By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 5 minutes By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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Jeremiah Traeger, here at ATP, recently posted on objective morality and referenced my beliefs in this context, especially regarding conceptual nominalism. I will look to succinctly set out my beliefs here again to stimulate some discussion.

What is a conceptual nominalist? Let me elucidate:

Abstract Objects

Abstract objects are incredibly important aspects within the context of philosophy. They include all of the labels and categories of things (tokens).These types are abstract. So, for example, a chair is both the token (actual chair) and the type (an abstract labelling as such). This can include numbers, universal ideas like redness, ideas like courage and justice, and even individual humans, such as Jonathan Pearce.

Because of their very nature, in being abstract, they can cause headaches for physicalism (and naturalism) and causality. Ever since the Greek times, there has been the famous problem known as the Problem of Universals. This briefly deals with the problem in defining what the properties of objects are, ontologically speaking (ie, what existence they have). Universals are common (universal) properties contained by more than one object. Two cars and a ball being red – what is redness? How can these different objects have an identical property and is that property real or in the mind of the conceiver, or indeed, contained within speech? Are these abstract objects and universals causally potent? Can redness take a position in a causal chain or relationship?

Platonism (realism)

Realists claim that these abstracta are real – that they exist in some tangible way. Plato, from whom the term came, believed the universals, like redness, existed separately from the particular objects (particulars) which contained said property. Platonic realism states that such entities exist independently from the particular, as opposed to Aristotelian realism states that the universals are real but dependent on the particulars.

Some arguments propose that, in order to have truth value in statements, universals must exist, such that “This apple is red” implies that the universal of redness exists for the proposition to be truthful.

The problems for such theories are where is the locus of these universals? Where can they be found and what IS their ontology?


Nominalism stands in stark contrast to realism in that the adherents state that only particulars exist, and not universals. Properties of particular objects can account for eventual similarity between objects (such as the green of grass and the green of a painted wall). Universals do not exist.

I am unsure as to whether the philpapers survey included conceptualism in the ‘other’ category or not, since conceptualism is sometimes called conceptual nominalism, such that universals and abstracts exist, but only in the individual minds of the conceivers (as concepts). (German) Idealism is close to this (think Kant, Hegel and Schelling) in believing universals to be in the minds of rational beings.

Nominalism can become VERY in-depth and confusing (when talking about the different types such as trope theory and resemblance theory). My opinion is that the discussions are crucial to the rest of metaphysics, it is just unfortunate that the discussion can be quite dry and dull. Here is an excerpt from the wiki entry on nominalism:

Nominalism arose in reaction to the problem of universals, specifically accounting for the fact that some things are of the same type. For example, Fluffy and Kitzler are both cats, or, the fact that certain properties are repeatable, such as: the grass, the shirt, and Kermit the Frog are green. One wants to know in virtue of what are Fluffy and Kitzler both cats, and what makes the grass, the shirt, and Kermit green.

The realist answer is that all the green things are green in virtue of the existence of a universal; a single abstract thing that, in this case, is a part of all the green things. With respect to the color of the grass, the shirt and Kermit, one of their parts is identical. In this respect, the three parts are literally one. Greenness is repeatable because there is one thing that manifests itself wherever there are green things.

Nominalism denies the existence of universals. The motivation for this flows from several concerns, the first one being where they might exist. Plato famously held, on one interpretation, that there is a realm of abstract forms or universals apart from the physical world (see theory of the forms). Particular physical objects merely exemplify or instantiate the universal. But this raises the question: Where is this universal realm? One possibility is that it is outside of space and time. A view sympathetic with this possibility holds that, precisely because some form is immanent in several physical objects, it must also transcend each of those physical objects; in this way, the forms are “transcendant” only insofar as they are “immanent” in many physical objects. In other words, immanence implies transcendence; they are not opposed to one another. (Nor, on this view, would there be a separate “world” or “realm” of forms that is distinct from the physical world, thus shirking much of the worry about where to locate a “universal realm”.) However, naturalists assert that nothing is outside of space and time. Some Neoplatonists, such as the pagan philosopher Plotinus and the philosopher Augustine, imply (anticipating conceptualism) that universals are contained within the mind of God. To complicate things, what is the nature of the instantiation or exemplification relation?

Conceptualists hold a position intermediate between nominalism and realism, saying that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.

Moderate realists hold that there is no realm in which universals exist, but rather universals are located in space and time wherever they are manifest. Now, recall that a universal, like greenness, is supposed to be a single thing. Nominalists consider it unusual that there could be a single thing that exists in multiple places simultaneously. The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

Finally, many philosophers prefer simpler ontologies populated with only the bare minimum of types of entities, or as W. V. Quine said “They have a taste for ‘desert landscapes.’” They attempt to express everything that they want to explain without using universals such as “catness” or “chairness.”

As ever, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on nominalism is great – here.

As is the SEP entry on abstract objects – here.

As is the superb SEP entry on properties found here.

Other useful SEP entries are Challenges to Metaphysical Realism, Platonism in Metaphysics, and the wiki entry on the Third Man Argument (an argument from Plato that shows an incoherent infinite regress in relational universals, which can be found in the SEP here).


How does this all chime with morality? Well, morality is almost the most famous of abstract objects. We apply the abstract labels of moral evaluation to actions and intentions of humans. Actions are themselves events with real, physical properties. Intentions are different to actions in that they are states of minds. Of course, with the position that the mental supervenes on the physical (as I claim), then there is a sense that such mental states of intentions are themselves reducible to physical properties.

When we talk about “morality” as a whole, we talk about the moral laws and prescriptions, and the truth values of a moral proposition. For me, there is no ether or locus for morality outside of our brains where such ideas can exist in an ontic sense. In this way, morality is a conceptual enterprise that is constructed by our brains to create a moral map of the world that we can use to navigate the social landscape.

We can use science to help us, as Sam Harris does, arrive at the best course of action, given a particular goal. But, I think, setting out that goal is a philosophical project and that requires some abstract thought, perhaps setting out axioms in one’s framework. You can argue that there is an objectively better course of action given two options, A and B. If you are looking for wellbeing or happiness (for example), as your endgame for morality, then perhaps option B empirically gets you more of those things. However, setting that as your endgame is not an objective ideal. It is a subjective, conceptual ideal. I would add that for morality to make any coherent sense, for me at any rate, it needs to be goal-oriented, and setting those goals is a subjective project.

I struggle to be able to make sense of “objective” abstracta as mind-independent “things”, since all conceptual entities must, to my mind, be mind-dependent; they are things of the mind.

Simply put, if there were no minds to conceive of morality, there would be no morality.

Of course, perhaps you could argue for some other ontology of morality other than this ontic sense of objective morality that I am putting forward here. Perhaps there is something objective about axioms: self-evident truths. But, to me, a self-evident truth is evident to a conceiver and is thus itself an abstract object.

Over to you, Traegar!


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,...