Reading Time: 4 minutes By Joreth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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I have a long history in my writing and philosophy here and elsewhere of adhering to a position called “conceptual nominalism”. If you want more details, check out:

Today, responding to my invite, regular (Christian) commenter, Luke Breuer, has produced a counter-argument guest blog piece against my position. Thanks muchly, Luke. Really appreciated. Here it is – a consumable size – and I look forward to getting my teeth into it going forward. Over to Luke:

What is conceptual nominalism?

Jonathan is a pretty big fan of ‘conceptual nominalism’, saying that “the discussions [about concepts/​universals] are crucial to the rest of metaphysics”. It’s not a common term: google: "conceptual nominalism" returns only 1250 results, of which 92 come from Tippling. See for example The Pertinence of Nominalism to Religious and Philosophical Debates. Traditional introductions to ‘universals’ tend to be highly abstract, so I’ll try something rather unusual by quoting MLK Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. There are several ways to understand this:

  1. Objective
    1. There is some cosmic enforcer of justice who will ultimately get his/her/its way.
    2. There is some mind-independent Form of Justice we can (and will) access increasingly well.
  2. Subjective/Relative
    1. Human concepts of justice will change over time and they will judge the situation to be closer and closer to the contemporary notion of justice as time goes forward.

Conceptual nominalism rules out I.2., while naturalism rules out I.1. Combine the two and we have that notions of justice in our minds have no timelessly stable referent. Back in Aristotle’s day, slavery was considered perfectly just. Any belief that we will forever Progress as time goes on is a mere fabrication of mind, according to conceptual nominalism. Furthermore, the mismatch between the concept in the mind and its instantiation in reality can be arbitrarily great. It’s not like the concept is grabbing a hold of what is mind-independent – that is expressly denied. The only stability concepts have are the # and influence of humans who hold them. Other minds can help give shape to the concepts in your mind, but mind-independent reality cannot. Or to be more precise, there is a crucial one-way operation going on, from mind to reality.

Two Problems

N.B. For brevity, let’s limit the concepts discussed to those which are supposed to be about reality, or concepts about concepts which are about reality. So for example, concepts about Harry Potter and [some?] concepts in mathematics are excluded.

(A) Conceptual nominalism is self-undermining. Consider the attempt to affirm both:

  1. Concepts are about reality, but never refer perfectly.
  2. Conceptual nominalism is a concept about concepts, and refers perfectly.

Once naturalism is assumed – and Jonathan is assuredly a naturalist – any given concept is instantiated in matter-energy. That means conceptual nominalism is ostensibly about a whole bunch of space-time regions of matter-energy. Either it refers perfectly excepting itself, or it does not refer perfectly and is false.

Now, one could try to rejigger things and say something like “first-order concepts [those directly about reality] do not refer perfectly”. However, this violates the implicit idea that the further a concept is from reality (the more levels of indirection/​abstraction there are), the less assuredly it refers. Such a redefinition of conceptual nominalism would be highly rationalist/​idealist and very much not empiricist.

(B) Conceptual nominalism suffers from No True Scotsman. Either:

  1. Entity E instantiates concept C because I/we say so.
  2. Entity E instantiates concept C because that’s how to correctly apply C.

Conceptual nominalism prohibits ii., for the rules on how to apply the concept cannot be 100% mind-independent, on pain of the concept itself thereby becoming mind-independent.

Closing Thoughts

After writing the above, and toying with questioning whether Sean Carroll’s The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood violates conceptual nominalism, I started thinking about the connection between conceptual nominalism and fallibilism. One way for us to be wrong about the world is for our concepts to fail to perfectly refer. However, conceptualism nominalism goes further than this: our concepts never perfectly refer. Except for conceptual nominalism itself, which is infallibilist to the core.

Conceptual nominalism severs our access to reality, while nevertheless requiring access to both concepts and reality, in order to determine that there is [always!] a mismatch. It stands as sole mediator between mind and reality, with a sign that says, “You shall not [all] pass!” Unfortunately, it is a pure assertion of will which self-undermines. Or fortunately, for those who know where radical skepticism leads. (Just try explaining which parts of a concept refer, without ending up with a concept which cannot perfectly refer.)

[JP: Thanks, Luke; I guess I need to counter this counter, now!]

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...