Definition of nominalism in US English:



  • The doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality, and that only particular objects exist; properties, numbers, and sets are thought of as merely features of the way of considering the things that exist. Important in medieval scholastic thought, nominalism is associated particularly with William of Occam.

    Often contrasted with realism (sense 3)
    • ‘The alternative between a theological and an independent theory of ethics is, he holds, the alternative between ethical nominalism and realism.’
    • ‘William was somewhat of a minimalist in philosophy, advocating nominalism against the more popular view of realism.’
    • ‘His approach is broadly nominalistic, but Buridan's nominalism is more of a parsimonious way of doing philosophy than a doctrine about universals.’
    • ‘His unorthodox approach to art is part of a general approach to knowledge and reality, and is always pervasively informed by his cognitivism, nominalism, relativism, and constructivism.’
    • ‘Traditional, central, philosophical debates, such as those between realism and nominalism in regard to universals, are purportedly deflated by Wittgensteinian approaches.’


Mid 19th century: from French nominalisme, from nominal ‘relating to names’ (see nominal).