Adler On


The word "nominalism" refers to a serious error that occurred in modern philosophy, especially in the writings of Bishop George Berkeley and David Hume. It is an error in philosophical psychology.

Both Berkeley and Hume think that man is equipped with sensitive faculties only. They assume that man has no intellect, or they deny its existence. The problem they faced was explaining the meaning of the general words in our everyday language; for example, the common nouns that signify classes or kinds.

If human beings enjoyed the power of conceptual, as opposed to perceptual thought, there would be no difficulty in explaining how words signify generalities or universals. They would derive their significance from concepts that give us our understanding of classes or kinds.

But regarding human beings as deprived of conceptual thought poses a problem for Berkeley and Hume. They are compelled to say that when we use words that appear to have general significance, we are applying them to a number of perceived individuals indifferently: that is, without any difference in the meaning of the word thus applied. This amounts to saying that there is a certain sameness in the individual things that the speaker or writer recognizes.

Are they not contradicting themselves when they offer this explanation of the meaning of general terms or common nouns? If human beings do not have conceptual thought, how can they recognize the sameness that permits the nominalists to say that the same word can be applied indifferently in a number of individuals?

Are they not contradicting themselves? Should not nominalism -- the assertion that names have general significance even though human beings can have no understanding of kinds or classes -- be rejected?

The Intellect and the Senses, parts 3 and 4
Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985, 1987), Chapter 2, especially pages 37-45

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000