Some philosophers, to my agreement, argue that the concept of a rock for example is merely an abstraction that strips away the difference between particulars belonging to the category “rock”. In actuality, in the physical world, only those particulars exist. Descriptions of those particulars are merely ways to find some feature that is common to those particulars, features that seem “natural” to us for psychological reasons, but don’t exist in any real sense.

Other philosophers argue that there is a true essence of a rock that each rock actually contains. This essence can be described as “rockhood” that is, as a matter of reality, present in each rock.

My question is how is this any different from the concept of humanity in humans. Most human beings would recognize that humanity is a human created concept. When trying to reduce it to anything, one would fail, except saying that it is a spirit shared by all humans.

But isn’t this circular? If the argument is that “humanhood” is an essence that is common to all human beings and yet one cannot define it except as a property shared by all humans that actually exists, isn’t this a gesture that doesn’t really say much?

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    It would be interesting to see if a nominalist could ever devise a language where every word ever used is different from every other word ever used. A generality-free language. If such a language is impossible, why is that? If subjectivity is yet part of an objective world, why say that no subjective forces are objectively embodied in the nature of the objective facts? For there would have to be objective facts about subjectivity, after all. But again, let nominalists refrain from using the same word twice and see how far they get. Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 18:14
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    Incidentally, when I try to visualize a patch of red, copied from an experience of a red-painted wall say, and I concentrate enough to make the imagined shade equivalent to the experienced one, then I am intending to refer to the same shade of red in two places/times. My intentionality itself mediates the shared redness. Now, this is not to say that "objectively real universals" have the kinds of moral/social/political ramifications that some essentialists try to make of them, but so it seems like a rather frivolous debate, betimes, to question the existence of shared properties. Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 18:18
  • ThinkingMan against @KristianBerry! It's like Rodan vs Godzilla! Woo Hoo! "The mind makes it real."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 20:15
  • The position you are describing sounds like resemblance nominalism. It is an approach to understanding universals. It has a number of problems and as far as I know is not especially popular among philosophers. There is a very short introduction to nominalist theories of universals in this SEP article. plato.stanford.edu/entries/nominalism-metaphysics/#NomAboUni Realist theories of universals are not vacuous, though they also have their difficulties.
    – Bumble
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 4:09
  • Is thinkingman the same person from one moment to the next? Doesn't seem vacuous or circular to me.
    – J Kusin
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 4:51

2 Answers 2


The esse or ousia (?) of things allows distinctions to be made between x and not x. So if the essence of a chair is something to sit on then a nail with its business end pointed upward is not a chair. That outta the way, if essence is vacuous/sunya/empty, then how do I, back at ya, tell the difference between your question and the question who is Mahatma Gandhi? Is the answer to your question Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an Indian freedom fighter who spearheaded India's Independence Movement?

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    You might be pleased to hear (if you've not heard this before) that your Gandhi remark is reflected in the literature as the Julius Caesar problem: on an underdeveloped Fregean picture, how do we tell that Julius Caesar is not a number (or whatever)? The naive commentator would think, "Of course no human is a number," but such a commentator is presupposing a nature for numbers whereby they are obviously not humans, whereas in the underdeveloped version of Fregeanism, numbers don't have such a perspicuous character and might, "for all we know," be humans (and unicorns and so on). Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 4:02
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    What does this have to do with the concept of humanhood existing in every human being? The post isn’t about distinctions and neither is it about the existence of these categories in our mind but rather their existence outside of the mind. None of what you said shows they do exist in this way.
    – user62907
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 9:04
  • How does one develop (a/the) creteria (for humanhood)?
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 9:42
  • @thinkingman you might need more training in higher-order quantificational logic to understand the point. As it stands, "shows they do exist in this way" seems like itself a vacuous thing to request, and so too does the objective/subjective distinction seem meaningless if there are no objective distinctions between rocks, nails, chairs, this question, and Gandhi. Nominalism seems solipsistic in the limit, perhaps even downright antisocial, or at least to not be using words to refer to what realists refer to by such words. For what do you mean by "vacuous" and "circular" in the first place? Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 13:31

If such distinctions aren't "real," then is the distinction between objective and subjective distinctions itself "real"? If not, if "objective" and "subjective" are not "natural kinds" (of an indefinitely higher order), then the question has no meaning. If "objective" and "subjective" are real, then we can always ask the question as to whether some purported natural kind is more objectively than subjectively delineated, and so by criticism of our theorizing, we can refine our attempts to "carve nature at its joints" so as to make some progress, on some levels, in separating category from category, kind from kind, type from type.

Moreover, there are so many, and such subtle, distinctions, that it would be surprising to find out that all of them are completely "imaginary" (or where does the concept of completeness even come from, then? or the imaginary-vs.-real distinction?). We can differentiate the general from the generic, the indefinite from the infinite, the universal from the general, haecceities from qualitative particulars, sets from multisets and elements, elements from ur-elements and proper classes, types from both tokens and occurrences, extensions from intensions, isomorphism from homomorphism, abstracta from concreta, a genus from a species (and then an individual sample), tropes from properties, sentence-types from propositions, and so on and on. The multiplicity of the universe is even the multiplicity of a conceptual multiverse, and yet then however continuous the gradations might be, that they are gradations that continuously connect things integral on another level is one of the presuppositions of calculus (with its theory of integration), no less.

Since a realist about types of properties need not be of the ante rem class, but can be (as Aristotle mostly was) an in re realist, there is not even a this-worldly-vs.-otherworldly prize at stake. So what is the point of being a nominalist? If things like honesty, evidence, and so on aren't natural kinds either, then the nominalist has no hope of being more honest or evidence-based than the realist, it might seem, and runs some risk of being less sincere/sensitive to proof than their opponents. Or at least of simply, but systematically, talking past those of us who have little-to-no trouble with keeping track of various generalizations and networks of differentiae of objects.

Formative in my own understanding of what might be at stake, here, or rather what the weight of the evidence indicates, has been the SEP article on determinates and determinables. I read it long ago, long before its most recent update, but I will quote from that update nevertheless:

... determinates of a determinable (at a given level of specificity) are both similar and incompatible (red and blue are similar in both being colors; nothing can be simultaneously and uniformly both red and blue). ... For the seemingly distinctive character of determinables and determination may enter into the best case for the claim that there are genuine features of reality that are less than maximally specific—a claim which, if true, has profound implications for a wide range of philosophical issues.

And most applicably:

Two other aspects of Johnson’s discussion are worth noting. First, he denies that determinables are in any sense shared by determinates: “the ground for grouping determinates under one and the same determinable is not any partial agreement between them” but rather “the special kind of difference” (1921: I, xi, 1) distinguishing opposing determinates.[3] As we’ll see, this is a choice point for contemporary accounts.

Ultimately, if the general/particular distinction in general is not "real," then again, there are no particulars for nominalists to believe in, either.🌳 Whether nominalism, pushed to such an extreme that it annihilates the general concept of belief (c.f. eliminative materialism), is thereby self-defeating, might be the inference to make; alternatively, we might say that if agreement and disagreement are not generally inequivalent, the nominalist is not really "defeated" by themselves or by realists, i.e. there is nothing to defeat where there is no battle actually being fought.

🌳Said otherwise: if the natural-kind/artificial-kind difference is artificial, then there are natural kinds just in case we make it so, and since we have made it so, there they are; if the difference doesn't exist, then every kind is neither natural nor artificial, and then either every so-called natural kind might as well be both natural and not natural, or then there is no difference (again) between natural and not natural, and there is nothing to disagree (or worry) about.

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