Nominalism:: Conceptualism :: Realism

Class Lecture

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My name is Paul Operach and I am a graduate student in Theology at Holy Apostles Seminary and College in Cromwell, Connecticut.  I am pleased to present to you my study and findings of the philosophical-theological notions of nominalism, conceptualism and realism.  Clearly, the subject matter of this lecture is rather vast and I can only give you a snapshot of the topic. Hopefully,  you will leave this lecture with new knowledge which provides a design for further learning about these philosophical notions which emerged beginning on or about the 11th century through the 14th century.  My focus will be on the Oxford movement in England and the contributions of the Franciscan Friars.

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From a solely philosophical viewpoint, our story begins with a 11th century French philosopher named Roscellinus of Compiegne.  Roscellinus, an eminent philosophical-scholar, disputed the works of Saint Anselm and Peter of Abelard.  According to Father Basil Studer O.S.B, there were six key areas of disputation.  These six items focused on Roscellinus’ tritheism but more importantly the question …What is the essence of reality?  Putting ourselves into the mindset of 11th century theologians and scholars …Was Roscellinus really propounding mutability of  theological or philosophical thought within the context of cultural change? Or, was Roscellinus exhibiting the philosophical sprit of critical and analytical analysis?  Roscellinus is reputed to be the originator of the theory of nominalism.

Here I should note Peter Abelard a 12th century French philosopher of importance.  In historical hindsight he is a conceptualist; nevertheless, he is considered by many as the first known nominalist.  Inotherwords, he used logic and reason as a methodology called dialectics.

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Historically,  on or about September 1224,  nine Franciscans arrive in England.  They were assisted by the Dominicans in Canterbury and London establishing their first house in the south-west quarter of the city.  It was here that Franciscan Robert Grossatesta would establish the presence of the Franciscans at Oxford for scholarly study.  Oxford had become a recognized place of scholarly study for scholars with differing views on theology and philosophy than  those scholars at Paris.  Eleven noteworthy Franciscans have emerged from Oxford.  They are (in alphabetical order):  Roger Bacon, Saint Bonaventure, Robert Grossatesta, Haymo of Haversham, Alexander of Hales, Richard of Middleton, William of Ockham, John Peckham, John Duns Scotus, William of Ware and Thomas of York.

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Before proceeding, let’s look at the definitions of our philosophical notions.  First is nominalismNominalism is defined as a theory of philosophical thought in which there are no universal essences in reality and that the mind can form no single concept, or image, corresponding to a universal, or general term.  Second is conceptualismConceptualism is defined as a theory of philosophical thought someplace between nominalism and realism in that universals exists in the mind as concepts of discourse, or as predicates, which may be properly affirmed by reality.  Third is realismRealism is defined as a theory of philosophical thought in which objects of the sense perception, or cognition, exist independently of the mind.  For the purpose of this lecture, I acknowledge that the definitions provided are broadly construed.  More narrowly construed definitions can be in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which is available online.

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Turning to the Changed Perspective chart, we can see how certain themes, or notions which emerged from (really later 12th to) the 13th and 14th century.  Central to an emergence of philosophical and theological thought is the introduction of the complete works of Aristotle into western Europe.  Previously, Europeans relied solely on Platonic views.  It has been reported by Jesuit Fredrick Copleston that European understanding of Plato was suspect.

What is evidenced in the 13th century is the development of thinkers and theologians.  They expounded various syntheses of thought using Aristotelian philosophy addressing metaphysical concerns of ultimate reality.  A key theologian-philosopher of this period is Dominican Thomas Aquinas.  His polemic Summa Theologica would become a major theological document for the Church and the working mantra of the Dominican Order.

In the 14th century is the theological-philosophical emergence of schools, or movements.  There are six which have been identified.  They are: (1) Thomism …a realist philosophy which is evidenced in the work of Dominican Saint Thomas; Franciscan Saint Bonaventure; and, even Franciscan John Duns Scotus. (2) Scotism …a variation of realism advocated by Franciscan John Duns Scotus;  (3) Nominalism …a philosophy in opposition to realism which rejects speculation by stressing logical analysis and synthesis. This theory was developed successfully by William of Ockham; (3) Illuminationism …a philosophy advocated by Henry of Ghent in which people receive divine illumination in various degrees from God; (5) Augustinianism …an extreme form of realism.  It was advocated by Giles of Rome; (6) Mysticism …a theory which denies philosophy and logic.  One known mystic was German Dominican Meister Eckhart who argued that God’s being and understanding are the same.  Lastly, the idea of theologian-philosopher now gains wide spread acceptance in scholarly circles.

