Skip to content
Photo by Il Vagabiondo / Unsplash

Rule Number One: Don't be a Nominalist

My three-year-old son Jack received a menagerie of thirty-some plastic animals at Christmas to go with the dozen or so he already owned. He played with his “anmuls” constantly, carrying them around in different containers (wagon, bag, box, hat) and setting them up in odd places, like the piano.

One night he came running to me, terribly excited, saying I had to see a surprise in his room. It turns out that he and his big sister, Abbie (5), had put the animals on the dresser. But not in a haphazard fashion. In Jack's awe-filled words: (the “r” is soft in Jack's pronunciation): “See, yions, tigus, cheeeetahs! El'phants, then hippos. Dogs. See, yitto (i.e., “little”) anmuls then big anmuls, see!”

In short, Jack, with Abbie's help, had arranged all the animals close together based on species and roughly in order of size. The elephants and hippos were first, followed by the various big cats, then horses and zebras and similar animals like deer and antelopes, then dogs.

It was riveting stuff for ol' Jack.

Gilson and the Problem of Universals

By chance, I had just come upstairs after reading from Etienne Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience. I had been reading Chapter III, “The Road to Skepticism,” which deals with the problem of universals.

The issue of universals revolves around this problem: How is it that in a world where all that is real is a particular and individual thing, the human mind is able to distribute the manifold of reality into classes, in which particular things are contained?

There are three basic positions toward universals (though most philosophers adopt a variation or mix of the three): (1) Realism, often associated with Plato, which in extreme forms teaches that universals are tangibly existing things; (2) Conceptualism, which teaches that universals are constructs of the mind (often associated with Abelard and John Locke); and (3) Nominalism, which teaches that universals are mere names with no corresponding reality in the world or in the mind. Nominalism was fathered by a man named Roscelin and championed by William of Ockham.

Ockham taught that knowledge is attainable only by intuition–that which our senses directly show us. Ockham combined reliance on intuition with his famous “razor,” which asserts that we should never presume the existence of anything else if it's not absolutely necessary to explain the existence of something we directly sense. For instance, intuition shows us a hand puppet show, but the razor tells us that we can't presume the existence of hands underneath the puppets since they could be supported and animated without the hands–perhaps by sticks or fish wire.

Or the puppets could be maintained by the will of God. This was a favorite possibility in Ockham's world. He never wanted to remove the possibility that God could be behind the scenes working. In order to preserve the possible influence of God at every turn, he denied “cause and effect.” We can't directly sense a cause–you cannot pick up or see “cause”–and therefore we can't presume it exists. That, Ockham assured us, would dull the razor and detract from God's glory.

Among the universal schools, a realist would say Jack's lions, tigers, and cheetahs bear the trait of “catness” or “big-catness,” a term of abstraction that makes these different things resemble each other even though they're not identical. There is no such thing as “catness” in Ockham's world. The cats appear the same because God makes them appear that way to us. It's wrong (and possibly blasphemous) to explain them by reference to an abstraction like “catness.” We don't need “catness” to appreciate the similarity between lions and tigers, and if we use the abstraction, we dull the razor and detract from God's glory. Just accept, Ockham said; don't try to explain.

The Nominalist Toddler

I wonder how nominalism would appeal to Jack? Based on my experience, he has a natural tendency to “abstract,” to categorize and place different things in different classes, and therefore he might have a natural (not to mention tantrum-prone) tendency to resist nominalism.

I suppose the next time he's playing, I could insist that he put a tiger with a hippo on grounds that they are individual things and therefore, philosophically speaking, belong together just as much as the tiger belongs with the other tigers (the creatures exhibiting “tigerness”) or with the lions and cheetahs (creatures exhibiting “catness”). I suspect he'd scream indignantly or cry. But I, as his Dad, could put my disciplinary foot down and demand that he recognize that his grouping of tigers is every bit as arbitrary as my grouping of tigers, hippos, and his rubber ball. This could go on for the rest of Jack's young life, until he gets old enough to hang himself, or dope himself, or shoot me, or leave home to become a famous movie star–all products of despair, which is a product of skepticism, a frame of mind that accepts nothing as truth and therefore accepts anything as permissible.

It's a plausible outcome. Skepticism is the product of nominalism and nominalism's progeny became the dominant path of modern thought, hence Gilson entitled his chapter on Ockham, “The Road to Skepticism.” Knowledge of anything breaks down in Ockham's system. Nothing can be explained, either because an explanation supposedly denigrates God's glory or because it violates the razor. The result is a world in which nothing can be known, except individual things, which generates skepticism.

The child's keen perception of reality as seen in my Jack's collection of animals is man's natural perception of reality. Anyone who disrupts that view, by espousing thirteenth-century nominalism or its product, skepticism, disrupts the child and later the man. Skepticism runs rampant in our culture today. It's no wonder that suicide, murder, aimless ambition, and other symptoms of skepticism are prevalent. The presumptions of our culture, in effect, told little Jack that hippos and tigers and rubber balls are not different.

Skepticism controls; norms are denied; the very notion of truth makes people uncomfortable. The simplest normative ideas are questioned and disputed, to the point that a man like Peter Singer can equate certain forms of human life with animals and gain a substantial following and a chair at Princeton.

It's enough to drive any youngster mad.