In Are numbers particulars?, David Gudeman states "nominalist, which I don't think anyone is these days." I was not aware that nominalism regarding universal is generally considered to be disconfirmed and is by most excepted as false. If yes, which argument has been so compelling? I am particular (no pun intended) surprised of this statement, as hardcore materialism is relatively common among people I know (not necessarily philosophers) and accepting universals to be true is not very materialistic in my opinion.

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    See Nominalism; IMO it is hard to assert that some philosophical view has been "disproved". Nov 25, 2022 at 15:24
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA: I softened by wording. I did not mean mathematically/logically disproven.
    – Make42
    Nov 25, 2022 at 15:27
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    There was a 2020 poll of (mostly) analytic philosophers with a question Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? The results were (accept or lean towards): Platonism 38.38%; nominalism 41.85%. In the analogous 2009 poll: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%. So nominalism is one of the two dominant positions on the subject. David Gudeman mentioned "some sort of nominalist" with multiple instances of what would have to be an abstract object 5, so not even a nominalist in the standard sense.
    – Conifold
    Nov 25, 2022 at 19:02
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    @Conifold: The survey is about nominalism regarding abstract entities, not nominalism regarding universals. Whiel Gudeman said somewhat vague "some sort of" it was in the context of universals, so I think the survey does not count towards the discussion after all.
    – Make42
    Dec 1, 2022 at 11:02
  • Universals are a subset of abstractions, and the problems that abstractions provide for materialism is not limited to the set of "universal" abstractions. See the answer to this question: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/95025/…
    – Dcleve
    Dec 7, 2022 at 20:17

2 Answers 2


There's consistently been an even amount of platonists & nominalists and this continues to be the case in contemporary philosophy, see the PhilPapers survey (actually, right now, there might be marginally more nominalists).

When platonism is contrasted exclusively with nominalism, this is about abstract objects and not properties (though transcendental universals are just one kind of abstract object that, if they exist, would also entail abstracta platonism): it is important to distinguish between the debate about the ontology of properties where platonism, immanentism, conceptualism, etc battle it out versus the debate about the existence of abstracta where it's just platonism (they exist), nominalism (they don't). Candidate abstracta may be platonic properties, sets, propositions, numbers, geometric shapes, etc. An example is that Quine was a nominalist in the former sense but a platonist in the latter sense.

Some of the arguments for abstracta platonism come from mathematical platonism, scientific realism & indispensability arguments, and meaning.


I see the surveys showing no drop in support for nominalism among philosophers in general, and agree that may be the case among your materialist colleagues as well. But that does not appear to be the case among the theorists of materialism/physicalism.

I reference four good theoretical discussions from this century: the Rise of Physicalism by David Papineau, Physicalism by Daniel Stoljar, A Physicalist Manifesto by Andrew Melnyk, and Physicalism or Something Near Enough by Jaegwon Kim. All are physicalists or physicalist-leaning "near" physicalists.

Three of the four explicitly state that physicalism no longer is a monistic ontology. The possibility of non-physical objects or items in our world is compatible with physicalism, per those three authors. They do not even assert that non-physical things are causally inert, only that they do not act as causes in physics. The fourth, Kim, agrees that non-physical things exist, but holds that they are causally inert. Kim is the only one of the four who holds that physicalism is a monism, and our world NOT being monistic is why he is now only "near" physicalism.

Stoljar, the other "near" physicalist, was even willing to accept non-monistic physicalism. He only abandoned it because of Hempel's dilemma, which did not allow for the even minimal criteria of causal inertness for the non-physical. If one cannot define the physical vs non-physical, then causal inertness for the non-physical is not a claim with any content, so it cannot be the defining criteria of physicalism.

Stoljar, despite being an almost physicalist, actually has a very negative view of the REASON for physicalism's popularity. He considers the philosopher's role to be being displaced by science, math theory, and linguistic theory, such that philosophers are a bit at loose ends for what to do. But physicalism offers a ready made role -- explain to the public why when the world APPEARS to not be purely physical, it really IS. Note, this role is the same as that assigned to the branch of Apologism in theology. Philosophers as apologists for an ideology -- is not a very positive view of philosophers.

