Nominalism is a philosophical position developed in the Middle Ages but with roots going back to Plato and Aristotle.¹
During the Middle Ages, scholastic theologians had intricate and intense debates about nominalism.² So for instructional purposes, nominalism is sometimes simplified into two main forms.
- Abstract objects do not exist in space and time
- Universals (e.g. stength, beauty, love) are not real in themselves but merely concepts devised by human beings
The second type of nominalism arose in response to one form of realism in which universal essences are said to be more real than any particular temporal manifestation.
In rejecting realism, William of Occam (circa 1288-1348) maintained that only individuals exist, and universal substances are merely constructions from vocal sounds.
This subject matter might seem esoteric or irrelevant at first glance, but it’s worthwhile mentioning that the claims of some contemporary poststructuralists are similar to Occam’s, even though it is often mistakenly believed that poststructuralism and, more generally, postmodernism are entirely new developments in the history of ideas.
One might argue that poststructuralists differ from the old nominalists by emphasizing the role of social power in the creation, legitimization and reproduction of so-called universal truths—for example, the Catholic Church teaches that God created Man and Woman (Adam and Eve) and LGBTQ communities are pursuing “disordered affections.”³
In actual fact, looking at the links between social power and truth isn’t a particularly new development. For centuries writers, poets and artists have challenged supposedly natural or eternal truths perpetuated by the most powerful, visible, headstrong, and sometimes nasty members of society.
² Probably the best secondary source covering these complexities is Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy, Volumes 2-3.
³ This is a recent theme running through Catholic homilies at different parishes. To me it seems like an indirect swipe at everything that challenges Catholic traditionalism. Some of the more conservative priests seem to relish their moment of (imagined) power when they denounce “disordered affections” with a slightly scolding tone. The more, imo, mature and happy priests just skirt the whole issue and focus on more positive pastoral approaches.
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