In his paper “On What There Is” W.V.O. Quine mounted a unique argument against realism of universals:

One may admit that there are red houses, roses, and sunsets, but deny, except as a popular and misleading manner of speaking, that they have anything in common. The words ‘houses’, ‘roses’, and ‘sunsets’ are true of sundry individual entities which are houses and roses and sunsets, and the word ‘red’ or ‘red object’ is true of each of sundry individual entities which are red houses, red roses, red sunsets; but there is not, in addition, any entity whatever, individual or otherwise, which is named by the word ‘redness’, nor, for that matter, by the word ‘househood’, ‘rosehood’, ‘sunsethood’. That the houses and roses and sunsets are all of them red may be taken as ultimate and irreducible, and it may be held that McX is no better off, in point of real explanatory power, for all the occult entities which he posits under such names as ‘redness’.’

David Armstrong coined the pejorative term “Ostrich Nominalism” for Quine's variant of nominalism.

Now, the problem of universals was already formulated at the dawn of philosophy. But Quine was a 20th century philosopher!

Quine's argument is not at all complex, it's as simple as it can be: He just points out that in the “one over many” argument, realists assume they can talk of one entity shared between many numerically different particulars without giving any justification why we should assume such a shared entity in the first place.

Did Quine have any “predecessors” regarding “Ostrich Nominalism”? And if he didn't, can we give any sociocultural explanation why in the whole history of philosophy nobody before found it worthwhile to argue along this line?

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    Not clear... the rejection of universal dates to Aristotle : "In Aristotle's view, universals exist only where they are instantiated; they exist only in things. It is said they exist in re, which means "in things", never apart from things." But this has nothing to do with ostrichs... Mar 26, 2018 at 9:55
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    Of course he did, starting with Abelard and Ockham. But the problem is not as simple, nominalists always had trouble explaining what it is, absent common natures, that red houses, etc., share, or, if it is nothing, why we group them the way we do. They usually ended up reintroducing common natures under a different name, such as Abelard's God-sanctioned "similarities". Quine essentially repeats Abelard's moving of predicates from metaphysics to semantics, but the question remains: do they have basis in nature or are they relativistic whims?
    – Conifold
    Mar 26, 2018 at 20:51
  • At the first glance, Abelard seems to be close to Ostrich nominalism, but Ockham not so much…
    – viuser
    Mar 26, 2018 at 21:14
  • Ockham, like Abelard, moved predication from reality to language, but unlike him was not even willing to allow for "similarities" to be rooted in common "statuses" of divine ideas under which individuals were created. They are just brute facts about individuals for him, it seems more "ostrich" to me. Both started to move the root from fully out there to in the subject, we see continuation of that in Locke's "secondary qualities" and Kant's full-blown apriorism, positivists and Quine then moved it further to socially construed linguistic web, which postmodernists historicized and relativized.
    – Conifold
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


Nominalism about universals and much else has a long history in Western philosophy. William of Ockham, c. 1280—c. 1349 (of 'Occam's Razor fame), was clear :

'To conclude, I say that there is no such a thing as a universal, intrinsically present in the things to which it is common'. (In libros Sententiarum [Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard], c. 1318, I, dist. 2, qu. 4.)

As I read this it need mean no more than that the particulars that are grouped under a universal have nothing more in common than the fact that the same (universal) name is applied to them. The particulars are not identified by their properties. They have the same predicate applied to them but this emphatically does not imply that they share a property (not even the property of having the same name applied to them since there is no such property but only another shared predicate). The common name is just a common predicate. There are no properties and there is no property possession. How does this not agree with Quine ?

As for Abelard, Andrew Schoedinger summarises his position as that : 'Universals, then, are neither voces (words) nor res (things). Universal terms are sermones. They imply a judgment about particulars - the judgment that many different particulars have common qualities' (A. Schoedinger, 'The Problem of Universals', NJ : Humanities Press, 1992, 23. 'Qualities' = 'properties' ? How does this put him closer than Ockham to Quine ? Schoedinger's interpretation is based on an extract, too long to quote here, from Abelard taken from JF Wippel & AB Wolter, 'Medieval Philosophy : From St Augustine to Nicholas of Cusa', Free Press, 1969. The pages in Schoedinger are 23-34. Schoedinger may be wrong - or not.

  • That nominalism has been developed in the middle ages is widely known. But the question is about Ostrich Nominalism, not nominalism in general. Ockham still gave a reductive analysis why a predicate can apply to numerically different particulars. Quine OTOH resists to even make the concession that such a reductive analysis is necessary.
    – viuser
    Mar 26, 2018 at 21:04
  • I have revised the text. I realise, thanks to your comment, the clumsiness of my original presentation. I appreciate. Of course, you still might not agree ! Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 26, 2018 at 22:34
  • there's a difference between saying “No philosophical question arises from a sentence like ‘this ruby and this cherry are both red’. It is perfectly understandable. It's true if it correctly describes a certain state of affairs.” (Quine) and saying “‘this ruby and this cherry are both red’ is true if the (universal) term ‘red’ applies to this ruby and this cherry.” (Ockham). Quine does not even grant that the One-over-Many problem deserves an answer. It's a pseudo-question for Quine, so Ostrich nominalism presents a very serious threat for realism.
    – viuser
    Mar 27, 2018 at 6:55
  • Abelard seems closer to Quine because he associates universals with judgements, not words. A judgment like “this ruby and this cherry are both red” is the end of the road for philosophical inquiry. It's perfectly understandable and there's nothing more to be said about it, no further questions to be asked. There's no need to break it up and analyze it on the levels of words. Like Quine, Abelard seems to deny that “how can ‘red’ be applied to numerically different particulars?” is a well-posed question.
    – viuser
    Mar 27, 2018 at 7:09
  • Okay, point taken. I'd rather be put right than continue in error. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 27, 2018 at 9:43

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