As an empiricist, who accepts indirect realism as the way to infer what is real, I have always been a bit mystified by nominalism. Math, abstractions, and experiences, are all as reasonably inferred to be real as matter. How nominalists propose to do epistemology, how do they know that abstractions are not real, I have never seen spelled out. Nor has it been at all clear to me what a "nominal" IS. Sure, it is a thought problem, created by a mind, to do a purpose. But none of that (thought, problem, mind, purpose) seem to be material, so how this explanation makes nominalism monistically material remained a mystery to me. This identical process is also how Popper's triplest ontology would describe model making, so I did not see how this description avoided ontic triplism.

Stoljar's explanation of apologism as a philosophic project, strikes me as particularly relevant to nominalism. Nominalism appears to me to mostly be a word salad designed to try to obscure the ontic nature of the emergence process that it is describing.

Plus nominalism cannot explain why theoretical physicists mostly treat math as more fundamental than matter. If matter reduces to the symmetry principles and probabilities and waveforms of the Standard Model, then math, and abstraction, is not "nominal" at all, but is more "real" than anything else.

The widespread abandonment of reductionism and its replacement by pluralist emergence among philosophers of science in this century, strikes me as removing both the plausibility of and need for a nominalist description of abstractions. Non-reductive physicalism basically admits to an ontically non-physical mind being emergent from matter, then ideas being emergent from mind. And non-reductive physicalism is the vastly most widespread view of physicalism among philosophers of mind.

I believe the theoreticians of physicalism have understood these challenges to physicalism that make physicalism no longer plausibly a monism, and that the unclear rationale for the "nominality" of ideas is no longer a useful bit of apologetics, hence none of the contemporary physicalist theoreticians are still arguing for nominalism. There is a lag between the theoreticians of a movement, and its adherents, which is why I think the survey is lagging the theorists.

If mine is an invalid understanding of the issue, I hope a better answer is posted here.

For interest, here are my reviews of Stoljar, Melnyck, and Kim. https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1A8I0RTYJEDJM/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0521038944 https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R13R2OUNXMIN6H/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0415452635 https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1LFTMUSP8VEWB/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0691133859

  • Very interesting, thank you! I have to say though, that I have never heard a convincing explanation of "emergence", much less, an argument for its existence. What I have heard boils down to "There is some complicated stuff going on, so some crazy entities (e.g. consciousness), plop into existence." Or in your words, emergence appears to me to mostly be a word salad, that it obscures the fact, that one does not want to deny the existence of the "emerged" entity, but also admit it is fundamental.
    – Make42
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:29
  • "Note, this role is the same as that assigned to the branch of Apologism in theology." - puh... I cannot say that appears so that God does not exist and now apologists need to explain why God exists after all. It seem to me to be the other way around: The world seems to be created, some people (many nowadays) bring arguments why it is not after all. (Now, many people believe that, but not because of appearance, but because of repetition of the statement.) Then apologists try to counter those points. Apologists "defend" the appearance, not attack that "it is different after all".
    – Make42
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:37
  • For example, Richard Dawkins repeatedly says that nature seems to be designed.
    – Make42
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:43
  • @Make42 -- the purpose of apologism in theology is to provide rationalizations to possible challenging questions, so that the faithful who WANT to remain faithful, will accept the rationalizations and stop thinking about the problems. Apologism is always motivated reasoning, the conclusion is set, and the goal is to justify that with rationalizations. One finds a very similar practice among atheist fora, among political movements, and among economic ideologues. Apologism is a needed role for any ideological movement.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 11, 2023 at 0:28
  • @Make42 -- How emergence works, what will emerge, and why, and how causation operates between tiers of emergent phenomena is very much up in the air in emergence theory. Emergence in many applications therefore often fills the role of "and then a miracle occurs" in the classic chalkboard cartoon. HOWEVER, despite its poor grounding, we can be pretty confident that emergence is part of our world. Wetness is an emergent phenomena, only observed at a higher tier. Same with "surface", and much of our macroscopic worldview. So the theory is still TBD, but there IS emergence.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 11, 2023 at 0:35

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