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Now we arrive at the major developer, advocate, of nominalist thought in the 14th century.  This is English Franciscan William of Ockham.  He is considered one of the greatest, if not greatest, medieval scholastic of his era.  Why?  Because he developed insightful interpretations of philosophy and theology based on analytical methodologies (not apologetics).  His work, and variations of his theological and philosophical notions, are found in philosophy, theology, and various academic disciplines throughout the following centuries.  He is often known for his Theory of Parsimony (Simplicity) commonly called Ockham’s Razor.

It is believed that William of Ockham was born in Ockham, Surrey, England in the mid 1280’s.  Little, if almost nothing, is known of his family, or early development,  until he entered the Franciscan Order.  He was ordained in 1306.  Educated at Oxford University, he eventually became a professor of Sacred Scripture and Philosophy.  Later, he rose to the position of Regent Master.  Because of his logical and reasoned approach to the teaching of theology and philosophy, he was accused of heretical practices.  His particular theological and philosophical notions of nominalism is often referred to as Ockhamism.  There are many variants of Ockhamism.

A question arose about William of Ockham’s acceptance of the Papal authority.  He was summed to Avignon, France by Pope John XXII.  No formal charges were ever propounded by the Church while William of Ockham was at Avignon.  Subsequently, William of Ockham fled to Bavaria where he was protected by Church officials.  Pope John XXII eventually filed charges against William of Ockham; thereafter, William of Ockham recanted.  It is believed William of Ockham died of the Black Plague in 1349.

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William of Ockham’s theological and philosophical notions were pervasive throughout Western Europe even after his death.  He  attacked the commonly held notions on philosophical universals.  How did he do this?  By examining the logic, or logical factors, contained in the question (i.e. the suppositio). Thus, William of Ockham disputes and rejects ideas about the nature of being, the kinds of being, or the kinds of existence proposed by others (i.e. ontological assertions).

William of Ockham made the cogent argument that knowing God could not be discerned through natural rational thought.  He held these generally views: (1) …that the use of logical analysis and synthesis were tantamount; (2) …that the use of criticism was preferred to speculation; (3) …that traditional metaphysical ideas and proofs were faulty; and (4) …that realism and speculation were simply conjectures of sorts.

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Theologically,  William of Ockham sought to diminish views of preceding theologians and philosophers on natural theology and natural psychology.  To William of Ockham,  metaphysical proofs, or demonstrations, for the existence and attributes of God, or even the spirit , or immorality of the soul,  rests on truth. Truths, to William of Ockham, were not self-evident as others had asserted but arise from relevant premisses.  When the metaphysical nature of God is viewed from three perspectives (i.e. Thomist, Scotist and Nominalist) we see distinctions of the philosophical-theological understanding of essence. They are: (1) For the Thomist, the essence of God is in the total of God’s perfections; (2) For the Scotist, the essence of God is in God’s quality in which God possesses all perfections absolutely; and (3) For the Nominalist, the essence of God is in God’s absolute intellectuality. A more traditional understanding of Divine Essence is found in Exodus 3:14 where God is pure act without anything else (An expression of belief commonly found in Thomas Aquinas’ works).  Similarly, in discussing the attributes of God, William of Ockham’s focuses on distinguishing qualities than any formal distinctions as taught by John Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas.

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For the purpose of this lecture, it must be stated that William of Ockham expounded a viewpoint of knowledge which relies upon necessary truths.  He does, in fact, accept the Aristotelian concept of demonstration which produces knowledge.  What does this mean for our understanding?  It means Ockham acknowledges the philosophical idea of demonstration of the attributes of a subject, or matter, not its existence.  This is all which we, for now,  need to understand.

Thus, knowledge as viewed by speculative theologians-philosophers is obtainable through the objective knowledge of essences.  Theses theologians-philosophers comingle ideas of natural and dogmatic theology.  Individuals who demonstrated like views were Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, Henry Ghent and Giles of Rome.

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This slide is of particular importance because the Maxims were gleaned by Franciscan Philotheus Boehner.  Father Boehner was a noted Franciscan scholar on the subject of William of Ockham and Ockhamism.  These five maxims reflect the mindset of William of Ockham and our understanding of Ockhamism than other types of nominalism. (Review the five averments.)

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Here, I have for your further understanding listed 5 Famous Focus Questions propounded by Jesuit Fredrick Copleston. (Review Questions)

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The Overview section provides you with a very basic breakdown of nominalism, conceptualism and realism.  It is not meant to be definitive.   Within each category, there is are often inter and intra elements of commonality.  Only through specific examination of an issue, or point, can one glean a more precise answer to a specific question.











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