The Ockham Revolution (Nominalism 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In the first article of this series, I briefly mentioned about the English Friar, William of Ockham. Building on the work of Aquinas’s contemporary Duns Scotus (1250–1308) and his own contemporary Petrus Aureolus (1280 –1322), Ockham helped to pioneer a school of thought to rival the realism of men like Aquinas.

Review of Realism

Realists like Aquinas had asserted that things have an inherent purpose according to their nature. Channeling Aristotle, they suggested that everything which exists has an end or telos which defines the natural perfection of that thing. The example I gave in the first article of this series was that the end or purpose of a hammer is to bang things while the end or purpose of a seed is an adult plant. Of course, this assumed the real existence of universals, so that we can make meaningful generalizations about classes of things like hammers, seeds, lions, etc.

The realist vision was part of a cosmos in which everything portended ultimate significance and in which our images of things were posterior to how things really were in actuality. Thomas Howard summed this vision up in his Chance or the Dance? The medieval vision, he suggests,

“read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex—these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. This mind fancied that everything meant everything, and that it all rushed up finally to heaven. We have an idea of royalty, this mind said, which we observe in our politics and which we attribute to lions and eagles, and we have this idea because there is a great King at the top of things, and he has set things thus so that our fancies will be drawn toward his royal Person, and we will recognize the hard realities of which the stuff of our world has been a poor shadow when we stumble into his royal court…. This mind saw things as images because it saw correspondences running in all directions among things. That is, the world was not a random tumble of things all appearing separately, jostling one another and struggling helter-skelter for a place in the sun. On the contrary, one thing signaled another.”

A Tumble of Particulars

Ockham and his fellow nominalists challenged this ecosystem of symbols and denied the existence of universals. For them the world essentially became a random tumble of particulars, all appearing separately.

Though we can look back and see in nominalism the roots of modern materialism, the original nominalists saw themselves as magnifying God. They believed that the realist approach meant that God was not completely ultimate since there are inbuilt limits to what He is able to declare good. To say that God’s will for a thing necessarily corresponds to what that thing’s nature already defines as its good, is to place a limit on the divine sovereignty, or so they thought. Thus, for nominalists like Ockham, God must always be free to determine what is good unconstrained by any other factors.

God’s freedom thus became an autonomous freedom, no longer anchored in nature (including His own). Even Duns Scotus, whose teaching Ockham relied heavily upon, had admitted that the will of God was determined by his love. For Ockham, however, God’s will is determined by nothing. When we say that something is ‘good’, all we mean is that God happened to will it. In this way, Ockham sought to free God from the compulsion he believed to be inherent in realism.

Critics of nominalism, on the other hand, allege that this makes good and evil arbitrary even as it makes God’s will capricious. As Servaes Pinckaers observed in The Sources of Christian Ethics,

“For [Ockham], the divine will was totally free… Determined in the establishment of good and evil by nothing other than itself, the divine will could at any instant change what we considered to be permitted or forbidden according to the commandments, notably the Decalogue. God could even change the first commandment, and, for example, pushing it to the limit, command a person to hate him, in such a way that this act of hatred would become good…. Similarly, hatred of our neighbor, theft, and adultery could become meritorious if God commanded them. Ockham did not recognize in human nature any law or oder whatsoever that might determine the divine freedom and omnipotence.

A Zero-Sum Game

Behind their concern to preserve the divine freedom was a particular way of understanding God’s relationship to the world which we might describe as being a ‘zero-sum game.’ A zero-sum transaction is one in which the gains of one party are directly correlative to the losses of another party. The Nominalists seemed to think that nature existed in an inverse relationship with God’s sovereignty, so that whatever fixity or autonomy is granted to the former is that much less left over for the latter. Since God must have all the pieces of the pie, nature must have none.

Consistent with this impulse, Ockham went so far as to deny that things even shared a universal nature, while he found the notion of God working through means to be deeply problematic. As Hans Boersma writes, summarizing William of Ockham’s thought-process:

“Sure, human beings do look alike, and so do cats and dogs; but there is an easier way to explain this similarity than by way of the odd assumption that universals have real existence. The principle of ‘Ockham’s razor’ is that one should explain observations by making as few assumptions as possible; one should use one’s razor to shave off all unnecessary assumptions. And by putting his razor to work, Ockham pretty nearly shaved the universals right off. The tradition that followed Ockham insisted that universals were simply names (nomina) that we apply to individual objects that happen to look alike. Hence the term ‘nominalism’ for the philosophical position that universals do not have real existence in the mind of God but simply names that we assign to particular objects.”

