Nominalism is a philosophical position developed in the Middle Ages. The intricate debates and resulting variations of this idea can get quite complicated.¹ So for instructional purposes nominalism is usually boiled down to two main forms.
One form of nominalism rejects the existence of abstract concepts.
Another form of nominalism contends that eternal, universal essences of things (e.g. cat, boat, diamond) are not real in themselves but merely concepts devised by human beings.
This second type of nominalism arose in response to one form of realism in which universal essences are taken as more real than any individual temporal manifestation.
In rejecting realism, William of Occam (circa 1288-1348) maintained that only individuals exist, and universal substances are only constructions from vocal sounds.
While this might seem an esoteric and irrelevant point at first, it’s important to realize that the claims of some contemporary skeptics and poststructuralists are quite similar to Occam’s, even though some say that poststructuralism and, more generally, postmodernism represent entirely new developments in the history of ideas.
Poststructuralists do, however, emphasize the role of social power in defining allegedly universal truths. Poststructuralists also examine the role of social power in creating, reproducing and legitimizing stereotypes.
But even this isn’t a particularly new development. For centuries writers and poets have done much the same—that is, they’ve deconstructed taken-for-granted truth claims, be these supposedly “eternal” or “natural” truths.
¹ Probably the best secondary source covering these complexities is Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy, Volumes 2-3.
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