The Failure of Ockham’s Nominalism

The Failure of Ockham’s Nominalism

By Peter King

Paper given at APA Central Division Meetings (Pittsburgh), 1997

Introduction: I do hold this, that no universal, unless perhaps it is universal by a voluntary agreement, is something existing outside the soul in any way, but all that which is of its nature universally predicable of many is in the mind either subjectively or objectively, and that no universal is of the essence or quiddity of any given substance.

This ringing declaration closes William of Ockham’s lengthy discussion of universals in Ord. 1 d. 2 qq. 4–8 (291–292). In his discussion in qq. 4–7, he has offered a devastating critique of positions which hold that the universal is somehow a real existent outside the soul, and presents his own view—that universals are nothing but words—as the conclusion to be drawn from the failure of these realist positions to stand up to his rigorous examination. Thus we would expect Ockham to adopt a version of nominalism which, while avoiding the realist commitments of his predecessors, manages to satisfy the exacting demands of philosophical rigor and subtlety established in his critique.

That isn’t what happens. Instead, Ord. 1 d. 2 q. 8 is indecisive: alternative identifications of universals are presented and none clearly endorsed; the text is heavily revised in a later redaction and a new alternative appended to the discussion; Augustine is extensively used in support of one of the positions; good objections are not explored and bad objections are treated at length. Ockham presents the very picture of a philosopher who, although sure that no form of realism about universals is acceptable, is otherwise unsure what to put in the place of such realism.

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