Is the following concise definition of nominalism correct:

  • Nominalism is to assert something is only what we call it.


Or are there problems with it?

  • 2
    Presumably you mean nominalism as the term is used in medieval philosophy, right? (Cf. plato.stanford.edu/entries/nominalism-metaphysics/#WhaNom )
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 4:12
  • 2
    The problem is that even what you are trying to say only applies to universals, the traditional nominalists (Abelard, Ockham) were realists about particulars, so particulars are something beyond what we call them. There is also a problem with how you phrase it even for universals. It is not that they "are" what we call them, but rather that our activities associated with grouping the particulars under them (naming, recognizing, etc.) exhaust their ontology. There is nothing in the reality "itself" to underlie the grouping.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 22:09

3 Answers 3


Well, the following extract from the SEP on the problem of universals:

it is customary to classify medieval authors as being realists, conceptualists, or nominalists, respectively.

The realists are supposed to be those who assert the existence of real universals in and/or before particular things, the conceptualists those who allow universals only, or primarily, as concepts of the mind, whereas nominalists would be those who would acknowledge only, or primarily, universal words. But this rather crude classification does not adequately reflect the genuine, much more subtle differences of opinion between medieval thinkers.

suggests that it is neccessary part of any description of Nominalism, but not sufficient to adequately characterise it; I find that its more meaningfully understood when situated against the other options on the spectrum of possibility.


No. The nominalist position is that a name is only a name and does not express any "deeper" reality about what it names. A cat obviously "is" many things, a mammal, a carnivore, an awfully cute critter with retractible claws that licks itself clean. And, as famously described in philosophy, an animal that is sometimes on a mat. To a nominalist, the name "cat" doesn't contain in itself all those determinations of being a cat.

And evidently, if we call a cat something else, it doesn't turn into that something else; it remains a cat. And nominalists would recognise this, and so it isn't correct to propose that "nominalism is to assert something is what we call it".


Well, it is, as you say, concise. And accurate, I believe. Perhaps uselessly so.

From Protagoras' "man is the measure of all things" to "naming" in Genesis to Locke's modern nominalism and, finally, to the nominalism of Ayer and the "now-called-naive" positivists, the idea that our shared knowledge is inevitably linguistic and conventional has many variations, complexities, and nuances.

I am not in the academic philosophy business, so I answer with extremely limited knowledge and credentials, but as far as I know, there is no satisfactory definition of "nominalism." It is what we marxists wisely call a "tendency."

Of course, Kant was the great figure in our modern translation of "what is" (ontology) into "what we call it" (epistemology). I am now passing out in my chair from excessive work and drink,so must conclude that the truly definitive answer to your question is...zzzzzzz.

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