Nominalism is a philosophical view concerning the existence of abstract objects. "Abstract objects" might be thought of as an overarching term for things like universals, essences, natures, and forms. Abstract objects are things like humanity, justice, colors, numbers, sets, and propositions. Sometimes we discuss these things as concepts and not as "things" per se. After all, it seems very odd to think there is some perfect, immaterial, and immutable exemplar object or number existing in its own realm according to which we name and relate the physical things of our experience. But this is the exact position entailed by what philosophers call "realism." Nominalism is best understood as the antithesis of realism.
What is Nominalism? What is a Christian view of nominalism?
Realism arose in response to challenges about how we understand and talk about the world. For example, how do we account for the fact that there is one student in classroom A and one student in classroom B? Thinking carefully, we might realize that we are attributing the same quantity to two different locations. But how can this be true if all that exists are the physical objects/places? The law of identity, predicated on non-contradiction, says that "A is A, and therefore A is not B, nor anything else." Further, what do we really mean when we say "quantity," "student," or "classroom"? The realist says that we can make sense out of multiple instances of the same thing because each instance is a representation, replication, copy, etc. of something transcendent. In philosophical jargon, physical objects are "particulars" of a given "universal." For the realist, "classroom" must ultimately be a real thing or else we cannot truly say that classroom A and classroom B are the same, that they are both a classroom. We can apply this principle to things like "man" or "justice." Socrates is a man and George is a man because they are both instances of the universal "man." The universal "man" exists in itself, as do all other abstract objects. Abstract objects are not spatio-temporal; they are accessible only by the intellect and not the senses.
Nominalism holds that abstract objects, universals, essences, and so forth do not exist except as names or linguistic conventions. Thus, nominalism is considered "anti-realist." For the nominalist, things like numbers, colors, concepts, and ideas are used only to describe physical objects. In nominalism, there is no such thing as the color "red" or the number "12." We might use the term "red" when referring to the appearance of certain things, like a barn or a stop sign. But barns and stop signs are not instances of any universal color. There is no such thing as "redness" itself. Universal terms are helpful for communication and they have become normative to this extent. The term "nominalism" is given to this negative position on universals because it refers to something existing "in name only."
Against the realist, the nominalist does not see the need for universals, or he finds too many problems with their existence. For example, if realism is true, it seems we would have to allow for an infinity upon infinity of universals to account for the things of the physical world, let alone those objects which are not physically instantiated. This leads to what some consider a "bloated ontology," which is another way of saying there are just too many existing things expanding into absurdity. Then there is the problem of knowing these abstract objects. Given the sheer quantity and nature of abstract objects, how can we ever know anything about them? It also seems that mere linguistic usage is a sufficient explanation for universal terms, and we need not posit anything further.
The realism discussed thus far has been a simplified version of Platonic realism, named after the ancient Greek thinker Plato. Since Plato's time, there have been many other versions of realism offered. Some of these are closer to Plato than others. The nominalist will oppose any substantive form of realism, and contemporary literature on nominalism has many nuanced positions. Of special note to the modern and historical debate is a position called "conceptualism." This is a somewhat more intuitive version of anti-realism, which holds that abstract objects exist as mental concepts. They are more than linguistic conventions but do not exist in themselves or other things. Rather, they exist as abstractions of the human mind. Because person A and person B both form the same concept of "red," we can intelligently use this term (and others) without relegating it to complete arbitrariness.
For the Christian, Platonic realism presents a challenge to the self-existence of God. The Bible teaches that only God exists in Himself (Exodus 3:14; Psalm 90:2; Hebrews 1:3). Yet, the Platonist conceives of abstract objects existing eternally and immutably, not having any cause of their existence. Christian theologians and philosophers have attempted to reconcile realism with the Bible. For example, thinkers like Augustine situate abstract objects in the mind of God. Of course, the Bible does not directly address the question of realism/anti-realism. It is up to Christians to formulate philosophical positions consistent with Scripture, because both natural and special revelation cannot ultimately conflict.
Naturally, the realism versus nominalism debate extends far beyond the scope of this article. These camps have argued back and forth for millennia, and there is little promise of broad consensus on the horizon. The major benefit from these debates has been deeper study into what we take as real, how we explain certain terms, and what certain positions ultimately entail. Some of the implications of the realism/anti-realism debate can be seen in fields like law, where moral and ethical theory is intimately bound with concepts and ideas having roots in metaphysics (the study of being and reality, where realism is addressed). Ultimately, the position we take on the question of realism/anti-realism can have a profound impact on our worldview, so it is beneficial to explore and discuss this subject with humility and respect.
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