This may sound very complex, but it is really quite simple. Ockham taught that objects which look alike, and therefore appear to share a common nature, do so by virtue of the mental concepts we impose on them and not because of any intrinsic property within the object itself. Belief in the real existence of universals, nominalists taught, was simply the unfortunate residue of Platonism. Ultimately, they argued, the rationality of a thing is dependent on how God chooses to categorize reality. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it in the entry on William of Ockham, “For Ockham the nominalist, the only real universals are universal concepts in the mind and, derivatively, universal spoken or written terms expressing those concepts.”

Free From Nature Itself

The practical ramifications of Ockham’s ideas were huge. If there are no universals, then there is no way to speak of a certain class of things (whether human beings, plants or hammers) having an inherent telos or goal which defines the natural perfection of that thing. The perfection of a thing is defined externally by God’s will, with no reference to the inherent nature of the thing itself. The way to understand a thing is by looking to see how God has categorized it, not by inquiring into its intrinsic nature.

For Ockham this was a way of amplifying the importance of God’s will, and therefore His supreme sovereignty. For God to be truly sovereign and free, His will must be autonomous. Unlike the realist tradition which taught that God’s will is constrained by His nature, Ockham taught that the divine will is unaffected by any criteria whatsoever, saving only the law of non-contradiction. This led to the philosophy of voluntarism which separated will-acts from intellect and character, in anticipation of the modern existentialist movement. It also did violence to the divine nature and forced Ockham to highly qualify the sense in which God’s nature is that of love. As Michael Gillespie put it in Nihilism Before Nietzsche:

“Omnipotence also means that everything is or occurs only as the result of God’s disposing will and that there is no reason for creation except his will…. Omnipotence means an utterly unconditioned will. Indeed, while [Ockham] does not deny that God is a God of love, he does assert that God’s love for man is only a passage back to his love for himself, that ultimately God’s love is only self-love. …Every order is simply the result of God’s absolute will and can be disrupted or reconstituted at any moment. Indeed, Ockham even maintains that God can change the past if he so desires. …The world to its very core is contingent and governed only by the necessity that God momentarily imparts to it. There thus are no universals, no or genera. There are likewise no intrinsic ends for individuals that arise out of and correspond to the essence of their species. Indeed, there is no difference between essence and existence. …Ockham, however, goes beyond Scotus in opening up this realm of freedom not merely by rejecting the scholastic notion of final causes, but also by rejecting the application of efficient causality to men. For Ockham, man in principle is thus free from nature itself.”

 Nominalism Becomes the New Orthodoxy

Despite the abiding influence of Aquinas on the medieval schoolmen, the nominalists were incredibly influential. We tend to think of Aquinas as the principal medieval scholastic, although it was actually the counter-reformation of the 16th century that assured his eminence. The Middle Ages were hardly characterized by a Thomistic consensus. In fact, by the mid fourteenth century, many of Europe’s top universities had rejected Aquinas’s realism and used nominalism as the principal framework for teaching natural and moral philosophy. By the time of the reformation various forms of nominalism had become the dominant view, though many still clung tenaciously to the older realist philosophy.


Although I consider nominalism to have been one of the great disasters of Western philosophy, the alternative realist tradition also came with its own share of unbiblical baggage. Indeed, the scholastic emphasis on abstract essences brought with it theological liabilities that would become more pronounced as time wore on. Moreover, the fusion of Aristotelian and Christian categories, though it could be helpful in certain contexts, often came with disastrous results.

Despite these qualifications, it does seem to me that the realist tradition gets closest to the truth. One of the reasons I think this is because of the testimony of scripture. Does the Bible presents a God whose will is anchored in the constants of His unchanging character, or does it portray a Being who is capricious, unpredictable and whose personality is simply the aggregate of His will-acts? A read through the Psalms and Minor Prophets should be sufficient to answer that question.

This is not to say that there is no truth at all in nominalism. Ever since the Garden of Eden human beings have been taking dominion through naming things, and it is clear that some of the arrangements and configurations that we take for granted are not fixed in nature but emerge out of our voluntary naming activities. Where nominalism goes wrong is that it takes what is true under particular conditions and tries to absolutizes it, doing violence to God’s character in the process.

Another reason I think realism is more compelling is because of observing the unintended ramifications of nominalism as it has played out in the centuries following William of Ockham. Many philosophers and historians now see nominalism as being seminal in the dualism between nature and super-nature, immanence and transcendence, heaven and earth, which lies at the heart of secular modernity. Space prohibits me from connecting all of these dots, and I can only recommend the fascinating discussions of these questions in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, James K.A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, Servaes Pinckaers’ The Sources of Christian Ethics, Michael Gillespie’s Nihilism Before Nietzsche, Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind and (my favourite book of all), Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry.

While leaving these and other scholars to show how nominalism contributed to the advent of secular modernity, I would like to zero-in to a few practical areas where the canopy of nominalism still exerts a profound influence on our understanding of the world. But that will be the topic of some follow-up articles.

Further Reading