you
have been given and make an effort to use your on-line discussion list to talk
it over with your colleagues. Remember that your participation in these lists
will count for 15% of your grade. This is the sixth week of the semester, and
many of you have not yet made a single contribution.
This text was produced and installed by
Lynn H. Nelson,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998